RaveTimes Literary Supplement (UK)In many ways Birnam Wood is Catton’s best book yet. The ten-year wait has been more than worth it. Once again, it seems, a total reinvention has taken place ... Catton’s ingenious, intricate yet always lucid storyline is bolstered by formidably competent characterization and crackling dialogue ... I enjoy a good thriller, and this is an excellent one
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)It’s fascinating, little-known subject matter and the opening is full of promise as McFarlane introduces the vanguard of her large cast with ease ... A supple narrative voice ... The desert is a character, too, otherworldly yet resistant to lazy exoticism. McFarlane’s treatment of the dust storm has a simple Steinbeckian majesty ... Sadly, all this lovely tension soon unravels. That supple narrative voice starts to feel slack as more characters are added ... Looking back through the book, I found I’d already forgotten who several people were. Particularly forced are sections voiced in the first person for marginal characters such as Aboriginal and Irish housemaids and an Afghan cameleer. I got the sense that McFarlane was trying to cram in people from as many walks of life as possible.
PanThe Times Literary SupplementAt first, things look promising. There is a terrific opening set piece ... From here, though, it’s downhill all the way to Shanghai, where the story ends 300 pages later, in 1949 ... The idea, presumably, was to sketch a grand transcontinental frieze while illustrating the random cruelties of history and the triumph of love. Instead, we have a rambling travel narrative, lacking plot, structure and tension ... In this particular novel, expect fusty archaisms... faux-profundities... clichéd imagery ... plain missteps... and cheesy dialogue ... Occasional semi-successes... only throw the rest of the prose into unflattering relief. And then there are the repetitions. Not only does Hemon repeatedly reuse content, he also recycles the same weak imagery ... A rag-bag of narrative scraps, recorded continuously and read in Hemon’s mumble-voice.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Malcolm’s final book is billed as a memoir. In fact it has much in common with her muted, enigmatic book of photographs, Burdock (2008), which consisted of 28 pictures of individual burdock leaves and a two-page essay ... If you’re already a Malcolm fan, the first half of this elegant book might feel like your favourite band choosing a little-known B-side track for an encore. They troop off to polite cheers — before bounding straight back on with one of their greatest hits.
PanThe Sunday Times (UK)Reading it is like immersive theatre: one of those elaborate warehouse productions where you stumble about from tableau to tableau, trying to piece the story together ... The novel is long on atmosphere and short on sense. There are slick, movie-style conversations with a private investigator, a Vietnam vet, and a trans woman; long lunches with a garrulous criminal friend; flashbacks to Alicia’s hallucinations; the obligatory bit of survivalism (would it even be a McCarthy novel without an episode involving tinned foods and roadkill?) ... James Joyce is invoked. An oblique reminder that great literature requires hard work? But McCarthy’s difficulty is perverse. The decision to open The Passenger with an impenetrable conversation between Alicia and her hallucinations; the quantum mechanics; the pinball structure; the confusing dialogue — all this just makes the novel hard to read. Nothing meaningful is gained. It’s a shame because at times these books are more interesting than McCarthy’s key works ... We think these books are unflinching. Really, they are kitsch: McCarthy’s is an art of exaggeration. A con trick is being practised ... That’s how you garner comparisons to Hemingway and Faulkner — when, in fact, you’re a mediocre hybrid of both.
RaveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)... dazzling ... The social injustices of Victorian England have been transplanted, with spellbinding success, to modern-day Appalachia ... This serious subject matter belies the sheer fun that Kingsolver has with her endlessly inventive adaptation. Demon Copperhead is in constant conversation with its source, without becoming enslaved to it: it is a textual balancing act that puts, for example, Jonathan Franzen’s turgid Dickens homage Purity (2015) to shame ... If Dickens provides the cast and plot, this novel is vocally indebted to J. D. Salinger, by way of Mark Twain ... Spotting the modern counterparts to some of Dickens’s most memorable characters is a key pleasure...Kingsolver has a nice knack for nicknames ... If you don’t know David Copperfield there is still plenty here to enjoy, starting with the versatile vernacular of the narrative voice. Demon’s vocal rhythms are a compelling feat of characterization in their own right ... There are some implausibilities and slack patches...But for more than 500 pages Kingsolver maintains an astonishing level of energy and intensity ... The real wisdom of Demon Copperhead isn’t the insight Kingsolver brings to these urgent issues. It is artistic wisdom, the wisdom of restraint. This is a story with a clear social agenda, and Dickens, a lifelong advocate for the disadvantaged, is its perfect patron saint. Kingsolver arguably falls into the tricky category of activist-author, but what most impresses here is how lightly she treadles the preaching pedal. She has learnt from the best of Dickens that strong characterization, humour and a deluge of visual detail speak as powerfully as righteous invective ... this novel is surely a highpoint of her long career and a strong early candidate for next year’s Booker prize.
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)I spent the first half of The Slowworm’s Song in a sort of ecstasy, marvelling at Miller’s masterful characterisation ... But halfway through, disaster of the literary kind strikes. What’s the readerly equivalent of watching TV through your fingers? Well, it was like that, and not in a good way. Miller succumbs to the classic pitfall of the epistolary form — the letter-writer can’t plausibly describe the recipient’s own actions to them ... Stephen is an unforgettable character, and Miller has pulled off the miraculous feat of sketching a full human life in a few hundred pages. But as a whole The Slowworm’s Song confirms my impression of its author as slightly hit and miss: a novelist not entirely in control of his very considerable talent.
