PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Imagine, if you will, James Ellroy and William Gibson rewriting High Fidelity and you’re somewhere near the tone ... The plot is wild enough but the novel’s real energy, somewhere between contrarian op-ed and off-colour standup, lies in how Despentes stays out of the picture to let the story unfold through the thoughts of its large, 20-plus cast ... Despentes isn’t interested in giving you any sign of what to make of it all, relentlessly stress-testing our sense of right and wrong, whether she’s writing from the point of view of far-right youths lamenting unemployment, or a secular Muslim academic torn by his daughter’s religious devotion ... There’s a sense of mischief throughout, as if Despentes is gleefully spinning the wheel in tracing these stories ... Ultimately, it’s a dark story of how violence can be turned to entertainment for the sake of profit. It can be exhausting, but it’s also invigorating, and there isn’t really anything else like it right now.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Second Place is the first-person testimony of another Cusk-like writer, M, who invites a celebrated painter, L, to stay in the annex of her marshland home ... So begins an intimate psychodrama in the shape of a social comedy about the hazards of hospitality ... Cusk’s sans-serif Optima typeface, now as much a part of her brand as high-pressure deliberation on gender and selfhood, adds to an indefinable sense of threat, with the novel’s diction caught between the lecture hall and the analyst’s couch ... the glassy prose can feel like a two-way mirror with the author smirking on the other side ... But while Second Place indeed turns out to be fictionalised memoir, the twist is that it isn’t Cusk’s. An endnote advertises the novel’s debt to the bohemian socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 1932 memoir Lorenzo in Taos ... Ultimately, there’s something excessive and undigested in the novel’s bid to recast Luhan’s thwarted longing for Lawrence’s recognition as a modern-day battle of wills between a sympathetically needy writer and standoffish painter. It’s a pity, because as a tale of midlife malaise, Second Place glints with many of Cusk’s typically frosty pleasures; she’s especially sharp, for instance, on the fraught enterprise of parenting grownup children who return to the nest. In the end I couldn’t help feeling that, freed from its source, the story would have got along just fine by itself.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Told by an unnamed teacher in an unnamed city in northern Italy, it’s made up of 46 vignettes, rarely more than two or three pages long, many not obviously about very much. The narrator swims and gets her nails done; there’s a lot of eavesdropping and people-watching ... Part of the book’s peculiar magnetism lies in its clash of candour and coyness ... The spare style, you would guess, is partly an effect of Lahiri’s consciously restricted vocabulary, the comma-spliced sentences a hangover from Italianate syntax. The tone can be high as well as cool ... the novel’s hypnotically surgical gleam can verge on bleached sterility. There has always been a sense that Lahiri’s self-reinvention requires Italy to be a blank canvas, and whatever its strategic usefulness, her version of it doesn’t seem a place any fiction writer can profitably stay long. Watching her plot a return journey ought to be interesting.
Edward St Aubyn
MixedThe Guardian (UK)St Aubyn inhabits the perspective of these characters and many more, packing the book’s jet-set itinerary with momentously everyday incident (cancer, pregnancy) and extravagantly comic set pieces: at one point, a Vatican priest, sent to play hardball with Hunter over a particularly outlandish business deal, instead loses his resolve at a Kraftwerk gig at the entrepreneur’s south of France retreat. The Melrose novels liked to hop around, too, and in some ways St Aubyn is in his comfort zone here ... Yet St Aubyn’s novels seem to run aground whenever their controlling presence isn’t a single character à la Patrick, but an idea – here, the need for humility before unknown unknowns from ecosystems to human unpredictability. If it can be very funny, St Aubyn’s suavely reportorial style also shrinkwraps the emotions of his characters, as if he’s a posh airport novelist ... The increasingly hectic plot ultimately gives you the sense of St Aubyn spinning plates while trying to back his way into an exit. Yet the ending had me anxiously double-checking my proof against the finished copy; expectations are only another thing St Aubyn is playing with here.
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)Courttia Newland’s new novel presents us with a dystopian multiverse imagined at thrilling scale. It begins with a slyly counterfactual timeline ... how thoroughly its extraordinary narrative has been imagined by Newland ... An afterword explains the novel’s prolonged gestation, and how it flummoxed some publishers ... despite all its action, A River Called Time isn’t a page-turning blast-a-thon; the excitement lies largely in its ideas about power and personal responsibility. As our hero finds himself pursuing contradictory goals with equal reluctance – a terrorist in one timeline, a state propagandist in another – the multi-dimensional pyrotechnics of the novel serve as a potent metaphor for the guilty dislocations of class-crossing in an unjust society.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Schofield’s spiky new novel also keeps you guessing ... Most writers, it spoils nothing to suggest, would be tempted into sentimentality by the ticklish ethics behind the Group’s work. But like Martin John, Bina treats problems of social care slantwise, with a caustic charm liable to leave you blindsided by its most painful turns ... Still, you can’t help but have a few doubts about the peculiarly spotlit variety of circumspection we’re treated to en route, which involves a fair bit of throat-clearing in tandem with near-comical intolerance of readerly restlessness ... Powerful, funny and highly manipulative, the moment seeks to turn any sense of the book’s shortcomings into a failure of the reader – a risky alchemy that proves key to Bina’s chewy moral heart, as well as being a mark of its admirable, wholly non-emollient chutzpah.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)The figurative pizzazz of Lockwood’s language lends strange beauty to her portrait of an all-too-recognisable world ... There’s a hint of hair shirt here, for sure, but it’s redeemed by Lockwood’s nose for juggling contradictory moods: just as Rape Joke targeted rape jokes without renouncing comedy, the internet keeps on being the prism through which we experience the gut-plummeting sadness at the novel’s core ... Prior generations of literary superstars worried that world events had the capacity to make their novels look flat-footed; Lockwood’s cohort probably faces stiffer competition from its own social media shadow ... for all its virtues, this richly tragicomic debut never quite shakes the sense that you could just as well drink the author’s gleefully surreal wit straight from the tap.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)The success of Attrib. had readers keenly awaiting this first novel, and it doesn’t disappoint. A virtuoso performance full of charm ... There’s great skill in how the novel remains compact and focused while delivering satisfaction on multiple levels. It’s simultaneously a love story, an office comedy, a sleuth mystery and a slice of gaslit late Victoriana ... the tender depiction of a same-sex relationship built on a shared fondness for etymological fooling around recalls the early stories of Ali Smith, whose intellectually curious, free-range spirit Williams shares. And while it’s far from laboured, the novel underlines the difficulty of getting by as a graduate in London ... Williams keeps in sight big questions about language and identity. But as in Attrib., there’s nothing arid about these investigations; this is a novel full of fun. Williams writes with fine comic timing, in prose glinting with goodies ... Throughout, you feel in the safe hands of a storyteller dedicating their talent to our pleasure. The Liar’s Dictionary is a glorious novel – a perfectly crafted investigation of our ability to define words and their power to define us.
