RaveThe Observer (UK)Strout isn’t the first writer to go there, but she certainly makes magnificent and thrilling use of it in this, her most nuanced – and intensely moving – Lucy Barton novel yet. Indeed it’s a truly monumental piece of work – one that you can’t help feeling deserves a less mischievously banal title ... For a writer who excels at enclosed, benumbed spaces, as well as all the quirks and uncertainties of intimacy, the whole concept is a gift ... this is an acutely socially aware novel with a wide political sweep ... Sure, Lucy’s apparent determination to remain in the dark about things does occasionally strike you as unlikely – would she really not have known what the gloves and masks were for? But Strout’s ability to drench each page in equivocality, in a kind of awe – expertly honed now through four Lucy novels, including Oh William! shortlisted for this year’s Booker – perfectly evokes the childlike disconnect with which Lucy takes on (and takes in) the world. Put simply, you believe it ... Strout is, of course, at her best on the emotional – and familial – fallout of lockdown.
Joyce Carol Oates
RaveObserver (UK)To be able to write with such tearing astuteness about such fiercely contemporary issues – for it’s impossible to read this novel without thinking of #MeToo and, as the plot takes on an increasingly racist tone, #BlackLivesMatter too – would be a feat for any author of any age. Joyce Carol Oates is, astoundingly, well into her ninth decade and this, perhaps even more astoundingly, is her 59th novel. That she is willing – no, determined – to go to the darkest, least politically acceptable edges of human emotion and behaviour isn’t so startling if you know her work. But here, even by her own standards, she has taken a risk. For the question that lurks at the heart of the novel – why, after such a brutal and terrifying sexual assault, does Hannah go back for more? – is an especially queasy one ... the grip and pace of this novel – for yes, it’s also a page-turner – relies on events ultimately connecting up in the most satisfying, albeit grim, way ... As ever, Oates’s prose – almost insolently alive, littered with italics and exclamation marks, switching apparently recklessly back and forth through place and time – would seem to break all the rules. The result is nothing less than magical, a piece of work that is light yet dense, frenzied in its detail yet somehow also cool, measured and abstract. She’ll happily devote five pages to what can only amount to a minute or two of a character’s experience (one reason her novels are rarely short) but in so doing will take you straight to the heart of a moment – or, as here, the agonisingly strung-out minutes of a sexual attack – without remorse ... this is a wild and panoramic piece of work, the serial killer’s activities a mere backdrop to a pinpoint vision of a society with rottenness at its core. Definitely one of Oates’s finest achievements to date, Babysitter is an unforgettable portrait of an \'oblivion beyond even evil\', one that ricochets around affluent, middle-class America but begins, all too distressingly often, with a priest and a boy in a darkened room.
RaveThe Observer (UK)Adulterous affairs, with all their secrecy and thrill and inevitable fallout, are hardly an unmined seam in fiction. So it’s all the more impressive that with this, her first novel for adults, award-winning children’s author Sarah Crossan has not only found what feels like a whole new spin, but has managed it in verse. Here Is the Beehive is a gutsy, modern, deeply entertaining and, at times, faintly subversive-feeling piece of work. It’s also entirely and likably original in its execution, quite unlike anything I’ve read before ... it has all of a novel’s weight, breadth and tension, while at the same time slithering down the page with the sly spareness of a poem ... Crossan’s depiction of Ana’s interior state – tense, vulnerable, always teetering just on the edge of destructive – is appealingly unsentimental, almost disconcertingly frank at times. If I had a minor criticism, it might be that neither of the lovers ever quite seems fully to exist outside of the affair. We know all about their clothes and glasses of wine and the way they speak to and touch each other, but there’s a sense that not much lies beneath, as if, despite their spouses and jobs and children, neither is psychologically or physically rooted in anything other than the next stealthy rendezvous ... And perhaps that’s the point. But it doesn’t help that, while Ana is criticised by her husband for being a too often absent or disengaged mother, it’s sometimes hard for us to believe that she’s a mother at all. Writing about (rather than for) children does not seem to be Crossan’s strong suit and it is difficult to imagine that Ana ever gave birth to these two, let alone that they are also a little too quiet and cute ... Still, it’s hard to mind when the writing is so bright and alive and the novel is a triumph – crackling with psychological and sexual ambiguity – in its descriptions of a man who, all too depressingly believably, has zero intention of leaving his wife.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)But reading this enjoyable novel—her 23rd—it struck me that there can’t be a writer, of either gender, who creates more engaging or multi-dimensional men ... Tyler rarely disappoints, but this is her best novel in some time—slender, unassuming, almost cautious in places, yet so very finely and energetically tuned, so apparently relaxed, almost flippantly so, but actually supremely sophisticated. Slippery, too ... Tyler’s ability to make you care about her characters is amazing, and never more so than here.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Here in this one skinny volume is all that heat and wit and intuitive naturalness, all those subtle and instinctive tricks you just can\'t teach. I don\'t think I can remember where I last encountered a debut collection that so justified its existence, that buzzed with so much credibility and attitude ... There\'s not a slack phrase or a boring paragraph in this collection. Everything, you feel, is tight and meant. Description and similes - so often abused by first-time writers - are employed with urgency, grace and humour. Best of all, Packer\'s happy to leave things untidy.