Annie Ernaux, trans. by Alison L. Strayer
PanThe Sunday Times (UK)... mostly she describes herself waiting in agony for him to arrive, then lamenting his departure and fretting that the affair is over until his next call ... In between she describes her dreams, which are not interesting ... Ernaux is your boring friend who can’t stop asking you when you think he’s going to text and what his last message could possibly have meant. It’s a diary, so it’s necessarily shapeless: the hunks of greasy wool that she would so expertly weave into the beautiful objet of Simple Passion. Perhaps diehard fans will welcome this addition to the canon, but I couldn’t help wishing Getting Lost had stayed in the archive. If you’re new to her work, start elsewhere.
MixedThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)Shamsie’s writing is intelligent, morally engaged, alive to cultural nuance and contemporary concerns. It just doesn’t sound very good ... The childhood scenes are examples of some of Shamsie’s finest writing. The author grew up in Karachi, and vividly conjures up the felt experience of the city and of early adolescence. Throughout the novel she is clear-eyed on friendship – on how close intimacy can run to hate. But in the second section the two women, with their matching differences, come to feel like illustrative examples. The schema is too clear, and too crude in comparison to recent, superior novels that explore how childhood friendships play out in adulthood ... Without the scaffolding (the alibi, perhaps) of Antigone, Shamsie struggles, once again, with the end stages of her plot, constructing an overextended, overelaborate domino run that needs one too many nudges to reach its conclusion ... To me, turning off your ears seems tantamount to going to an art exhibition wearing sunglasses. But perhaps, if you can read for content alone, this novel will strike you as better than second-rate – a lively debate piece addressing some of the key issues of our day.
PanThe Sunday Times (UK)Whenever it’s my turn to review one of [Strout\'s] novels, I seem to get the duds. Because Elizabeth Strout’s output is variable ... Unquestionably the weakest of the Amgash novels ... Strout is insightful on her theme of isolation and connection, and there are some lovely passages about Lucy’s complex, shifting relationship with her two grown-up daughters. It’s an easy read that feels as if it was far too easy to write: thin on material, stylistically lazy ... Strout is routinely praised for the sparseness of her prose, and Lucy must be fiction’s most unwriterly writer ... If you love the work of Elizabeth Strout, avoid this one.
PositiveSpectator World (UK)It’s simpler to say what McEwanesque is not: baggy, meandering, plotless, long. Yet all of these adjectives could be applied to his surprising new novel, Lessons ... This is a sprawling, branching narrative. There are dropped storylines, non sequiturs and apparently inadvertent repetitions. The messiness is not straightforwardly a detraction. All the haphazard shuttling back and forth makes for a rich texture, with people and places fading in and out of focus — just like memory, just like life ... More problematic are the regular lapses into McEwanese, an easier term to define than McEwanesque. You know what it means: those overbearing news bulletins that punctuate so many of the recent novels ... The commentary is intrusive and implausible at this moment of high personal drama. Too often, these incongruous asides rupture the delicate tissue of convincing consciousness ... The novel’s second half is notably slacker, as if an elite sprinter had signed up for a marathon and discovered around mile sixteen that there’s more to this pacing business than he’d imagined. But Lessons is a consistently enjoyable read, written, for the most part, with McEwan’s fearsomely intelligent fluency.
PanTimes Literary Supplement (UK)... the sort of book that makes you wish you could have been there when the manuscript landed at the publishing house. What did they make of it, really, all those agents and editors and publicists? ... truly unique ... If there were an eating contest and you consumed, say, Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, seasons 1–4 of Game of Thrones, a few high-octane episodes of Neighbours, a Nativity play and a children’s edition of The Canterbury Tales, you might just vomit out Lapvona ... is this yet another clever exposé of the fictiveness of fiction? Or a parable, perhaps, about how desperate we all are for our parents’ love? Or maybe the prose is just so brilliant that it doesn’t actually matter what it’s about? ... Hold on, I can answer that last one. The prose, as elsewhere in Moshfegh’s oeuvre, is occasionally vivid, but mostly lazy ... Moshfegh struggles, not for the first time, with narrative shaping; and, unlike in the other three novels, she doesn’t have a compelling central character around which to yoke all the random, repetitive episodes ... perhaps she really does believe in her own genius. Or perhaps … perhaps Ottessa Moshfegh is a literary hack who just wants to shock people. But she’s successful. She knows how to operate.
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)Byrne’s account of Pym’s life is hugely readable, clearly and sensitively summarizing the novels. Chapters are appealingly short....This framing device perpetuates Pym’s own self-protective clowning: always the jolly one, hiding behind her jokes and her alter egos ... Byrne quotes lavishly, which means we are treated to many of Pym’s lovely one-liners ... But there are some unsettling omissions. There is no serious discussion of Pym’s relationship with religion, despite the fact that the majority of her early novels involve ecclesiastical settings, and Pym herself once moved house in order to be close to a particular church. We hear little about Hilary, the sister with whom Pym lived for over thirty years. I longed for more detail about her composition methods and her sales figures. And a fascinating, disturbing extended episode in the late 1950s is simply dropped mid-story.
RaveThe Times (UK)This new collection, Homesickness, is even stronger. This time we’re in the real world. Almost all of the stories are set in Co Mayo, peopled by a cast of characters so real you can practically smell the Guinness on their breath ... Each story drops the reader straight into a world, a life, that is already in full spate ... As in Young Skins, moments of random violence and buried tenderness abound. Nothing is obvious and everything is interesting ... The prose, while still vulnerable to abverb-itis (in one paragraph we find \'balefully frail demeanour\', \'lavishly wayward course\' and \'broodingly ensconced\'), has relaxed since Young Skins, allowing Barrett’s powerful descriptive gifts to really shine. But too many of these stories feel as if they are two pages away from greatness. Greatness is rare, though, and these stories are still very good: Barrett is definitely one to watch. Perhaps it’s best to think of Homesickness as a book of photographic portraits.
