MixedThe Guardian (UK)It’s an appealing story, well suited to Ben Macintyre, the popular author of fast-paced books about mid-century spies ... Reading this book, I could see the film it will become. His is a genre well-suited to the excitement of the story but it’s ultimately too focused on the individual to address the moral travails of the 20th century satisfyingly. Because he’s gone for cinematic speed, Macintyre doesn’t always pause to ask questions. Most importantly, why was she so fervently committed and why did she keep going for so long? ... Along the way, Agent Sonya is fascinating as a window on to a set of convictions relatively common at this time among communists.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Inferno is a brilliantly frightening memoir about Cho’s two weeks on the psychiatric ward, elegantly interwoven with tales from her past ... Insights of this kind are rarely explicit. Cho’s language is poetically associative and points are made through suggestive juxtaposition. Fragmentary structures can feel merely fashionable, but here it feels hard won ... one of the book’s most compelling suggestions is that even ordinary motherhood resembles psychosis ... among the book’s strengths is its bravery in admitting that the \'fierce, possessive affection\' she feels for her baby is very different from the kind of in‑love feeling she expected.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)Elena Ferrante is so good on the bodily feelings of female adolescence: the sweaty, clotted skin, the sudden bulges as breasts form, the awkwardly exciting transformations. She is good, also, on the way that childhood friendships change, becoming infused with desire and longing ... For Ferrante’s loyal readers there’s a pleasure in connecting this bogeyman to the luridly frightening Don Achille in My Brilliant Friend, in connecting Vittoria’s dangerous intelligence with Lila’s, and comparing the symbolic bracelet to the silver bracelet that Lenù breaks there. What’s remarkable is that the book manages to be all the more new and surprising for being layered with familiar Ferrante places and themes. It combines the slow-motion intensity of The Lost Daughter with the addictive momentum of the quartet, rendered in perfectly weighted prose by Ann Goldstein. As with Hardy’s Wessex or DH Lawrence’s Eastwood, the setting, by becoming so familiar, becomes a shared space between reader and writer. It feels as though Ferrante is playing with her fame, inviting us back into the poorer neighbourhoods of Naples that at the start of the book are more familiar to us than they are to Giovanna.
Pauline Delabroy-Allard, Trans. by Adriana Hunter
MixedThe Guardian (UK)... titillating with its frank descriptions of sex and erotic paeans to the female body...and captivating with its investigation of the suffering involved in passion. It’s a brief, intense read. There is no world beyond the physiological experiences of the lovers. We see into the narrator’s mind only when she is experiencing the effects of desire, or falling apart in its wake. Other characters—the lovers’ parents, the narrator’s daughter—appear but are not given a chance to exist. Much about the tone of the novel reminded me of Leïla Slimani’s work. As with Slimani, there’s a combination of breathless excitement and flatness: as though Samuel Richardson has been crossed with Albert Camus. In both cases there is something compulsive about the reading experience, partly just because the feverish rhythms carry us along ... There’s an arbitrariness in the [relationship\'s] destructiveness that makes it unconvincing ... It could be argued that the arbitrary nature of both passion and destructiveness is precisely what the novel is about. It’s partly an exploration of the solipsism that sex can seem to justify, pushed almost to the point of comedy in a book that still manages to remain humourless ... The best parts of the book are where the narrator goes deeper into inhabiting her own craziness in Sarah’s absence ... It’s as though Delabroy-Allard fully accepts here that she has given up on the social novel altogether, and moves instead into a form of travel writing that ends up being more alluring and disturbing than the sex scenes. I found the \'glimmering gold, blindingly beautiful\' Adriatic the perfect backdrop for the narrator’s decline, if only because the dreamlike setting stopped me minding how wilfully unconvincing the characterisation is beneath the seductive prose.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Alongside the essays on blood and ghosts there are pieces on hair, love, loss, motherhood, abortion and hospitals. Collectively, they give us a sketch of Gleeson’s life, while never claiming the definitiveness of an autobiography. What’s offered is something elliptical and fragmentary ... Pain...reverberates through the book ... [Gleeson] is particularly concerned with finding language that can describe illness at its most subjective ... Gleeson is an eloquent storyteller, and the stories are held in delicate balance with the analysis of her world ... Gleeson takes her form as far as it can go in addressing the complexities of her life and times, but there have been moments while reading all the recent essay-collection memoirs when I’ve missed the grittiness and expansiveness of a sustained argument ... Gleeson’s politics feel lighter, in keeping with her more literary form. But...hers is an ongoing project, and part of what’s so pleasing about her book is the sense that it remains unfinished, and open to her readers, as we bring to it our own experiences of sickness and childbirth, sadness and anger, blood and ghosts.