RaveThe Observer (UK)The situational spark that begins the novel is contrived...yet the artifice soon becomes illuminating. Washington finds eloquence in colloquialism; he creates, through a variety of voices, the poetics of conversation. Little turns of phrase...create a storytelling centered within characters’ consciousness. One doesn’t feel that this is writerly paint applied to the text but is instead the very germ of how the characters experience the world ... by alternating between the present and intrusions of memory, the author creates states of mind in Mike and Benson that become the novel’s central force ... Washington’s clever use of subordinate clauses blends the past and present, pressing them against one another as if creating a photo album for the reader. The reader’s sense of the characters is deepened not from an articulation of one photograph but by Washington adding more images to the collection ... Yet there are moments when the author’s hand weighs too heavily on a character’s diction and confuses, rather than clarifies, that character’s world ... And Mike and Benson often narrate with indifference ... But more often, Washington’s details contain a pathos that weeps below the lacerating irony ... it is there that life rests: in the slow gathering of moments, some seemingly arbitrary, all clamoring for attention. The ambling dual narrative, looping between past and present, draws tragicomic power from blunt coincidence ... the more mature messiness of Memorial lies partly in Washington’s calculated uncertainty over what resolution ought to look like in a gay love story, as Benson and Mike search for answers to questions they don’t quite know how to ask.
PositiveThe Times (UK)As the four storylines intertwine, culminating in a hostage crisis, the novel unfolds as an engrossingly murky panorama of the vested interests that keep civil war on the boil, from politicians to hired guns to lawyers and community activists. Liz’s narrative grabs you the most, but it’s Abel’s that ends up the most interesting ... Klay’s writing is uncluttered and impassive — the story is tricky (and grisly) enough without metaphors getting in the way ... By means of a well-oiled plot, complex characters and adrenaline-fuelled action, Klay opens our eyes to the globalised nature of modern conflict.
PositiveiNews (UK)... grim, superlative ... As we cut back and forth between them, the web connecting these stories emerges in steadily drip-fed detail ... a brutal portrait of male violence, as unchanging down the centuries as the coastal rock of the title.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)The pieces vary in tone ... Smith’s loftier mode...tends to feel less convincing ... She’s more engaging in the glimpses of day-to-day life under the new normal ... If Smith takes pains to show how lucky she has it, there’s a productive shift of mood in \'Suffering Like Mel Gibson,\' which voices caveats about the discourse of privilege ... the essay ends with one of the more provocative insights of this thoughtful book: that to admit the reality of one’s own troubles, in whatever form they take, might actually make it easier, not harder, to address those of others.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)Li’s intricate nesting of Lilia’s memories produces a stop-start rhythm that’s sometimes painfully short on momentum, as Lilia casts a withering eye over fellow characters from five generations ... it feels as if we’re eavesdropping, but not in a way that’s especially productive in any dramatic sense. Lilia’s caustic temperament buoys us through the novel’s eddies ... Reading Must I Go sometimes resembles what it must be like to stumble across a cache of personal papers: there’s life here, in spades, but more shape, more compromise, narratively speaking, might have lent more spark. Novels built on memory often fall back sooner or later on suspense, however veiled. That applies here, too, but there are limits to how decently it can be resolved ... If, ultimately, light isn’t shed, perhaps that says less about the book’s flaws than about the trap of viewing suicide as a mystery to solve—an undertaking that may account for several of the challenges here, for writer as well as reader.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)An exquisitely discomfiting tale of a submissive same-sex relationship ... Colin’s chatty recollection in middle age ...masks the story’s teeth, glinting between the lines of his undimmed worship of Ray ... Adjust the contrast and Box Hill could be Fifty Shades of Ray, or a subplot in Hanya Yanagihara’s abuse chronicle, A Little Life. Yet this is a very funny book, partly because of its eye for physical comedy...But mainly it’s because of the remarkable high-wire act by which Mars-Jones grants the narrator dignity even as he’s being sent up ... Shock value, though it certainly exists, isn’t the game here; ultimately, our interest in the book’s twisted romance lies, instead, in how it raises intractable questions about the essential mystery of attachment between consenting adults. While the flyleaf subtitle...invites us to read Colin’s word against the grain as a study of false consciousness, the novel’s almost wicked subtlety lies in our dawning sense that to read it this way only strips him of exactly the agency we’d be seeking to defend.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)Generally the story unfolds as a lushly enjoyable pastiche of fin-de-siècle prose, in which Victorian euphemism is an authenticating stamp that doubles as a source of humour ... Appropriately, Shadowplay doesn’t stick entirely to realism, with gothic interludes ... True, there’s also plenty of humdrum exposition ... But it’s a virtue of the novel’s set-up that this mostly feels like campy fun, and it’s testament to the novel’s levity that the central idea of Stoker turning Irving into a vampiric aristocrat comes to stand not only for the author’s private working out of his own hidden desires but also as a kind of perverse and ultimately loving revenge on a difficult boss.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)...[a] rich and strange debut ... a bizarre psychological odyssey, billed by the publisher as likely to appeal to fans of Haruki Murakami, and as in Murakami’s novels, the characters’ happy-go-lucky shrugging in the face of wall-to-wall surreality only heightens the weirdness ... Poised between silliness and high seriousness, contrasting narrative wildness with cool prose, the novel ignores the conventional advice \'tell a dream, lose a reader\'. An Yu doesn’t entirely avoid the pitfalls of her approach, not least because there’s a sense that she’s using the in-built drama and pathos of death to overcompensate for how the story’s focus on dreams can make it feel as though it unfolds in an impenetrable private language. But, at its best, this is a debut that gets under your skin rather than leaving you cold.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)...Threshold...takes the form of 11 freewheeling, pharmaceutically messy vignettes in which a not-so-young literary man roams far-flung locales; Dyer, whose praise for Doyle appears on the jacket, even has a walk-on part ... Narrated with an appealing blend of wide-eyed curiosity and no-bullshit scepticism, the episodic tale charts the 20s and 30s of a Dublin philosophy graduate, Rob (naturally), whose wanderlust stems partly from his fear that he won’t be able to pen a magnum opus in his childhood bedroom, although Ireland’s 2006 ban on the sale and possession of magic mushrooms has something to do with it too.The itinerant structure keeps things fresh, serving up increasingly wild scenarios ... There’s enough wriggle room to ensure we don’t get hung up on, say, whether Doyle really has pissed in a stranger’s mouth at a Berlin nightclub. But troubling our pieties is part of the point, in any case...