RaveTimes Literary Supplement (UK)This is the central pleasure of reading Elif Batuman’s ferociously intelligent fiction: the thrill of encountering things you already half-knew, rendered in language with lyrical precision ... The final 100 pages of Either/Or are full of sex, if not quite story. First it happens, painfully and bloodily, with the man from the party, then with two men in Turkey. This is the point at which this very good novel really takes off and becomes the kind of book you want everyone you know to read. Batuman, it turns out, is a writer of sex to rival Nicholson Baker. Surely these must be some of the best descriptions of female sexual experience in literature: funny, oblique, serious, patient, never obvious, always true. Here, as throughout her writing, Batuman demonstrates that her great strength is her ability to paddle back upriver to a time before familiarity.
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)Otsuka’s new novel, The Swimmers, also opens in the first-person plural. The collective \'we\' belongs to the regulars at a swimming pool in modern-day America. Compared with the torrent of lives contained in The Buddha in the Attic, the details dispensed via the same technique here can feel indulgently pedestrian ... The rest of the narrative follows one swimmer, Alice, a retired lab technician with dementia ... Otsuka deftly contrasts general truths about dementia with the unique experience of this individual and her family ...The second half implicitly invites us to read the pool and the crack as a metaphor for the glorious, consuming mundanity of daily life ... Alice’s story is compelling, full of well-placed details that form an unsentimental portrait of a woman ... But the two halves don’t mesh well ... Otsuka is a great writer and The Buddha in the Attic is a miraculous book, a micro-encyclopaedia of killer detail. The Swimmers, sadly, is not its equal.
MixedThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)There is a lot of risk-taking. Some of it pays off: there are some arresting instances of defamiliarization, when Heti neatly reminds us of the utter strangeness of being in the world ... But the balance of success to failure in this novel tips unequivocally towards the failures ... In How Should a Person Be?, Heti is reaching earnestly after truths about art, taking care to undercut that earnestness with comedy. Pure Colour explores the idea that souls live on in the world after death, either through art or through the people who loved them. But Heti’s mode in it is obtuse, sentimental, and too wilfully weird without being funny. The leavening humour of the earlier book is mostly absent from Pure Colour, and it is a fatal subtraction ... I understood that this was a metaphor for all-consuming grief, but I could not follow Mira into the leaf. It was all just too implacably precious, too indulgent, too deliberately odd ... Other lows include moments of pointless provocation ... This time, the high-wire act has ended in real failure, not a failure of the interesting, useable kind. Though I am usually wrong about these things, here is a prediction: the critical response will not be kind, and the great heap of all these stinking reviews will form a fertile manure for Sheila Heti, in which will germinate the original seeds of her next, much better, book.
MixedThe Spectator (UK)The historical fiction is pacy and cogent, despite some hokey dialogue. The farewell party in 1994 is very strong: a depiction of ordinary sadness more affecting than anything in A Little Life. The letter from Hawaii feels shoe-horned in, like something Yanagihara’s had lying around for a while. The final, overlong section is pure panic porn, and my god is it gripping. Ingeniously, improbably, all this hangs together to make a sui generis whole that’s decidedly greater than the sum of its very weird parts. The thing with the repeating names: it sounds bonkers, but it works ... Shameless swathes of exposition, crude indulgence of our darkest fears. Formidably fluent, morally simplistic, conceptually audacious, aesthetically overblown. Still haven’t figured out what it is I’m describing? Frankly, neither have I.
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)Gary Shteyngart’s fifth novel is so steeped in the present moment that we’re unlikely to be reading it in ten years’ time, let alone 100. Which is all the more reason to read it now. It’s not the first pandemic novel, but I will eat my facemask if anyone comes up with something quite as fun as this. So take a seat and prepare to be entertained ... ull-blown omniscience is rare in contemporary fiction. So it’s a true pleasure to sink into Shteyngart’s expansive, benevolent storytelling — hopping between his characters, dashing back and forwards in time, commenting on the world at large, revelling in the mechanics of his craft ... At 317 pages the scale is not Tolstoyan, and Shteyngart does struggle to fit so much story into his medium-sized novel. The deliciously convoluted plot proceeds in fits and starts. At times we’re shunted from twist to turn a little too abruptly; significant action happens off stage, and we learn about it in hasty recap. Some sentences, too, are overstuffed ... Yet what a lot he does fit in ... captures a time not so very long ago that already feels far away — a time before vaccines or variants, a time when we doubted the efficacy of masks and frantically wiped down surfaces and supermarket vegetables. And he has captured it beautifully: that sun-soaked nervous energy, the intense, almost maniacal aliveness of the early days of the pandemic. A fever dream that’s already fading. But then that’s exactly the point this flamboyant, theatrical, tragicomic book is making. Everything passes. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.
PanThe Sunday Times (UK)This isn’t a jigsaw; it’s a bunch of old show tunes on their 33rd run ... There are some fascinating snippets—I enjoyed the brief history of the sex doll—but the discussions of new tech rarely surpass the sort of low-level dinner-party chat generated by a quick perusal of The Week ... interson’s vision of the future is borrowed from sci-fi, with a few plug-ins from myth and fairytale. She conceives of AI as a benign Buddhist presence that will be here at any moment, teaching us non-attachment over cheese and toast ... I don’t object to appeals for social responsibility as we enter the tech age. I do object to being preached at by Winterson on a subject she clearly knows so little about. One clue that this is all empty rhetoric is that she completely avoids the hard problem. That’s right: in this book that seriously asks whether robots will be able to empathise, there is no discussion of the nature of consciousness as it relates to AI. In a way it’s a virtuoso performance, to run for so long on so little fuel.
