PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIts voice remains lively and compelling (despite some jarringly odd decisions by Ms. Goldstein), and the subjects depressingly perennial: the battle between motherhood and self-actualization; social control over women’s bodies; unpaid emotional and domestic labor; the forces of progress pressing up against the ceiling of convention ... Over half a year, the story unfolds with smoldering intensity as we come to realize that each of the four family members nurtures his or her own illicit secret ... This is a brilliant, quietly tumultuous book and a welcome revival of an author too little known in the anglophone world.
Hanne Orstavik, tr. Martin Aitken
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Ørstavik claims she wrote the novella in a fortnight. This seems plausible—and not in a bad way. Its raw immediacy is both central to the minutiae of its tragic present and to the author’s cast of mind, as she turns her thoughts to her hindsight-tinted past and uncertain future ... Ms. Ørstavik tenderly evokes her role as a caregiver, the indignities of her partner’s failing body, his need for both privacy and intimacy ... It isn’t Ms. Ørstavik’s achievement to wring pathos from her subject: it is drenched in it already. What is so impressive is her ability to capture—with precision, candor and, indeed, tenacity—her shifting sense of self, as the foundations on which it rests crumble with every passing moment.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalWhat this information is doing in the middle of a novel is quite another matter, but Mr. Barnes has always enjoyed playing with form and style, the porous border between fiction and nonfiction ... It is not hard to see why Julian is a good subject for metaphysically-inclined writers ... EF is a wonderful character, even if we only ever catch her glimpses ... The \'shaming\' strand also doubles as a clever narrative device, piquing our interest and keeping us turning the pages ... Mr. Barnes is on less firm footing here. The Jewish thread feels slightly cheap, a symbol for EF’s hard-to-pin-down quality and a vehicle for a brief foray into identity politics. As for the other characters—they are well-sketched but no more than that ... This is a reflection of another, more central problem: that essay on Julian at the story’s heart. While sympathetic to the novel’s themes and logic, it is less helpful to its art, diverting us away from a nicely unfolding tale that subsequently struggles to reassert itself in the final third ... while this other Julian is well aware of his apostasy as a storyteller, and while many readers will appreciate his ambiguous, ideas-heavy approach to his craft, others will find themselves hungering for a little more of the simple stuff, like character and plot development; those humbler, less pluralistic satisfactions.
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)As if to pay his generic respects, McGregor opens with the thrill of calamity ... The next eighty pages describe, in gripping detail, what happens when Doc and his two latest charges—Thomas and Luke—lose each other out on the glacier ... McGregor is a master of free indirect style ... Here there is a risk to the technique, as he tries to transmit the flow of Doc’s disordered thoughts. But while the narrative occasionally stutters, he largely pulls it off. McGregor is wise not to overdo the forays into Doc’s perspective, and allows the portrait of an estranged...marriage to unfold primarily through the gaze of Anna. He is also moving and convincing on aphasia itself. In the novel’s final section, Doc joins a self-help group for people with his condition, and we quickly come to understand each member’s peculiarities and elisions, their tics and workarounds, the incredible challenges they face to rebuild the language they have lost. The novel, which started off rooted in those \'ideas of heroism and self-sufficiency and male delusion\', becomes something quieter, more subtle and tender, in a minor key ... But it retains a splinter of ice.
PositiveTimes Literary SupplementA thoroughly enjoyable drama of hedonism, enchantment and emotional beastliness, stretched over an elastic summer of new horizons and disappointments. Though the Hydra story is well known, Samson brings fresh life to the real characters, while wisely keeping the focus on her fictional narrator. The research is commendable but never overwhelms the narrative; you do not need to know anything about Pat Greer or Gregory Corso, Johnston, Clift, or even Cohen, to enjoy this tale of a young woman’s sentimental, and often painful, education.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Lee’s novel is arranged neatly and artfully ... Mr. Lee is one of those old-fashioned authors who likes to make things up. He is an excellent sketcher of character, setter of scene and weaver of research ... Mr. Lee keeps many balls in the air. He enjoys playing with truth and reality, the \'instabilities\' of history, and he likes his symmetries and oppositions: appetite versus restraint; accident versus design; the exhilarating tumult of the city versus humankind’s need for \'open space\' ... Too often in his performance, Mr. Lee puts design before authenticity, delightful prose before the dutiful business of convincing his reader ... None of Mr Lee’s sentences is soulless. They brim with life and music and filigree-fine craft. But they are not always quite trustworthy. And this is a shame, for the story he tells is worth telling and the manner in which he does so is engrossing ... The result is genuinely impressive, especially in its attention to period detail. But some readers will prefer their authors as vivisectors, their novels a little closer to the heart.
Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, tr. Philip Boehm
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... superbly translated ... We can be grateful to everyone involved. The Passenger is a riveting, noirish, intensely filmic portrait of an ambivalent fugitive ... The book is urgent, propulsive, often tragicomic, peppered with moments of absurdism and existential speculation, by turns Hitchcockian and Beckettian. It has the immediacy of a novel written in a hurry. But if the original was disordered, this new version is cohesive and beautifully paced ... With great verisimilitude, Boschwitz paints the portrait of a man riven with indecision and well-mannered panic as his options fall away ... Boschwitz is particularly good on the tussle between the new logic and the old order ... a jewel of a rediscovery: At once a deeply satisfying novel and a vital historical document—likely the first literary account, as Mr. Graf writes in his afterword, of Kristallnacht and its repercussions. Through the eyes of Otto Silbermann, we are thrust into the moment when politically legislated persecution tips into full-scale existential assault, our protagonist’s bewilderment morphing into terror and defiance as he tries to convince himself that the situation will surely get better.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal... features sophisticated weaponry, devious Nazis, moral compromise and Allied ingenuity ... The entire narrative (save for a coda) unfolds over five days. In a way, very little happens. Rockets are launched and lovingly described; they land or misfire. Kay abandons a faithless lover in Blighty and becomes embroiled with her Belgian host. Graf and his team are visited by an SS man. The scientist’s crisis of conscience is well-timed (in narrative terms) and results in further sabotage, a spot of tragic helplessness, a grisly interrogation and a reckoning. He later asserts a touch of self-determination. A final twist involving Kay is a curveball we saw coming ... There is quite a lot of backstory. In fact, we are still being filled in about the abominable Kammler and his rocket factory with 70 pages to go ... What is impressive, then, is how grippingly Mr. Harris marshals this thin material. Both Kay and Graf are engaging, if clichéd. The pacing is good, the prose brisk, the dual structure largely propulsive. The wartime mise-en-scène is expertly done ... Morally it’s simple stuff. The queasy Graf is designed to play easily on our sympathies, his remorse perhaps a little too convenient. More interesting is the peripheral von Braun. The Nazis are largely dastardly, though the author is careful to remind us that the Brits, too, spread sneaky propaganda, while a single RAF bombing raid killed almost 10 times as many civilians as died from the V2s ... It might be considered whether our literary culture requires another World War II thriller of this nature, especially one juggling such unvexed oppositions. Assuming, however, that it does, readers could do worse than stick with Robert Harris.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. O’Connell’s investigation into end-times paranoia, prognostication and \'prepping\' (stockpiling tins, dusting down that bunker) could hardly be more timely—and yet in some ways his new book has already dated beyond anything he could have predicted ... This book’s status as an exercise in anachronism is wholly to its benefit. There is fertile territory between the terror it articulates and the faltering, yet still revolving, world in which we suddenly live. Its success is also testament to its author’s literary flair ... It is smart, funny, irreverent and philosophically rich.
MixedThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)... never devoid of hope. A year of sobriety demonstrates all that Agnes can achieve. And the love between mother and son is heartbreaking in its tenderness ... There are some problems with voice. Stuart can slip unsteadily between the close and more distant third person, putting unlikely thoughts and phrases in the heads of his characters. Shuggie’s precocity occasionally strains at plausibility, and for all her vivacity, Agnes does feel rather remote. We rarely get under her skin. This may be to true to Shuggie’s perspective, and perhaps to Stuart’s own, but it can frustrate the reader. There is a bit of overwriting. Adjectives are used liberally and, among the many brilliant similes, there is the odd duff note, or eccentricity. We are shown much and told a fair bit too ... beneath the desperation, misery and stour, is a city teeming with life, and a cast of characters vivified by sharp dialogue, rich, dark humour and driven by the irrepressible instinct for human contact and, in a certain sense, transcendence. If it reads like a slice of social history, with its television meters and anti-Thatcher graffiti, then the struggles it describes remain all too contemporary.
MixedThe Guardian (UK)Gessen is reminiscent of another serious young hotshot from this side of the pond, Adam Thirlwell. Their prose is laden with bathetic jokes, harrying narrative interjections and exclamation marks. There is a faux-naive quality to their narrative tone ... Both remain, at this stage, proponents of genre fiction, what, for all Gessen\'s careful sociopolitical placement, we might call literary lad-lit. It is no bad thing for a first-time novelist to write about what he knows. Now that Gessen has, enjoyably, got this out of his system, perhaps we can expect a follow-up with a little more gravitas. He has the potential to be very good indeed.
RaveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)The structuring throughout is brilliantly done: the main chapters are standalone episodes, or mini-memoirs, which reverberate against each other thematically rather than chronologically, opening up yet more fertile spaces for the reader ... In some ways, The Topeka School is a satisfyingly simple family story, a creative unfolding of the relationships between two parents and their son, and the worlds that have formed these characters ... If one of many miracles is the way in which its proliferation of ideas are held in place, entwined, made to reinforce one another...then this exhilarating feeling of composed artistic plenty stands in contrast to the preoccupation with uncontrolled babble coursing through the novel ... Lerner isn’t just offering a weary postmodern jeu d’esprit, shruggingly embracing the meaninglessness of it all. For the apprehension of nonsense, of unreason disguised as reason, is as central to the book’s political diagnosis as it is to its artistic purpose: unreason linked to violence, bad words to bad deeds ... I think Lerner gets the balance just right. He has written a perfectly weighted, hugely intelligent, entirely entertaining novel that does more than simply mine his childhood or explore what it is to be an author; he has taken on American masculinity, group identity and marginalization, political messaging and generational exchange, and has done so not didactically but generously and with admirable sensitivity.
