PositiveLondon Review of BooksIt’s a simple, freighted story, but the simplicity of the narrative allows complexity in the form: over barely a hundred pages, broken into prose fragments that have been assembled with both care and mercilessness, Brown presents the world as seen by someone young, gifted and Black – and sick of it all. For a reader to see what she sees, it’s necessary for certain pillars to crumble, even if they’re narrative ones.
PositiveLondon Review of Books (UK)Bennett likes to take a stark piece of hearsay and turn it around, flesh it out, make it human ... It is comforting to be in search of the person behind the story passed around, and comforting, too, to be smoothly drawn along by an all-seeing, compassionate narrator, as if gliding through still water ... My first reading of The Vanishing Half was greedy, fast, for plot ... at first you don’t see that there are a few too many folksy bromides ... I’ve sometimes felt that it might as well be a soap opera, a potboiler, a TV series (as it soon will be—HBO bought rights for a seven-figure fee at the end of June). Bennett’s novel isn’t quintessentially a novel, but I’m not so far away from that first reading to think that it needs to be something other than what it is ... if thousands of people can forget the deadly virus, political mismanagement, racial violence, domestic violence, economic uncertainty and ecological disaster (as well as the washing-up, their overgrown fringe and their neighbours’ suspiciously un-distanced-sounding party), while reading a book that touches on all these things, resolves happily but not stupidly, and reintroduces them to Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry—well, that’s good enough.
MixedThe Observer (UK)All three narrators recall events that happened four years ago in short, unadorned sentences (apart from Will\'s classroom speeches, which sound like they came from Dead Poets Society via What Colour Is Your Parachute). But as Camus comes into the novel, Maksik\'s debts multiply: the simple prose style, the unapologetically unexplaining narrators, the lover called Marie, the notion of the tragique solaire, the first lines of L\'étranger. Even the opening chapter turns out to be cribbed from one of Camus\'s essays. The borrowing is done unimaginatively: each reference used is given, teacher-like, later in the book. You Deserve Nothing could do with restraint elsewhere, too: by page 100 we have had a teacher-pupil affair, domestic violence, a murder and a discussion about the existence of God. Although the pages turn easily, you can\'t help being reminded of all that Camus did with just a knife and the sun.
PositiveThe London Review of BooksThe sad young literary men are always coming up with grandiose metaphors to help them think about their lives, but the metaphors they choose are always on the verge of collapse. Only at the end of the novel do the sad young literary men recognise that metaphors are of \'limited use in figuring out your personal life\' ... There is lots of seepage of tone and mood between the stories, which can make the three men seem indistinguishable. They share the same idiom, a sort of sentimental sighing over women, which makes the novel disorientating, not to say nauseating, to read ... It is understood that the sadness of Gessen’s protagonists comes from being sensitive men of letters in a cruel world, but they are sad, too, in the sobering sense of uncool. One of the things the novel is interested in is rescuing intellectual solemnity from nerdiness, which partly explains all three boys’ love of grand metaphors that aim to bring poles together.
RaveThe London Review of BooksThe Topeka School (think New York School, or don’t) is more than a confession, an excuse, a romp, a holiday; it uses what has come from Lerner’s earlier experiments in autofiction – the unexpected contact that can arise out of it, the questioning of art and sex and political engagement – to think about who gets to speak and what language will even allow us to say ... There are many things in The Topeka School that are more eloquent than words: a look, a smell of sandalwood and rain, a pool ball thrown hard in a girl’s face, an unfaithful husband’s hand finding his wife’s, cunnilingus, the burnt frame edge of a Renaissance Madonna and Child, chalk hearts on government pavements, a small boy sitting on the top of the slide and thumping his booted feet against the metal, silence. It is so common for language to be outwitted in the novel, and yet for the undoing to occur in beautiful sentences ... Say language is debased beyond usefulness and no magic pills are available: what is there to do? ... Lerner doesn’t just tear down the curtain between the writer and reader, as in his previous books, but allows the reader to flicker between the first and third person, to see a boy’s sentimental education as dynamic, resolving one inherited trauma, repeating another, and making new ones of his own to visit on his daughters ... each time I write a sentence, I have a shot at finding that space between what has gone before and what I can do. The nice thing about Ben Lerner is that he identifies the space, shows us how it works, what can be said there, how it can be said, and then he humbly sends in a man-child to make it all look less like the aesthetic and philosophical feat it actually is.
PositiveThe London Review of BooksMost novels which include a character with the name of the author do it as a metafictional game or joke, but when Sheila Heti calls her main character Sheila it is out of exasperation with the novel. How Should a Person Be? is the culmination of Heti’s attempts to write a novel about life when a novel is written in a room, away from life ... The idea that Sheila and Margaux might have had conversations like this about their work has troubled some critics: isn’t it all a bit self-indulgent? But if imaginary characters had such conversations, it wouldn’t be worrying in the same way, and Sheila and Margaux are real and not real ... Heti is going for ideas rather than fine prose, for invention rather than craft (she has said she particularly likes it that the novel’s prose is ‘not elevated’) ... These are small feminist gestures in a novel that has a big, almost invisible one at its centre: Sheila and Margaux’s relationship is the story ... Sheila makes it ugly to clear a space: for novels to be less fictional, for women to dream of being geniuses, for a way of being ‘honest and transparent and give away nothing’.