PanThe Sunday Times (UK)Reading a Powers novel is like boarding a tour bus when you have a single day to explore an unfamiliar city. Bewilderment, his Booker-longlisted new novel, is a hop-on, hop-off trip around astrobiology, climate breakdown and neurofeedback therapy ... it is impossible to deny the importance of Powers’s message ... here’s another inconvenient truth: these books are aesthetically impoverished. Characterisation is crude; dialogue constantly veers between the functional and the sentimental ... The novel’s alternative present is like our world, only a little bit worse. There’s a president who’s Trumpier than Trump; the environmental crisis is further forward; global politics are even more unstable. While we do live in scary times, this Petri dish feels rigged ... Emotionally, too, there is manipulation. Robin’s speech is rendered entirely in italics, as if he’s some kind of deific savant. Mostly he functions as a human Geiger counter, growing more distressed as he learns of each new atrocity adults have wreaked on the planet. Occasionally he comes out with wistful schmaltz about the richness of the world we live in ... The problem with the hop-on, hop-off tour bus is that you don’t get to lose yourself down the city’s side streets, the digressions that are the novel form’s essential substance. Ditto with those parallels between writing code and writing fiction. When you’re coding, you exclude the extraneous, the random. Yet it’s in the unnecessary detail that the best novels come alive ... What a shame it would be if the climate crisis were to create a monoculture of worthy, single-minded tracts such as Powers’s—turning the untamed novel with its weird and wonderful microflora into an endangered species.
PositiveThe Times (UK)At its best, Real Estate offers the same hard-won, lucid wisdom that made The Cost of Living essential reading for anyone who has a mother or is one ... Yet I missed the urgency of the earlier book, its frank display of dramatic self-excavation. The deconstruction of the family home, a mother’s death — these are essentially more powerful subjects than literary festivals and writers’ residencies.
Leila Slimani tr. Sam Taylor
MixedThe Times (UK)It is refreshing to hear such a confident, near-omniscient voice, and the evocative opening chapters promise great things. However, Slimani struggles with her large cast ... The current of a central narrative never quite sweeps us away ... The Country of Others contains plenty of precious cargo but the vessel is far from watertight; without the engine of a killer concept, Slimani’s writing flounders.
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)[Kitamura] excels at framing the fragments as fragments, allowing them to overlap without crudely forcing connections. Her characters are convincingly opaque to themselves. It is a pleasure to watch her profound moral intelligence sifting through the murk of our motivations and complicities ... This is a cerebral novel, chiefly satisfying on a conceptual, philosophical level. The brilliance of Kitamura’s mind is not matched by her prose style. Too many of her sentences sound the same, characterised by the trendy yet faintly ungrammatical comma-splice ... Perhaps the flat tone is deliberately designed to keep the reader out, as the narrator feels shut out of the city...If so, there is a price to be paid for holding the reader at such a remove. Intimacies is the kind of book that’s easy to admire, yet hard to love.
PanThe Sunday Times (UK)Oh, how I want to love Lisa Taddeo’s work ... The schlock horror intensifies in the final chapters, as if Taddeo, nervous that her ending won’t live up to its own hype (it doesn’t), has decided to pile on the gore as a distraction tactic. The suspicion grew on me that this book has been rushed out without due care from its author or editors ... Despite the promise of the opening, the novel finally has nothing nuanced to say about men and women.
PanThe Times (UK)There are the usual Cuskian longueurs, as well as moments of brave, sharp insight. Then you start to lose your way. L and M keep having intense conversational encounters: they hate one another, yet they’re drawn inexorably together. Cusk’s prose, always oddly fustian, starts to sound like a cut-price Victorian novelist. There’s a lot of heavy-handed Garden of Eden symbolism. It feels like a strange rehashing of a DH Lawrence novel, with talk of wills and true origins and destroying one another. For no apparent reason M narrates the novel to someone called Jeffers, whom we never meet ... If you make it to the end (not a foregone conclusion) you’ll find a note explaining what the hell’s been going on ... Everything is accounted for—except the central, utterly baffling question. Why did Rachel Cusk write this book?
Edward St. Aubyn
MixedThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)Edward St Aubyn is the literary equivalent of a kitmurvy. Except he isn’t on his second novel: he’s on his tenth, and he still can’t seem to hit the ball. But he’s been swanning around the course for so long now that readers assume he must be good, mustn’t he? And besides, he’s got all the swanky kit ... You’ll just have to imagine the overwriting and the similes, but trust me, they are legion ... That said, St Aubyn himself doesn’t seem to care much about plot. What he is really here to do is to impart, at length, his opinions on rewilding, schizophrenia and the importance of a holistic approach to treating brain tumours. I have no stake in any of the arguments he so one-sidedly propounds. But I do know that they don’t belong in a novel, passed off as the views of his characters ... As far as technique goes, St Aubyn is like someone who doesn’t take a shopping basket because he just needs a pint of milk – then keeps adding more things until he’s dropping stuff all over the place. Storylines and characters are introduced at unwieldy length, only to disappear for half the novel before cursorily resurfacing when the author suddenly appears to remember them. Narration mostly takes place inside someone’s head while they go for a walk or look out a car window. Action is delivered as stultifying recollection. None of the characters comes to life.Nothing in this novel rings true ... Nothing – except for one single, heartbreaking storyline: the schizophrenic Sebastian’s sessions with Martin. Martin refuses to dismiss Sebastian’s paranoid babble as nonsense, listening carefully for oblique, symbolic meaning. The trust that tentatively builds between them is beautifully observed.
