MixedThe Guardian (UK)There are tropes, here, of pure horror: overt references to Jaws, voices heard by some and not others, terrible smells, a mysterious research centre. They keep the novel moving, but Armfield’s quarry feels larger: this is a kind of Orpheus story about transformation and return ... There are clever lines, everywhere, and wry, funny ones ... Perhaps because of their reliance on logic and myth, her short stories manage, in a weird way, to be both original and predictable. And what works in an intense few pages does not necessarily work at length: Our Wives Under the Sea feels stretched slightly too thinly over the body of an idea.
J. R. Thorp
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Learwife is told entirely from [the wife\'s] point of view. She is trapped in the convent, and we are trapped in her head; a cramped, often uncomfortable vantage point—but also a view as wide as memory ... JR Thorp, who has written short stories but is best known as a librettist of choral works and especially opera, uses these lendings sparingly. Certain phrases cannot but leap out, rather in the way they leap out when one goes back to Shakespeare, because they have so entered the language we might feel the man who coined them is writing cliches. In Thorp’s hands they are effective grace notes on other deliberate echoes of structure—love tests, mock courts, blindings—or subject: ungrateful children, grief ... The risk, of course, is that this richness could capsize the craft of the novel, and sometimes, especially in the earlier parts, it threatens to do so. Abundance calls attention to itself, threatens to weigh the story down like a bough overburdened with blossom ... And there are tics of rhythm and of generalisation that could have been weeded out a fair bit. But in the second half plot and emotion rise to meet the language. I ended Learwife feeling utterly involved: moved and exhausted.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)In this debut collection, Clare Sestanovich displays both an outsize gift for metaphor (over and again, the seemingly mundane arriving with arms full of meaning) and for what is not quite irony, but a kind of invisible running commentary: a flattering nudge to the reader that only deepens the effect ... Sestanovich is an extraordinary noticer. Carefully, sparely, she parses layers of feeling and attitude; of the tiny ways we admit or refuse love; of incremental, almost invisible, losses of self. She’s good at animating physical details, too, even though they can tip towards a calibrated, fastidious, distancing disgust ... it is sometimes hard not to feel, reading these stories, that one is in a self-aware hall of mirrors, the noticing noticing itself noticing, in infinite regression.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... a fragmentary meditation on the nature of love, on desire and on connection between two humans. It is a kind of autofiction in the mould of Rachel Cusk or Meena Kandasamy: an unapologetically intellectual project where thoughts on female desire, or memory, or work, are strained through a sieve of Walter Benjamin, Yuan dynasty poetry, Le Corbusier, Marguerite Duras ... Which risks it sounding indigestible, when actually one of Guo’s achievements in this novel is to make it straightforward to read, with short, plain scenes and a narrative that makes no pretence to twists or adrenaline-pandering turns yet is absorbing nonetheless. This clarity of vision could seem almost simplistic, if it weren’t for the freight it carries: the challenge of language, both on the basic level of conversation, and on the more complex level of how to locate and describe a self when the language available is provided by so many forces outside that self ... Guo’s simple style does not always escape the trap of earnest banality. The man, as in A Dictionary, is too often only a foil for her questioning, a limitation not entirely excused by her deliberate location of the text in a tradition of \'dialogues\'. And I missed the humour of A Dictionary. At its best, however, this book sets off cross-cultural echoes with the lightest of strokes.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Mackintosh’s prose matches her method: often beautiful and otherworldly, violent and tender, reverberating into the darkness. Allegory can work like this, and myth, and fairytale, though one or two moments when Mackintosh self-consciously summons the tropes of the latter can be a little too obvious ... She is especially good on female physicality – on the mess and strength and, in extremis, the capacity for violence – and on the psychological effects of a denial of this physicality ... I increasingly felt, however, that Mackintosh’s project was not aided by refusing men the same quality of attention. No one, male or female, is especially nice here (a political choice, and an important one), but the men in both her books have almost no redeeming features: they are predators, users, manipulators, weak, violent, incipient rapists – or, if fathers, recipients of unearned veneration and gifts. Any kindness they show is conditional and easily retracted; there is little in the way of individuality. Of course, patriarchy warps those it privileges as well as those it negates, but this reads as simplistic. I also became uncomfortable, in the end, with the characterisation of blue-ticket Calla examining her existence ... Yes, the book is narrated from Calla’s point of view, and these opinions belong to her; we often diminish the thing of which we fight to be free. But the narrative voice seems to channel damaging cliches about childless women; and after all the clear-eyed harshness, the idea of maternity, of being a \'true mother\', is mushily romanticised. A more persuasive complexity has been lost – as though Mackintosh set something running that was so powerful, it got away from her.