PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Lucy Jago is an award-winning biographer whose richly imagined adult fiction debut is based around a scandal that rocked the Jacobean court ... Jago is excellent on clothes ... Ultimately, though, this is the story of a female friendship that transgressed moral and social norms in a misogynist society. Anne’s account of their relationship nicely balances self-interest with sincerity; Frances looks like her route to advancement, until the gossip gathering around the aristocratic lovers threatens her own more modest hopes of romantic happiness ... Like all the best historical fiction, A Net for Small Fishes is a gloriously immersive escape from present times, but it’s not escapism: the outrage with which Anne is told at her trial that \'you have acted of and for yourself, which is itself against the proper bounds of womanhood\' is a sentiment that echoes down the centuries. Shrewd yet impetuous, entirely without self-pity, Anne remains a lively companion for the modern reader throughout; her tragedy, Jago suggests, is that she was too good a companion to Frances.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... a story brimming with both the desire for and the fear of strong feeling, handled with a loose, supple comedy ... Barry holds myth-making and dull reality in teasing balance, with a kind of comic double vision winking at the operatic and the bathetic by turns ... Fate, doom and disaster are lightly invoked, and swiftly brought down ... Barry’s rich comic and lexical gifts have shone particularly in his short fiction...The stories collected here are more relaxed, whimsical, even impressionistic ... Barry in mellower mood is more subtle and surprising ... However brokenhearted, Barry’s stories always sing.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... a complex, searingly controlled catalogue of male violence against women ... The elegant patterning of the novel’s structure and the delicate links between the three narrative threads stand in contrast to the brutal material ... It is, inevitably, a furious and painful reading experience: by page 10 alone, we’ve encountered a woman’s dismembered body in a suitcase, a disquisition on misogynistic advertising and a threatening stranger in a car park. But the novel is also psychologically fearless and, in Viviane’s sections, bitterly funny. Wyld is a genius of contrasting voices and revealed connections, while her foreshadowings are so subtle that the book demands – and eminently repays – a second read ... There are many more characters and connections in this dense, complicated book, which is a gothic novel, a family saga and a ghost story rolled into one, as well as a sustained shout of anger.
Agustina Bazterrica trans. by Sarah Moses
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)If Marcos’s recap of the Transition and its ethical doublethink is sometimes heavy-footed, the brusque, declarative narration and matter-of-fact staccato sentences are horribly effective ... the metaphorical equivalence with factory farming is blatant, served up to us with relish ... Marcos’s main obsession is not flesh but language: how we construct the world out of words, how we speak the unspeakable, and how we negotiate the gap between words and reality. In a narrative otherwise so blunt and blood-spattered, he piles metaphor on simile as he tries to convey the weight of others’ words ... But if this is a fable about the inadequacy of language in the face of darkness, it also resonates with sadness at the prospect of the silence humans can expect when we are alone in the world, in the wake of mass extinctions. This provocative, sorrowful novel expertly wields a double-edged cleaver: when Marcos points out that \'in the end, meat is meat, it doesn’t matter where it’s from\', it’s a statement of both dystopic extremity and banal everyday fact.
Roy Jacobsen, trans. by Don shaw and don bartlett
RaveThe Guardian (UK)\'An island is a cosmos in a nutshell …\' The setting for this Norwegian bestseller, translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw and now shortlisted for the International Man Booker prize, is a speck of rock off Norway’s coast at the start of the 20th century ... This is a profound interrogation of freedom and fate, as well as a fascinating portrait of a vanished time, written in prose as clear and washed clean as the world after a storm.
Samanta Schweblin, trans. by Megan McDowell
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... ingenious ... as [Schweblin] works through the implications of her premise in a nimble, fast-moving narrative, what’s most impressive is the way she foregrounds her characters’ inner hopes and fears ... has much to say about connection and empathy in a globalised world. On a personal level, its investigation into solitude and online experience becomes only more poignant in a global lockdown.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)This is the trick of Diane Cook’s stories: against high-concept dystopias that belong in the realm of SF or fairytale or parable – the last two houses standing in a world of rising sea levels; a man blessed and cursed with the power to impregnate any woman; a society that incinerates a certain number of \'not-needed boys\' – they amplify the emotional states and subconscious forces that drive everyday life, such as grief, shame, desire and need. There is a tinge of George Saunders in the way she treads the margins between the hyperreal and the surreal, but the stories have an imaginative dexterity all their own ... The deadpan violence that saturates the collection powers Cook’s project of emotional bloodletting through physical extremes ... it suggests that Cook’s oddball voice could yet describe the world we already know with the same dazzling ingenuity she shows here.