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)Please believe the hype. Please do not roll your eyes and say \'not another Sally Rooney\'. Nolan is not another Sally Rooney. She is another seriously exciting writer who happens to be young and female and Irish. Those are broad categories. Nolan’s book describes a very particular experience and it does so with rare intelligence and courage ... The star feature of Nolan’s narration is her ability to cut through received ideas about women, relationships and even rape. We get the angry, vain, selfish woman as well as the supplicant, the self-harmer, the victim. We get a real person. Ciaran is sketched in less detail, but is still, impressively, seen in the round, never merely as the villain of the piece ... Nearly 300 pages is a long time to sustain a first-person voice without risking airlessness. Towards the end I wished for a little more showing and a little less telling. The novel’s key dramatic event is arguably too crude a climax. These are tiny niggles. Mostly I was transfixed with admiration and visceral horror. I knew a Ciaran once, and this novel is an extraordinary likeness — not of the man, but of the mechanism, the way you get from hopeful \'hello\' to acts of degrading desperation. Nolan’s headlong, fearless prose feels like salt wind on cracked lips. You wince and you thrill.
RaveThe Times (UK)Superlative ... Bailey remains scrupulously neutral in his nuanced account ... Roth fans with a detailed knowledge of the oeuvre may enjoy Nadel’s more thematic approach. But Bailey’s account is definitive and genuinely gripping to boot ... He leads us lucidly through a dense palimpsest of overlapping drafts, fictional identities, literary feuds and women.For all his diligence, though, it’s hard to determine what Bailey really thinks of Roth’s oeuvre. He provides useful, clear accounts of each novel. He also levels some fairly serious criticism against individual works.
Peter Ho Davies
PositiveThe Times (UK)Davies does a lot of due diligence to counter charges of appropriation...At times this caution feels awkward, like one of those forfeits where you have to turn around and touch your toes each time you say something ... But there is nothing awkward or anxious about Davies’s clear-eyed chronicling of the abortion, its aftermath, his son’s birth and first few difficult years as the child struggles with developmental milestones ... Davies never lets himself off the hook, setting down all of his compromised, human responses to the challenges of parenthood, no matter how private or ignoble ... His deceptively simple, pared-back style is ideal for detailing difficult emotions ... Sadly, Davies loses his nerve as the son gets older...Towards the end the good writer is sacrificed to the good parent. The son is a central character, but after infancy the details dry up and we struggle to see him as a real person. Perhaps most problematically, the transition he makes to apparent normality is elided ... For most of this ambitious book, Davies’s bold tell-all policy makes for moving and compelling reading. He has gone so much further than most: taken off his clothes, walked right to the end of the wubbering gangplank, stood there shivering for all to see. And although, finally, he fails to take the plunge, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself is still admirable for the brave new things it has to say about shame, regret, fatherhood and love.
PositiveThe Times (UK)The account of Plath’s youth in Massachusetts is exhaustive and utterly exhausting for mortal readers ... Clark is strong on the poetry and on the mutuality of the couple’s artistic collaboration. At times she is a little too meticulously granular, too reluctant to give us her own take. But her hands-off approach is appropriate for the story’s messy, tragic end ... Clark stays commendably even-handed ... Clark makes use of fresh information, including new interview testimony and recently discovered letters to Beuscher, to reconstruct Plath’s final days and argue convincingly that she did mean to take her own life.
PanThe Times (UK)It’s a promising premise, a classic DeLillo disaster. But The Silence makes for queasy reading, and not in a good way. It takes place in 2022 — but there’s no mention of the catastrophe we’re living through now ... the novel is out of touch with the times it seeks to encapsulate ... The general consensus — that DeLillo ain’t what he used to be — will only be strengthened by The Silence, which is a little too gnomic, too straight-faced, too close to late Coetzee.
MixedThe Times (UK)Sadly it’s hard to get a solid sense of Steinbeck from Souder’s book, which is highly readable but, at 368 pages minus notes, feels too slim for such a lot of life, such a lot of work. And Souder, who has also written lives of John James Audubon and Rachel Carson, wastes valuable space trying his hand at Steinbeck-inspired evocations of landscape, or dispensing slightly cheesy wisdom about writers.
MixedThe TimesThe novel doesn’t quite live up to the high standards set by its predecessors. The dialogue is burdened with too much of the philosophical and theological debate ... Robinson is a wonderful, wise writer and there are lovely things here ... If it’s your first time in Gilead, start with any one of the other three novels, and leave Jack until last.
PositiveThe Times (UK)...[a] warm, wise book ... [a] quietly radical tragicomedy. I was shocked by how unusual it felt to spend 275 pages exclusively in the company of older women. Whereas Late in the Day mines decades of romantic, sexual love, Wood’s novel is firmly about friendship ... The Weekend is a shortish novel that slips down easily. The plot ultimately lets in melodrama, and the prose...is hospitable to some automatic overwriting ... Yet with this ostensibly light touch, Wood commands the long histories of these three very different women. The focus is on the present; this is not a story about nostalgia or retrospect. But with a series of deft asides, we glean an account of their whole lives, through their memories of themselves and each other ... This is rich fictional territory and Wood has made the most of it in this surefooted novel that packs 50 years into one weekend.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Bennett’s prose style is mostly functional; sometimes it lets in cliché and overwriting. But she is a bold, skilful storyteller ... The slightly fantastical premise and the coincidence-laden plot will have readers eagerly turning pages. Bennett uses these hooks to showcase complex, compassionate portraits of her four leading ladies. And what grants the novel real heft is the light touch employed for the (not so) historical details ... a clever balancing act indeed to pair such heartbreaking material with a narrative that’s so much fun.