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)These are fascinating thoughts, and there are questions to make us think again on every page. He also has a gift for storytelling, however sparingly used, and the scene where he speaks on the phone with his birth mother is particularly moving. Sometimes the connections between ideas and scenes feel a little tenuous, especially when we’re jumping between very short sections. But throughout there’s a feeling of a singular intelligence, driven by a set of related questions about the relationship between matter and spirit, or empiricism and the occult. I found his thoughts on climate change particularly compelling ... His book is salutary now, partly because he shows us that processes of human connection have always been fraught.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... I’d have liked to learn more about what De Beauvoir has to tell us today than we are given here. Her complex, ambivalent ideas about gender as both inherent and performed can be usefully brought to bear on the current dilemmas about transsexuality. We can’t ventriloquise De Beauvoir in the present, but it would be worth dwelling with these ideas for longer than Kirkpatrick does. She gives more space to De Beauvoir’s contrary relationship with feminism, and the discussion here is helpfully rich ... There isn’t much material here that’s unknown to scholars, but the letters to Lanzmann do constitute a major new resource ... Where Kirkpatrick’s biography is strongest is in clarifying and showing the strength of De Beauvoir’s ethical commitments, and how these were transformed into political commitments after the war.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)At its most profound, this is a novel about the way that dysfunctional family life sets one person’s story against another’s with no possibility of victory ... the prose has the convincing feel of a drunken rant, as the sentences circle back on themselves. It’s an ugly book about an ugly subject, lit up only by the black humour of its anecdotes and the freer world of Bergljot’s dreams. Irritating as the repetition can be, it works to enclose us in the claustrophobia of the story, where Bergljot feels doomed to echo herself unheard ... the prose has the convincing feel of a drunken rant, as the sentences circle back on themselves. It’s an ugly book about an ugly subject, lit up only by the black humour of its anecdotes and the freer world of Bergljot’s dreams. Irritating as the repetition can be, it works to enclose us in the claustrophobia of the story, where Bergljot feels doomed to echo herself unheard ... In this unappealing but compelling book, Hjorth proves brilliant at revealing the stubborn, unredemptive quality of childhood suffering.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)...Moser does rather a brilliant job. Over the course of 700 pages, we have Sontag as daughter, friend, lover, wife and mother, but Moser’s writing is appropriately bold and anecdotal, so there is less the feeling of years accrued than of selves tried out. He’s an essayist, taking on an essayist, and his best passages are biographical readings of her writing. His assessment of her novels is punchy and insightful ... He makes good use of the archives, quoting from a revealing selection of unpublished diary entries, letters and essays ... I found Moser less interesting on psychology, and this again may be appropriate, given that Sontag’s friends repeatedly criticised her for her lack of psychological insight. It’s not that Moser isn’t insightful—his judgments usually ring true—more that he doesn’t have the kind of novelistic curiosity some biographers have. Sontag’s son David, and her husband, lovers and friends, don’t emerge as real people. Sontag herself does, to an extent, but Moser has a tendency to diagnose her disorders with the language of a psychology manual ... We need her now, more than ever, and this biography keeps her defiantly alive: argumentative, wilful, often right, always interesting, encouraging us to up our game as we watch her at the top of hers.
PositiveThe New York Times Book Review...a story about America’s endless war in Afghanistan that layers moving storytelling onto penetrating reportage ... the book is more teeming panoply than intimate portrait. Waldman is particularly gifted at giving tangible reality to ethical dilemmas, so the reader shares Parveen’s bemused sense that there are no correct choices. Waldman is less skilled — perhaps because less interested — at creating three-dimensional characters. The most vibrant is Parveen herself, but Waldman situates her narrative perspective neither quite within Parveen nor at an ironic remove, so that even she never becomes fully alive. Nevertheless, it’s easy to overlook these flaws because the book’s moral questions feel so urgent. Few contemporary authors have shown so expertly that well-intentioned intervention can be the most dangerous kind of all ... A Door in the Earth makes a persuasive case for the novel as a powerful source of insight into our moral limitations. In an age when we’re tempted by Google and social media to believe we know more than we do, that insight is perhaps more valuable than ever.
