RaveThe Guardian (UK)... haunting and strange ... This isn’t a victim’s story, nothing so straightforward – it’s something much more interesting and strange. The people who take Agnes up aren’t as dangerous as they think they are; these privileged manipulators exaggerate their own power. All the jeopardy in the novel comes out of the estrangement Fabienne and Agnès have chosen for themselves, carried along by their own invention and their adventure; or it comes from the intractable circumstances of their birth and history ... manifestly this isn’t realism: we’re not meant to succumb for a moment to its illusion. Li’s novel feels more like a fable, and so much fascinating speculation seems to be encoded opaquely in Agnès’s narration ... Out of the complex torture of cultural politics, Li has made her style her own.
Leila Slimani tr. Sam Taylor
RaveThe Guardian (UK)The sentences in The Country of Others are layered, and more laden with material; the writing is more exploratory, it reaches outward. And a complex world pushes back against her words, changing the quality of her attention to it ... Nothing feels in the least dutiful or cautious, however, in her creation of her fictional characters; she still works her dangerous magic and delivers shocks, imagining the violence of their desires and rages ... Slimani’s charged language, feeling for the fracture lines inside individuals and between them, and between different cultures, prepares us for the worst: which comes close, but never quite comes home.
Maria Stepanova tr. Sasha Dugdale
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Although the book moves more or less chronologically through the family’s story, punctuated by extracts from their letters, it isn’t meant to offer conventional detective-satisfactions, uncovering hidden secrets and clarifying what had been obscure. Stepanova is more drawn to how the past resists being uncovered ... Her book is not a protest exactly. Mere righteous indignation feels inadequate to the sheer scale of the wrong assembled here. Intentionally the memoir is meandering, digressive, cumulative, compendious—a mind moving around its wide world. Dugdale’s translation appears heroic, to this reader with no Russian, in its sustained careful attentiveness ... I was becalmed sometimes in the sheer surplus of rumination and piling up of detail, and among so many different family members who remain foggily just out of imaginative reach. To my taste, at 500 pages the book is quite a lot too long. Prose has its hidden inward logic of limitation, just as poetry does; she says too much, too many times, there’s too much clever explication, there are too many words ... She can’t let even the smallest perception go ... But in the end the excess is less important than the fact that so much of what Stepanova has saved for us is remarkable and rich with meaning.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)This book is a delight, and it’s about delight too. How necessary, at our particular moment ... I love the warmth with which he writes about this teaching ... This kind of reading (one of the best kinds, I’m convinced) tracks the author’s intentions—and missed intentions, and intuitions, and instinctive recoil from what’s banal or obvious—so closely and intimately, at every step, through every sentence ... All this makes Saunders’s book very different from just another \'how to\' creative writing manual, or just another critical essay. In enjoyably throwaway fashion, he assembles along his way a few rules for writing ... reading...with this rich, close attention will mulch down into any would-be writer’s experience, and repay them by fertilising their own work eventually ... One of the pleasures of this book is feeling his own thinking move backwards and forwards, between the writer dissecting practice and the reader entering in through the spell of the words, to dwell inside the story.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)I think this collection of little pieces by Zadie Smith will endure as a beautiful thing. Although it’s born out of the pandemic and the lockdown, it feels like a doorway into a new space for thought ... Smith is a wonderful essayist; she’s a natural. She writes as she thinks, and she thinks crisply and exactly, not in abstractions, but through the thick specificity of people and places, fragments of story. She doesn’t lay down the law, she argues with herself, so that the movement of her writing feels like the zigzag passage of perception inside a quick mind, not in love with its own opinions, uneasy with certainty ... The book’s leanness feels like part of its aesthetic; its thought-space is uncluttered and unfussy, and everything is lightly, delicately done ... There isn’t all that much explicitly about the pandemic, or the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and yet everything feels conceived under the pressure of those things happening, pushing out new meanings from old subjects ... One of the endearing characteristics of Intimations is how much time Smith spends feeling uncomfortable, or confessing her own timidity or passivity, even treachery ... This is a generously grateful book. And all of her royalties, incidentally, go to charity.