RaveThe GuardianThis seethingly assured Irish debut infuses magic realism with critical and feminist theory, but the generous dose of horror movie imagery brings a left-field project firmly into the literary mainstream. Like all the best horror, it’s an impressive balancing act between judicious withholding and unnerving reveals: you don’t want to go into it knowing too much ...Perhaps the book Follow Me to Ground is most kin to is Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, another tale of transformation that is fascinated both by female flesh and by what it might mean to escape it. Bodies are everywhere in Rainsford’s novel: seeping, dribbling, twitching, staining the furniture and the ever-growing mounds of dirty linen ...There is much body horror here, as well as other staples of the genre: the fear of being buried alive and of the undead, the monstrosity of psychic possession ... But there is wonder and tenderness, too. One of the most striking effects of the book comes from the fact that, far from attacking the non-human others, the locals accommodate themselves to their impossible presence: their various voices, interspersed with Ada’s narrative, add pace and variety ... Follow Me to Ground is odd and muscular enough to resist easy interpretation. It can be read on many levels – as a fable about female yearning, or about containment and contagion; as an investigation into toxic relationships or a puzzle over the borders between human and non-human – but it is always singularly and entirely itself.
RaveThe Guardian...[an] exhausting yet propulsive debut ... We are in the company of a mind relentlessly interrogating itself, in the tradition of Beckett and now Eimear McBride, but with its own singular flavour ... Catherine Lacey keeps the narrative perspective strictly internal, making the reader experience rather than observe the book’s events. Though there are suggestions of mental illness in Elyria’s paranoia and fears of psychic contamination, the book’s main motors – how to accommodate emotional damage within a relationship; the ongoing present tense of bereavement and family trauma; the question of how much solitude will drive any given individual crazy – are universal. Painful it may be, but the book is also wry, surprising and blackly funny, a queasily intimate travelogue of inner and outer journeys. In her portrait of a mind under pressure, tying itself in knots, hovering between overwhelming sensation and disassociated numbness, Lacey has produced a novel of uncomfortable power.
PositiveThe Guardian...[a] sharp, self-deprecating comic debut ... Not Working is written as a series of microsections ranging from a couple of lines to a few pages ... These are often very funny ... but the randomness can make the book feel as desultory as Claire’s job search. Some of the observational comic material is overfamiliar ... as are the types of supporting character we know so well from Bridget Jones: forbearing boyfriend; mild father; overbearing mother; mean posh girls with toned arms who will get their comeuppance. But what marks the book out is its delicately understated portrait of everyday uncertainty ... Owens cleverly intertwines the incidental humour of everyday life with...raw, painful subjects that – like Claire’s search for fulfilment – are often too big to face.
RaveThe Guardian... wise and understated ... This is an intensely serious and careful book, which grapples with an unfashionable subject, the drive to be a good person, while wittily weighing up human fallibility ... beautifully conjures the bounds of the self and the mind’s efforts to overcome them, the way our ambitions and limitations are in constant dialogue. Throughout Jill’s deterioration – predictable, inevitable, unbearable – it cherishes the rhythms of everyday life and the slow comforts of shared endurance, even in the midst of chaos and extremity ... The novel is particularly interesting about sexual politics and the romantic self ... asks difficult questions, of society and of the self. There are no easy answers, but in the novel’s quietly radical choice of subject matter and its open-eyed, open-hearted curiosity, it illuminates both the intimate dramas usually hidden behind closed doors and the shifting mysteries of personality and relationship.
RaveThe Guardian...winningly frank ... The book opens with a wry, shocking account ... what is most striking about the collection as a whole is its universality. These are not new stories, but they still urgently need to be told. Pine does so with an honesty and vigour that are always uplifting, despite her painful material.
RaveThe GuardianThis is not a book...that aims for the coherence of a conventional novel. The appropriately classical motif of weaving runs throughout, and the stitches at the back of the tapestry are on show ... the extraordinary force and vividness of Haddon’s prose ensure that The Porpoise reads not as a metatextual game but as a continually unfolding demonstration of the transporting power of stories. Blunt, short sentences brimming with nouns – food, spices, weapons – propel the reader through a landscape vaguely familiar from legend but here brought into crisp focus ... though it is, undeniably, a rollicking adventure story, like Haddon’s short stories The Porpoise is also about humanity stripped down to its starkest elements by forces beyond its comprehension and control; about damage and survival, and the balancing act between the two.
