MixedThe Guardian (UK)Auster’s slyly self-referential fiction is full of subtle linguistic games, and this, his 20th novel, is no exception, offering a rueful warning about the costs of constructing a sense of self through words ... I’ve said that Baumgartner is frustrating. Mostly the effect is deliberate.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Enright is one of our acutest chroniclers of relational complexity ... Enright again gives us a portrait of a uniquely unhappy family. Intimate and ambiguous ... Ruthless, raw.
RaveTimes Literary Supplement (UK)Patchett’s character-driven fiction is particularly suited to a leisurely development of the themes that Chekhov made his own: young love versus married love; our futile desire for an escape from the prosaic; and the enduring appeal of fantasy ... Just as Lara’s scrupulously balanced narrative appears to achieve closure, Ann Patchett deals her readers a violent psychological blow. It is impossible to see it coming, though in retrospect the clues are all there.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Distinctive ... The novel offers us a mysterious and fluid vision of the country’s Aboriginal lore, its ancient contours and its unpredictable weather. The writing is tremendous ... Beguiling.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThose inclined to see our era as a feminist golden age will find a timely corrective in The Once and Future Sex, medieval historian Eleanor Janega’s accessible and entertaining study of how women were viewed in medieval society ... In passing, Ms. Janega demolishes modern \'scientific\' studies telling us that the human male is programmed by evolution to prefer a certain \'waist-to-hip ratio\' as a clue to a woman’s reproductive potential ... Ms. Janega’s witty but merciless dissection of medieval misogyny is a welcome challenge to us to stop recycling the same old prejudices.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... feels in many ways like the book she was born to write ... The idealism and concern with social justice that are characteristic of Kingsolver’s worldview find their natural counterpart in Dickens’s impassioned social criticism. While the task of modernising his novel is complicated by the fact that mores have shifted so radically since the mid-19th century, the ferocious critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children is as pertinent as ever ... Kingsolver knows, as Demon says, that \'a good story doesn’t just copy life, it pushes back on it\', and a large part of the pleasure lies in seeing what she does with her source material. As a narrator, Demon is every bit as likable and nuanced as David, and the humour and pathos of his voice are enhanced by a slangy southern spin. Elsewhere the update is less successful. Dickens’s Micawbers are feckless but mean well; Kingsolver’s McCobbs are merely exploitative...But Kingsolver’s real masterstroke is to draw a parallel between the \'inborn power of attraction\' that socially superior but toxic people like Steerforth have for David, and the quick fix that pills seem to offer Demon and almost everyone else in his dead-end world, including his waif-like girlfriend and fellow addict Dori and Mrs Peggot’s granddaughter Emmy, who falls for Fast Forward’s charm ... When you’re a child born into a life without choices, this powerful reworking suggests, being a hero sometimes consists simply of surviving against the odds.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Bolder and more exquisitely menacing than anything he’s done before ... A peculiarly moving account of casual youthful error, and of the hell that such errors can send us to ... Miller delineates the details of life in an urban barracks ... He conjures the fear and the confusion of being out on patrol ... So, what happened in Belfast? What did Stephen do? The revelation, when it comes, is unsensational: a pitiful, inadvertent atrocity, and all the more shocking for that ... At the level of the sentence, the writing is near perfect. But the novel’s excellence goes far beyond this. There’s a depth and a sweetness, a gravity, to Stephen’s simplest observations ... Miller’s last novel didn’t make the Booker list, but this restrained, beautifully written apologia for our common frailty surely should.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... not just a travelogue of scenic obsolescence. En route, the book offers us a gripping overview of humankind’s seemingly unstoppable evolution from primitive but harmless nomad to the rapacious bureaucrat in charge of civic planning in your neighborhood today ... Mr. Green’s visit prompts an engrossing meditation on the British cultural tradition of ruin worship ... For Mr. Green, at least, ruins are not necessarily picturesque. Grass, sand and water haven’t been the only threat to humanity’s dreams of permanence: Shadowlands reminds us that war is one catastrophe we inflict upon ourselves ... Even if you do not share the author’s pessimism, the plangent stories of the lost places described in his book will make you aware of civilization as a precarious and hard-won achievement. These sites may not hold any answers about the future, but, as Matthew Green so movingly shows, \'they can at least provide us with perspectives on how we might contend with our fragile future.\'
MixedThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)... self-contained and at times uncomfortable territory. A lean fable of trauma, dispossession and survival, it draws us in but offers little hope ... His back story – a generic one of poverty, imprisonment and torture – is given to us in a series of swift flashbacks that can sometimes feel oddly perfunctory: the real heft of Jennings’s novel lies in the febrile, slowly building crisis of an island-bound narrative that is set in the present and unfolds over only four days ... If this bleak, claustrophobic novel has a weakness, it doesn’t lie in its pessimism but in its willingness to elide complex historical questions in a way that suggests so much and nothing in particular. The book’s strengths, however, are substantial, not least its acceptance of the lethal twin human longings for power and ownership.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... an often irreverent yet compassionate approach to the poet that cuts through the hagiography. Ms. Miller’s Keats is not just a complex living person, but a damaged and at times positively perverse one ... As a poet her Keats is playful, even freakish, and often inappropriate. She is alert to a slippery eroticism in his best-known poems ... Her unpacking of his language, which is so brilliantly suited to representing material bodily experience, is often refreshingly matter of fact ... Keats the man also emerges as fully embodied ... Profligate, sexy, fond of a glass or two, and a little bit entitled, Ms. Miller’s Keats is Keats, but not, thankfully, as we know him.
