RaveThe Guardian (UK)If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. This is a scholarly book by a superb scholar – Kuang is a translator herself. The pages are heavy with footnotes; not the more usual whimsical ones, in the style of Susanna Clarke or Terry Pratchett, but academic notes, hectoring and preachy in a parody of the 19th-century tomes Swift and his friends at Oxford must study. The characters’ conversation flies from theories of translation to quotations from Sanskrit, from Dryden to the authors of the Shijing; they are pretentious, but vulnerable too, and the balance is lovely ... The fantastical elements underpin real history, rather than alter it ... Even against a whole background of clever things, the triumph here is the narrator ... This is a grim and harrowing novel; many of the characters have poisonous opinions about race, and Swift becomes increasingly embittered. The antagonists are closer to demons than humans, with no nuance, and they do sickening things. Often the allure of fantasy is escape from the real world, but there’s no escape here; Kuang’s use of the genre does not soften real history but sharpens it. Babel asks what people from colonised countries are supposed to do when they reach positions of power – while being set in a time and place where reaching those positions would, in the real world, have been impossible. It is a fantastically made work, moving and enraging by turns, with an ending to blow down walls.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)This is a streamlined novel; no side plots, no broad cast of characters, no twists of fantasy for the sheer joy of it. While the concept does fly high, it also flies straight. For those readers who might be put off by speculative fiction, The Midnight Library is a charming way into the genre ... The whole novel has the air of a skilful exercise designed to confront depression and anxiety. What’s the best that could happen in your life, and what’s the worst? What can you change, and what can’t you? These are big questions that are difficult to respond to with elegance and depth, and sometimes in moments of Nora’s elation or suicidal lows, the narration lapses into the trite and obvious ... Contrary to the fantastical premise, the novel turns out to be a celebration of the ordinary: ordinary revelations, ordinary people, and the infinity of worlds seeded in ordinary choices.
Isabel Allende, Trans. by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Given that Allende has set herself the task of covering half a century in a relatively short book, it isn’t surprising that dialogue is minimal. Most of the story is told in episodic narration, or even summary. An omniscient narrator sees into the minds not only of Victor and Roser, but of many people who brush past along the way, sometimes revisiting them, sometimes leaving them behind in the political riptides. This kind of narration is extraordinarily difficult. Characters are a lot like gym weights; it’s much easier to hug them close than it is to hold them further away. Allende’s style is impressively Olympian and the payoff is remarkable: a huge overview of generations, decades and countries ... Even in the hands of a titan like Allende, this approach isn’t always successful. The narratorial circumspection...sometimes flattens the story more than it enriches it. It numbs horrifying moments...and it deadens joyful moments, too. It also leads Allende into saccharine generalisations of a kind that would never have made it into a tighter story without irony ... Instead, A Long Petal of the Sea is structured as a series of waves, with tides of sudden catastrophe in which the characters have almost no agency, and ebbs of peace.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Although the core of the novel is a simple story about a young man who wants to know his fate, these other strands make such a complex tapestry that the images blur and warp...Each image is assuredly beautiful ... There is no logic that binds these lovely set piece tableaux. Nobody explains why the Starless Sea is honey, or how a honey sea isn’t full of dead flies. The novel reads like panel after panel of mythic illustrations: it expects a certain acceptance of unlikely images, and that’s hardly an unfamiliar mode of thought ... This approach can be infuriating, but usually when a well written book is infuriating, it’s because the story is yanking at a convention so deep-seated it seems fundamental to the genre. I think The Starless Sea does just that ... rejects older stories: it makes its own. Its magic is based in the New York Public Library, in glittering hotels, and the beautiful blatant kitsch of a professional fortune teller’s house. Rather than a traditional fantasy novel, this is an artificial myth in its own right, soldered together from the girders of skyscrapers – a myth from and for the US, rather than inherited from older nations. Like any myth, it refuses to decode its own symbols. A reader might find this deliberate vagueness either uplifting or maddening, but the novel’s scope and ambition are undeniable.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... the old gothic soaks The Confessions of Frannie Langton so richly that fumes come off it ... That’s why I love this book. Collins hasn’t just written an authentic gothic novel: she rugby tackles the notion of the saintly girl who emerges from suffering rather improved by it. But nor does Collins subscribe to the modern style of the genre, Hill’s soft rustle of old-fashioned garments. She is entirely her own writer. Between her historical research, Frannie’s voice and a plot that never slows to a walk, the novel pulls the gothic into new territory and links it back to its origins. It points at the reader and asks whether it might be a sign of atrocious privilege to enjoy a genre devoted to the grotesque – especially when the grotesquerie comes from things that might plausibly have happened in the name of science and sugar money.