MixedThe Guardian (UK)While Kling seeks to warn us how dehumanising digital innovation can be, he doesn’t make us care about what QualityLand’s citizens have lost. Scenes are built around gags, not characters ... Less a novel than a hit-and-miss riff on capitalist ills, QualityLand’s style and structure make more sense when you learn that Marc-Uwe Kling is also a standup.
Fernanda Melchor, Trans. by Sophie Hughes
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... structurally inventive ... formidable ... vigorous, earthy language ... Melchor’s long, snaking sentences make the book almost literally unputdownable, shifting our grasp of key events by continually creeping up on them from new angle ... The near-dystopian onslaught of horror and squalor leaves you dumbstruck, as Melchor shows us the desperation of girls cruelly denied their ambitions, railroaded into household service or worse, and the depravity of boys for whom desire comes fatally muddled with power and humiliation. It’s telling that the only characters with any real measure of control – a police chief and a narco boss, morally indistinguishable – are the only ones from whose perspective Melchor never writes ... While there’s no shortage of ugly moments, including the hinted-at contents of a viral video showing the fate of an abducted child, it’s often the smallest details that testify to how thoroughly Melchor has inhabited her often appalling material ... this is fiction with the brakes off. Not an Oprah book club pick, one suspects, but not a novel to be missed – if you can steel yourself.
PositiveThe ObserverPitched somewhere between Shirley Jackson’s creepy small-town horror and the seminar-room riddling of JM Coetzee ... [a] powerful new novel ... The novel’s glassy cadences and lack of speech marks heighten our sense of the narrator’s alienation; anything said to Pew appears in italics, as if filtered from an outside world ... If the almost unbearable tension more than makes up for the odd misstep, you have to accept a certain solemnity as the price of entry ... Sometimes the narrator’s emptiness seems a convenient vessel for Lacey’s tendency, shown in her previous novel, The Answers, to drift into dreamy rhetorical question ... [a] rich, enigmatic novel...
Deb Olin Unferth
PositiveThe Observer (UK)... a screwball caper that wears its seriousness lightly ... Immersing us in the heady scenes and lingo of activist and agricultural life, Unferth trusts that we’ll catch up. At times the narrative resembles a gonzo documentary voiced by those caught in the fallout of the bungled mission; at other times we stick close to the perspective of the main characters, rooting for them as they get in over their heads ... Written with vim and wit, Barn 8 is a highly enjoyable treatment of a worthwhile social issue. Part of what makes it so much fun is Unferth’s relentlessly playful manipulation of the material. Turning the story round to present new angles, zooming in and out, she makes the vogue for plain present-tense narration seem austere by comparison. While she’s often very funny, she sidesteps the obvious pitfall of caricaturing the ideologues she’s writing about, even as she lets us laugh. Airing their emotional hangups, Unferth suggests they have complex motives without minimising the force of their beliefs. Nor does the novel proselytise –although it’s enough of an eye-opener to give you pause next time you make an omelette.
PositiveiNews (UK)Even Samantha Harvey can’t figure out how best to sum up this genre-defying sort-of-autobiography, notionally pegged to her midlife battle with chronic insomnia in the months after Britain voted to leave the EU. \'What are you writing?\' a friend asks the novelist. \'Not sure,\' she says. \'Some essays. Not really essays. Not essays at all. Some things\' ... The \'My Year Of X\' strain of memoir has become something of a smuggler’s path for life stories that may not have found a niche. You can’t help wondering at exactly what stage Harvey decided there was a book in her insomnia: was there – I hate myself for asking – a certain allure to its grip? Either way, one senses she is too self-aware not to recognise that this bravely exposing deep dive into the emotional murk of her restless mind may ultimately reveal less about its headline subject than it does about the irresistible writerly impulse to pin experience to the page.