Karen Joy Fowler
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... the novel both is, and isn’t, a build-up to that moment [of Lincoln\'s assassination]. How to deal with the narrative problem of John Wilkes and this inevitable climax is (as Fowler acknowledges in the author’s note) there on nearly every page. She handles it adroitly, interweaving Booth’s story with that of his parents and siblings, a tale that’s colourful and tragic enough in its own right ... History may claim to be about facts, but stories, like families, are largely about feeling, and the novel gives us feeling on a grand scale, even as it asks pertinent and topical questions about who owns those facts ... It’s a pity, then, that after so much bravura storytelling the last part of the book sometimes reads like a curt historical precis, as if Fowler has finally been overwhelmed by the weight of her material—or perhaps the simple and entirely creditable desire not to misrepresent it. But this hardly matters. In its stretch and imaginative depth, Booth has an utterly seductive authority. Fowler has pulled off that supremely difficult thing in a historical novel: to convince us that there are things she may have made up, but which are nevertheless true.
RaveThe GuardianA panoramic portrait of the true cost of conflict ... a bold choral retelling of the Iliad that’s panoramic and playful yet makes a serious comment on war and its true cost ... This subversive reseeing of the classics is a many-layered delight.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)William Feaver, a friend and collaborator of Freud’s for 30 years, gives us a Lucian who always resisted categorisation ... Having enjoyed almost unrivalled daily access to Freud, Feaver records with little editorial filtering the egotism, the sexual prowling and the remorseless urge to produce of these later years, allowing Freud to reveal himself in his own words on every page. It’s a mesmerising picture of a paintaholic who was incorrigibly on the make ... Feaver’s vastly detailed biography is the ideal companion to Freud’s work. It resembles nothing so much as a large Freud canvas: hypnotic, occasionally reiterative, quirkily dark in places, proceeding by a process of obsessive accretion.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)What Mantel has are much more useful qualities: a researcher’s in-depth grasp of every topic she writes about, fearlessness, originality and robust common sense. Her wide-ranging pieces, spanning three decades, are the best kind of critical writing, rich with recondite knowledge, wearing their learning lightly ... What sets Mantel’s novels apart is also what sets her critical writing apart: an unerring eye for the telling detail, the clue that will unlock what she calls \'the puzzle of personal identity\' ... The author is, of course, quite brilliant on the Tudors and the various iterations of Henry VIII, from strapping young prince, through pious apostate to tyrannical Bluebeard ... speak she does, with passion and eloquence, not just about the ills of our bodily existence, but about the one beyond.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... a delightfully astute reimagining of Jane Austen’s life that offers a shrewd take on Regency gender roles and the less period-specific anxieties of authorship ... Ms. Hornby enlivens the exhumation with inspired touches of social comedy and a cast of appealing eccentrics ... Given all these strengths, it’s a shame that Ms. Hornby’s ear sometimes lets her down. Miss Austen is scattered with anachronisms...and even the odd grammatical howler ... When Ms. Hornby gets it right, though, she’s so good that you forget which century you’re in.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThere are excellent biographies of Nancy Mitford (1904-73), but Laura Thompson’s sparkling study is the gold standard ... This elegant and incisive life does full justice to her astringent humor, her undeluded authorial voice and her championing of \'the pursuit of small-scale human happiness\' over some of the 20th century’s worst abstractions.
RaveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)As an essayist she is still admirably lucid, but she is simple in transparent sub-clauses; she is brief over 500 carefully honed pages. In this study of the craft of writing, Davis draws generously on her own experience as a writer and translator. When she is following a line of thought we feel, as she remarks about Stendhal’s experimental autobiography The Life of Henry Brulard, that \'we are privileged to watch what is really a very dramatic moment, enacted again and again,\' of \'the unformed being formed, the internal becoming external, the private become public.\' Though Davis herself resists the term \'experimental\' as it implies a degree of intentionality alien to her, at their best these pieces always contain elements of experiment in their willingness to reach for what is not yet known ... Despite their stress on taxonomies, on knowing it all, Davis’s essays are continually pulled towards the incomplete and mysterious ... Davis grasps...that since any highly articulated picture is an illusion, \'a picture that seems less complete may seem less of an illusion,\' and therefore more realistic. Essays One is full of such insights ... it achieves its form and its authority not through design, but through patient accumulation.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...[an] engrossing front-line report from \'a world of escapees and obsessives\' who think nothing of scaling the perilous riverside ladders at odd hours, dressed in waterproofs and latex gloves, on the lookout for whatever traces of the past the river might spit up ... It’s a riveting crash course not only in the history of London from prehistoric times to the present, but in urban geography and how to read a living environment from organic clues ... Ms. Maiklem’s Thames is above all a place of transformation. Mudlark conveys a powerful sense of the river of life on its journey through time, not just via public symbols such as the coins she collects...but in the traces of everyday lives disrupted by local and national crises.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)There are stories about good mothers and bad mothers, attentive and neglectful mothers: and then there’s Adrienne Brodeur’s mother, Malabar, who deserves a book all to herself ... Wild Game, in other words, is a story of child abuse, though it’s marketed (down to the Lolita-ish image of a halter-topped pubescent girl on its cover) as a tale of wayward romance, and the complex \'nature of family\'. Make no mistake: it’s infinitely darker than that, though the darkness is tamped down under a polished veneer. The Cordon Bleu recipes and the cocktail rituals of Malabar’s moneyed East Coast set belie a world marked by casual violence and grotesque consumption – of food, of alcohol and of people ... the aggression never quite erupts. This is the deep narrative: on the surface, Brodeur is scrupulously sparing of everyone involved, and especially of her mother ... Wild Game could have been a deadly weapon: instead it’s a supremely civilised, and so necessarily tame, attempt at making sense of the horror at the heart of this particular mother-daughter relationship.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... the question of what, if any, kind of reconciliation with the past might still be achieved after such a profound betrayal gives The Dutch House an irresistible narrative drive. It’s a mark of Patchett’s skill that the novel’s bold fairytale elements – its doubles and archetypes, its two children left to find their own way back to their home after being expelled – add up to a story that feels wholly naturalistic ... James said that the house of fiction has \'not one window, but a million\', depending on who is looking at the scene, and Patchett’s elegantly constructed narrative often reads like a dramatisation of this idea ... It’s a rare Patchett novel that ends without the slightest glimmer of redemption, and here the major players virtually all – as in a story by James – arrive at final positions that involve an ironic inversion of where they started ... as always, Patchett leads us to a truth that feels like life rather than literature.
RaveThe GuardianMagic realism served Obreht well in her fable about Yugoslavia’s baroque divisions, and it’s no less effective in shaping this alternative foundation myth about the American west. On the face of it the book begins conventionally enough ... The twist lies in Obreht’s affinity for unusual transformations ... Exquisitely panoramic as it is, Lurie’s account of his travels forms only one strand of the novel. It’s interwoven with the tale of a single day in the life of Nora, a frontierswoman ... Obreht builds a narrative that is every bit as compelling as Lurie\'s and just as full of revelations. Their parallel journeys into Arizona’s inhospitable interior...probe the cost of survival and the human yearning to belong. On every page gorgeously tinted images conjure the otherworldliness of this desert existence ... It’s the west, but not as we know it. Nora and Lurie are set on a collision course: will they meet? Obreht’s narrative skill here is part of the magic of Inland, which succeeds spectacularly at reinventing a well-worn genre and its tropes. There are no stereotypes in this western, only ferociously adroit writing that honours the true strangeness of reality in its search for the meaning of home.
PositiveThe GuardianThe Snakes asks serious questions about human nature, avarice and justice, wrapped in the fast-paced rhythms of a thriller. It is written with Jones’s trademark economy and a fierce attention to the nuances of familial cruelty ... this book shifts ruthlessly, in its final pages, into concentrated terror. It’s not so much a change of focus as the brutal eruption of a truth that has been implicit all along: that evil always wears human dress, and that the good are invariably powerless to save those they love, or themselves. Sometimes the writing in this section is so pared back as to seem flat, and some readers may object to what seems like a shocking switch of genres. But I finished The Snakes with a juddering heart, strangely close to tears.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalWoolf once said that the role of biography is to give us \'the fertile fact\' of a life, and this is what Ms. Gordon, an Oxford academic and biographer, is so good at supplying here.