PositiveThe GuardianOlsson has taken on a complicated mix of subjects. The book is part memoir, part biography and part a general history of 20th-century maths. Its method is aphoristic and digressive: short sections are juxtaposed, sometimes with a kind of cumulative energy and sometimes more randomly. There were times when I longed for something more expansive, for the characters to break out of their small sections. Also I wanted to hear more about the Weils and less (or more intimately) about Olsson, whose own experiences as detailed here are rather less profound than those of her subjects. But this ordinariness does have the advantage of making her an everywoman guide, and what she does brilliantly is to explain the maths clearly and often fascinatingly. Also, and this must be unique among accounts of the Weils, she creates a vivid sense of Simone grappling with the maths alongside us.
PositiveThe GuardianThe generation described here is millennial, and the voice feels akin to Sally Rooney’s: colloquial, precise, at once uneasy about its place in the world and determined to stand up for itself ... The central theme here is women’s oppression by men, and Williams’s take on it is powerful and original ... The joy of food – its capacity to be so pleasurable that it can subvert niceness – is well described, as is the complexity of cooking. There are some lengthy digressions on the kitchen that maintain enough obsessive verve to be engaging, allowing Williams to take the material of the domestic novel and turn it into something more explosive ... I sometimes found their preoccupations and mental states a little overdeterminedly millennial. All these young women are lost in the world of work, anxious and inadequate; Roberta regularly self-harms. But the point here may be that she and her friends feel trapped by their generation and its stereotypes as well. Certainly the writing becomes most insightful and moving when we sense her pushing against her bounds, while not quite knowing how to do so.
RaveThe Guardian... is marketed, accurately, as a #MeToo novel, and it shows with painful rawness how much damage can be wrought without anyone realising they are the victim. But this designation doesn’t capture the complexity of Choi’s investigation into human relations. What she’s done, magisterially, is to take the issues raised by #MeToo and show them as inextricable from more universal questions about taking a major role in someone else’s life, while knowing that we’re offering only a minor part in return ... Within these worlds the more intimate scenes have a stark intensity, reminding us how much is at stake in adolescence. The sexual encounters are especially well told, whether they are fulfilling or awkward ... Cumulatively, Choi reminds us that the ultimate trust exercise here is the one performed between her and her reader ... consummate wit, punchiness and feeling, and shows how much we need our female novelists within the sea change of our current moment.
PositiveThe New York Times Book ReviewGordon is best known for her brilliant studies of Woolf, Charlotte Brontë and Emily Dickinson. As a biographer, she’s been a visionary herself, mind-reading her way into these figures’ creative processes. She displays the same insight here, reading Frankenstein as Mary Shelley’s effort to confront her estrangement from her father, and suggesting that Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights may have been Emily Brontë’s embodiment of \'Nature itself, red in tooth and claw.\' But this is a slighter book than her previous ones: Its attempts to bring the lives together aren’t sustained, and it can feel as if too much is lost in the brief studies of such well-known names ... Gordon’s voice is most lyrical and assured in her conclusions...I wanted more gems like these, and more on the resonance of these women’s stories today ... Gordon rightly links all five by their shared understanding of death and violence, and as a result her own book is haunted by child mortality ... Gordon narrates their deaths in understated yet powerful detail, stirring some of her most striking observations.
RaveThe Times Literary SupplementThis [is] a work of autofiction that uses the capacity of the autofictional both to reveal the layers of construction within the apparent realities of selfhood and to reground fiction in the real ... the affectionate portrait of young people forging lives and personalities in solidarity with each other is movingly done ... philosophical musings combine with the amusing, often rather picaresque action of the 1970s narrative ... The diary sections are written with compelling energy, and bring the young woman easily to life ... a playful, thoughtful book about the workings of memory and the relationship between our older and younger selves...a paean to the pleasures of reading, celebrating the ways that a lifetime with books enhances and complicates selfhood...a work of autofiction that offers truthful fiction to counter an era of fake news. But it is most formidable as a novelistic take on the past fifty years of feminism, told through its parallel snapshots of 1978 and 2016.