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)If this novel isn’t as persuasive as Days Without End, it’s partly due to the eternal problem with sequels; the fresh action is overshadowed by what has come before, and there has to be quite a bit of explaining of backstory. Some characters – particularly Thomas and John – are handed down wholesale from the past, rather than made complex in new treatment ... We have it all through Winona’s telling, and she’s passionately invested in their goodness; it may be because he’s chosen a woman’s voice for his narration that Barry makes it at moments a little too sweet ... Mostly, however, the writing brings off Barry’s characteristic balancing act, between the lyrical telling that comes to him naturally and the grubby, tormenting world he wants to show us ... Barry’s prose always has this sturdy yet dreamy quality of a fairy story, even when he takes us into the darkest places of cruelty and violation – or perhaps especially when he takes us there. Because of something unguarded in his writing, and his idiom borrowed from ordinary speech and proverbial wisdom, we can trust him to touch the terrible stories from our collective past without betraying them, or turning them merely into clever art. His work reminds us how much we need these rare gifts of the natural storyteller, for reckoning with our past and present.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)...an involving study of a slice of the French past ... Barnes insists time and again that there is so much \'we cannot know\'; that biography \'is a collection of holes tied together with string\'. We perceive these days an uneasy contradiction between Pozzi the doctor transforming women’s lives through medicine and Pozzi the womaniser, making his wife miserable with his succession of lovers ... Barnes tells us that he immersed himself in these past French lives partly as a respite from \'Britain’s deluded, masochistic departure from the European Union\', and as a gesture against insularity. And indeed it is salutary to be so thoroughly submerged – even sometimes to the point of drowning – in abundant detail from the \'distant, decadent, hectic, violent, narcissistic and neurotic Belle Epoque\', with all its fascination and its difference from us. The past liberates us from the shallowness of our absorption in the present, and reminds us that we always know less than we think about what we’re doing.
PositiveLondon Review of Books (UK)Strout’s small places have a distinctive cultural autonomy, a strong idea of themselves, even as their economy turns out to be fatally dependant on outside forces. Her stories have resonated so strongly in America because of the balancing act she more or less pulls off: bringing modern liberal values and an exacting critique of class and inequality to bear on subject matter buried deep in the foundations of America’s self-image, and which might be perceived as conservative ... Olive Kitteridge embodies Strout’s ambivalence ... Strout’s writing is often fuelled by indignation, but it’s directed at the injustices of class and poverty rather than patriarchy ... There’s a difficulty in sustaining a character as extravagant as Olive without her occasionally lapsing into a type; in Olive, Again it sometimes feels as though her scolding has become a routine, enjoyable rather than unsettling. The writing is fonder than before and more forgiving ... Strout’s treatment of their imperfect love and mutual adjustment is tender and unillusioned ... there are places elsewhere in Strout’s work when the accumulation of catastrophe only just avoids being comical. This is country gossip with its lurid secrets and schadenfreude; but it sometimes feels as though, when the prose flags, another sensational twist helps to revive it ... At best this nervy hypersensitivity generates something raw and electric...But [Strout] can resort too quickly to piling on the pain, delivering the shock and then offering the consolation – addressing her work to the longing and unappeasable child in all of us. Whether the reader resists or responds is a matter of taste and temperament, as well as tradition.
PositiveThe GuardianThere are passages in the novel of real beauty and originality. Vuong writes wonderfully about work ... The novel’s strength lies in its specifics, so exactly seen or smelled or tasted ... Vuong is at his best pressing the words further and harder...in his effort to capture in their net the fleeting sensations of a real moment, make on his page the illusion of life. His frankness and precision, writing about Little Dog’s lovemaking with Trevor, is persuasive and moving, as is the unsparing description of grandmother Lin’s death. It’s more problematic when the flow of the story is freighted with too much of a different kind of writing: an explicit commentary on the meaning of what’s happening, or a sort of choric lyrical lamenting between scenes. Part of the problem may come with the framing device: because the novel is addressed to Rose, who can’t read it, it’s aimed too much rhetorically at the unresponsive air – which can’t talk back, or yawn or laugh, as one suspects Rose might. Tonally there’s a habitual recourse to plangency, to a dying fall ... too much prose in this register inhibits the flow, dilutes the story’s power to persuade us. The passionate politics of this book are most alive whenever we’re most lost inside the experiences of his protagonists.