PositiveThe GuardianMcGuinness has fun with the colour and cliche of crime fiction...but the novel, like the insubstantial Ander, is strangely disconnected from its main plot line. Instead, the book’s beating heart is firmly in the past ... These sections are sad, furious and blisteringly effective, written with an almost hallucinogenic clarity ... [These] various hauntings are the novel’s real subject, to the extent that the tabloid pursuit of Wolphram, in the shape of a female journalist who unspools stagey state-of-the-nation speeches, feels like a brasher intrusion from another book. In its elegiac exploration of memory and the legacy of childhood trauma, though, Throw Me to the Wolves is intensely powerful, and a beautifully measured evocation of the way that far from being dead the past is, as Faulkner said, not even past.
RaveThe Guardian...the novel gradually reveals its kernel, like a seed unfurling in darkness, to be one of hope ... Smith’s genius in these three books has been to use art and literature to navigate through the froth of the present moment with such a light touch that she rarely seems to lecture ... The details of everyday life for detainees, taken from news reports and anonymous testimony gathered by Smith, form the shocking, angry heart of the book ... Spring is often blunter and more explicit, then, more proselytising and polemical, than the playful, riddling Smith we’re used to ... This is a novel that contains multitudes, and the wonder is that Smith folds so much in, from visionary nature writing to Twitter obscenities, in prose that is so deceptively relaxed. Jokes detonate throughout, from the bleak to the whimsical.
RaveThe Guardian\"Putting a girdle round the Earth in just 130-odd pages, it’s inevitably a much leaner work, written in a brisk, authoritative past tense rather than a layered and shifting present ... There’s not an ounce of fat to be found, as decades of emotion hang in the spaces between the short, declarative sentences ... As the stories operate through plot ironies and the sudden illumination of character, this radical simplicity of style means that they offer up most of their pleasures on first reading ... What Szalay does so well is the minute-by-minute apprehension of the close-up world, what he calls \'the tightly packed fabric of reality\', combined here with an impressively global vision ... It’s part of Szalay’s genius that he can encompass the distance between the [inspirational and brutal irony].\
PositiveThe Guardian\"DeWitt writes in a gorgeously relaxed, freeform style, dabbing a clause here, a phrase there. The book is studded with tiny pleasures (a lizard \'performing important push-ups\') and urbane aphorisms (\'Frances had come to think of gift-giving as a polite form of witchcraft\'), as well as dialogue to relish ... French Exit trades in surfaces rather than depths, but DeWitt’s particular comic genius is to evoke the darkness behind the dazzle. The novel is a brittle, unsettling delight...\
RaveThe GuardianIn her slim first novel...not a word is wasted; the canvas is as wide as her brush is fine ... Extinction and collective loss, then, are the dark shadows cast by this story of individualistic folly and ambition, the counternarrative to all the endless possibilities projected on to the \'unexplored\' west. With marvellous economy, Davies maps the \'large, unknown interior territory\' where Bellman hopes to find his beasts on to her characters’ inner landscapes. Her narrative world includes vast open spaces of both incomprehension and possibility ... The novel is studded with lists: of the meagre contents of Bellman’s house, the things he takes with him, the geegaws the settlers trade in exchange for an entire way of life ... One of the most unsettling elements is Davies’s vein of dark, gleaming humour. Her writing manages the odd feat of seeming both timeless and historically specific, and her comedy is no exception ... There are many worlds to explore within this deceptively short book, which gallops towards its conclusion with a mythic inevitability. You won’t be able to turn back.
Hanne Ørstavik, Trans. by Martin Aitken
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... [a] perfectly poised Norwegian novella ... Ørstavik’s ingenious device is to toggle between their two consciousnesses from one paragraph to the next, so that their narratives run as though on parallel train tracks, never to meet, even as they lie cheek to cheek. Layers of unremarkable everyday intimacy and acres of emotional distance are compressed between the lines. The two strands are connected by gossamer threads – or perhaps only by the reader’s desire to bring them together ... Ørstavik builds a cinematic sense of dread out of the plainest prose, phrase layered on phrase with the hushed implacability of falling snow ... Ørstavik has found fertile territory here in which to dig into the raging solipsism of the inner life ... One of the many uncanny things about this novella is that, though it was published in Norway more than two decades ago, it hasn’t dated at all ... [an] eerie, devastating little book.
RaveThe Guardian\"This is a debut asking a dizzying number of questions, many to thrilling effect. That it leaves the reader wondering is a mark of its success.\
RaveThe GuardianThe growing divide between homeowners and renters, the galloping corporatisation of modern life and the disappearance of middle-class safety nets are the driving forces behind this dystopia in a velvet glove ... his work combines accessibility with formal daring and a twist of surrealism. He brings all these qualities to his novel, along with a jaunty lightness that makes the pages slip by deceptively easily. The book is studded with literary in-jokes... His [Kennard's] dissection of the way contemporary capitalism harnesses every response to it, using rebellion and dissent as fuel for expansion, is all the more chilling for its aspirational flourishes ... But what really makes this novel stand out is not the Black Mirror-style black comedy but the tenderly devastating portrait of mental illness ... The dystopia turns out to be a love story after all.