Hanne Ørstavik, Trans. by Martin Aitken
RaveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)Hanne Ørstavik’s utterly memorable, devastating little book was first published in Norway in 1997. Available in English for the first time, in Martin Aitken’s admirably clear translation, it might as well have been written yesterday: it has been preserved in fabular ice. The writing is beautifully precise and packed with meaning, as it toggles between the perspectives of its two main characters, the narrative pas de deux flowing without grammatical interruption from short section to short section so that it’s not always immediately clear whose head we’re in ... Love is an intense tale of selfishness and tenderness...a fairy tale soaked in bathos and fraught with jeopardy. It is driven by a dreamlike logic, mirroring the general sense of torpor in the air (characters keep dozing off, when you don’t expect them to). The final few lines are magnificently ambiguous. Certainly, we have witnessed some form of tragedy. Whether it’s one of transient emotional neglect or something more tangible and terrible is potently unclear.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalStyles and registers ebb and flow. The opener is written in realist vein, though there is a feverish, dream-like quality … The tonal variety and architectural arrangement aren’t just there for aesthetic effect. A State of Freedom deliberately forces us to make connections, and to notice when there are none, when any sense of unity is nothing but a chimera. This, more broadly, is how the novel haunts us … The result is a profoundly intelligent and empathetic novel of privilege and poverty, advancement and entrapment.
Omar Robert Hamilton
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalOmar Robert Hamilton’s explosive debut novel explains how Egypt got this way, and it does so with a combination of intensity and empathy rare in political fiction. There is no room for distanced irony here, nor is the novel an earnest polemic. Instead the view is admirably clear-sighted, evenhanded, at times kaleidoscopic. This is less a howl of rage than a sober accounting ... But there are pros and cons to the authorial strategy of forgoing the personal for the bigger picture. The City Always Wins is not an easy book to warm to. It can leave the reader skittering across the surface of events. There is, however, an authenticity to its wide-angle approach, a kind of revolutionary verisimilitude; and what the novel lacks in intimacy it more than atones for in its urgency ... The City Always Wins powerfully transmits the hope and despair of Egypt’s Tahrir Square generation, and the bravery and willingness of its members to keep fighting in the face of insurmountable obstacles. Mr. Hamilton plunges us into an important moment in recent history and makes us think about it anew. While the novel’s political message is clear, its tone is never hectoring, and its journalistic attention to detail never didactic. It is not always pleasurable to read but is always worth the trouble. It may even grow to be an important book—one of the defining novels of the Arab Spring.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"This touch of archaism, even fogeyishness, is refreshing. It is unusual for contemporary books about sexual relationships to be so devoid of millennial cynicism. There is almost no political backdrop and almost no overt social critique. And even if the characters are battle-weary, their jadedness is only ever temporary. The pursuit of love (and slaking of lust) trumps all considerations. The chase, with Mr. Aciman, is always thrilling ... Enigma Variations is Mr. Aciman’s fourth novel and his most sophisticated treatment of bisexuality ... The different strands of his protagonist’s character and experience gradually build into a portrait of a credible, mutable, sincere and reliably inscrutable human being ... Perhaps the most affecting tale is \'Star Love,\' a brilliantly restless narrative that ranges from Paul’s university days to an era after Manfred has gone. It portrays the slings and arrows of a hopeless and persisting love affair ... This is an enormously intelligent and captivating novel, filled with surprising twists and psychological acuity. Its success, however, also contains some seeds of failure. As in his previous novels, most notably Eight White Nights Mr. Aciman refuses to say much about the privileged arena his characters inhabit...With a little more tethering to the world that nourishes Paul’s angst, Enigma Variations could have been even more satisfying.\
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe Lesser Bohemians is every bit as stylistically resourceful as Girl, every bit as urgent and authentic. It is also more well-rounded, better ... As for the content, it is equally harrowing, but the pain is leavened by headiness and hope ... The Lesser Bohemians is a full-on sensory experience—and another superlative achievement.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe Return roves back and forth in time with a freedom that conceals the intricate precision of its art. One of the greatest achievements of this outstanding book is a narrative design that keeps us hungry for new information even when we suspect exactly what has happened ... Mr. Matar’s lens zooms in and out to take in three generations of his family as well as the sweep of 20th-century Libyan history. We meet his grandfather, a fighter in the Libyan resistance against Benito Mussolini, as well as numerous uncles and cousins who later clashed with Gadhafi’s similarly despotic regime ... Mr. Matar is not a wonderful writer because his father disappeared or because his homeland is a mess: He is a brilliant narrative architect and prose stylist, his pared-down approach and measured pace a striking complement to the emotional tumult of his material ... This book is an extraordinary gift for us all.