RaveThe Observer (UK)Exuberant ... Fans of Smith will pick up on the familiar laundry of her sensibility within the first few pages of The Fraud: the boisterous narrative intelligence; the ear for dialogue; the chronic absence of boring sentences. I’d wager that this is her funniest novel yet ... Every few pages I was struck by how light the novel feels, despite its length and epic themes. The short chapters glide tellingly between decades and scenes.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Moore excels in...[the] neurotic but intimate conversations that go nowhere, and the scenes in the hospice are viscerally done ... Moore shows that grief and ghosts can be written about persuasively, and wittily, without turning a novel into a horror story ... A triumph of tone and, ultimately, of the imagination. For Moore, death doesn’t necessarily mark the end of a story.
RaveAir MailAbsorbing ... Branigan deftly connects these oral histories to more recent troubles.
Livia Manera Sambuy, trans. Todd Portnowitz
PanAir MailThe entire book turns out to be a sequence of wild-goose chases, compounded by galling bouts of projections and fantasies on Sambuy’s part ... Sambuy’s point of view is consistently top-down and, while recalling historical events, incredibly generalized ... Sambuy is seldom able to tap into intimations of Kaur’s experiences in India as well as overseas. Her research, which she dumps artlessly on the reader, struggles to convey the significance of the princess’s life ... Sambuy lacks the sensibility to make these digressions add up to a pointillist portrait. I ended up yearning for something less distracted, something less romantic.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Harding’s novels are rife with...carefully calibrated moments, when a character briefly transcends their desires and deficiencies, when a sentence lays them bare as hauntingly human ... Harding’s gifts have found their fullest expression in This Other Eden. Pick any excerpt from these 200 pages and you will find that each sentence contains multitudes and works well by itself, and yet the chapters, the paragraphs, have also been sewn together into a numinous whole ... Harding is not striving for historical credibility but something more poetic, more fragmentary ... The novel impresses time and again because of the depth of Harding’s sentences, their breathless angelic light.
MixedThe Observer (UK)For much of the novel, the relative absence of strife only underlines the fact that theirs is more a companionship of equals ... Shamsie adroitly captures the self-consciousness of girls at 14, how they come to terms with the inevitability of their changing bodies, how the starkness of their approaching adulthood is something they see reflected in the eyes of men leering shamelessly in public ... And yet you can’t help feeling that Best of Friends is an evasive novel, where the characters sometimes spout performative inanities .... The years when their lives might have radically diverged are dispensed with in neat backstories ... The reader, however, is never quite privy to these intimate chats. Shamsie seems more interested in describing their Sunday walks, or the decor of their London flats, or having a younger Maryam complain about the security arrangements in her parents’ gated Karachi mansion. As Virginia Woolf pointed out in her 1924 essay Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, just because a novelist has imagined a house, it doesn’t always follow that \'there must be a person living there\'. The view out of a character’s apartment window, the geography of her neighbourhood, can tell you only so much about the drama of her life ... I found myself wishing that Shamsie, too, would adopt the reader as a friend and trust us sometimes to get her point ... The writing can veer into adspeak ... Much like a protective parent, Shamsie goes out of her way to make sure her characters are spared any lasting consequences of their actions ... Shamsie doesn’t seem to realise what Zahra grasps at 14: a subplot is often more compelling than the main story.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Lowell’s memories are at once vivid and listless. Sentences are tinged with the desperation of a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, holding on to flashbacks of more placid days ... The book is rounded out by a dozen or so vignettes of fellow poets and friends. Lowell seems buoyant and chattier in these pieces, unburdened by the weight of being custodian of his family’s secrets. At the same time, each essay becomes an occasion for a new self-portrait.