PositiveThe GuardianGordon writes with passionate intelligence about the literature she loves. Since she first published her book on TS Eliot in 1977, she has developed her distinctive way of weaving together the writer’s life and writing ... Gordon is a natural storyteller, and the lives stir us and fascinate us no matter how well we already know them ... [Gordon] judgments are full of novelistic insight, pushing into the biographical material to substantiate her hunches, tracing patterns and repetitions in these writers’ emotional lives and in their work ... Gordon in her eager, hurrying inclusiveness wants to make each of her writers a way-station in a progressive evolution...Would we want to construct an equivalent consecutive history out of the lives of five male writers, even if some were also outsiders in a sense?...We might want to link them in terms of influence in their work, but probably not through their private lives. And in emphasising the female writers’ role as precursors or visionaries, we risk underplaying how distinctively each one is of her own age, participating in its idiom and its worldview as well as helping to form these.
PositiveThe Guardian\"She has great curiosity and intelligence, and responds with intensity to the lives of others, especially in her sympathetic portraits of writers and artists. She sees things clearly, but her sanity is swamped with doubt, drawn to what’s on the edge, what’s dangerous ... This is a sweeter, kinder book, perhaps, than it quite wants to be. Kathy actually seems perfectly nice, or at least as nice as most of us, though she has her moments ... With its minimal development, Crudo perhaps feels a little thin after the satisfying thickness of Laing’s non-fiction, which is crammed so full with other people’s stories. It is story – the astonishing stuff that happens – that pegs open the space of fiction, gives it room to breathe. In Crudo her triumph, rather, is rendering on the page the texture of a very contemporary sensibility.\
MixedThe GuardianThere’s a pervasive suggestion in this book that our contemporary culture in the west might actually be the most anti-mother yet ... Rose is no doubt right to take issue with something saccharine and sanitised in many contemporary representations of motherhood, and she wants us to listen more to the dark side, to what mothers \'have to say—from deep within their bodies and minds\' ... The net of this argument is cast so wide and so loosely ... Her story is too totalising, its passion can feel like a free-floating indignation, drawing anything and everything up into its complaint ... There’s a logical difficulty with treating mothers as an oppressed minority: mothers are also punishers. They too may be neoliberals, anti-immigration, hostile to asylum seekers using maternity service ... Of course it would be unequivocally an excellent thing if here in the UK we became a less patriarchal society, more oriented to the needs of mothers, listening more respectfully to their stories—though Rose doesn’t have much to say about how we might achieve that. But it wouldn’t be an end to all our problems.
MixedLondon Reviw of Books\"In Warlight it’s difficult at times to work out what’s happening ... [scenes containing] sexual encounters, where the young lovers run around naked in the dark, are some of the best passages in the book ... And yet all these scenes and their striking ephemera – the greyhounds, the china, the empty munitions factories, Agnes’s handstands in an empty house, the sculptures of goddesses hidden in tunnels under the Criterion – aren’t quite as seductive as they ought to be ... There’s something’s exhausting – or tired, slack inside the sentences – in Warlight’s effort to be enchanting, extraordinary, legendary ... Nothing in the world of this novel is ever redundant; nothing is accidental. Whenever you come across a striking detail... you can be sure it will crop up again, be charged with more significance, be joined with the rest of the story in a long chain of meaning, even if that meaning may never become entirely clear.\
MixedThe GuardianThese two rich, ripe voices, beautifully realised on the page, are the joy of the novel and at the heart of its achievement … In summary his idea feels good: a technology-fuelled race across the mapped surface of the Australian landscape becomes instead a journey inwards, into its true past and its different meanings, and into the race crimes buried shallowly under its surface. And yet the book’s energy seems to lapse in this long section where Bachhuber is stuck in the outback. I think it’s partly a problem with the language and with those voices. Carey wants to break the frame and take us through the picture into a new way of looking, but his character’s kindly period idiom is incommensurate with the depth of his discoveries … The story of the crimes against Indigenous people is present more hauntingly, because more obliquely, in earlier parts of the novel.
