Kate Kellaway is an English journalist and literary critic. She is a feature writer and deputy theatre critic for the Observer.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)Four of Jorie Graham’s most recent collections have been brought together here and their importance goes beyond the literary ... She is best read aloud – no more than two or three poems at a time. Too much can swiftly become too much ... She is weather vane, sentinel, about-to-be lost soul. What makes her work required reading is her readiness to go where angels fear to write, to do the terrifying work of visualising the future. The form of several poems adheres to a right-hand margin, which contributes counter-intuitive discomfort, a reminder of the limits of freedom – no hard shoulder upon which to pull up ... There is no such thing, in this poetry, as an untainted present. The flow, at times, reminds you of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, although more diluvial, and the preoccupation with time of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets – minus the consoling decorum. Every poem is an attempt at orientation – sometimes within a disorienting void. However considered Graham’s revisions, the sense is of being in the moment with her – intimacy the closest thing to consolation ... Strange to say, the moving poems about the death of her parents bring relief because they describe a recognisable world ... At 72, Jorie Graham is writing for her life – and ours.
RaveThe Observer (UK)... extraordinary ... [Hewitt] remembers \'Jack\' (the names in the book have been changed) with warmth and in such idiosyncratic detail that it makes you feel you have met him yourself--you can picture the daredevil flirtatiousness, bookishness and beauty ... Again, Hewitt pulls the reader in, knows how to charm. He is, before and after everything else, a romantic ... it is striking how, expelled from their context, Hopkins’s words have a disordered intensity, as if coming apart at the seams of thought or written in a second language. This will turn out to be fitting ... Hewitt’s efforts to boost Elias expose the limits of language itself ... He is very good on Sweden’s seasonal darkness and how it impinges ... does not offer glib consolations and is all the more powerful and affecting for that. It is about coming out in the widest sense – and that includes the outing of depression. It is about the disinterring, too, of the fears of his younger self. And while it adheres to faith of a kind, the stability of belief is not always available to Hewitt, a former Catholic – any more than it was to Hopkins.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)I found it difficult, reading Call Us What We Carry, to separate the poetry from the remembered image of that inauguration recital. Fending for themselves on the page, some of the poems appear incomplete – like unaccompanied minors, waiting for their guardian’s return. They ask to be read aloud. The collection is ardent, committed but uneven. Gorman’s hallmark is also, at times, her weakness: she cannot resist words that echo one another ... When she pulls it off, it is musical: there is a sense of exalted wordplay – sounds as soulmates. But as often, the echo is empty and does not deliver enough meaning ... Gorman makes a virtue of telling rather than showing. The poems are emotionally primed and have an aphoristic momentum. And while some images do not quite come off, the emotion always does and one is grateful for her uncompromising take on the tragedy of the pandemic and the wrongness of living apart ... Elsewhere, poems such as \'Fury & Faith\' are powerful reiterations of black lives mattering, peaceful rallying cries. She makes sure you know where she is coming from ... She is, throughout, playfully experimental.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... extraordinary ...[Ruhl] is not self-pitying. Her prose is smart, quipping, pacy. It has the quicksilver mobility her face lacks ... At no point does this seem a vanity project. It is, more often, a practical investigation that explores how, when half your face goes on strike, new ways have to be found to do a smile’s work. As the book progresses, Ruhl’s chin-up narrative becomes more distressing as one understands more of what has been involved in staying upbeat. Sometimes, she opts to explain the palsy to people she has not met before. At other times, she relies more on positive sound effects: offering approving murmurs to the students she teaches at Yale’s drama school. And throughout, she is driven by a contradictory purpose: to make peace with her face and to fight on to the point where the left side is able to embark on its uncertain upwards trajectory into a smile.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Adshead’s warm intelligence, curiosity and nuanced understanding of her work inspire trust in what turns out to be an unmissable book ... it is precisely her gift for empathy that offsets the desolation of much of what she describes ... Sometimes, as one reads, the struggle to understand feels at odds with a reflex moral outrage ... But The Devil You Know is not a book of excuses. It persuades us that it is only through understanding why horrific crimes happen that mental health services and the judicial system can have any chance of being improved. This revelatory book encourages us to see that it is our responsibility to consider the worst of humanity—and of ourselves.