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Sacco, who pays attention to every face, every squelch of mud or crumpled cigarette packet, has always had the most astonishing sense of place. You can smell rock and pine and snow, feel it in your bones ... Sacco might have left AK47s and mortar shells behind him, but this is war nonetheless; an internal war, where the invisible threads that hold a human together – self-worth, community, language, even the ability to love – are deliberately cut away ... There isn’t quite the level of immersion here as there has been in previous books, when Sacco lived with ordinary Bosnians and Palestinians; he doesn’t manage to stay with any Dene, and his interviewees are mostly leaders of one stripe or another, which sometimes lends a talking-heads, outside-in quality to the oral history. It isn’t always easy to keep track of who’s who, which I suspect, given the odd prod – \'you remember him\' – is a problem he’s aware of. Previous books made me uncomfortable about his portrayal of women; there are more women here than usual, and he is alert to the ways in which Dene gender politics (now interestingly at odds with their own history, when everyone was required to be equally capable, at everything) gets in the way of their female leaders. But I think he could have gone further, and talked to more women, especially about their day to day challenges; done what he did with his mother, perhaps, and in so doing made the experience more immediate ... still a powerful piece of work, and in this time of pandemic and race protests Sacco’s concern with the decimation caused by injustice and internalised ideas of inferiority; with how the system is \'built for capitalism to succeed, not humans\', resonates even more than it already would have. And over it all, of course, is the issue of our relationship to nature.
D. J. Taylor
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Taylor has a brilliant eye for quotation and Lost Girls is, as well as being a superior group biography, a collection of glittering glimpses of personalities (everyone from Bowen to Waugh, Osbert Sitwell to Nancy Mitford), of prose, and of insights. Taylor’s urbane, acute and stylish presence is everywhere ... The book abounds with piquant detail, while not losing sight of the larger picture ... He also has a good sense of the traps inherent in his project – but, oddly, doesn’t spell them out until quite late, when the reader has already been worrying about them for a good 200 pages ... This reader at least began to long for the idiosyncratic and unmediated voices of women (Elizabeth Bowen, Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark, Diana Athill, Elizabeth Jane Howard) who wrote from or about similar (beautiful, privileged, damaged, amorously adventurous, sometimes disturbingly passive, even lost) lives. And to appreciate the fictional woman with whom Taylor began.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Sam Lipsyte can really write. Sentence after sentence is clever, agile, amused; they torque away, at the last moment, from what you might expect. One-liners abound, often freighted with darkness and insight; Lipsyte is playful and lewd, bleak and farcical, walking a fine line between near-glib humour and a genuine existential fear one could even call Beckettian ... At the same time, he could not be more contemporary, more American ... Partly because it\'s all contained in the same town, enabling better development of fewer characters, partly because it\'s hung on a simple plot, Homeland is a lot more satisfying than The Subject Steve ... The passivity, the wallowing in alienation, becomes aggravating.
PositiveThe GuardianGarfield, whose range of critical reference is equally wide (taking in WG Sebald, Walter Benjamin and Simon Armitage), is fascinating and often funny about why miniatures exert such a hold ... As a (scaled-down) book, In Miniature is a well-built, highly polished entity. It is full of evocative sentences ... what he also shows in abundance is the sympathetic understanding of the needs and travails of \'ordinary\' people ... And he sees how, above all, miniatures are a celebration of human ingenuity for its own sake, and of the myriad ways in which we try to access our capacity – and slake our need – for wonder.
PositiveThe Guardian\"... rich, engrossing ... Occasionally, Carey loses faith in the extraordinary potency of his material, making insights that arise of their own accord (the equalising nature of waxworks, for instance) too explicit and neat. Some characters are less complex than they could be. But at its best this is a visceral, vivid and moving novel about finding and honouring one’s talent; about searching out where one belongs and who one loves, however strange and politically fraught the result might be.\
PositiveThe Guardian\"Miller knows that, as with the best magical realism, the real power doesn’t lie in the ostensible facts of the narrative, but in its psychology. And that is where Miller anchors her story – in the emotional life of a woman ... It is out of these insights, sprung as surprises that often contain within them a retrospective inevitability, that Miller achieves real narrative propulsion. Some will consider her prose too purple, her plotting too neat, but others will find it supple, pitched in a register that bridges man and myth.\