PanThe Guardian (UK)...[a] disenchanting sequel ... When Verity learns that she must do what she’s told in order to secure \'a better chance of avoiding nuclear war\', it’s as close as Agency gets to the \'come with me if you wanna live\' moment any self-respecting techno-thriller requires. But despite motorcycle dashes and VR-enabled century-hopping, our sense of jeopardy all but flatlines as the motives of a vast cast stay hazy ... it’s like being forced to watch someone jump through the hoops of a video game ... Yes, there’s a measure of amusement to be had ... And the action is full of goodies, obviously: invisible flying cars, icky shape-shifting nanotechnology...a robot nanny transforming into a troupe of pandas... But it all has to be read through the gauze of a narration fussily insistent on its own intricacy ... it’s hard not to come away feeling short-changed by a novel that, neglecting its basic duty to excite, uses its headline-grabbing counterfactuals as an opportunistic peg for a tricked-out potboiler.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... crisply narrated ... Although it’s mainly the injustice of Wallace’s story that commands our attention, his perspective on white middle-class mores also fuels plenty of low-key comedy ... Psychologically compelling, incisively satirical, told in a muted style that nevertheless accesses a full emotional range, this is a brilliant book, worthy of a wide audience, whether or not it makes the Booker shortlist – but I’m already crossing my fingers that it will.
Daniel Kehlmann, Trans. by Ross Benjamin
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Kehlmann puts us deftly inside Tyll’s fretful mind ... Like recent Black Death novels by James Meek and Oisín Fagan, Kehlmann’s portrait of bygone dark times both indulges and disrupts the apocalyptic turn in present-day commentary on current affairs ... Constructed as a string of disconnected, slyly contradictory vignettes, the fable-like narrative darts airily around with vivid detail and neat comic timing, treating the cast, and our attention, as playthings. It’s intricate and cleverly done, but not entirely satisfying: nothing in the book matches the spellbinding opening third, and ultimately it has the air of a slightly self-denying experiment – as if Kehlmann sought to test his skill by doing without the novel’s single most interesting character.
RaveMetro (UK)Set in the 1980s Glasgow of Stuart’s youth, it’s the terrifically engrossing tale of Hugh, or Shuggie, a young boy trying his best to take care of his alcoholic mother, Agnes, in a housing scheme on the city’s periphery ... a gut-twisting story of drink and debt, care and survival, as well as sexuality and difference, with Shuggie increasingly ill at ease in his aggressively masculine environment ... Stuart...has a flair for scene-making, with some truly grim moments, and although he leaves plenty of room for light as well as shade, the book lingers as a portrait of a blighted community in which lost childhood is the norm ... A cracking coming-of-age story — a survivor’s tale you won’t be able to put down.
RaveThe Observer (UK)In terms of its stylistic innovations, Zed is a tour de force ... works on the level of syntax, as language, grammar and meaning are compromised by the machines and their human controllers. [Kavenna] creates almost a poetics of tautology ... a nuanced, metatextual novel; an investigation into the erasure of language and agency in which the numerous literary reference ... There is a Dickensian quality to it ... There is a giddying quality to the prose, as the reader is steered through a maze of reproductions, seeking the unique ... a novel that takes our strange, hall-of-mirrors times very seriously indeed. It is a work of delirious genius.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Nicole Flattery’s publisher paid big money for these debut stories (plus a novel-in-progress), and it’s not hard to see why: they’re often extremely funny – peculiar as well as ha-ha – and highly addictive ... Flattery’s themes are work, womanhood and early-to-midlife indirection, all tackled slantwise ... It’s easy to read but trickier to get a handle on: Flattery’s off-kilter voice blends chatty candour and hard-to-interpret allegory (think Diane Williams or 90s Lorrie Moore), with the deadpan drollery and casually disturbing revelations heightened by her fondness for cutting any obvious connective tissue between sentences ... Trauma lurks in the background, with allusions to attempted suicide, abuse and a 13-year-old’s miscarriage ... Yet Flattery’s stories don’t depend on bringing such things to light; they’re just there – part of a woman’s life – which ultimately proves more disconcerting ... Flattery...doesn’t seem too bothered about sewn-up narratives running from A to B; it’s a mark of her art in these strange, darkly funny stories that we aren’t either.
MixedThe Observer (UK)Strange things happen in Julia Armfield’s debut collection of stories ... These tales draw thrilling vigour from Armfield’s conscientiously vivid approach to their dialled-up reality ... Often the creepy goings-on act as a magical-realist delivery mechanism for avenging male exploitation of women’s bodies, although we can’t always tell for sure ... But the book’s punchlines, while striking, can feel superficial, as in the denouement of \'Mantis\', in which a girl turns the tables on the boy attempting to coerce her into sex at a party ... The best stories retain emotional texture when treating this recurring theme of adolescent trials ... The trouble is, it feels like weirdness piled on weirdness. For all the shivers and shudders, Armfield’s habit of using everyday turning points as a diving board to plunge into the uncanny can look like a way to wriggle out of eyeballing its depths. Still, on this showing, she’s a writer whose next move you wouldn’t want to miss.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, trans. by Don Bartlett
MixedThe Telegraph (UK)Book Three, Boyhood Island, departed from his original freeform mix of perspectives and presented the action more or less exclusively through the eyes of the prepubescent Knausgaard. Admirers who saw that as a misstep may be disappointed to find that Dancing in the Dark persists with Knausgaard’s younger self, this time as he turns 18. Of utmost importance is his desire to have sex and the fear that he won\'t be up to it ... Knausgaard’s undersung gift for pratfall-based comedy is this book’s main attraction ... Not the place to start if you want to know what the fuss is about.
Karl Ove Knausgaard
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Boyhood Island, the latest volume to come out in English, makes clear that, with a father like Knausgaard\'s, anyone might struggle to turn their frown upside down ... This isn\'t the revelation past volumes were, partly because the injustices of boyhood are better documented than those of fatherhood, but mainly because Knausgaard fixes the point of view to his child self; gone is the fluid structure that drifted between the remembered moment and the moment of remembering. Outside the domestic psychodrama the action is much as you\'d expect.
Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Trans. by Ottilie Mulzet
PositiveThe Observer (UK)Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai is the kind of figure who seems as likely to inspire scoffing scepticism as prostrate wonder. If relatable psychological realism in cut-glass prose is what you’re after, it’s safe to say he isn’t your man. Told in a breathless cascade of sprawling sentences, his madly overstuffed and essentially nihilistic vision offers pleasure of a different order, if that’s a word to be seen within a mile of his work ... Twinkling with dark wit, his dizzyingly torrential sentences (heroically translated by Ottilie Mulzet) forever bait us with the promise of resolution ... This shaggy-dog story won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, yet it’s hard to think of anything comparable to the crazed abundance on show here; as a portrait of epistemological derangement – AKA fake news – it hits the mark as well as any more hidebound attempt to catch the zeitgeist.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, trans. by Don Bartlett
PositiveThe Telegraph (UK)His struggle in A Man in Love is a struggle, essentially, to man up – the source of some excruciating comedy as well as the keynote existential despair ... Knausgaard thrives on taboo: when we praise his honesty, perhaps what we really mean is that he says things we wouldn’t wish to say ourselves ... What makes it more honest than your average tell-all – and more interesting, I suspect, to all the sad, not-so-young literary men who make up its natural audience – is the transparency of the paradox on which this extraordinary enterprise is built: in order to write, Knausgaard craves escape from his life, but that selfsame life is the very thing he ends up writing about.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)...a brutally discomfiting tale of social inequality in Malaysia ... Aw’s structure allows him to sidestep the pitfalls of an enterprise that risks being seen as poverty porn – he’s opening our eyes to hardship while at the same time scrutinising the motives for doing so ... A grim picture emerges of the Asian continent’s poor and less-poor, forced into a conflict shaped by western whims ... But Aw doesn’t rely on tub-thumping; his achievement is to make a global story personal. When he finally circles back to Ah Hock’s crime, the scene is managed briskly, in keeping with a tale that, however grim, is never solemn or overwrought. It even ends on a gentle note; still, the novel’s horrors can’t easily be pushed out of mind.
MixedThe Telegraph (UK)A peculiar mix of autobiography, aesthetic manifesto and self-help manual, How Should a Person Be? was energetically discussed on its release last year in the United States, where the future of fiction seems to be an issue argued over with only marginally less vehemence than climate change (for carbon, read \'plot\' and \'character\') ... Such uncertainties define the book. Sheila decides that in art and writing \'you have to know where the funny is\' – that’s how she talks – but you have to be fully plugged in to the book’s alternating current of irony and earnestness to know where the funny is when she compares her struggles to the trauma of an abused child or the failure of the Israelites to reach the promised land.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Edna O’Brien’s troubling new novel...makes the recent craze for dystopia look frivolous ... The action is fast-moving ... O’Brien doesn’t spare our sensitivities...but describes the horror with eerie calm ... The glazed, stunned quality...gives the sense that there’s no longer any point questioning the details of a reality bent out of shape by sudden random violence ... This is a challenging novel in several senses: painful to read, it also lands— whether intentionally or not—as an intervention in recent arguments over cultural appropriation and the boundaries of fictional imagination. As late-career gambles go, it’s a bold one. Yet one senses O’Brien felt the story was simply too urgent not to put her gifts in its service. By the end, you can’t help but applaud the contradictory balance of tact and audacity by which she makes the horrendous source material unignorable.
MixedThe Observer (UK)There’s true tenderness in Zink’s portrait of their mutual affection. Here’s what a family looks like, she seems to say ... rings true with detail both glamorous and mundane, from record label talks to an A&E dash when Flora falls off a changing table. Our sense of the book’s authenticity sags only when we see Flora in her ecologically conscious 20s, studying soil erosion in Ethiopia and cutting her political teeth in the run-up to the 2016 election. Zink once played in an underground band and edited an indie-rock zine; whether she’s ever been to Addis Ababa or sat in on a Democrat strategy meeting, I don’t know – it’s irrelevant – but either way, the book’s second half doesn’t hit the high notes of the first ... it’s hard not to suspect Zink (born in 1964) feels that twentysomethings in her own generation had their heads screwed on as well as screwed up ... invigorating and intermittently brilliant. Yet as the plot grows manic, the hardboiled sass of the prose turns perfunctory; and when, late on, an apocalyptic miasma leads to little but a riff on how Fox News decides the pollution cloud is less noteworthy than an item on the optimum thickness of spaghetti, there’s a sense that, for Zink, endings remain elusive.
Edoardo Albinati, Trans. by Antony Shugaar
PositiveThe Guardian...resembles a true crime novel as told by Karl Ove Knausgaard ... An endnote from Albinati’s translator...suggests the specificity of his cultural references may deter non-Italians. Maybe, but fiction can thrive on detail and The Catholic School is full of gusty generalisation: its challenge might actually be its lack of specificity ... This isn’t a normal novel, and nor is the pact it makes with the reader; 900 pages in, Albinati tells \'anyone who has had enough\' to skip nearly half of what’s left. Ignore that advice and the reward is moot. late passages involve, among other things, a dream Albinati has about taking revenge on dog owners who let their pets foul the pavement and some needy emails from an ex-classmate failing to muster numbers for a school reunion. Yet, weirdly, it’s in these drifting tides of consciousness, rather than the book’s quasi-anthropological grandstanding, that Albinati’s titanic enterprise ultimately feels most alive, even if what they tend to reveal – men think about sex; sometimes it’s ugly – isn’t exactly news.
Mario Levrero, Trans. by Annie McDermott
PositiveThe ObserverI half-wondered if Empty Words was his shot at Thomas Bernhard; in particular, the Austrian’s 1982 novel Concrete, about another sickly procrastinator blaming all and sundry for his inability to finish a book, although Levrero—at least on this evidence—feels the sunnier writer, relishing the mundane comedy of household dynamics as much as more cosmic jokes of existence. Just as you’re wondering where it’s all going, a last-minute revelation concerning the narrator’s mother confirms a lingering suspicion that the real action in this teasing jeu d’esprit lies between the lines, not on them, as the writing itself begins to look like a form of displacement activity. As a calling card for Levrero’s talent, it’s certainly enticing.