Patrick Radden Keefe
PositiveThe Observer (UK)At one point, when Keefe scrutinises a few thriller novels Bishop had written years ago for clues, you can’t help but admire a preternaturally attentive reporter at work. In another unforgettable moment, he gets Bishop to admit that in the months before she went on a shooting spree, she often broke out in hives worrying about her career prospects ... Keefe may travel the world over to unearth facts and investigate allegations, but his fidelity is strictly to the story; anything erratic gets left out. The genre has its formulaic flourishes and Keefe doesn’t always avoid them in this collection ... Then there is the nut graph that dutifully surfaces in the opening pages of every new piece, the story striving to impress on you its newsworthiness, which might have been necessary in the magazine version, but feels oppressive years later in a book. But the indiscriminate use of omniscient narration is perhaps the most infectious of Keefe’s offences ... These questions are exhaustively explored, but Keefe doesn’t provide any pat answers. He illuminates how in the end we sift through a bulky catalogue of evidence and settle for the most plausible story.
Tove Ditlevsen, trans. by Tiina Nunnally
PositiveAir MailBoth the novel and the memoirs dramatize the artist’s difficulty in holding on to her inner vision ... Ditlevsen’s epigrammatic sentences perfectly convey Lise’s emotional turbulence.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)The novel’s Rashomon-like structure is buttressed by Diaz’s astute grasp of the ways in which we reliably deceive ourselves, which in turn is compounded by the book’s central obsession: the creepy similarities between the worlds of fiction and finance. Even the manuscript titles feel like lexical interventions ... Diaz’s genius lies in gradually revealing that just as concrete goods and human labour are transmuted into tradeable shares and commodities for profit, novelists like Vanner tweak a real-life cancer diagnosis into a psychiatric ailment because it makes for a more riveting story ... the rare novel that incorporates both its source material and afterlife. The contours of the plot might feel familiar at times, but you’re propelled forward by the twists and turns of the novel’s form, the conviction that Diaz has another trick up his sleeve.
Tove Ditlevsen, Tr. Michael Favala Goldman
PositiveAir MailDitlevsen is attuned to tiny betrayals, the ways in which couples unwittingly fail each other every day ... The stories together trace a desolate arc ... Some of these stories are no more than brisk vignettes ... Occasionally you wish that the characters were a little less transparent to themselves. But in the best of them, Ditlevsen’s candor shines through.
PanThe Observer (UK)Arun is the only character allowed some degree of complexity ... In Arun, the Buddhist desire to withdraw from the world coexists with a sterile self-absorption, which makes for a fascinating case study, but a wearisome narrator. The novel is robbed of a necessary frisson ... There is much to be admired about Mishra’s willingness to tackle one of contemporary fiction’s ignored themes: class. But his social – and, frankly, moral – indictments come at the expense of a novel’s inherent imaginative promise. It isn’t just the tediously flat characters; the plot, too, is an assortment of soapbox staples, be it the rags-to-riches story of Arun’s friends, or his own poor-boy-meets-rich-girl trajectory. Women are no more than props in this sweeping inventory of male self-aggrandisement. Arun’s mother is stereotypically submissive ... The didacticism of Mishra’s essays, bracing in their clarity, works against him in fiction ... Mishra doesn’t seem to realise the difference between the illuminating and the trivial detail, what to include and what to leave out ... Scenes are introduced as \'agonisingly vivid\' before being laid out, objects are overwhelmingly catalogued as \'emblems\' before being described. The novel exudes a constant anxiety about being understood: Mishra doesn’t trust the reader to read between the lines ... You’ll find in this book a meticulous exposition of India’s illiberal turn, how the country’s pluralist and quasi-socialist founding principles were betrayed in the past three decades. But the story lacks a subtler feeling for life.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Aikins is attuned to a truth seldom acknowledged by travel writers and foreign correspondents: when confronted by the plight of stateless subjects, or of those forced to escape their home countries, the reporter is always aware of their own luck, their own unearned prerogative of belonging to one nation and not another ... Aikins is an effective storyteller: the momentum of the narrative is never overwhelmed by all the post-trip reading and research he brings in. And yet the reader can’t help but feel that Omar’s ordeal is his alone ... This is a story in which hapless migrants find themselves at the mercy of greedy people-smugglers at every checkpoint, with no recourse but to pay them off with their life’s savings. But it is the state that is the greater predator, pitting refugees against one another, deporting them at will and ultimately trapping vulnerable people in a Kafkaesque loop of survival and incarceration.