MixedThe Times (UK)The monologues of the townsfolk are flat lemonade; surely rambling speech is the easiest, laziest way of filling a page. Initially Pew promises to be one part Holden Caulfield, one part Eleanor Oliphant, offering the unique vantage point of the outsider. Fans of Lacey’s superior debut, Nobody Is Ever Missing, will recognise something of that novel’s quirky, maudlin narrator, Elyria. But Pew’s internal commentary tends too often towards the essayistic, expounding Lacey’s grand theme of bodily dissociation ... What keeps you reading is crudely withheld information: Pew’s identity, that creepy festival. Lacey buys herself space to waffle with the promise of a plot. But the \'answers,\' which come too late, are disappointing ... the ellipsis of the ending feels like a cop-out.
PanThe Sunday Times (UK)It’s true that Greenwell is right on-trend. But if Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk are supermodels in couture gowns from the grand fashion houses of 20th-century autofiction (WG Sebald, Thomas Bernhard), then Greenwell is a Topshop knock-off ... Characters are mostly just initials — R, N and so on — and visual details are kept to a tasteful minimum. None of the grubby business of making the world come alive on the page. Instead, it’s an honest, authentic, stripped-back look. The writerly equivalent of poured concrete and a jute rug ... It’s not enough to offer up scraps of a life and expect the reader to stitch them together ... The stand-out feature of Greenwell’s fiction is the detailed narration of brutal sexual encounters ... As soon as we’re out of the bedroom, though, watching the narrator walking around Sofia, the voltage plummets ... In theory it’s fine to write about yourself, or your students, or a train journey. A great writer can make anything interesting.
MixedThe TimesMcCann’s novels have an unusually high thread count, weaving together dozens of interconnecting story lines, characters and ideas. Apeirogon is full of real people ... Their stories are tragic, powerful, moving and inspiring ... McCann’s fragmented retellings of Bassam and Rami’s stories are mixed in with such diverse material ... But this book is not a novel. Not because it’s formally daring, or because it deals with real events. A novel can do whatever it wants. And that’s precisely the problem with Apeirogon: McCann does not have freedom of movement. There are some important places that he cannot travel to — hence all the dazzling distraction tactics ... This is a work of creative non-fiction premised on the problematic belief that literature should do good in the world. It is a commendable achievement. It is also ponderous, worthy, sentimental and self-important. The lyrical prose, presumably meant to elevate the subject matter to \'novel\' status, is mostly second-rate.
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)Published in America...to rave reviews, A Replacement Life is that risky thing: a book about a writer, writing, which explores the boundaries between fact and fiction, lies and truth ... The first 40 pages are thick with overwriting ... Then the prose relaxes slightly and the plot kicks in ... As a chronicler of the immigrant experience, Fishman can be funny and astute. But mostly the tone is an unhappy mix of baroque comedy and meta-moralising about the nature of truth. Towards the end, the story lurches queasily into Kingsley Amis-style farce ... a novel that relies too heavily on the horrors of war for its power. For a clever, witty, tender, horrifying, self-referential account of the Holocaust, as told from the perspective of a survivor’s descendant, you want Art Spiegelman, not Fishman: the former’s brilliant Maus books are everything that A Replacement Life is not.
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)About one-third of the 19 short stories in Grand Union, Zadie Smith’s first collection, have \'really got something\'. That quotation comes from one of them, the melancholy, mischievous \'Blocked\' ... The best stories include \'Sentimental Education\', in which Smith is typically brilliant on sex and shame ... There’s nothing here that’s not at least goodish. Smith’s baseline is significantly higher than average. But we need better than goodish from our best writers. Too many of these stories feel like half-baked parallel projects ... Such is Smith’s stature that she can noodle away, like the over-beloved boyfriend who fancies himself a guitarist ... The title is a misnomer. There’s no grand union here. On the contrary, the stories are stylistically so eclectic you wonder what is Smith’s style, exactly ... It’s clearly a good thing when a writer refuses to calcify. But five novels and one short-story collection into her career, you’d be hard pressed to characterise what is uniquely Zadie Smith. It’s beginning to feel like a problem.
RaveThe Times (UK)As a novelist, [Lerner] is not only a natural, he’s also one of the best writers working today ... a tender, extended portrait of two good parents, a rarity in literature ... The non-linear structure produces narrative lacunae that powerfully enhance our understanding of character and event. The different voices are done simply and subtly. No crass ventriloquism here. Complex ideas are packed like alveoli in the lungs, creating an internal surface area much greater than you’d expect from 304 pages. But there’s always plenty of oxygen: everything feels breezy and effortless despite Lerner’s unbridled intellect ... What can’t he do?...he’s fearsomely articulate, but when it comes to description, \'a rain of glass\' is the best he manages. (That said, his prose is always clean and cliché-free.)
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)Quichotte is one of the cleverest, most enjoyable metafictional capers this side of postmodernism ... A glorious 21st-century riff on Cervantes’s 17th century classic Don Quixote ... In Quichotte, Rushdie brilliantly demonstrates the way that a writer’s life seeps into their work, sometimes deliberately, sometimes less so ... The narration is fleet of foot, always one step ahead of the reader — somewhere between a pinball machine and a three-dimensional game of snakes and ladders ... We are a long way from the fertile lyricism of Midnight’s Children, and there is nothing here approaching the death of Changez Chamchawala in The Satanic Verses. But we are still watching a master at work ... Rushdie has taken bits of our shared lives, scraps of our language, and constructed a vehicle as wondrous as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This novel can fly, it can float, it’s anecdotal, effervescent, charming, and a jolly good story to boot. I almost found myself wishing that it were Rushdie’s last book — because if so, it would be one of literature’s coolest sign offs, as Puckish as Prospero’s final soliloquy. But I don’t think anyone who reads Quichotte will want to release Rushdie from his bonds just yet. Applause, certainly, but also: Encore! Encore!
