PositiveThe Arts Desk... begins slowly and not particularly engagingly, focusing more on the mechanics and fickleness of language. Whilst Barton’s ideas around translation and its slipperiness are interesting, it felt at times a little dry. However, when she brings in the human element, as she moves to Japan to work as a teacher and embarks upon an affair with a man senior to her both in age and in her work, the book really gets going. It becomes less about the abstraction of language and more about how the process of learning and absorbing another tongue is inflected by those we learn it from, and how we learn it. The katekanas work well here, as they show how another language can be made to fit but can also describe the shape and the feeling of something that cannot be expressed easily in one’s native tongue ... She describes accurately that feeling of not being truly at home both in your native and your adoptive country, of somehow being both too little and too much ... perhaps best read as it seems to be intended – as a series of phrases that build to a story, each of which expresses something subtly differing about the objects they describe: in this case, the life of the author, and of the country and language that becomes her own. Barton is adept at capturing language and life in the same way, showing the impossibility of true understanding, both of meaning and of the self. The vignette style of the book shows this slipperiness in elegant miniatures, but can at times be its downfall, their separation making the pace a little disjointed. However, Fifty Sounds is an engaging whole, a description of a country and a life that shows how we can never truly interpret ourselves, let alone the other. Perhaps the charm is in never fully understanding.
PositiveThe Arts Desk (UK)It is almost too close to the bone, but it is a neat examination of humanity in crisis ... Rob...is beautifully and humanely drawn, an example of what Moss does so well, picking out ordinary characters in a crowd ... Moss is also excellent at skewering the cruel face of humanity ... The Fell has a lot to say about the part that Covid had to play in reminding many of us of our own mortality and proximity to death. This is a subject that Moss handles sensitively but unstintingly ... The characters she chooses are easy to empathise with, their little lives mirroring our own with their small hardships that can dominate existence and seem overwhelming.
RaveArts DeskBurntcoat is one of those new books with the unsettling quality of describing or approximating a great moment in history and its aftermath, as the reader is still living through it ... This could be trite, but Hall manages to make it compelling, tragic, and still sensitive in its handling of a love story during a time of terrible social upheaval ... Hall provides an achingly accurate description of an emotional and physical connection that feels as though it describes a whole life ... The book is littered with symbolism ... Burntcoat is a survey of a life at its very end, an odd autobiography of an artist whose life is marked by grief and the desire to create. Her artistic method is perhaps a bit of an overegged representation of this, a process which brings new life from destruction. It is immensely readable and beautifully told, so much so that, if you’re anything like me, you’ll read it deliberately slowly so as to prolong its life as much as possible.
PositiveThe Arts DeskThere’s something simultaneously cringey and also addictive about Dolly Alderton’s prose. Ghosts is definitely feminism lite, a palimpsest for young women in London who are into yoga and small plates. But that is not to detract from the fact that it is eminently readable, and frequently charming ... initially seems to be about love, an easy subject to belittle. But it is about far more than that, something which becomes evident early in the novel ... Alderton writes very well about women supporting other women. She is honest about the oppositions that society sets up in female friendship: how they may never be resolved, but can be overlooked in favour of a deeper connection. It speaks very well to the urge within us all to compare ourselves to others, and also demonstrates perfectly that, while there may not be such thing as a perfect ending, nothing is ever set in stone.
MixedThe Arts Desk... a gentle, if not particularly gripping read ... There is, however, a mystery to be solved, set up in the book\'s first line, when Mehar isn’t allowed to know which of the three brothers is her husband. Sahota explores this delicately, turning over and examining the emotional lives of all involved ... The novel is built on the classical lines of parallel narratives, where the past speaks to the present, and vice versa, but this is done with a lightness of touch ... The subtlety of the links between past and present can be China Room’s downfall at times. When this device is deployed, it has the potential to feel a bit trite, and the reader expects the two lives to intersect, at least in part. However, the two protagonists, while they speak to each other’s struggles, pass one another with very little commentary. It feels like Sahota is missing a trick, not using one character to develop the other ... very good at examining the trauma held in one family, whether it be personal or housed in a home, village, or country. Sahota seems to acknowledge that although we are not doomed to repeat the past, each subsequent generation feels a measure of the hardship that the last generation faced. This could be expressed more explicitly, but the novel is, on the whole, a well-developed story of two lives that touch one another in ways that that can never be clearly seen.
PositiveThe Arts DeskUnsettling, unremitting and psychologically stark ... for all the novel’s suspense, its big climactic moment falls a little flat ... If not always gripping, Klara and the Sun is a sweet and wistful depiction of a truly devoted relationship between a robot and her owner, one that shows the deep flaws of the human heart.