PositiveThe Guardian...the extremity of the setting powers the novel’s central metaphor at the same time as throwing the repetitions and revelations of parenting into sharp relief ... If motherhood now has its own literary subgenre, the same is true of climate-change catastrophe...Hunter sees both subjects afresh, through a sharp eye for detail that is both undeceived and faintly amused, and through the extreme spareness of her narration: the story proceeds in snatches, like a series of stepping stones across the blank expanse of an unknown future ... Hunter walks a fine line, stylistically speaking, between the spare and the sketchy, the profound and the perfunctory. Italicised interludes based on various creation myths are not developed or differentiated enough from the main narrative to work as symbolic counterpoint ... The End We Start From is an effective, unusual and ambitious debut, which keeps the reader pinned to the page: but next time I’d love to see Hunter expand on her aphorisms, and start to fill in some of the gaps.
RaveThe GuardianWhere her previous books explored childhood possession and teenage hysteria, mediated through Cuban mythology, Yoruba storytelling and the Gothic novel, Mr. Fox threads a story of love and literary ambition through the texture of fairy tales, and sees her extending the range and clarity of her voice to remarkable effect. It is an incredibly self-reflexive book, in which the symptom of and solution to everything is the writing of stories, and structurally it resembles a dropped pack of cards; but it's also funny, deep, shocking, wry, heart-warming and spine-chilling.
RaveThe GuardianThere are also tales about tales – pulp horror, epic fantasy, love poetry – with nearly all the characters looking back from old age on a distant past that has become its own mythological landscape ... That distant past, in the three linked stories that open the collection, is boho Toronto in the early 60s, when hungry young poets wrote gems... As in the other stories, realism and ridiculousness, play and deadly seriousness, are held in fine balance throughout ... This long view throughout the collection is entirely unsparing, both of the vanished past and the vanishing present, but Atwood's prose is so sharp and sly that the effect is bracing rather than bleak.
RaveThe Guardian\"Through exaggeration and reversal, many books have set out to illuminate inequality or open up new vistas of possibility. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen the status quo inverted to such devastating effect as in Naomi Alderman’s fourth novel ... The novel is constructed as a big, brash, page-turning, drug-running, globetrotting thriller....But it’s also endlessly nuanced and thought-provoking, combining elegantly efficient prose with beautiful meditations on the metaphysics of power, possibility and change ... One of the most impressive aspects of the book is how it uses a new schematics of sex and power to illuminate our reality ... Why do people abuse power? The novel can’t offer any answer beyond the one already found in our world: because they can. \'That is the only answer there ever is.\' This is a bleak truth, but not a bleak book – it’s far too smart, readable and joyously achieved for that. The Power is an instant classic of speculative fiction.\
RaveThe GuardianIt is extraordinary how his blunt, declarative sentences translate the fiddly minutiae of life – the pleated paper from a bar of hotel soap, the cellophane packaging round a pair of pyjamas – into utterly gripping prose. With acute, understated tenderness, he charts the medical palaver and hyper-awareness of the body’s fragility that come with age ... This unflinching attention to the textural detail of minute-by-minute existence slowly builds into a profound exploration of the biggest themes in both public and private life: faith, politics and fanaticism; love and loneliness; joint compromise and individual purpose ... In 40 years of short stories and four previous novels, MacLaverty has written often about the distance between couples: about men floored by alcohol, and women examining their faith; about religious prejudice in Northern Ireland, the violence of the Troubles and the stranglehold of the Catholic church. Midwinter Break reads as both a summation of his themes and a remarkable late flowering ... This is a quietly brilliant novel, which makes for essential reading at any stage of life.
RaveThe GuardianSchmidt is less interested in contriving a new version of what 'really' happened on that fateful morning in 1892 than in plunging the reader into a claustrophobic nexus of family resentments and frustrations, probing obsessively at the faultline between love and hate ... The blurring of voices and perceptions, particularly between Lizzie and Benjamin, and obsessive repetition of words and symbols only add to the irresistible momentum and fevered intensity of the book: part fairytale, part psychodrama ... At the same time, much backstory is cleverly withheld: there are hints at Lizzie’s instability, but we bring our own assumptions to her character ... We get only glimpses into the particular hell of the Borden household; the fact that we can fill in the blanks from our own darkest places draws us closer, more uncomfortably, in. Schmidt’s unusual combination of narrative suppression and splurge makes for a surprising, nastily effective debut.