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Sen’s account of his childhood is more attuned to the ideas he imbibed and the times he lived through. The inner life is eschewed for the world outside. A remark on female classmates will trigger Sen to reflect on gender inequality in India, instead of, say, memories of playground pranks and crushes. The portraits of his parents and grandparents are persuasive about their accomplishments and political opinions, not so much about their private hopes and regrets...But then again, to expect the pleasures of a memoir from this early intellectual autobiography is perhaps misguided. Whatever Sen lacks in emotional intricacies, he more than makes up for with his scholarly reveries and social insights ... Is there another intellectual alive who can pull off the following sentence and make the reader believe in his excitement? ... Those familiar with Sen’s career will relish the foreshadowing of themes,
Anna Della Subin
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)At least two older white writers tell Subin about visiting an isolated community or tribe and being confused for someone celestial. What might just as well be traditional gestures of curiosity and hospitality...are written up by western travellers as signs of their own cosmic importance, and Subin accepts these accounts uncritically. That said, her portrait of the Rastafarian movement is wonderfully attuned to the transformative power of belief ... But the overarching thesis doesn’t quite impress. The problem with positing divinity as a defence against encroaching modernity is that it only reinforces stale dichotomies ... Subin may portray individual white gods as delusional narcissists and racists and imperialists, but white people, in the aggregate, still come across as oddly less deceived. Their superior scepticism is a myth that remains somewhat unchallenged in this otherwise subversive book.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)A typical Patchett piece is a eulogy, suitably warm and affectionate, respectful to those who have died, or are about to die ... What Patchett lacks in obsession and poetic depth, she makes up for with her raconteuring energy. In the best of these essays, uncomfortable truths are papered over with disarming wit ... Patchett has good advice for younger writers on attitude, on writing v editing, on publishing a book, and even on the distribution and sale of the printed book ... Were the decisions on which ones to keep and which to leave out pondered over enough? There are the inevitable repetitions, as with any corpus of pieces originally written for newspapers and magazines; but sometimes the padding conceals the pearls. A more careful selection, for instance, might have let Flight Plan alone sum up Patchett’s rapport with her husband, and left the two other essays on their relationship out ... There are plenty of cringey moments...Yet I found myself ignoring the missteps, the saccharine detours, because they stem from the same impulse that enables the more engaging passages: the wish to let the heart \'remain open to everyone, everyone, all the time\'.
PanNew York Times Book ReviewThis is the sort of novel where even the characters’ names are preeningly literal ... The problem with Satya’s crusade against misinformation is that too often he is just passing on breaking news alerts. The truths he espouses are factual, not emotional. Vaani is blandly introduced as a psychologist who “lives in the world of experiments.” Husband and wife seem to talk about nothing but research models of cognitive behavior ... Satya’s earnestness is grating ... He has convictions, but no precision, and the story doesn’t remotely test his beliefs. In the absence of self-revelations, there isn’t much to keep you turning the pages ... The book reads like a mash-up of two genres: autofiction and the post-apocalyptic novel. Except that the apocalypse here is just the news, which Satya follows online from the safety of the villa, and later, when lockdowns are enforced everywhere, from his house in upstate New York. Kumar writes supple sentences, but Satya’s reflections are too vicarious to sustain interest. His provocations aren’t startling enough; his thoughts can quickly lapse into a trite but well-meaning op-ed. You can’t help feeling that the novel lacks precisely the humanity that Satya demands from our leaders, an inherent and sometimes disquieting proximity to other lives.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Shackle excels at drawing out the incisive quote ... the book’s triumph is Zille, the one character whose motives aren’t always transparent. Shackle can never quite pin him down – he lies to her three times about his age – and yet the city comes to life through his eyes ... The ordeals faced by Shackle’s protagonists seem to suit the powers that be just fine: behind the cover of violence and ethnic conflict there is good money to be made. Shackle is reluctant to insert herself into the narrative, but she is surely part of Karachi’s story, since her mother was born and brought up there. How does she herself perceive the city?