MixedThe Observer (UK)... a plump, pacy, witty and tightly plotted page-turner that transports us straight back to the dark heart of Gilead and seems to take great pleasure in providing answers to many of Atwood’s readers’ questions ... What is surprising, given that so many of Atwood’s actual details remain so gloriously dark, is that the story’s outcomes are anything but ... Where the first book traded so pithily and memorably in obfuscation, despair and darkness, the sequel sees the lamps slowly lit ... hints of something that might amount to a happy ending...Which actually feels a touch disappointing ... There is no doubt that Atwood is on top form here. But still it feels as if something crucial is missing ... Or perhaps not missing enough, for didn’t the strength of the first book lie precisely in its daring ambiguities, its unapologetic refusal to elucidate? ... Another problem, which becomes more troubling as the novel unfolds, is the lack of emotional subtext, or indeed sometimes any subtext at all. In The Testaments, what you see is what you get, with any possibility of equivocation, shading or real complexity sacrificed again and again to pace and plot. Perhaps because of this, there are few, if any, chances to feel moved on behalf of these characters ... The Testaments can feel as if it’s already decided what it thinks. And what we should think, too.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewCertainly these elements—erotic, comic, oddball, even genuinely unsettling—are more than seductive. If only The Ghost Clause built on them to deliver what it at first seems to promise: a spooky and heartfelt tale of love and loss, of two marriages linked by the bones of an old house. Instead, bafflingly, Norman decides to throw a lot of other, less engaging, plotlines into the mix ... the central relationships barely change; the farmhouse itself is dropped for pages on end; so many threads that ought to be satisfyingly woven together seem to miss their connections. And the tangents don’t help ... It’s a pity, because Norman’s evocation of that emotionally and temporally elastic space between life and death, the \'ongoingness,\' is hypnotic. I’d have liked fewer wacky diversions and more of the shivery, disruptive unease that worked so well in the opening chapter and almost brought me to tears in Norman’s haunting final paragraph.
RaveThe GuardianThis is a beautiful novel with a deep and satisfying intelligence at its heart. It’s emotionally and sexually admirably frank (Marianne’s masochistic streak takes her down some dark paths), but also kind and wise, witty and warm. In the end, a little like Rooney’s first book, it’s a sympathetic yet pithy examination of the myriad ways in which men and women try – and all too often fail – to understand each other.