PositiveThe Times (UK)Obreht distils an impressive volume of research to transport us to 19th-century America, and some of the novel’s wackiest details are based on reality ... Ultimately, it’s a ghost story, and it will appeal more to some readers than others. The first-person voice can let in tired hyperbole, and the talking-to-the-camel trope is arguably a quirk too far ... The writing here is some of the most confident, free-ranging prose I’ve read in months. Obreht bounds effortlessly from details of daily life to bold, pithy summaries condensing 20 years into a paragraph ... Obreht skilfully weaves in various characters and backstories, building up a narrative of great psychological complexity. She withholds just enough to make you feel surprised but not cheated by the ending ... This is a fine piece of historical fiction, avoiding traps of the genre ... Inland is a novel of two halves, and it’s debatable as to how successfully they meld. It’s also overlong. This reader would have been happy with just the realist storyline; on its own, it forms a dusty fable of emerging America to set beside Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams or Carys Davies’s West. With the addition of Lurie and the dead, it tilts close enough to genre fiction to risk cosiness ... I might place Inland in the odd category of children’s books for grown-ups, delighting in mystery and myth and sufficiently removed from reality to allow you to switch off and sink in ... I’m already looking forward to whatever Obreht writes next, whether it’s for grown-up children or — fingers crossed — something really adult.
RaveThe Times (UK)Beware of any unmediated raves; don’t let them fool you into expecting a polished masterpiece. This is a poetic novel, formally and stylistically ambitious. There are going to be problems, and because Vuong is taking real creative risks, those problems, when they arise, are significant. As you might intuit from the title, one of Vuong’s modes is a high-stakes hyper-lyricism (think ee cummings and Emily Dickinson) that can teeter over into kitsch ... Vuong’s greatest weakness is his fondness for metaphors involving punctuation and syntax. Not only is it tiresome when writing repeatedly references the act of writing, it’s also an impoverished field of reference — there are only so many punctuation marks ... But the risk-taking works both ways, and the highs here are inversely proportional to the lows. There is a lot of good writing on the level of the sentence ... Vuong also employs an amazing vocal range that powers this nearly plotless novel, allowing for startling juxtapositions and feats of compression ... Most impressive is the treatment of abuse and mental illness ... Vuong’s determination to see well-trodden ground afresh, with unremitting complexity, is extremely rare ... There is a great deal to admire: that he was able to give such personal material novelistic treatment; that he had the patience to wait until that was possible; that he only had wait until he was 30. We should answer his patience with our own as we watch this exciting talent try things out on the page, sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong, but always striving to make it new.
PositiveThe Times...an admirably ambitious debut by an intelligent, hard-working writer ... The whole thing could have done with a very vigorous prune and maybe a few jokes. But the breadth of research on display here is impressive, as is Hammad’s granular depiction of this most politically complex of regions. With energy and care, she animates a crucial period of Palestinian history that most readers will know little about.
MixedThe TimesThis is not a straightforward work of literary biography. Lyndall Gordon has already reconstructed the lives of many greats, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Emily Dickinson. However, here she attempts something more creative, more novelistic than usual: the unification of five biographies, diverse narratives with a common theme ... One of the book’s great strengths is the sense it creates of \'a chain of making\': the overlap and interplay between the generations is richly evoked ... Occasionally, it seems as if Gordon is pushing Schreiner too hard ... Mostly, though, Gordon is a scrupulously restrained biographer—sometimes almost too cautious ... Also impressive is the feat of concision: each section forms a compressed yet complete biography. Only rarely do we feel that something crucial has been hastily treated ... Reading Outsiders at the end of 2017, I can’t help wondering if this book isn’t a fraction too late, whether Woolf’s question about the nature of woman hasn’t already expired. Perhaps the answer we are finally coming to, as gender norms crumble around us, is that the question was misconceived. Gordon’s binding agent relies on the belief that there is some essential, hidden femaleness waiting to be uncovered. Her subjects were women, but that isn’t an identical condition. They didn’t spend all their time \'being women.\'
William Melvin Kelley
PositiveThe Sunday TimesA Different Drummer is itself a fairy tale, in the best sense of the word: simple, timeless, mythic ... this is a novel about strategic silence: refusal to speak, refusal to engage. Kelley’s formal masterstroke is to tell the novel exclusively from the viewpoints of the white characters—characters whose portrayal is consistently sensitive and empathetic, even when they are committing atrocious acts. His is a true novelist’s gaze, sharpened by the conviction that if you look long and hard enough, you will always understand ... It is not a perfect book: between the swift, spellbinding opening and the shocking finale, there are real longueurs, and because we keep returning to the same day, experiencing it from different perspectives, it can feel as though we’re not moving forwards. But for a debut novel written by a very young man, it is an astounding achievement ... Kelley’s novel might be a fantasy—the dramatic grassroots movement he describes never happened, and likely never could have. But it’s a fantasy that’s still relevant and powerful today.4
MixedThe Times (UK)\"This isn’t a book of literary essays; it’s a book about birds. But the collection is only marketable on the strength of his fame as a novelist — as a literary mind ... most of these essays are plainly functional ... So who is Jonathan Franzen? Is he, as The Guardian has it, \'a literary genius for our time\'? Not on the strength of these essays. But he is a clever man who cares sincerely about important things, and we should be wary of dismissing him... There may come a time when we wish we’d paid more attention.\
PositiveThe Sunday TimesSadly, it’s not a book you can recommend to everyone ... Notably, the long, centrepiece chase section will be divisive and hard to follow if you haven’t played \'Grand Theft Auto\' or bought an X-Box etc ... Yet Gough’s powerful, playful argument will reward the patient reader. What feels so fresh is that this predictive novel avoids even a hint of the usual doomsday clichés. Instead, the transformative possibilities of technology are embraced—to the point where \'love is an interface between you and the universe\' comes to sound joyfully life-affirming rather than alarmingly clinical ... It might not be an enduring classic of literature, but it will subtly change the way you see the world.
