PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)This is a book about isolation, detainment and waiting, as well as letting people in, in every sense. These are difficult subjects to weave suspensefully into a narrative, though they chime companionably with the motifs of barriers, internment and borders that are threaded through the Seasonal quartet ... It is not always clear that Smith knows where she is going with these strands; and at times one wonders how they fit together, and what it all means...Certainly, the combination of whimsy and weird precision accurately captures dream logic ... Despite these frustrations, we find ourselves still wanting to solve the riddle in this reinvention of the locked-room mystery. Smith offers no easy solutions, but the notion of the importance of company and companionship, learned through lockdown, and of opening up to others, feels \'key\'. Here, as elsewhere in the author’s oeuvre, her characters can feel like vehicles for theme and dialogue, but there is also a peculiar intensity to Companion Piece, especially in the portrait of Sandy’s father (something of a locked room himself), which strikes deeper notes alongside those of sadness, anger and grief in this impressionistic account of Britain during Covid.
RaveThe Evening Standard (UK)Colson Whitehead’s latest novel arrives with a rare fanfare... His last book, The Underground Railroad, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award ... The Nickel Boys initially appears a less wide-ranging and ambitious work. It’s more straightforwardly realistic and largely focused on a single place closer to the present: a reform school in Sixties Florida, the Nickel Academy, based on the real Dozier School for Boys in Marianna ... But the book’s underlying theme — how the brutality of slavery has seeped into the very soil of America — is equally powerful ... Now on his seventh novel, Whitehead has learned a thing or two about the craft of fiction. There’s hardly a spare word in this book, which though gruelling in a way that’s never gratuitous, is full of life. Whitehead has a talent for creating ambiguous, complex scenes that fix in your memory. The Nickel Boys feels like a necessary fictional project, writing the blank or buried pages of US history; and it’s done with virtuosity.
RaveEvening StandardAs with many of the journeys here Macfarlane feels a bit nervous, and he expertly conveys his trepidation on the page — you worry how (or if) he’s going to get out — as well as his wonder at what he finds down there ... More than in previous books, Underland also cuts across scientific fields with sharpness and acuity, connecting a host of ideas from different spheres — from dark matter to ice-core science and the \'wood wide web\' — and giving them poetic resonance ... There’s an earnest energy, a striving to name and place, an aptitude for rapture, which can in its very accuracy, create a slight tonal monotony, especially in the book’s third section. Sometimes Macfarlane’s descriptions merely highlight the drama of his own perfectly executed search for the right word or phrase ... But it is a style which forces a re-engagement with landscape and one’s apprehension of it ... Underland is a magnificent feat of writing, travelling and thinking that feels genuinely frontier-pushing, unsettling and exploratory.
MixedThe Financial TimesAs with What is the What and Zeitoun, this is another gripping real-life tale of survival in the face of extraordinary adversity; and Eggers has reined in the whimsy of his earlier writing — although he does intentionally capture Mokhtar’s humour. At points, the style, poised between the conventions of nonfiction and fiction, can feel flat; and the tone, stretched between Mokhtar’s and Eggers’s voice, awkward. The Monk of Mokha lacks the full interiority and freedom of a novel, yet judged as nonfiction can be simplistic, over-optimistic and myopic, especially in its portrayal of politics. One could argue, however, that the very awkwardnesses create an odd effect of authenticity and veracity.
PositiveThe Financial TimesMoving between artfully assembled fragments of biography, history and accounts of four of Conrad’s novels, carefully chosen — The Secret Agent, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness and Nostromo — Jasanoff reconstructs his early, most peripatetic years and their historical contexts, also sprinkling her text with very brief accounts of her own adventures at sea in Conrad’s footsteps. Jasanoff is stronger as a historian and biographer than as a literary critic or travel writer. But approaching Conrad’s life and fiction as a historian, as she mostly does, opens up many fertile areas ... Jasanoff narrates all this expertly, with clever segues and joins ... This is an unobtrusively skilful, subtle, clear-eyed book, beautifully narrated. Occasionally the scheme of seeing Conrad through the prism of history can feel strained; and one also senses the difficulty of trying to say something new.