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Of biplanes and hypnotistsThe Unfortunatesby Laurie Graham384pp Fourth EstateWar Crimes for the Homeby Liz Jensen240pp Bloomsbury To write comically about epochal events is one of the most exacting tasks a writer can face its far too easy to misjudge your tone horrendously and end up with a mess that is neither funny nor illuminating And yet if you pull it off the rewards are great Not only can you amuse and entertain your readers but you can also reclaim the fictional terrain that is generally earmarked for a far more solemn and ponderous kind of writing Both these novels will make their audiences laugh although whether they finally succeed in making that transformative leap is more debatable Laurie Graham is a writer with a remarkably malleable comic voice that has recast itself over and over again in a series of unjustly neglected novels In her previous The Future Homemakers of America as well as in The Unfortunates she has projected her talents on to a larger canvas Both are sagas set across continents and generations and both present us with capacious narratives that bowl along at speed and launch their characters into ingeniously caperish situations Poppy Minkel is not on the face of it one of the unfortunates of the novels title - that tag belongs to the Irish maids who flounce their way in and out of her wealthy familys Manhattan home and later to the bohemian rag-bag of second-world-war refugees whose passage to America she reluctantly funds and who subsequently find themselves fodder for her burgeoning career as an art dealer But Poppy is something of an unfortunate her father goes down with the Titanic her mother and aunt subject her to the nightly torture of ear-correcting bandages and neck-whitening cream so that she might catch a husband and then just as swiftly decide that shes better off as a companion and general factotum The progress of the novel describes Poppys determination
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