MixedThe Times (UK)\"Increasingly, you get the sense that the book wasn’t written for you anyway. Laing has \'rewired\' it into a cosy short-circuit for those in the gang: those who believe the apocalypse is here, those who despise \'the endless malice of the polite right,\' those who feel England is becoming \'unrecognisable, officially racist.\' If you can’t join in with her squeamishly noble, fashionable fragility, then reading Crudo will feel like being cornered at a party by someone who seemed kind of interesting to start with.\
PositiveThe Times (UK)\"Hits and Misses takes its material from those years of ambition, graft and stellar success: it’s the mid-career album about fame. But you won’t find Rich bemoaning his star status à la NSYNC. The collection is full of well-bred privilege-checking—and a lot of very funny jokes ... Most of the pieces here are skits rather than stories, and some are simply jokes. The collection as a whole feels, unsurprisingly, like a sketch show. Which is no bad thing: one of Rich’s strengths is that he knows exactly how soon to stop ... His humour is good clean fun: The Big Bang Theory rather than Girls. He never reaches the transgressive nirvana of, say, Giles Coren on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Here I Am. Coren lets in just enough real envy to give his hilarious review an edge that even the best of these stories lack.\
MixedThe Times (UK)\"Moshfegh makes X’s voluntary incarceration compelling and darkly funny for the first 150 pages. Then you start to wonder where it’s all heading. By page 200 it’s clear that only an exceptional ending can convert this extended riff into a successful—ie, shapely—novel ... Despite her vaunted talent, Moshfegh isn’t up to the task. After some painfully heavy foreshadowing, 9/11 provides a crude, perfunctory climax. At the start the narrative voice is so confident you feel sure it’s heading somewhere worthwhile. But the laziness of the ending entirely recasts the book’s early promise.\
MixedThe TimesHis drawings are as simplistic as Satrapi’s, and somehow deader, less drawn, as if created on an iPad. A faded colour palette, heavy on the greige, adds an extra hit of emptiness to the atmosphere ... At times it feels as if you are watching CCTV footage, piecing it all together. Which can be very effective. Making the reader/viewer do the work, at the far extreme of show-don’t-tell, creates a powerful sense of realism ... Readers of Beverly will open Drnaso’s new book, Sabrina, on high alert, wise to the menace beneath the bland surface of Drnaso’s images ... in Sabrina the fee is simply too steep: the use of graphics leads not to speed and economy but to profligate narrative inefficiency ... Sabrina will likely be most readers’ introduction to Drnaso. Which is a shame, because it’s Beverly that’s the true treasure here.
PanThe Times (UK)...everything about this novel has been designed to make life pointlessly difficult for the reader. It is the literary equivalent of an Ironman triathlon: only masochists need apply ... Self’s yea-sayers argue that this incoherence illustrates 'the permeability of selves' ... What will you get in return for all your hard work? Some glib données (did you know that the Iraq war was a bit of a botch job?), some jokes that don’t land and plenty of trendy computer-based metaphors involving lagging, memory, downloading, data, connectivity etc. I am not suggesting that difficulty is always to be avoided — just that you might prefer to spend your energy on summits with a decent view from the top. But the loss in intelligibility simply isn’t worth it.
PositiveThe Times (UK)\"...mostly, the literary essays will leave you educated, enlightened, entertained ... The criticism is leavened with assorted pieces of reportage, sports writing and political commentary. The reportage in particular is extremely good. Highlights include a tour of the porn industry and an account of losing big in Las Vegas. On sport, Amis is at his funniest, which is saying something...But it’s hard to see why some of the pieces in the “politics” sections have been included — such as two inevitably stale profiles of Republican campaign trails in 2011 and 2012.\
PositiveThe TimesThe star feature of Johnson’s fiction is indeed his sense of rhythm, although not at the level of the sentence. He was a writer who knew exactly when to switch from dialogue to digression to denouement. He also knew how to begin a story with a great cymbal-clash of event ... His final collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is no exception ... Johnson’s fictions are always hospitable to hitchhiker-narrators, characters who tell their tales for a page or two before hopping out as we speed on to another unexpected destination ... The quality that Johnson’s acolytes admire, intense moments of transcendence flaring against gritty backdrops, often feels too easy, automatic, even, in these stories ... Description mostly does the job and nothing more. Sometimes it’s more argumentative than descriptive ... If you are new to Johnson, start with Train Dreams and see how you go. If you are a devotee, then these stories are an enjoyable performance from an accomplished session musician.
PositiveThe Guardian...this second collection refines Yunior's voice further, into an utterly convincing idiolect that takes in delicate literary detail and tough bilingual argot ... Yunior is centre stage in This Is How You Lose Her: although his brother, Rafa, has cancer, his primary concern is his own life and heartbreaks. Díaz's great achievement is to remain true to the helpless solipsism that possesses all of us most of the time, while allowing the reader to see those other stories on the periphery of Yunior's purview ...the title announces the theme, which is, overwhelmingly, infidelity. Díaz writes a cracking love rat and the only weak moments are the self-consciously right-thinking ones ...if you liked his two previous books, you'll love this one, because Díaz is boldly, brilliantly, doing the same thing again, only better.