PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)That the reader bothers turning the page, faced with such hopeless material, is down to the fact that Drnaso knows this world so well ... On first inspection it is hard visually to distinguish the ten characters from one another. They have bland, expressionless faces with little eyes and tight mouths. On a closer look it is astonishing how much emotional detail Drnaso manages to convey with a slight turn of the mouth or widening of the eyes. We start to find tiny emotional clues in all these empty faces ... Drnaso’s regular and repetitive cell-like panels are a perfect fit for presenting trapped lives. Each 21 x 25cm page has, with few exceptions, five rows of three small square panels, rolling endlessly and tediously on. And even when things begin to get extreme – there is a violent attack, a child imagined as a monster – nothing ever breaks out of the frame. There are no explosions of colour, no dynamic challenges to the confined format. The art, like the lives it depicts, does not question or test its limits. Alternatives to this desolate vision may be available but, while reading, it is as if they do not exist. By design, or perhaps by nature, Nick Drnaso cannot bring himself to draw them.
Alejandro Zambra, tr. Megan McDowell
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)... another zestful translation by McDowell ... Zambra’s portrayal of the society of Chilean poets is predominantly comic...Other highlights include a rowdy and pugnacious literary party and an amusingly worshipful pilgrimage taken by the protagonist, Vicente (our titular hero), to visit the grandfather of Chilean poetry, a ninety-nine-year-old Nicanor Parra ... This fifty-page final section is particularly moving as it emerges tentatively from the emotional confines of an overwhelmingly male-dominated society ... Zambra’s conclusion is perfectly judged ... The novelist, putatively in charge, has simply allowed the poet a temporary victory. Zambra the poet and Zambra the novelist are beautifully poised. Or you could say they are one and the same.
Virginie Despentes tr. Frank Wynne
RaveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)These inner voices do not represent a reflective hum beneath the drama of actual events; rather, they slam into us at high speed, in the form of epic tirades and paranoid monologues ... Despentes has found a way, at the level of composition and form, to enhance and even embody the qualities – hatred, alienation, anarchy of feeling – that she identifies at the centre of present-day France. Cumulatively, these different voicings – there are at least twenty main characters – convey the sense that our direct interactions with other people are a peculiar interruption to our continuous, raucous and self-consuming arias. Despentes’s writing is intelligent, outspoken, witty, shocking, propulsive and streetwise. She has a clenched-fist tremendismo style that fits perfectly with her thrash metal image. She has been fortunate in her translator, who matches her for invention and energy ... Despentes’s prose onslaught coexists with deft narrative artistry. Changes of character come with little jumps in time, forcing the reader to play catch up over certain key events ... Despentes is up here now, with the successful makers and life-shapers, not down there, and she’s not pretending otherwise. Her success is well deserved, and she has already channelled it through a touch of Horatian irony. Horace meets Kathy Acker: very Despentes.
RaveThe Times Literary SupplemetA fat 600 pages, set across forty years of the thirteenth century, Cathedral brings together religion, politics, trade and family in a noisy chronicle of territorial battles, domestic squabbles, and the strains and rivalries of work ... Ben Hopkins has written a good old-fashioned historical novel, alive with dramatic detail rather than encrusted with period research. It is light on its feet, too. The sentences are short, as are the chapters, the language is simple yet sharp, and the reader races happily over the terrain ... Each voice and viewpoint is nicely distinct – there is no single lens – and the narrative often jumps in time when it changes between characters, leaving the reader the enjoyable task of putting together the full story ... That said, there is no conventional narrative arc either. Excitingly, things just keep happening. Friendships are made and broken, factions unite and fracture, fortunes rise and fall and rise again. Events that might be meaningful turning points, or significant resolutions, simply generate further action ... All this activity may seem shockingly futile, unless survival – in and of itself – can be called a purpose ... And the cathedral? In a novel shaped and dominated by life’s rough-edged realities, it stands as a perfect symbol.