PositiveThe New Yorker\"... an intelligent and layered portrait of a school’s legacy ... Unlike the twist in the final pages of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which has always made a reader like me feel foolish for believing in the wish fulfillment in the main body of the book, Choi’s break occurs in the middle of her narrative, and so the feint isn’t rug-pulling but, as in Lisa Halliday’s recent novel, Asymmetry, something more interesting.\
PositiveLondon Review of BooksThe Sivvy voice of the letters has often been compared with the voice in her journals to make an argument about Plath’s unstable personality, but she often sounds like her journal self in her letters to her boyfriends, and the playful way she writes...is a relief after pages of carefully turned advertisement prose to her mother ... There is a moment in Tess of the D’Urbervilles when Hardy has Tess notice that among all the days of the year that mean something to her, there is one ‘which lay sly and unseen’, the one on which she’ll die: ‘Why did she not feel the chill of each yearly encounter with such a cold relation?’ Reading Plath’s letters, you feel the chill ... The Plath-Hughes marriage doesn’t at first seem damned ... Another Sylvia emerges in late 1962, one that would no longer paint hearts and flowers on furniture: a badass nearly divorced Sylvia ... At the end of [one] letter I was in tears, and had to stop reading.
MixedThe London Review of Books\"Going back and forth between ‘she’ and ‘I’, as if a non-fiction writer were reminding herself to inhabit a character from the inside, the prose is an engine not quite yet warmed to a purr. Or is it deliberately not purring: is it stuttering instead, punk-like in its refusal to keep to the rules of the novel, like the work of Kathy Acker? ... The novel doesn’t have one key, but several keys, with the last probably belonging to Laing herself...The confusion may be part of the appeal ... It could be the novel that has literary London in a tizz this summer isn’t for literary London at all, but written to explain something to one person only.\
PositiveThe New Yorker\"The new book falls between genres. Its aim is not to tell a story, exactly, but to create a portrait of a mind moving uneasily between a new, chosen culture and the one left behind ... In reclaiming and exaggerating the erotic conceit of Donne’s \'To His Mistress\' (\'O my America! my new-found-land\'), Kailash is effectively insisting that the immigrant be seen in his full humanity, in all his wanting-to-get-laid-ness ... There is comedy in the older Kailash looking back, and down, on the younger Kailash; and there is tragedy, too—in his inability to say things directly, he fails to articulate his desires, or understand someone else’s ... The lyrical flights of Lerner’s 10:04 or the witty dialogues between woman and tossed coin in Heti’s Motherhood have no equivalents in Kumar’s \'in-between novel.\' But, in its essayistic passages, Immigrant, Montana does channel the pleasure of the most satisfying nonfiction books, the ones in which the reader sees the old anew.\
PositiveHarpersWhen, not long ago, she left her husband of twenty years, a friend offered her a shed in her back garden and made sure that no one interrupted her there so that she could write. \'To be valued and respected in this way, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, was a new experience,\' Levy tells us in The Cost of Living, her new memoir, the second in a projected trilogy. \'It was there that I would begin to write in the first person, using an I that is close to myself and yet is not myself.\' Learning to like your own voice might be as feminist as writing in it. Mary Wollstonecraft, believing her life to be as interesting to her readers as her political tracts, published the letters that she sent home on a trip to Scandinavia; Virginia Woolf wrote five volumes of diaries; Simone de Beauvoir brought out four books of autobiography.
MixedThe Financial TimesFuelling the book is a sense of naive anger at the fact that modern womanhood is not what was promised. But there are only so many permutations in a life: coupledom or not, children or not — and they all entail loss ... Where the book is most interesting is in the moments it attempts a reckoning with the inheritance of the 1960s. Lessing’s freedoms were won against a society that expected her to stay at home with her husband and children. There are no such expectations of Feigel. What does the freedom to live non-monogamously look like in a society that doesn’t even require marriage? When marijuana is legal in several states across the US and micro-dosing LSD is a middle-class hobby, what does the freedom to \'turn on, tune in and drop out\' mean? ... In Free Woman we have not got much closer to an unencumbered womanhood, nor what in the end we might want from it.
Sylvia Plath, ed. by Peter K. Steinberg & Karen V. Kukil
PositiveLondon Review of BooksAt 13, Plath wrote to her mother from summer camp nearly every day ... and told her she was happy over and over again, to the point that you wonder if she was ... It’s all cutely, earnestly all-American. We see her earnestness in political matters too ... The Sivvy voice of the letters has often been compared with the voice in her journals to make an argument about Plath’s unstable personality, but she often sounds like her journal self in her letters to her boyfriends, and the playful way she writes...is a relief after pages of carefully turned advertisement prose to her mother ... There is a moment in Tess of the D’Urbervilles when Hardy has Tess notice that among all the days of the year that mean something to her, there is one ‘which lay sly and unseen’, the one on which she’ll die: ‘Why did she not feel the chill of each yearly encounter with such a cold relation?’ Reading Plath’s letters, you feel the chill.
RaveThe Financial Times...succeeds in talking about sex without guile, vulgarity or swagger, and achieves something that is rarer than it might be: it suggests how old ideas about women and love might be put aside in favour of newer, truer, freer ones ... her cool demeanour, which I sometimes worried was too close to detachment, allows her a freedom to see sex for what it is rather than what we believe it is ... Witt has written a book that is actually about loneliness, intimacy and love’s elusiveness; capitalism, Californian utopianism and feminism; family, memory and loss. Her book expands the possibilities for women’s lives in the 21st century, and for sex’s place within them.
PanThe NationWhile Trudy and Claude seem like a dinner-party real-estate joke spun out of control, McEwan’s Hamlet is more ridiculous still ... it is when baby Hamlet turns his eye away from the ruination of language and culture that he becomes even more transparent a vehicle for McEwan’s discontents ... Baby Hamlet comes to mime some of McEwan’s most simplistic views of familial love and duty.