Our feast of fantastic reviews this week includes Alexandra Harris on Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, Parul Sehgal on Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, Katy Waldman on Elizabeth Tallent’s Scratched, Anthony Domestico on Teddy Wayne’s Apartment, and Keija Parssinen on Leila Aboulela’s Bird Summons.
“The portrait of Thomas Cromwell…now concludes with a novel of epic proportions, every bit as thrilling, propulsive, darkly comic and stupendously intelligent as its predecessors … working with and against our foreknowledge, Mantel keeps us on the brink, each day to be invented … The Mirror & the Light is generously self-sufficient—to read this alone would hardly be skimping: it is four or five books in itself. But it also continues, deepens, and revises its forebears, negotiating with its past as does Cromwell with his … [Mantel] is still exuberantly rethinking what novels can do. Not since Bleak House has the present tense performed such magic. The narrative voice rides at times like a spirit or angel on thermals of vitality, catching the turning seasons, the rhythms of work and dreams, cities and kitchens and heartbeats … Endings, insists Cromwell, are opportunities. What begins now is the rereading. For this is a masterpiece that will keep yielding its riches, changing as its readers change, going forward with us into the future.”
“…there’s no denying that the novel of love, of sex, has recessed. Friendship is ascendant, or parenthood or elegant alienation (see Rachel Cusk). Even in fiction that takes coupling as its subject, as in the novels of Sally Rooney, the characters seem a bit sheepish, as if caught participating in a nostalgic exercise. The drama of the romance hasn’t totally withered away, however; it’s merely migrated. You’ll recognize all the familiar throes—exalted expectations and dashed hopes, disillusionment and embarrassing self-delusion—in fiction about work. Specifically, about late capitalism’s carousel of grinding, precarious labor; see the books of Helen DeWitt, Catherine Lacey, Ling Ma, Hiroko Oyamada and Sayaka Murata … [In Temporary] you can hear an old note, a note I’ve missed in American fiction, and am surprised to have noticed myself missing—for so long it seemed dominant to the point of imperishability. The violent, surreal, often cartoonish scenarios delivered deadpan that draw attention to the freakishness of ordinary life—from writers like Donald Barthelme, Gordon Lish, Ben Marcus … Leichter’s deeper interest is in mining how transient, insecure work inflects our private life—if it even permits a private life. Can we afford to stop working? Do we remember how? The narrator’s love life is exquisitely compartmentalized … This novel could have easily sagged into dogma, but Leichter keeps the narrative crisp, swift and sardonic. Temporary reads like a comic and mournful Alice in Wonderland set in the gig economy, an eerily precise portrait of ourselves in a cracked mirror.”
“In the nineteen-eighties, Tallent’s short stories appeared frequently in The New Yorker; she published four works of literary fiction with Knopf. Then, for twenty-two years, she published almost nothing at all. Scratched, which is subtitled A Memoir of Perfectionism, attempts to explain her long silence. It is a fascinating, busy document. The sentences are worked and reworked, twisted into wires and drawn through multiple clauses. Straightforward memories alternate with meditations on family dynamics and quotes from psychologists and social scientists. Tallent, who takes pass after pass at her elusive subject, evokes a fisherman in a fairy tale, repeatedly casting his rod. There is something compulsive at work here, and a pathos that rises from the simultaneous breadth and modesty of the author’s yearning. Tallent wants nothing less than perfection, because nothing less will make her safe … According to ancient laws of conservation and conversion, you don’t produce loveliness out of nothing; you produce it out of you. There is a sadomasochism, then, to the reading and writing of Scratched, and Tallent is never so alluring as when she’s parsing her own prison.”
“… darkly comic and emotionally intelligent … Part of the historical novel’s task is to look at the past not with nostalgia but with precision, and Apartment does this exactly … Beyond period details, though, the historical novel needs to give a sense for the talk and feel of the time—what could and couldn’t be spoken of, what could and couldn’t be imagined. And it’s in this deeper re-creation that Wayne elevates Apartment from a convincing historical facsimile to a work of art … the narrator experiences an intimacy that is inarticulable, and it’s the tension between this edgy experience and this edgeless era that gives the novel its torque … Wayne’s previous novel, Loner, was a disturbing meditation on sexual obsession dressed up, Lolita-like, in a fancy prose style. Apartment is quieter in style but equally unsettling. It looks at it all—masculinity, literary ambition, our decade of free trade and liberalism triumphant—and finds the rot underneath.”
“Leila Aboulela’s latest novel, the elegant Bird Summons, gives mischievous treatment to the classic road trip narrative. The Sudanese Aboulela, who now lives in Scotland, doubly subverts what in the West is a traditionally white, male genre by casting Muslim women as the rogue adventurers. In a skillful blending of Eastern and Western literary tradition, Aboulela’s characters are visited by the Hoopoe, a sacred bird that symbolizes wisdom and filial piety … The novel possesses all the pleasures we’ve come to expect from Aboulela, the author of Lyrics Alley and The Translator: psychological acuity, rich characterization, intricate emotional plotting. And prose that is clear, lovely and resonant as a ringing bell … this book is also the mark of an author refreshing herself aesthetically, as Aboulela introduces a fantastical golden thread into realism’s tight weave, to magical effect. While the themes that often populate her work are again examined here—cross-cultural marriage, faith, migration, notions of home—this time, the central questions are metaphysical: What lies within us? And what waits for us beyond this world? … a thrilling, soulful adventure.”