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)If anything, Light Perpetual is even bolder than Golden Hill while in no way resembling it. It is a new departure – a brilliant, attention-grabbing, capacious experiment with fiction ... The novel opens with a poised, detailed and audacious description of the bomb itself exploding. There is a sprightly life to the writing that is in contrast to the appalling devastation it describes ... His elegant structure allows time to pass rapidly, imaginatively leaping 15 years at a stretch, leading us, engrossingly, through history ... the evocation of period is skilful, the smell of London buses spot-on ... Spufford is an artful non-dodger. He gravitates towards describing, with vivid exactitude, what other novelists might be relieved to duck ... Spufford is so comprehensively convincing that you keep unreasonably suspecting him of having experienced everything he describes. Extraordinary and ordinary things happen. Happiness, in his hands, writes multicoloured. But the poignancy throughout is in being reminded that, in his characters’ lives and in ours, even inconsequential moments matter ... What makes the novel original is that we orientate ourselves in it in a new way. The usual suspension of disbelief is replaced by a back-to-front sadness in being compelled to keep remembering that not a single moment – exceptional or mundane – in this literary soap opera happened. The imagined afterlife was stalled before it started ... Spufford is a lay representative of the diocese of Ely and has, as a writer, a Christian heart without ever being off-puttingly pious. Light Perpetual is an exercise in gratitude, enhancing the sense that it is a fluke that we’re here at all. It is a meditation on death, too, with an entertaining warmth that does not cancel out its melancholy. It may be less uplifting than Golden Hill but its serious purpose dignifies it. Fiction depends on “what ifs” and in Light Perpetual, fiction is a form of mercy.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)Each Arabic word acts like a tiny perforation through which, as you translate, light pours. (At times, she offers Arabic script as well.) What is fascinating about the decision not to supply translation is that it turns the English-speaking reader into a foreigner. We become, at several removes, go-betweens as we learn about life in Yemen, its beauty and its suffering ... The immersion in words – she never under-writes – is a varied adventure ... Some of the most powerful moments in this book, illustrated with sober black-and-white photos of (one guesses) her parents and her childhood self, explore her relationship with Arabic and its elusiveness.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)[Diski\'s] autobiographical essays are superb: A Feeling for Ice, about whiteness, psychiatric hospital and an estranged mother; Fashion As Art, about her relationship with clothes; and Staying Awake, in which she describes sleep beautifully. And I love her perkily comfortless piece about old age, However I Smell, in which she lets it be known that her hairdresser keeps saying to her: \'Ah bless.\' She writes: \'There are other signs that I am no longer young, but the ah-bless is the most open and public.\' Blessing Diski was an impertinence – little did these innocents know upon whom their blessings were landing. Her writing will forever remain young, funny and rebellious. And her essays – dare I say it – earn a blessing even when what they consider is cursed.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)This collection of poems, her first in over 10 years, is a reckoning with the past that comes from a place of wisdom and control. Now 81, she harnesses the experience of a lifetime to assume a wry distance from her subjects – as if, in an astounding world, nothing could throw her off balance. This mastery, even at her most subversively fantastical, is part of what makes her an outstanding novelist. But poetry is different. Atwood is an undeceived poet and, even though the collection is full of pleasures, reading her work makes one consider the extent to which poetry is not only about truth but about the importance of being, at times, mercifully deceived – what Robert Lowell dubbed the \'sanity of self-deception\'.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)If therapy is a talking cure, this beautiful book is a reading cure. Not that it sets out in a know-it-all way to enlighten. It is too internalised for that. It is a personal, original and wayward examination of the idea that, as humans, we have – and need to have – our fallow seasons, that we must learn to revel in days when the light is low ... This is a winter’s tale of hard-won celebration, but – in keeping with other memoirs – it begins with what we are braced to predict will be a catastrophe ... She researches the somewhere-elseness of winter – not as a journalist might, but more like a poet with an angled take on things, an instinctive sense of beauty, a helpless appreciation of comedy ... She seems always to have access to the perfect image...And she stirs our appetite for the quiet described. Her book has the quality of a meditation, a peaceful rebuff to life in fast-forward ... [May] has a gift for unleashing unexpected comedy, especially when her intentions are most earnest. Inconveniently given her subject, the sauna has a disastrous effect ... There is so much to treasure here – most of all, her fantastic descriptions of swimming in a winter sea ... I love the surprises of this book. Most of all, it is about the comforts of language. Reading is like slipping into a fur coat. May could protectively convince us of anything – the pleasures of cold weather, slow days, dusty libraries. They all start to seem like prizes and her sensual connoisseurship a joy.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... there is nothing potted about his unusual and unbridled poetry ... Inarticulacy becomes a form of eloquence in this exploration of being cast out and an outcast. In McCrae’s hands, poetry is reclamation. It is also transport: writing a way out and through ... The gain, for his readers, is that he has chosen to make poetry the public space in which to express—and to own—his inner life.