RaveThe GuardianBenjamin’s impassioned and elegant memoir is not just an intimate account of a disorder for which there is still no straightforward cure, but a defiant celebration of its paradoxical potential ... Fittingly for a meditation on a disrupted process, her method is fragmentary, hurtling from thought to thought ... Her key idea, approached via detours into history, philosophy and art, is that the inability to sleep is not just a symptom of an underlying pathology, but an existential experience that can give us fresh insights into the nature of creativity and love ... This provocative, at times anguished book has by the end completely overthrown our expectations by repositioning insomnia as a form of resistance, linked to the author’s own freedom to create. We want her to get some sleep, but even more than that, we want her to go on writing.
RaveThe Guardian\"And what a tour de force [The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. 2] is... Her energy even when she is doing or observing the most ordinary things vaults off the page ... But Plath’s panic is, at bottom, existential. There is a terror in her of being alive at all, which gives her poetry its hellish edge but which the letters keep valiantly at bay. It’s through the material world, and her own body in particular, that she makes herself feel real: through food and the touch of the sun on her skin; sex and childbirth.\
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"Ms. Perry, whose last book, The Essex Serpent, was a breakout hit, again proves herself a master of atmosphere ... Ms. Perry’s novel is a master class in the history of human brutality ... In fact Ms. Perry is so good at creating a sense of horror that we hardly notice that we have strayed well beyond the perimeters of the gothic. These aren’t fabricated thrills, but authentic atrocities ... The difficulty for the cohesiveness of this novel is that the human cruelties and derelictions it describes in such agonizing detail make Melmoth’s manifestations seem stagey and superfluous.\
RaveThe GuardianThomson has created a taut, magnificently controlled novel about creativity and personal survival that is a lucid reflection of the period it describes, as the surface of a surrealist picture is lucid... There are baldly factual passages that make you wonder why he has cast it as fiction at all, but then he will surprise you with the limpid clarity of an observation... Like Cahun’s photomontages, it looks like life, but it’s not life, exactly. Only art can achieve this degree of realism.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalAnyone who is looking for a balanced account of Mary Shelley’s troubled life should begin with Ms. [Anne K.] Mellor or Ms. [Miranda] Seymour. If you are after bravura scene-setting, however, and an ardent inhabiting of the book’s subject, Ms. Sampson can’t be bettered ... Little of what she says is new, but the way in which it is presented is hair-raisingly immediate ... Ms. Sampson is scathing about the hypochondriac, self-centered yet undeniably charismatic Percy, deftly anatomizing the predicament in which Mary found herself ... Ms. Sampson argues that Mary never understood \'that her youthful decision to run away with Percy could be misread as self-indulgence rather than passionately held moral and political principle,\' but this contention is belied by the guilty sympathy she would express for \'poor Harriet, to whose sad fate I attribute so many of my own heavy sorrows as the atonement claimed by fate for her death.\'
RaveWall Street Journal\"Victorians Undone contains many such startling illuminations of the gulf between the 19th century and our own. Lively, iconoclastic and consistently riveting, this is popular history in the best sense.\
RaveThe Wall Street JournalIn her clever, many-layered debut novel, Lucy Hughes-Hallett casts a historian’s panoramic eye over human walls of every kind, from the biblical Jericho to postwar Berlin ... In this novel her observation of the societies of both her chosen eras, Stuart and present-day, is sophisticated and erudite ... In the breadth of her historical vision and her fastidious particularity, Ms. Hughes-Hallett is a natural heir to A.S. Byatt, delivering a densely patterned novel that shimmers with human interest as it probes our cultural story ... Even if this seems a bit too schematic, the author never shies from large themes, and usually makes the most of them.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalIn her sparkling biography An Uncommon Reader, Helen Smith brilliantly brings to life the emerging aesthetics of contemporary English letters. Born in 1868 into a bookish middle-class Victorian family (his father was a librarian at London’s British Museum), Garnett had an extraordinary influence upon the creation and reception of some key works of the next century … When Garnett got it right, he set off a chain reaction that still reverberates in the novel. Without Conrad, Lawrence and the other early modernists whose writing Garnett rescued from the slush pile, the many works that they in turn influenced—including not only those of Woolf but also those of Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Doris Lessing, Saul Bellow, V.S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Margaret Atwood and J.M. Coetzee, to take an arbitrary sample—might never have existed. That’s quite a legacy.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Waters's sixth novel is another tour de force of precisely observed period detail and hidden passions. The author has a keen eye for constrained domesticity; for rapture erupting into daily life. She gives us the pulse of gas through the meter, the rattle of china in the sink, and like Virginia Woolf—another great anatomizer of 1920s interiors and Sapphic attraction—she perceives ‘the tangle’ or interconnectedness of everything: how longing can irradiate the most humdrum scene and love suddenly attend the shaking out of a tablecloth or the stirring of gravy … The pressure that remorse and moral responsibility bring to bear on their love affair is unpacked with exquisite pathos, so that whether their relationship will survive at all remains uncertain until the very last paragraph. It is a finely tweaked conclusion to an unnerving novel in which, in the end, almost everyone pays.