RaveThe GuardianReservoir 13 isn’t simply an iteration of the usual story, however: it’s a fascinating exploration of it. McGregor is a writer with extraordinary control, and he uses the power of the archetype as well as our genre expectations for his own purposes ... And then as our expectations are strained to the limit, we begin to realise that the writer is deflecting them into something else, taking us into another kind of novel altogether. What actually fills up the pages, fills up narrative time while we wait to find the girl, is an omniscient narration moving easily around and inside a whole collective of protagonists in the village and following them through their daily lives, none of them dominating the story space ... The characters we watch are all warm enough, sentient human beings, prone to needing and wanting and mostly failing one another. But the eye of the story keeps its remote omniscient distance; it’s a cold camera-eye, or the eye of a hawk circling above the village, assembling everything impartially, not taking sides ... Reservoir 13 is an enthralling and brilliant investigation of disturbing elements embedded deeply in our story tradition.
RaveThe Guardian...beautiful, funny, intelligent short stories ... His writing shines its clean light, never mercilessly or voyeuristically, on these characters winding round and round inside the muddled opacity of their lives and their thoughts ... There are quite a number of hapless, unhappy, hopeful men in these pages, often failing to understand women, who are the more unfathomable the more they are objects of desire ... Summarised like this, the stories sound so sad – and they are...Yet their vision is comic too, in the broadest, Chekhovian sense: robust and warm and ironic, not overwrought. The genius lies in the detail, in the gritty comical solidity of real things.
MixedThe London Review of BooksThe most extraordinary and best of the stories in Gilead are to do with the quarrels Ames remembers between his father and grandfather; these are the hub of the novel’s arguments about the transforming power of religious faith … [Ames’s] voice has things so comfortably sewn up, it doesn’t have any capacity for the truth-seeking exertions of fresh thought. If we are meant to infer from the novel a continuum between the grandfather’s activism spurred by passionate faith and Ames’s late-life celebrations of a world radiant with God’s love, the language is too bland to convince us. Ames’s mere acquiescence to the existence of Jack’s mixed-race child can’t stand all by itself for a significant engagement against injustice.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
RaveThe GuardianIt would be difficult not to like this little book, which shines with all Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s characteristic warmth and sanity and forthrightness ... Some of the suggestions feel like mountains of difficulty made simple: but then that’s what manifestos are for ... Adichie manages the same consummate balancing act in her booklet as she does in her fictions: addressing a Nigerian friend and the specifics of Nigerian experience and at the same time addressing all of us, the world.
RaveThe Guardian...tremendous from its opening sentence ... Cusk is always an exciting writer: striking and challenging, with a distinctive cool prose voice, and behind that coolness something untamed and full of raw force, even rash ... This way of sequencing narrative feels like an elegant formal solution to the problem of the sheer force of personality in Cusk’s writing. It’s a striking gesture of relinquishment. Faye’s story contends for space against all these others, and the novel’s meaning is devolved out from its centre in her to a succession of characters ... The novel’s language is spare and vivid and exact, never inflated. There’s no exaggerated effort to imitate the accents or voices of the various storytellers, and yet the prose is scrupulously attentive to the gritty detail in what they tell ... All too often there is a trade-off between formal experiments in literature and reading pleasure, but the joy of Transit is that it’s so eminently readable.
PanThe GuardianBut I’m not so sure about the style in In Other Words, at least as it is rendered in translation. Sometimes its abruptness just feels blunt, like a writer bumping up against her limits, short of breath ... Lahiri’s book feels starved of actual experiences of Italy, or reflections on how that language gives form to its different world. Monkishly, all her contemplation is turned inwards on to her own processes of learning, not outwards on the messy imperfect matter the language works to express.
PositiveThe GuardianAthill’s new book is a further instalment of news from that high plateau of old age which she has already written about in Somewhere Towards the End and elsewhere, and it is full of clear, fresh air and bright distance.