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Alice Oswald’s element is water. Her unforgettable Dart...was about a river, and this electrifying new work – a single poem with a frightening undertow that reminds one a little of the mood of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner – is an encounter with the sea. It is out of this world – and in it. It is mythical and realistic, ancient and modern ... In any contest between words and sea, the sea will win no matter how elegant, ingenious, devious (and Oswald can be all of these) the writer. She knows it will keep replenishing itself, each breaking wave potentially a new idea ... At times, there is an alarming sense of being subsumed into sea, of time helplessly swallowed whole ... Oswald is at the top of her form here – note the apparent effortlessness of the writing, the casual economy of a phrase like \'breakneck cliffs\'. There’s a marvellously comic exactitude at times but it isn’t allowed to undermine the prevailing sobriety ... A prevailing sense of danger in Nobody is, if anything, heightened by the Homeric authority with which Oswald writes about fate...And the last lines of each section thin out to a single word or two, deposited on the shore of the page like a handful of shingle – one poem even ends with \'stones\'.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Her alluring debut collection...travels light, illuminated yet never shackled by scholarship, and investigates the way life does—and does not—revise itself ... She writes freshly about everything, including sameness. She is a sensual conjurer of atmospheres—writing almost as a poet-restaurateur ... There is intimacy in this collection—sex, giving birth, death. Could one come any closer to a writer than through these subjects? Yet much remains mysterious ... patternless beauty is what compels in her own writing although the form is anything but failed. There is pure pleasure in her rhyming couplets. Her facility is so great (she is a modern Browning as a rhymer) that she is as at home with the streetwise as with the intellectually sophisticated and can, with almost absent-minded panache, bring off unexpected pleasures ... a gorgeous wit alternates with melancholy ... whatever the cocktail, it is worth ordering if Hannah Sullivan has mixed it.
RaveThe Observer (UK)... authoritative, original and sinuous. It is a fascinating plunge into Diaz’s culture, especially in \'The First Water Is the Body\', a long, defiant, breathtaking poem in which she shares the way she sees river and person as one ... Diaz explores possession, makes us think about what it means to be possessed by a country, a lover, a river. Her take on sexual love is bold and complicated, balanced between surrender and resistance ... There is a touch of Sharon Olds about the physical precision of Diaz’s poetry, its bravado and uplift. She is fearless about naked (in every sense) truths and always surprising ... The collection is jewelled throughout with Native American words and stars and semi-precious stones—there is an ongoing phosphorescence to the writing. I learned the names of gems I had never heard of until now— Natalie Diaz is one of them.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)What lies ahead is the best novel involving theatre since Angela Carter’s Wise Children, although this is a more ambiguous love letter to the theatre than Carter’s ebullient book ... Actress is by no means light reading, but its desolations are offset by diverting writing, garnished with hope ... Norah notes: \'Dubliners talk to each other very easily. We talk as though getting back to it, after some interruption.\' Perhaps this explains something about Enright’s prose: its trusting fluency, momentum, lack of aloofness ... The many strands in this novel all stick. What’s more, you have to keep reminding yourself that each one is fictional ... This novel achieves what no real actor’s memoir could.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... soars with a subtle, sublime music ... Olds displays a range of voices here, from indomitable to vulnerable. The work is most surprising when exquisite melodies combine with flashes of new understanding ... [Olds] is flirtatious, outlandish, deeply serious ... a phenomenal achievement, the most moving collection of her career, the most open of books ... Olds writes to find out what she thinks. She is ingenuous and wise and there is no way of knowing where she is going before she gets there ... This is not poetry as revenge – Olds’s compassion, evident in so much of what she writes, wins the day ... There is a wonderful poem about not wearing makeup. Her poems – naked and true – do not wear makeup either. Yet in spite of her disregard for convention, Olds has the keenest poetic boundaries.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Her talent is formidable but she has never been self-seeking: her short stories have a subtle, unshowy, covert brilliance ... She has a gift for introducing characters who seem walk-on parts but who redirect and transform narrative ... Munro is acute about the way people disrupt one another ... Munro\'s stories sometimes finish with a comparably expectant lightness: endings as beginnings – perfectly judged.
RaveThe GuardianIt is as compulsive as a thriller although its plot (pregnancy, birth, colic, sleepless nights) is - naturally - a shambles and its cast tiny and undistinguished (mother, father, baby, doctor, health visitor, a few friends). Its time scheme is wild - vertiginously unchronological, as if to convey the disorientation of fatigue: babies destroy all sense of conventional time ... Cusk is not political or clinically depressed, or making up stories. She serves her subject - and is shaken by it ... Words are her way of staying adult, separate, fluently mutinous. She also subjects childcare manuals - Penelope Leach, Doctor Spock et al - to satirical scrutiny; her book should be read alongside them because her writing is such an antidote to their bland, knowing prose.