Tove Ditlevsen, trans. by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman
RaveAir MailThe Copenhagen Trilogy is a sequence of her memoirs—the English translations are being issued in a single volume in the U.S.—remarkable in the way they privilege literature over life ... Childhood and Youth record the confessions of a gifted ingénue who is constantly afraid of losing out on her big chance ... Ditlevsen tells her story in long, breathless paragraphs, with bursts of aphoristic brilliance ... Dependency, the third book, has a more conventional plot ... The writing is again decked with spectacularly quotable quotes.
PanThe Guardian (UK)Stories...seem real not because of their veracity to facts, but the vitality with which they are told, and it is in the telling that Borges and Me seems least persuasive. Borges is alternately portrayed as the madman artist type and an erratic, cane-wielding uncle who keeps having mishaps everywhere and needs to use the bathroom every few minutes. Parini’s inner thoughts seldom rise to the occasion...and as a narrator he can’t help but always spell out the subtext, which suggests a lack of confidence in his memories and fabrications ... It is possible to enjoy the story if you are willing to ignore the one-note conversations throughout the trip and believe that the hijinks of the plot can suffice as evidence of a bond between master and apprentice.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)By following her characters’ fluctuating fortunes through the decades, Demick is able to convey the texture of everyday life in the town ... These seemingly minor details don’t just propel the narrative forward: they reveal a pointillist portrait. Demick is at once an intrepid reporter and scrupulous historian; she tells the story of Ngaba, however, like a novelist.
Yu Miri, Trans. by Morgan Giles
RaveThe New York Times Book Review... glorious ... Yu weaves her novel out of overheard conversations, radio and train announcements, intermittent memories of a life spent mostly away from family, glimpses of the park’s history. Giles’s translation is supple throughout. Kazu’s painstaking attention to those in the camp — their appearances, their hopes and disappointments — is perhaps a way to atone for the regret he feels for never being there for his wife and children while alive.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... a wistful record of a writer’s search for antecedents, and his delight in finding many of his own themes and obsessions prefigured in a well-known literary work ... Fans of Doty’s poetry will recognise the melancholic mood of certain turns of phrase ... Doty says he wrote this book to \'keep company with\' Whitman, and indeed I often had the impression of going through a reading journal, with the short chapters effortlessly switching from a note on Whitman’s vocabulary to a memory of an accident to a glossary of Doty’s lovers ... And yet, for a defence of Whitman, What Is the Grass fails to engage with an aspect of the poet that dates him for many readers. His long, breathless sentences sometimes all too predictably embody what they describe: to \'contain multitudes\' can after a while feel like a rhetorical device, a way of containing nothing precise ... Doty, too, is often carried away by the bluster – I flinched each time he wrote \'sexual congress\' instead of, well, sex. He is unironic about his subject’s self-indulgences; he stacks the game unfairly at one point by comparing Whitman’s revolutionary free verse to the stilted cadences of Henry David Thoreau’s poems. Doty is more convincing in moments when he demonstrates how Whitman’s sublimated sexuality and his fascination with death came to shape not only his iconic stanzas but also the spaces between them. His gloss on \'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry\' – one of Whitman’s most accomplished poems – is especially marvellous. He sends you straight back to the text, makes you feel like you’re returning to an old love.