RaveThe GuardianThe novella divides into two parts, the first being Tony's memoir of ‘book-hungry, sex-hungry’ sixth form days, and the painful failure of his first relationship at university, with the spiky, enigmatic Veronica. It's a lightly sketched portrait of awkwardness and repression … Barnes excels at colouring everyday reality with his narrator's unique subjectivity, without sacrificing any of its vivid precision: only he could invest a discussion about hand-cut chips in a gastropub with so much wry poignancy. With its patterns and repetitions, scrutinising its own workings from every possible angle, the novella becomes a highly wrought meditation on ageing, memory and regret. But it gives as much resonance to what is unknown and unspoken – lost to memory – as it does to the engine of its own plot.
Emily St. John Mandel
PositiveThe GuardianEmily St John Mandel makes something subtle and unusual out of elements that have become garishly overfamiliar … But whereas most apocalypse novels push grimly forward into horror or dystopia, Station Eleven skips back and forth between the pre-flu world and Year Twenty after global collapse, when the worst is over and survivors have banded together into isolated settlements. Gradually, the book builds cumulative power as connections are made between the two time frames, and characters who do or don't survive … Station Eleven is not so much about apocalypse as about memory and loss, nostalgia and yearning; the effort of art to deepen our fleeting impressions of the world and bolster our solitude.
PositiveThe GuardianHer sixth book, Cockfosters, moves on a stage: now the women are standing uncertainly on the brink of menopause, buying varifocals, remarking how very glad they are not to be 'doing that any more' when they see younger women struggling with small children; while the men are having heart scares or moving, with a combination of exhaustion and entitlement, on to their second wife and set of children ... The joker in the pack is 'Erewhon'...the story comes off as twee rather than challenging, in part because the rhetorical attitudes it satirises have already atrophied into sitcom stereotypes ... It’s [the] tightrope balance between our outer lives and inner expanses that continues to make her writing sing.
Graeme MaCrae Burnet
RaveThe Guardian...a blackly funny investigation into madness and motivation ... The descriptions of the crofting community, scratching a living from ungenerous soil, at the mercy of the laird, the church and the weather, are fascinatingly done ... The book’s pretence at veracity, as well as being a literary jeux d’esprit, brings an extraordinary historical period into focus, while the multiple unreliable perspectives are designed to keep the audience wondering, throughout the novel and beyond. This is a fiendishly readable tale that richly deserves the wider attention the Booker has brought it.
RaveThe GuardianDonoghue draws out the narrative suspense with her customary combination of historical verve and emotional delicacy, as the mystery becomes not so much what is happening beneath Lib’s nose, but why ... Like Room, this is a thrilling domestic psychodrama that draws its power from quotidian detail as well as gothic horror...But Donoghue also sets Anna and Lib’s relationship in a wider context: of English and Irish antagonism, of the birth of nursing, of the clash between science and faith.
RaveThe GuardianIt is a daring project, to enter the mind of a man known for his withdrawal and silences, but Baker succeeds triumphantly in prose that is both intimate and austere, with an unobtrusive Beckettian cadence ... Do you need to be interested in Beckett to engage with this novel? Well, as with the Longbourn servants, if you’re not, you should be, because again this is an extraordinary story that shines a light both on individuals caught up in the sweep of history and the way life is transmuted into art.
Claire Vaye Watkins
PositiveThe GuardianTheir journey, and what awaits them there, is both nail-biting and digressive, at times lushly overwritten, at times wryly incisive, but always powerful. There are sections told in chorus or set out as a play for voices, freezing the action at dramatic moments; quasi-documentary reportage as well as a fantastical primer to the 'neo-fauna' of the dune sea. The whole is crammed with ideas that don’t entirely cohere; but one of the best things about the book is the way Vaye Watkins harnesses the real-life weirdness of the west to intense, hallucinatory effect ... Vaye Watkins’ portrait of Levi, the leader of the sand dune colony, is a tour de force: chilling, beguiling, paranoid, convincing and pathetic by turns.
RaveThe Guardian\"It is through a small miracle of imaginative sympathy and judicious sampling that Danielle Dutton, founder of the American feminist small press Dorothy, has compressed the essence of the capacious and contradictory duchess into 160 pages ... She is excellent on the domestic detail of the period ... [a] warm, witty portrait of a visionary who was both passionately engaged with her time and strikingly ahead of it.\