RaveThe ObserverCryptically structured, glacially paced but with volcanic flashpoints ... keeps you guessing as to what it’s even about. A mix of war novel, spy thriller and family saga, set in the US, Germany and Latvia, ranging in time from the invasion of Vietnam to post-9/11 Afghanistan, it eventually emerges as a kind of 400-page backstory to its alarming prologue – a bravura piece of writing that reels you in before Scibona starts to make us sweat over his purpose ... This is heart-rending stuff, superbly done ... [Scibona] has a flair for tense, drawn-out passages of dialogue that sharpen into a crisis, a certain solemnity is undeniably the price of admission here ... t’s a mark of The Volunteer’s success that, despite this, its doomy vision of intergenerational misery feels more powerful than put on as a grim irony starts to gather around the book’s title, Scibona portraying nothing less than existence itself as a trauma no one ever signs up for.
RaveThe Observer (UK)\"...his wondrous new novel, a violent, all-action thrill ride shuttling between antiquity and the present, is another step in a transformation as surprising as any in the book itself ... Haddon teams the novel’s dreaminess with electrically lucid action: shipwrecks, nick-of-time escapes and combat scenes that would give Lee Child a run for his money. He can be grisly when he wants to but he’s no gore-monger, in one case achieving his effects by refraining from describing a pivotal fight, suddenly muting the volume ... this is a full-spectrum pleasure, mixing metafictional razzmatazz with pulse-racing action and a prose style to die for. I’ll be staggered if it’s not spoken of whenever prizes are mentioned this year.\
PositiveThe Guardian...while Jarawan guides us through Lebanon’s history of sectarian conflict, embedding political context in ever-so-slighty hokey dialogue, he’s ultimately concerned with affairs of the heart ... Jarawan’s style is pacy and unadorned, with a narrative design that urges you on. Samir’s hopes of uncovering the truth are raised, dashed and revived over and again: his grandmother in Lebanon is one of several interlocutors to tell him they have no useful information before suddenly remembering that they do, just as a chapter ends ... Jarawan skilfully reconciles the novel’s potentially competing goals of educating his readers as well as entertaining them.
Pajtim Statovci, Trans. by David Hackston
PositiveThe Guardian... part of what makes Crossing unpredictable is how swiftly horror replaces laughter ... Statovci’s writing is slyly artful ... It’s in keeping with the novel’s studiously non-binary logic that Bujar isn’t a straightforwardly sympathetic narrator ... Added complexity comes from how his time-hopping casts doubt over quite how he got to Italy in the first place. That question keeps you reading even when you feel daunted by his gruelling narrative. The answer is a shock, but one that befits the harsh perspective on show in this cruel odyssey.
PositiveThe Observer\"... smart and breezy ... One of many excellent things about this novel is how it lets Queenie face that truth [that everyone has difficulties] without downplaying her own troubles ... Carty-Williams’s... [is a] supple [writer]...\
PositiveThe GuardianOne of many excellent things about this novel is how it lets Queenie face that truth without downplaying her own troubles ... this story about finding yourself, not Mr Right, isn’t a \'black Bridget Jones\' so much as a 21st-century one.
PositiveThe Observer\"... rich, polyphonic ... That Lalami allows Driss to speak for himself initially feels like a misstep, partly because his beyond-the-grave narration disrupts the novel’s logic, but mostly because it quashes early mystery generated by hints of his double life ... Unflashy almost to the point of comedy, happy to include humdrum dialogue about, say, weather or food seasoning, the novel’s round-robin mode nonetheless accumulates a kind of revelatory power, setting aside top-down commentary in favour of side-by-side juxtaposition – a narrative style that ultimately functions as a plea for more listening, as well as highlighting the quiet irony of the title, which ends up being hard to read as anything more than just \'Americans\'.\
PositiveThe Observer\"Namwali Serpell’s impressive first novel is an indulgent, centuries-spanning slab of life marbled with subplots, zigzagging between characters and decades to play snakes and ladders with the bloodlines of three Zambian families with roots from around the world ... For 200 pages or so The Old Drift is electric with the sense that Serpell is laying down pieces in a puzzle kept teasingly out of sight ... A growing sense that The Old Drift could go on for ever is tribute to its inventiveness but also a feeling of weightlessness in what begins to resemble a series of vignettes strung together with lusty sex scenes (the main source of interaction between characters, with diminishing returns). The novel’s pleasures are largely local, in its multi-accented brio and pin-sharp scene-making ... What initially seems an old-fashioned saga proves more interested in genre than in character.\
RaveThe GuardianIt must have taken guts to write this novel, which could have been exploitative but, instead, proves thoughtful and light on its feet. Rather than dwell on the crimes, Toews wrings unexpected drama from her protagonists’ moral and theological to-ing and fro-ing, as they spar over how best to remain faithful to a system that has been used to betray them so brutally. The improbable, almost magical result creates something redemptive from a subject that seems anything but.