PositiveThe Guardian\"As always, Li writes with a shimmering and deeply felt precision ... it feels now as though [Li\'s] whole writing life has been paring down towards this more intimate form. Its compression is hard won, the result both of harrowing lived experience and of moving through realism to something a bit like autofiction, insistent on its integrity. She is no longer creating characters, but giving us their voices in a kind of sustained present, never concealing the fact that we are reading words typed on a page. And her sustained investigation of the relationship between thought and feeling has become the central drama ... It’s moving to hear the narrator, who has sought linguistic precision all her life, placing her faith in the shadows beneath the surface of language.\
PositiveThe GuardianThere are times when the book risks becoming a hagiography, but Hilsum avoids this by combining storytelling with asking important questions about what kind of service war correspondents perform and what ethical codes they should adhere to. It becomes clear that the entwined motives to get the best story and to change the world don’t always inspire the same action ... Hilsum tells the story of her final week masterfully in a way that makes the end seem both inevitable and unnecessary.
PositiveThe Observer (UK)... feels as though Dangarembga loses confidence in the realist novel, returning to a less developed form, at the same time as Tambu loses confidence in the narratives of progress running through her early life ... a brilliant portrayal of contemporary Harare with its juxtaposition of energetic worldliness and violence ... Because the novel is episodic, it takes us into several of these worlds, most compellingly into the eco-tourism business offering the so-called real ghetto and village experience ... Throughout, a lot of the interest is in the parallel arcs of worldly success and moral worth. These are tellingly disconnected: it’s when Tambu’s fortunes are relatively stable that she performs her most morally shocking act. It’s hard to reconcile morality and survival, especially in a hybrid culture where the moral frameworks of the Shona villages and white society in Harare have not been well aligned. If there is progress amid the book’s structure, then it’s in Tambu’s realisation that she must learn to balance prosperity and kindness.
RaveThe GuardianThere’s a void where his personality should be and he turns into a stalker – but somehow the narrator of this strange tale exerts a powerful grip on the reader ... There is a pleasure too in the pace, which is perfectly timed despite the lack of action ... Just when I was tiring of the book’s slowness, it became almost thriller-like – a remarkable achievement, given that the action is still all occurring inside the head of so flattened a character ... Sometimes I wondered if my whole experience of reading the novel was driven more by curiosity and aesthetic pleasure than because I really cared about the character or was inhabiting his world ... Both in its power to unsettle and its quest to establish a relationship to character that isn’t based on understanding, this is a strikingly original piece of writing.
RaveThe GuardianThe question for writers returning to works of literature from the past is what to do about style ... In Monsieur Ka, there’s a more aesthetic engagement with the Russian novel, but this isn’t just homage or pastiche because the nature of linguistic translations and dislocations is itself a theme of the book. Goldsworthy, who is writing in her third language, is attentive to the way that thoughts and gestures are inflected by the language in which they are formulated ... Much of the pleasure of reading this remarkable novel comes from its passionate dedication to the power of stories.
A. M. Homes
PositiveThe Guardian\'It’s like a kinky psychodrama,\' says Cheryl, the student protagonist of the final story in AM Homes’s new collection. She’s talking to her friend Walter. They’re both dressed up in her parents’ clothes. The line comes from within the role-play and outside it. She’s commenting on the peculiarity of their idea of an afternoon’s entertainment but also on the absurdity of her life in general: a life in the upper echelons of Los Angeles, where even the dog has had plastic surgery to remove its unappealing fatty tumours, the TV channel changes depending on who’s walking past and their favourite restaurant serves only tiny designer-sized macrobiotic bites ... Much of Homes’s skill lies in inventing plots that seem just about plausible as she leads you along but far less plausible when you stop to consider them. She narrates the stories in a pacy present tense, energised by amusing quips and details.