PanThe Observer\"There comes a painful moment in every writer’s life when they must concede that the thrillingly descriptive phrase they’ve been fashioning for hours or days (or even, sometimes, in my case months) must go if it interrupts the story. If you let mere words muscle in between the tale and the telling—or, worse, allow them to push your reader away (or, as in this case, give her a severe case of brain-ache)—then daylight rushes in on the magic. Your fiction doesn’t live. It wasn’t until the novel’s final pages when, reading Circe’s eerily arresting description of an episode from childhood, that I found myself putting down my pencil and, for quite a few pages actually, holding my breath. If a more vivid, elastic and relaxed Sharlene Teo is hiding somewhere beneath all this knotty verbiage and MA creative writing-speak, then I wish her lots of luck—and a much tougher editor—for her next novel.\
MixedThe GuardianShe is one of our greatest living fiction writers and if I were in charge, she’d have a Nobel by now ... One of Tyler’s many fantastic strengths has always been her ability to manage a great number of characters in the same space, choreographing them to bounce off one another in ways that are both enthralling and convincing. But here, despite a somewhat unrewarding subplot about the shooting...the chit-chat all too easily descends into tedium ... I finished this novel wishing I could take her back to that wonderfully unsettling earlier moment and beg her to make Willa scream and then see what happened next.
Sayaka Murata, Trans. by Ginny Tapley Takemori
PositiveThe GuardianThis, Murata’s 10th novel, has been a big hit both in Japan and worldwide, and it isn’t hard to see why. It’s not flawless: Shiraha seems to be more of a plot enabler than fully realised character and, though Murata’s gloriously nutty deadpan prose and even more nuttily likable narrator are irresistible, I’d have liked more on her latent psychopathic streak ... But these are minor quibbles and perhaps even missing the point. For it’s the novel’s cumulative, idiosyncratic poetry that lingers, attaining a weird, fluorescent kind of beauty all of its own.
Leila Slimani, Trans. by Sam Taylor
RaveThe Guardian...Leïla Slimani’s deft, often agonising novel shakes it up with a precision that takes your breath away ...what we’re really waiting for is a motive, and Slimani ratchets up the tension by scattering clues, some so distressing that you read on with a genuine and mounting sense of dread ...what raises this why-dunnit way above the usual killer-nanny thriller is that it’s also a fantastically well-wrought portrait of social, economic – and ultimately moral – distress and deprivation ... What appears at first to be a conventionally enough told tale soon gathers velocity, taking more and more risks as it gallops between viewpoints and tenses, introducing new and pungent characters...throwaway beauty of so many of Slimani’s descriptions and phrases. The result is that you are taken deep into a fragile, damaged yet somehow rationally irrational psyche.
RaveThe Guardian\"There\'s no conventional narrative arc – indeed, there are so many stories-within-stories that you frequently forget who is speaking. There\'s no one you can root for or even believe in very strongly, and the novel offers few of the standard expected rewards of fiction. It doesn\'t matter – every single word is earned, precisely tuned, enthralling. Outline is a triumph of attitude and daring, a masterclass in tone … Most of all though – and here\'s why the novel has a kind of cumulative empathetic power which ultimately moves so deeply – you gradually begin to grasp what Cusk is doing. This is no wry comedy of conversations but a cool-headed meditation on the doomed nature of relationships, on the perennial and devastating distance that exists between people or, as one of the narrator\'s Greek friends remarks, ‘the disgust that exists indelibly between men and women and that you are always trying to purge with what you call frankness.’\
PositiveThe GuardianSweet Tooth is playful, comic, preposterous even. But it's impossible to ignore that its protagonist is a young and fairly gauche English person – female this time – failing miserably (though perhaps not so dangerously) in her job as a spy … This is a great big beautiful Russian doll of a novel, and its construction – deft, tight, exhilaratingly immaculate – is a huge part of its pleasure. There are stories within stories, ideas within ideas, even images within images … Because this isn't really a novel about MI5 or the cold war or even – despite the rather obviously ladled-on research about Heath and Wilson and miners' strikes and the IRA – the 70s. This is a novel about writers and writing, about love and trust. But more than that – and perhaps most incisively of all – it's a novel about reading and readers.