PositiveThe GuardianLaird’s writing in these Papua New Guinean chapters has a grave, melancholy grace ... This half of the book is, oddly, more convincing than the Northern Irish one. There is an explosive revelation back in Ballyglass when Alison finds out the day after her wedding that her tight-lipped new husband was involved, two decades ago, in an atrocity based on events that took place in Londonderry in 1993. But her resulting soul-searching seems perfunctory; her reluctance to ask any real questions about the past, compared with her sister’s intelligent probing, disappointing ... Laird has given us a richly textured geography of the human need to believe in something, and of the stories, religious and secular, we live by.
RaveThe GuardianAnything Is Possible is also a book about ordinary people who undergo extraordinary suffering and, in some cases, manage to survive. It is just as bitten-back and as full of horrifying elisions and surprising epiphanies as its predecessor. This time Lucy is a character in a wider cast, her story just one of several that were lightly sketched in My Name Is Lucy Barton, and are now fleshed out ... What the stories in Anything Is Possible all have in common is this sense of the communality of human guilt and suffering ... Strout’s compassion for her fellow creatures, as these anguished, lean stories again prove, is as keen as a whip, and all the more painful for it.
RaveThe GuardianKohler is brilliant at recreating the detail of this vanished colonial world, where the corridors are lined with prints of the Cries of London, and the food is the heavy English kind that raises a sweat in the African summer ... It is all like a flesh-creeping tale from ETA Hoffmann in which the women are automata and the men, unseen, pull the levers; and just as in a Hoffmann fairytale, there are hints of the uncanny under the surface ... Once We Were Sisters is haunted by the image of Maxine in the morgue, her body stiff, her face turned obediently upwards just as 'when, as children, we played the game of Doll.' Kohler’s brother-in-law died some years ago. This many-layered memoir, rich in texture and suggestion, executed with a novelist’s eye for oblique human suffering, is her devastating reckoning with the past.
J. M. Coetzee
PanThe GuardianThe Coetzeean landscape is eerily stripped down, often physically rudimentary, like a vista by De Chirico: a featureless arena in which colossal philosophical questions cast long shadows. In The Schooldays of Jesus, however, the scenery is so flimsily assembled that it could come straight from Ikea ... In spite of its declared suspicion of Platonic idealism, the spirit of Plato, rather than the anarchic Jesus with his boundary-pushing parables, hovers over this book. Plato was famously dismissive of the seductive properties of mimetic literature, which urge us to make an imaginative identification with a fictional world. He would have agreed without hesitation that novels are for babies. Philosophy is for adults. On the evidence of this austere, barely realised mise-en-scène, it is difficult not to feel that Coetzee, like Plato, is no longer much interested in the accidents of our quotidian human world, the shadows on the cave wall. He is after essence alone, the pure, ungraspable fire. In his fidelity to ideas, to telling rather than showing, to instructing rather than seducing us, he does not actually write fiction any more. The Schooldays of Jesus, philosophically dense as it is, is parched, relentlessly adult fare – rather like eating endless bread and bean paste.
Justine van der Leun
PositiveThe GuardianVan der Leun’s hard-nosed reconstruction of an alternative narrative for the events of that afternoon raises troubling, and still pertinent, questions about the deals that sometimes have to be struck by former enemies when faced with the exigencies of nation-building.
PositiveThe GuardianTyler gives what appears to be a simple pre-feminist fable a number of adroit tweaks. Shakespeare’s blunt shrew-tamer, Petruchio, is one of his more problematic male characters. In a neat twist, Tyler rewrites his boorishness as foreignness. With his article-less speech and habit of intoning snippets of gnomic Russian wisdom, Pyotr is as much an outsider in polite society as Kate ... Tyler has fun spelling out what Shakespeare implies: that the shrew, despite her lack of conventional feminine appeal, is in fact beautiful, witty and honest, and that only the eccentric Pyotr has the originality to see this ... This sparky, intelligent spin on Shakespeare’s controversial classic demolishes the old saw that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar with a simple question posed by Pyotr.