RaveThe GuardianThose Wild Wyndhams is a magnificent first book by the historian and barrister Claudia Renton ... [a description of the book] together with the unnecessarily florid gold writing on the cover, may imply an entertaining romp. In fact it\'s something far more profound. Renton\'s book has the wisdom, excitement and psychological depth of a very good novel. She succeeds in the difficult feat of combining the novelist\'s art with the historian\'s craft, laying her sources and workings before us ... The beauty and romance – sometimes joyful, more often wrenchingly sad – are captured unforgettably in Renton\'s wonderful book.
RaveThe Guardian\"But now Sheila Heti’s book seems likely to become the defining literary work on the subject, perhaps most of all because as a novel, replete with ambiguity and contradiction, it refuses to define anything, and certainly not the childlessness that provides its subject or the motherhood that provides its title ... This sounds hard-hitting, and it is, but it’s also deeply ambivalent, woven as one strand among many in a book that does, after all, claim to be a novel. Perhaps it’s most novelistic in its dextrous use of the present tense (there is a sense of a life unfolding, rather than being recorded) and in the sense, gradually built up, that the book knows more than the narrator does, in her fear and rage and naivety ... She is asking what her book can count for, and the answer is a lot. It’s hard to do justice to its complexity. This is less a book than a tapestry – a finely wrought work of delicate art.\
PositiveThe GuardianThis isn’t a particularly ambitious novel. Wood doesn’t attempt to redeem British fiction ... As a British novelist living in the US he chooses to focus on transatlantic differences, but it’s hard to address these without resort[ing] to cliche ... Nonetheless, Wood does succeed in both achieving verisimilitude and revealing its artifice. Though all the characters verge on caricature, they are convincingly alive in a way that those in his previous novel were not ... it’s also through them that he enables the why question to take on life – and therefore to matter. He creates a world where we can’t know whose point of view to accept, and therefore can’t know whether to dismiss Vanessa’s fear that \'everything that is most dear to you will eventually be taken from you\' as hysterical anxiety or to accept it as wisdom.
RaveThe GuardianEvelina's is the first voice we hear in a novel that is told through a Faulknerian motet. A modern young woman who reads Camus in French, she is none the less brought up on the fairy tales of her Native American ancestors. Her narrative begins with an account of her puberty in which the teenage blends with the mythical … We are helped along by the book's quirky humour that comes through cameo characters who are too singular to be caricatures … This is not magic realism; it is so grounded in the detail of the everyday that we are barely aware that Erdrich is tugging at the seams of the realistically possible.
RaveThe Financial TimesAside from the fast-paced plot, this is most interesting for its probing portrayal of Guo’s ambivalent relationship with her homeland ... Nonetheless she doesn’t sentimentalise China or her life there. An impressive feature of this moving and often exhilarating book is the brutality of her portrait of her parents ... The question here is what kind of loyalty we owe those bound to us by blood. It is not coincidental, Guo thinks, that the protagonists of all her favourite novels have been orphans — 'parentless, self-made heroes.' This is her myth, too, but her strength lies in her acknowledged ambivalence. Even as she escapes gravity and floats into the future, she feels the obstinacy of the roots that pull her back into the past.
RaveThe GuardianIn seeking an alternative to the headlines, Rausing offers thoughtfulness and introspection. She also provides a lot of self-flagellation ... But what gives this book its astonishing power is not the guilt, but the intelligence and literary skill. As a narrative, it’s beautifully structured, weaving its way from the family’s childhood holidays in rural Sweden to their lives in London, returning always to the hideous image of Hans and Eva’s bedroom as the dark centre of the story ... She appears in these contradictions still not to have decided the extent of her responsibility or guilt. However, she seems at least partially aware of this, and what makes the approach effective is that when it comes to opening up wider questions of culpability or the nature of addiction, she is consistently more subtle than we would expect in a memoir of this kind.
RaveThe GuardianThis is abuse, and Tallent doesn’t shy away from the fact, but he is also insistent on naming their love as love. This is partly down to the lyricism of his prose. It is additionally because Martin, though a controlling monster who’s trapped Turtle in a frightening folie à deux, has created a world that remains enticing for her, primarily because of their shared closeness to nature ... From the point that Jacob and his friend Brett appear on the scene, the novel becomes a fast-paced adventure story...This phase of the story is too heavily plotted for my liking, because when you’re anxiously turning the pages wondering what will happen next there’s less time to appreciate the detail along the way, and it’s detail that Tallent is so good at. When he slows down, there’s an excitement in smaller moments ... At the end of this strange and remarkable book, civilisation triumphs. When we last see her, physically and spiritually broken, all Turtle can do is plant a garden in the town. This is a world beyond philosophy in which nourishment comes from nameable and tangible things. Her plants repeatedly die, but she tries again.