PositiveThe Observer\"You read [Aridjis] more for atmosphere than plot; her eccentrically detailed style holds out the promise of a big-picture coming together in a perpetual tease that, depending on how twitchy you’re feeling, leaves your expectations rewired or just frustrated ... Aridjis scrambles your brain, not with high-modernist pyrotechnics but by the stealthier means of undermining the assumption that a novel’s words exist to advance the story ... Aridjis, though, has never been an instrumentalist, kill-your-darlings kind of writer and by the end we’ve learned not to expect much from Adán or any of the zillion other cameos here. A last-minute change of perspective provides a payoff of sorts, but ultimately you enjoy Luisa’s company without ever being quite sure why she wants us around ... the narrative largesse turns out to be a type of withholding.\
PositiveThe Guardian\"As in fairytales, Oyeyemi’s gentle, unforced tone can lull you into overlooking the underlying horror ... Boy, Snow, Bird is an impressive performance marred only by the well-meaning but awkward explanation given at the end of the book for Frank’s abusiveness ... If Oyeyemi tries to do too much, it’s a failing you can forgive.\
PositiveThe Guardian\"The tone is both astringent and faintly mischievous, recalling the dialogue in a JM Coetzee novel or the wordplay of Ali Smith and Lydia Davis. Language is relentlessly inspected for imprecision as the boy... chides his mother’s new embrace of cliches and adjectives ... On any given page, the back and forth draws you in, yet you almost wince to recall the context, which intrudes in detail both tragic and bittersweet ... Li’s narrative experiment proves admirably fit for purpose. A novel in which nothing happens is liable to be dismissed as the result of a writer playing for time. Here, for all his mother’s insistence that Nikolai has nothing to say sorry for, the single defining event is the one thing we wish hadn’t happened; playing for time is the point.\
PanThe Observer\"There’s pathos here, but maybe not quite how Luiselli intends; it gets hard not to crave a bit of the chutzpah on show in a more conventional social problem novel such as Rachel Kushner’s recent The Mars Room, which simply rolls up its sleeves to brazen out the difficulty of imagining its way into prison life. Luiselli’s more cautious approach... may be more honest but its insights are moot, especially when the noodling ends up having to go toe to toe with the bald facts of \'migrant mortality reports\' inserted into the narrative, describing children found dead from exposure in the desert ... In the end, Lost Children Archive runs out of steam and has to change tack, switching perspective to the narrator’s stepson as he plans to run away, as if becoming a lost child himself might make him more interesting to his mother. The episode might have fuelled the novel all by itself, but in selling this very different story in the shape of another, Luiselli, almost despite herself, seems to fall into the trap of thinking the personal isn’t political enough.\
MixedThe Literary ReviewAs the novel segues into a survivalist sea story that never quite lives up to the promise of the first two-thirds, it hits you that Lanchester has more or less inverted the premise of last year’s Booker-shortlisted Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s speculative fantasy about borderless migration, in which black portals mysteriously open up around the globe. The Wall is the bleaker book, yet it’s infinitely less solemn, in part because of its chatty, pithy voice, recognisable from Lanchester’s journalism ... to whom exactly is Kavanagh explaining how his world works? It’s a question that recurs as the novel progresses. Lanchester provides a solution, folded into an elegant sign-off, but it feels a bit of a cop-out in view of the grim future he’s outlined. Then again, if The Wall is even half right, maybe artistic quandaries are going to be the only type we can reasonably expect novelists to solve.
Jamil Jan Kochai
PositiveThe Observer\"... [a] charming and unpredictable debut ... The energy comes less from the thrill of the chase than from the frame it gives Kochai to showcase a narrative style fizzing with surprise. He swerves from slapstick silliness to magic realism and poignant reflection on family members lost to decades of violence.\
PositiveThe Observer\"... [Obioma\'s] new book – a mystical star-crossed romance – is more polished, more painstakingly constructed and harder going [than his previous novel], at least to start with ... While [Obioma’s] windy apostrophes seem to get in the way at first, there’s fun to be had from noticing how Obioma tackles the age-old implausibilities of omniscient narration simply by making it straightforwardly magical ... Obioma’s figurative language is rich and vivid ... Above all, once it emerges from the ethereal haze, there’s the story itself, in which things can and do always get worse for Nonso, a perennial fall guy who, at the crushing finale, suddenly turns perpetrator, as Obioma’s absorbing tragicomedy painfully probes the perils of victimhood.\
MixedThe Guardian (UK)A less trusting writer – or more impatient editor – might have name-tagged or date-stamped the alternating segments. Supporting characters seldom come clearly into view even when they’re vital to the plot ... the story still spins you round ... Johnson excels at making psychic phenomena feel visceral ... for all the rhetoric, tragedy here feels fated by nothing so much as Johnson’s fidelity to the source material ... The result is an eerie melodrama in which the bloodshed seems more mimed than motivated – and which tosses, almost in passing, a grenade into debates over self-determination.
Graeme MacRae Burnet
RaveThe ObserverThe narration has the simple momentum of classic crime writing, heavy on lit cigarettes, light on subordinate clauses ... Unflashy yet highly accomplished, The Accident on the A35 works on several levels ... It has a denouement like something out of Greek tragedy but delivers as a proper police procedural too ... Burnet’s cleverness doesn’t get in the way of your enjoyment but playfully adds levels of meaning. The biggest teaser is the revelation that L’Accident sur l’A35 was only one of two manuscripts in the package [the author claims to have filled with documents]. What the other one was, he doesn’t say; I doubt I’ll be the only reader keeping my fingers crossed for another Gorski.
MixedThe Guardian\"A tale of shadows and whispers ensues, with gut-level dread ... Much of the tension lies in how the narrative, limited to Aden’s point of view, lets us access her thoughts without making them transparent; it’s thrilling ... At the same time, the novel’s scrupulous reserve leaves you feeling there’s a blank where the story should be ... But is Aden’s opacity a mark of her psychological complexity, or just a symptom of the unguessable void that attracted Wray to Lindh in the first place? It isn’t the only question this fascinating and frustrating novel leaves hanging.\
PositiveThe Guardian\"... spectacular ... In some of these stories, Marcus’s habit of rigging up an eye-catching scenario only to leave it hanging might feel unsatisfying, were it not for the sheer line-by-line joy of his phrase-making, caught between strung-out melancholy and tart misanthropy, electric with thrilling change-up ... One or two of the more self-conscious pieces, such as Critique, styled as an architectural review, fall flat, but it’s exhilaratingly bleak stuff overall...\
PositiveThe Guardian...all-action thrills and spills...a hi-tech chase narrative in low-slung prose ... mayhem unfolds in the deadly but jaunty style of a Hollywood action thriller ... In crucial moments, though, the novel loses vigour ... a kind of deus ex machina (or deus ex machine code) resolution that Gough struggles to make vivid ... But while it strikes the odd wrong note, it hits so many others—as a story of family dysfunction plugged into larger questions about reality, evolution and the west’s self-definition as \'the good guys\'—that it’s easy to forgive.