RaveThe GuardianRankine\'s achievement is to have created a bold work that occupies its own space powerfully, an unsettled hybrid – her writing on the hard shoulder of prose ... There is so much anger and anguish here that you wonder how it can be contained. But what is wonderful about Rankine’s writing is that it works like an out-of-body experience: she encounters her subject full-on and rises above it. And she never loses her wide-angle reach. Above all, she shows how racism itself gets relegated ... She could not make it plainer: racism is everyone’s problem.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)In McCrae’s hands, poetry is reclamation. It is also transport: writing a way out and through.
PositiveThe Guardian\"Today, Morris’s horizons are limited to what she remembers and what she sees at home in north-west Wales. But it is its limitations that makes this book valuable and rare. It reveals so much about how to soldier on in your 90s ... She writes with blustery friendliness – the prose low-wattage ... If there is some retreading of turf, this fits the book’s diurnal structure...\
RaveThe GuardianI opened An Almost Perfect Christmas preparing to be underwhelmed, only to find myself chuckling at every other page. By the end – or, actually, not long after the beginning – I was a convert. This book is the seasonal garnish we all need. There is no subject upon which Stibbe could not entertain.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Trans. by Ulrich Baer
RaveThe GuardianRainer Maria Rilke had written 14,000 letters by the time of his death in 1926, aged 51. This slender book, a selection of letters of condolence, available for the first time in English, is a treasure.
Joyce Carol Oates
MixedThe GuardianJoyce Carol Oates’s Hazards of Time Travel is her 46th novel, which is in itself an astonishing achievement. It is a dystopian narrative in which the indomitable Oates seems to be flexing new muscles ... The extent to which you appreciate this novel will depend partly on how dystopia-friendly you are. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go might keep this book company were it not that they are more substantial nightmares. By comparison, this appears skeletal, super-intelligent, yet somehow depleted. It seems to have been written in an abbreviated rush, as though the fictional imperative of not saying too much had affected the telling of the story.
RaveThe ObserverThroughout this outstanding collection, there is the sense of an elsewhere, at once tantalizingly close and unreachable. The opening poem, \'Glitch,\' describes a fall and the unshakable sense that follows, \'of being wanted somewhere else.\' It recalls Emily Dickinson’s line: \'Life is over there–Behind the shelf…\' Yet Dickinson’s lonely oddity could not be more different from Laird’s family scene ... Laird is formidably accomplished—his poems range from free verse to villanelle (further exploring freedom and limitation through form)—and is keenly aware that language is only as good or bad as people make it ... Several poems are one better than still lives—they function as animated lives ... But the greatest joy of reading this unmissable collection is Laird’s peripheral vision as a poet: the deer seen from a suburban train; the unplanned signature on a windowsill in deep red dust; the many glimpses of elsewhere.
RaveThe Observer\"I was ambushed by [Limón\'s] power to move – several poems brought a lump to my throat. Yet her popularity is about more than accessibility. She never hides behind words but reveals herself through them – even when the risk is overexposure ... [Limón] knows how to change direction at the last moment, knows an ending can be an elsewhere ... Part of the pleasure of reading Limón is the way she transports you to a Kentucky punctuated by the noise of trains, the presence of horses, the planting of seeds. She does not ignore the world’s cruelties but tries not to be held hostage by them. This is as-the-crow flies poetry – it goes straight to the heart.\
PositiveThe GuardianAbsorbing, moving and marvellously written ... [Tomalin\'s] prose is clear, level, unheated... She has the unusual gift, in everything she writes, of never making a difficult subject more difficult ... In the memoir, one feels she is more at home writing about Hardy or Dickens than herself – the tug of the literary wins ... [Tomalin\'s] lack of self-importance is refreshing, her consideration for others admirable, but I’d have liked her to indulge herself – and us – with a little more about her life now and its uncontroversial, non-literary diversions – her garden, her travels, the continuing distraction of a good lunch.