RaveThe GuardianAs in all his previous novels, Aslam mingles beauty and pain, but this time he gives the beauty more breathing space than he has for a while ... Aslam is in many ways a traditional realist: he wanders into the head of one character after another at will. But he’s writing a form of realism in which individual psychology is often secondary to larger symbolic structures and archetypes...If character is secondary to archetype, this reflects the reality of a world in which the individual is frequently secondary to collective ideology. Ultimately, Aslam doesn’t allow this ideology to triumph, because the consolation offered by both the visual beauty and the coincidences comes in the service of a redemptive moral view ... [an] exquisite, painful book.
RaveThe GuardianThis is material that in the wrong hands might be pretentious or merely dull. In Baume’s telling, though, it’s fascinating, because of the cumulative power of the precise, pleasingly rhythmic sentences, and the unpredictable intelligence of the narrator’s mind. And along the way there are crucial questions raised about how we perceive reality ... Art may also require a willingness to question the ordinary that is incompatible with conventional criteria of sanity. One of the most radical aspects of this novel is its challenge to received wisdom about mental illness ... There are no answers here, but there is a reminder of the beauty that can be found when you allow yourself to look slowly and sadly at the world.
RaveThe GuardianThe voice throughout is colloquial and humorous. And as a reading experience, it is enjoyable: a generously capacious book that creates an alternative world for the reader to inhabit in a manner comparable to the Russian novels that Batuman loves ... What is at stake here is whether Selin can continue to commit generous errors in the face of such humiliation; whether she can continue so earnestly in her attempt to learn how to live. The triumph of Batuman’s book is to make this period of youth matter.
PositiveThe GuardianThe book that results is fascinating, both because it’s always interesting to hear about the sex lives of others and because it opens up an historical context that allows us to understand how the free love of the past did and didn’t lead to our internet-driven sexual present ... Witt is a compelling narrator and an excellent subjective witness but I did find her presence in the book a little coy.
PositiveThe GuardianWhat is most remarkable is McBride’s sensitivity to moment-to-moment shifts in feeling ... It is notoriously difficult to write about sex, and McBride does it better than almost any other contemporary novelist I’ve read ... the novel becomes a little baggy at this point [the second half] ... The Lesser Bohemians confirms McBride’s status as one of our major novelists.
RaveThe GuardianImagine Me Gone makes the elemental American landscapes of the previous novel the setting for a more classical tale of family struggle. There seem to be conscious shades of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, as the narrative is told by alternating members of the family who even narrate their own deaths. But there is still a contemporary social critique at work: notably of the pharmaceutical industry and the frightening debts doctors allow vulnerable patients to incur ... Haslett has a great gift for capturing the strikingly different inner worlds of his characters and rendering them in beautiful prose. As in Faulkner, each of the voices emerges from somewhere between speech, thought and writing, but here the characters are articulate enough that we can believe that the words are theirs ... my two days of reading the book felt less like a reading experience than a life experience: two days of terror and loss ... There is a lot about honour and care here: about what it means to honour and care for both ourselves and those we love. Haslett’s prose, so finely adapted for each of the characters, seems to do just this, honouring the living and the dead and rendering life precious.
RaveThe GuardianThe book that results is the most engaging work of philosophy I have read.
MixedThe GuardianThere are nine cities in all, inhabited by a scattered collection of writers, muses and artists who have little in common. Gradually, they begin to feel arbitrary and Crispin’s reflections on them seem superficial. It is not true, for example, that West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon contains nothing of its author, but to explain how her passions infuse its pages would take longer than the brief space Crispin allows.
RaveThe GuardianThese are upsetting tales and Schiff writes movingly as well as wittily; this is a work of riveting storytelling as well as an authoritative history. Schiff’s explanations for the events are convincing.