Yan Lianke, Trans. by Carlos Rojas
MixedAir MailThe harshness of life described in Three Brothers is frequently unbearable ... Fans of Yan’s fiction will be disappointed by the guileless tone of Three Brothers. Yan seems content to just detail his family’s comeuppance—and their struggles—in chapter after chapter ... One yearns for the transgressions of the two lovers in Serve The People!, who are turned on by smashing statues of Mao; or the absurdity, in Lenin’s Kisses, of the maimed villagers trying to buy the Soviet hero’s embalmed corpse. Remembering the occasions his father hit him as a child, Yan suggests that perhaps his father should have beat him up even more. \'I feel that if only Father could still curse and beat me today the way he used to, I would feel happy and secure.\' For once, Yan appears to be saying something untoward in an otherwise solemn book.
PositiveThe GuardianThis book promises an insider’s view of the country’s political transition, but in many ways the events described bear out the perils of western thinking on Burma, which Myint-U mordantly summarised in The River of Lost Footsteps...\'The military government is bad, Aung San Suu Kyi good, and the international community needs to apply pressure on Rangoon and pressure means no aid, trade sanctions and more isolation\' ... At a time when the failures of capitalism have become all too apparent worldwide, Aung San Suu Kyi seems to be rehashing proven mistakes. \'Twentieth-century solutions,” Myint-U accurately warns, “are being offered as the default answers to the country’s 21st-century challenges.\'
PanThe New RepublicBad dreams, divinations, accidents, shamans, angels and ghosts—Ghosh is willing to pursue all means to make his quarrel with realism explicit ... In Gun Island, Ghosh doesn’t attempt to convince anyone. Extreme events just keep happening. Must an announcement of raging wildfires be made at the exact moment that a climate-change-denier is delivering his spiel? Does a character need to have fitful visions of the future after a snakebite? Ghosh is often unsure of the direction in which to steer the novel ... All of this makes Gun Island not just a disappointing story, but also a weak polemic ...a confused outburst. If there is a case to be made against industrial modernity, it cannot be made by Deen, whose perpetual astonishment seems more improbable than any environmental disaster portrayed in the novel ... If novels are to convey the likelihood of more catastrophic events, the reader has to first feel the pressure on the level of the sentence ... As a creative endeavor, Gun Island just doesn’t dare enough. Ghosh appears to shrink from its imaginative possibilities ... Ghosh, as a conscientious citizen of this beleaguered planet, always has his ear to the ground for stories. But Ghosh, the novelist, isn’t listening.
Natalia Ginzberg, Trans. by Frances Frenaye
PositiveThe New RepublicThe tone here is thriller-like, but simultaneously tinged with a riper chord of despair ... In Ginzburg’s telling, the crime procedural becomes a cri de coeur against marriage. Compared to the sheer desperation of the narrator’s frame of mind, the details of the murder feel incidental, unimportant. The effect is of reading something almost obscenely personal, and perhaps for that reason, scintillatingly political.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Inherent in Hemon’s repeated reimagining of his own odyssey and his desire to recall Sarajevo before the war is the question: what did peace even feel like? In two new memoirs published in one volume, Hemon attempts a nostalgic answer ... The short, dense passages [of the second section] never feel arbitrary. He is able to recreate the process of recovering memories on the page. War seems like an impossibility, and we inhabit what it was like to grow up in the shadow of a paternalistic regime, where everything seemed fully established ... In lovely, languorous sentences, Hemon passes over nothing, and records the inner wars of his previous life.
Natalia Ginzburg, Trans. by Minna Proctor
PositiveThe New RepublicWars, deaths, suffering women, families and their discontents: These are Ginzburg’s abiding themes. But she approaches them with a stoic reticence. Her books seem all the more profound for what they leave out ... the story feels fully realized in moments when characters have to reckon with their feelings in unexpected ways ... the political stakes are significantly less, but the underlying pain and anguish feel just as dire. The story may not be real, but the problems are ... [Ginzburg] she’d rather employ an array of first-person accounts—through the letters—to arrive at a consensus on reality, than maintain an authorial distance. This also means the writer must become each of her characters in turn—mother, murderer, husband, friend—and allow them their chance to speak.