RaveThe GuardianWhat is wonderful about this short, sensual, embattled memoir is that it is not only about the painful landmarks in her life—the end of a marriage, the death of a mother—it is about what it is to be alive ... After her marriage breaks down—at a time when her career is ascending—Levy and her two young daughters move into a north London block of flats which she describes, in its stricken deficiency, with panache. She makes of the flat a story, with its big skies and its sterile corridor ... She describes the bees that are her unexpected flatmates, her prospering strawberry plants, and the exotic oranges with cardamom that she and her daughters eat for breakfast. She writes entertainingly about her attempt, encouraged by a friend, at \'living with color\'—her yellow bedroom a garishly false move ... This is a little book about a big subject. It is about how to \'find a new way of living.\'
RaveThe GuardianLionel Shriver is a virtuoso at describing what it is to be uncomfortable in one’s own skin ... The novellas and stories often seem to be in communication with one another in an unusual and pleasing way. She writes especially well about how the places in which we live affect us and sometimes shackle us ... With most short story collections, it is an effort to keep restarting the narrative engine with each new story. But Shriver has the gift for making one instantly curious, entertained, involved and ready to move in.
RaveThe Observer\"...[a] phenomenal collection of short stories ... The novellas and stories often seem to be in communication with one another in an unusual and pleasing way. She writes especially well about how the places in which we live affect us and sometimes shackle us ... The opening novella, \'The Standing Chandelier,\' is the collection’s not-to-be-missed highlight. It explores the idea that, given the will and words, any personality might be rewritten ... When it comes to what Thomas Hardy called \'life’s little ironies,\' Shriver is ahead of the game. Her stories are filled with irony and psychological shafts of light. She understands the oddity of what it is to possess.\
Tracy K Smith
RaveThe Observer\"She is making visible the words of slaves and their owners, of African Americans enlisted in the civil war –these are found poems about people who were lost. Smith has pieced their correspondence together with the love of someone making a hand-stitched quilt ... The collection includes attractive, smaller-scale poems. Smith emerges as a poet in charge of her own creation myth and a recorder of destructive realities. Her offbeat, spiritual poems are her boldest – where it seems almost as though she is putting together a DIY Bible.\
RaveThe GuardianShe is an exacting writer but never a conceited one ... Moore is an undoctrinaire feminist with a keen, flexible, unheated take on women ... gets off to collar-grabbing starts ... Her political commentary is shrewd ... Lorrie Moore is such a writer that you want to collect her words as a gardener would rain in a water-butt.
Ulrich Raulff, Trans. by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp
RaveThe GuardianAs you pick up the reins of this book – trying to get a sense of what sort of a ride it is to be – it becomes evident within three paragraphs that you have never read a book like it … Raulff’s ability to corral scattered equestrians in art, letters and life makes scintillating reading and his writerly pace is exhilarating – especially when he takes flight from his own starting gates … The book is beautifully and idiosyncratically illustrated, in keeping with the text.
RaveThe GaurdianBut Eileen Myles’s Afterglow belongs in a strange category of its own – it is unlike anything I have read and is a work of Joycean ambition in comparison with, say, John Grogan’s popular bestseller Marley and Me ... For all its dog-leg turns, there is no putting down of Rosie or of this book.
PositiveThe Guardian...[a] sympathetic, even-handed and illuminating account of her life ... As its subtitle makes clear, this biography is about love. I’d have liked more on the novels – but there was so much else to untangle ... The biography’s most fascinating revelation is about Bainbridge’s relationship with her publishers Colin and Anna Haycraft.
RaveThe Guardian...[an] inspired new collection ... Her last collection, Stag’s Leap, won the 2013 TS Eliot prize and was, you might think, an impossible act to follow. But the spirit and flow of this new book suggests that, on the contrary, her earlier triumph has been a spur. She never censors herself: her subjects are those poetry ignores ... These odes, because they illuminate what it is to live inside a body and survive its outrages, are useful – and beautiful too.
RaveThe Guardian...an outstanding novel ... Patchett is a pleasure to read: there is a no-fuss casualness to the prose that is only possible when a writer is in control of every word and she is master of her art ... emotional copyright is, in this unpushy and brilliant novel, more powerful than anyone dared suppose.
RaveThe GuardianThis book is impossible to forget: I finished it in one sitting – in a paralysed, stunned, empathetic trance ... It is a beautifully written book. Were it not so devastating, it would be a joy to read.
Karl Ove Knausgaard
RaveThe GuardianHis banal epiphanies satisfy because of his acknowledgment that life includes the random, the inexplicable and the unbeautiful. He understands rogue happiness. This perverse attention to what other writers ignore is part of his charm ... the eerie thing is that, at times, it is as if we are not within the pages of this book at all, but outside it and in his confidence. We understand that he is ambitious to write a novel that will make his name and we suppress, as we read, the acknowledgment that this achievement, this extraordinary work of which he has been dreaming, is the book we hold in our hands.