RaveThe Observer (UK)The wry, singular stories of the US short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg aren’t easy to pin down. Temporally fluid, chatty without being workaday, they don’t rely on plot yet aren’t person-has-thoughts narratives either and are often built from a dizzying array of moving parts. If there’s a secret, she isn’t giving it away ... Eisenberg trusts us to stay afloat ... Ruminative passages soften us up for the darkly comic shock of sharp exchanges ... Eisenberg isn’t tough going – far from it – but she defies neat summary, perhaps in part because, by her own admission, she conceives of individual stories, not collections, leaving those to editors. Now in her 70s, she’s prized across the Atlantic, but isn’t as well known in Britain, where she hasn’t had a regular publisher; here’s hoping that changes with this scintillating showcase of her one-off talent.
PositiveThe GuardianThe book combines Peace’s interest in biographical fiction with his long-standing interest in Japan, where he lives. The subject is the early 20th-century Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, best known for two stories that inspired Kurosawa’s Rashōmon. His stories operated in a variety of modes, often with a supernatural tint, but many of them are ugly, trading on reversals of the be-careful-what-you-wish-for type. Peace gives us 12 stories that show us Akutagawa’s intellectual formation, including his countercultural interest in Christianity, from his birth to his suicide at the age of 35.
PositiveThe Observer\'Vivid\' doesn’t begin to get near the grisly intensity of how Barker revisits Homer’s epic through Briseis’s eyes as she’s held in a plague-ridden prison camp. For her, the story of war isn’t a chronicle of spear-thrusts and arrow-shots, but one of enslaved women gang-raped in sight of their children and put to work washing their captors’ battle-bloodied rags in pails of urine, using balms of goose fat and crushed herbs to salve the sting of rough nights with their owners ... Not everyone will take to Barker’s plain speaking ... Reading this gruesome, gripping novel feels like you’re being let in on The Iliad’s secret history. No swords-and-sorcery romp, it speaks (I don’t think accidentally) to the present, post-Weinstein moment of myth-busting about male power.
PositiveThe GuardianFuelled more or less by voice and concept alone, Moshfegh’s blackly funny new novel does away with the genre crutch she leaned on in Eileen ... How far you take to My Year of Rest and Relaxation may depend on how entertaining you find this kind of caustic sociological taxonomy ... there are times when the book feels little more than a dead-eyed catalogue of prescription pills and 80s movies spiked with sulky detail ... And yet, by the end, this comically adversarial narrative seems anything but slight, hitting multiple marks at once.
Gaël Faye, Trans. by Sarah Ardizzone
PositiveThe Guardian\"...[a] standard coming-of-age material, until, in an escalation of the feud between the country’s majority Hutu and minority Tutsi populations, the president is assassinated, sparking civil war and – across the border in Rwanda – genocide ... But a narrator with limited insight should be more than simply a problem to work around...Faye seems to squander the dramatic potential that a child’s point of view might bring ... This sharp shock of a novel implies that, amid terrifying social breakdown, innocence isn’t easily claimed, as the narrator’s memories turn confessional and he becomes a participant in the violence.\
PositiveThe ObserverAs ever, Crace doesn’t let us develop a simple picture of where or when this is happening. It isn’t just that he withholds detail; his tricky use of tense and mood makes temporal uncertainty intrinsic ... For all that this sort of thing keeps you on your toes, The Melody sometimes threatens to become (almost literally) a shaggy dog story, with the novel’s central conflict between profit and justice settled offstage rather than in the hinted-at grandstand finish. Yet the book retains a lingering power—not least in Crace’s gentle reminder that, although the personal may well be political, it’s often easier to pretend otherwise.
RaveThe Guardian...these are melancholy tales of self-deceiving widows and widowers stymied by heartache and half-remembered tragedy, of long-dead marriages and fizzled-out affairs, fuelled by the discreet irony of a third person who stays close to the consciousness of his characters while enabling us to perceive what they can’t ... What keeps Trevor’s more sordid tales from melodrama is the debonair styling, fastidiously correct to the point of preciousness ... But it’s a mark of Trevor’s formidable craft that, taken individually, his stories not only don’t seem formulaic but regularly inspire awe ... This economy – compressing what a story is centrally about in the very first word of the very first page – is part of the cleverness of a writer who has done as much as anyone to shape our sense of what a short story is and what it should do.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Ingvild Burkey
MixedThe GuardianWinter, the second in a quick-fire seasonal quartet published in Norwegian two years ago, repeats the formula for the run-up to her birth early in 2014, with 60 prose pieces between two and five pages long on everything from cotton buds to the 1970s and \'hollow spaces\' ... When Knausgaard exposes himself in the manner of his autobiographical novel My Struggle – admitting he’s afraid of women (\'I fear… I will be found lacking\') or describing a humiliating flare-up when his daughter won’t sit down to lunch – it’s interesting enough. But he becomes more charming and persuasive when Knausgaard wanders into quizzical speculation... Knausgaard isn’t the silkiest writer – there’s a 200-word whopper of an awkward sentence on the very first page – but combing over his prose feels a bit like reporting on a football match by watching the grass: fundamental and yet somehow unimportant.
RaveThe GuardianWhile Means throws the kitchen sink at disorienting the reader, Hystopia eventually boils down to a tricked-out chase narrative. Even the odder elements of his scenario have pretty familiar effects ... The slow trickle of revelations, punctuated by sex and bloodletting, leads in the end to an explanation of why Hystopia was written in the first place; as a character study in which the lead character never appears, it’s certainly clever.
Umberto Eco, Trans. by Richard Dixon
PanThe Guardian“The thriller element kickstarts a media satire that always verges on farce even as you feel that Eco, a child of the 1930s, can never be too light-hearted about his central theme of quietism.”