PositiveThe Arts Desk... an excellent collection ... t’s wonderful to read a book on this subject, especially one by a woman writer, in a genre which (with notable exceptions like Kathleen Jamie) dominated by men. Macdonald has an anecdotal style, dense with information and delicately poetic. She also writes with great humour: I snorted with laughter ... perhaps not as engaging as H is for Hawk, especially for those readers who were expecting a longform exploration of humanity through nature, but each chapter is rich and full of interest; it\'s a book that teaches as it entertains ... The strong sense of morality can inevitably feel a little trite at times, her connections between \'natural history and national history\' a shade too blatant ... Macdonald is so joyously and excitedly in love with the natural world around her it is difficult not to share in this rapture, but so, too, in her sense of loss. Some chapters feel distinctly elegiac, even as her roar of anger sounds loud. While her writing can verge on the overexuberant, it is also as compelling and urgent as these issues require ... Above all, Macdonald’s gift is for the personal, and the essays in Vesper Flights form an autobiography of sorts: a description of a person built out of her relationship with the environment.
PositiveThe Arts DeskBeyond the political dimension, one of the most peculiar things about Summer is how current it is. This is surely one of the first works of published fiction to describe a Covid-world. The Seasonal Quartet was sparked by the Brexit vote, but, depressingly, Brexit felt like nothing new, just a reiteration of old oppositions. This last book feels very fresh, because the pandemic is such a shock in itself. Smith has managed to achieve something that is particularly difficult – to write a fiction about the present without sounding naff. She has fallen a little into the pitfall of the hopeful, proselytising liberal, but this is tempered and questioned somewhat by the character of Robert. She writes him and other young characters very well, with nothing of the awkwardness of other older writers ... There is a poignancy to it which steers clear of a trite ending but allows for moments of beauty and quiet perceptiveness along the way. It can sometimes seem a bit awkwardly obvious...but even this is relatively nuanced. Pockets of other stories within the larger arc are just as enticing as the main tale. Nothing feels superfluous, and all things are linked, no matter how obliquely.
Mieko Kawakami, trans. by Sam Bett and David Boyd
MixedThe Arts DeskMieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs is a true novel of two halves and is (excuse the pun) a bit of a curate’s egg ... The first book is excellent, a rough-edged drama that is both hilarious and tragic, and tinged with surreality. The second is a little flat by contrast, and the juxtaposition feels forced ... The body in Breasts and Eggs is almost exclusively female. Most of the narratives are told by women, and all but one of the main characters is female. In the first half of the text, men are only there to be run away from, and in the second half, men only seem to exist as a means by which to provide sperm, but in an almost exclusively non-sexual context. When sex comes into it, it is almost horrific. It is a focus which gives the book as a whole its strength, allowing women to talk amongst themselves, navigating the policing of the female body by men and society as a whole in a space apart ... The novel gives birth, but never loses its sense of being the story of a woman’s body. The dislocations and dissociations along the way are sometimes jarring and feel like they don’t wholly work, but the unifying factor of the female body saves a book that feels as necessary as it is at times awkward.
RaveThe Arts Desk... tangential, changeable, deeply feminist, and imbued with a sense of hope that undercuts her wild anger at the world’s injustices. It says much for how quickly our thinking about women’s rights and those of minorities has evolved recently that her feminist rhetoric almost feels dated at points. However, Solnit’s energy is still fresh, urgent, and vital, reminding the reader that although the battle seems to be on the way to being won by powers of good, we are still far from victory ... The facts of her life are there, but they are almost coincidental to other narratives and other lives. She brings space (San Francisco, the great American West) and time in for a moment, then releases them again, creating a non-linearity and a diffuse narrative that is never confusing ... a wonderful book in that, without ever really explicitly saying so, its writer is aware that Solnit’s voice, like every voice speaking against the hegemony, is important, that any resistance to received, conservative thought is something to be celebrated. The aggregate of all of the small voices effects change, beautifully demonstrated in an autobiography that speaks more of the collective than of the self.
RaveThe Arts DeskA Month in Siena is a sweet, short mediation on art, grief, and life ... The book is threaded with delicate strands of belonging, exile, restraint, grief and absence, allowing the reader to pick out whatever she chooses. In this way it becomes like the paintings it describes, which interleave the book in bright colours. But this is never overwhelming ... A Month in Siena is a brilliant miniature, a fugue but also a release. Its intellectual and emotional depth is never forced, never exclusive. Concerning grief as much as art, it is a considered attempt to explain both, while allowing that nothing can be contained fully within a single book, painting, city, or life.