MixedThe GuardianThis is a very odd book, full of fury and fragility and yet somehow anaemic. In fact, Didion's heartfelt declaration that "there is no day in her life on which I do not see her" serves only to remind you of Quintana's essential absence. Because we, the readers, do not ever really "see" this girl. Even the passages where she might have come to life are rendered needlessly brittle by Didion's stabbing, birdlike prose with its constant repetitions and exhortations … Where the book is most successful – and most poignant – is in the viciously honest picture Didion draws of a lonely, encroaching old age.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewThe virtual world Goodman conjures is as feverishly vivid as it is mysterious and alluring. Not since I pushed my way through C. S. Lewis’s fusty mothballed wardrobe and stepped out into the frozen, pine-scented forests of Narnia can I remember being so effectively transported into a viscerally, sometimes terrifyingly plausible alternate universe ... If all of this sounds a little hectic, that’s because it is. Despite its likable energy, Goodman’s novel does sometimes seem to be falling prey to the manic, scrabbled intensity of the games it describes. Now and then, I wondered if that was her intention, but if so it makes a tough demand on the reader. Both plot and structure suffer from a crucial lack of balance as some scenes are played out at needless length while others are only glancingly sketched ... Nina’s quest to get her kids to feel poetry 'from the inside' does now and then smack of didacticism and self-indulgence, but there’s no doubting Goodman’s ability to make her readers feel things that way. This is a novel full of wit and spark; I found it oddly irresistible and arresting, despite my cavils.
MixedThe GuardianAll credit to Meloy’s glistening prose that every detail of this grisly scene is shudderingly convincing. The sultry afternoon, the beautiful, sheltered Americans knocked off course by a routine accident but left with no choice but to trust in the local, the faint moments of comedy, the momentary lapses of attention – all of it rings uneasily true … The problem can be identified in one word: tone. Given the sometimes graphically unpleasant nature of the events she describes, Meloy’s writing begins to lack scope, sensitivity and even, sometimes, heart … A novel that started out so promisingly develops a cartoon-like brittleness. The baddie is described lazily, almost Trumpishly, as ‘unredeemably bad’ and the Tarantinoesque descriptions of eyeballs popping and blood spurting sit uneasily in a book which, in a real and disturbing way, includes the rape of a minor.
RaveThe GuardianThis is certainly a novel that explores the concepts of cultural identity, of rootlessness, of tradition and familial expectation – as well as the way that names subtly (and not so subtly) alter our perceptions of ourselves – but it's very much to its credit that it never succumbs to the clichés those themes so often entail. Instead, Lahiri turns it into something both larger and simpler: the story of a man and his family, of his life and hopes, loves and sorrows … All Lahiri's observations jolt your heart with their freshness and truth. Her skill at deploying small physical details as a path into character is as exceptional as it is enjoyable.
PositiveThe GuardianWaters's Victorian London is a city where thieves say ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’, where babies are dosed with gin until they conk out, where ‘knifish’ boys sit by the fire spitting out peanut shells. Most brutal, daring and refreshing of all, it's a place where pornography, emotional abuse and rape are the natural bedfellows of greed and lovelessness … It's a thriller, yes, but it's also a love story - a sexy, passionate and startling one. I hesitate to call it lesbian, because that seems to marginalise it far more than it deserves. Suffice to say, it is erotic and unnerving in all the right ways … The last 50 pages are so sensationally tense that you read them naughtily, one eye on the sentence in hand, the other attempting vainly to cheat and flick ahead.
MixedThe Guardian...the first half is indeed a deliciously creepy gothic cocktail, enticingly set up and chillingly, suspensefully dragged out ... [Lib is] drawn as an intelligent young woman, refreshingly (in this oppressed and superstitious community) atheist, questioning and curious. So why, again and again, does she fail to ask the glaringly obvious questions that might get her somewhere?...Lib seems relentlessly blind to well-strewn clues and so prone to jump to wrong conclusions that at times the narrative takes on a 'he’s behind you!' quality that only undermines its otherwise very promising creepiness ... Which is perplexing, because there is so much to enjoy here. Donoghue weaves crunchily convincing period detail through a pacy narrative with relish and aplomb.
RaveThe GuardianEdna O’Brien’s new novel, her first in a decade, has already been hailed as 'her masterpiece' by that master-of-them-all Philip Roth. And he’s right. This is a spectacular piece of work, massive and ferocious and far-reaching, yet also at times excruciatingly, almost unbearably, intimate. Holding you in its clutches from first page to last, it dares to address some of the darkest moral questions of our times while never once losing sight of the sliver of humanity at their core.