May 16, 2021
The folk singer offers a lyrical homage to the endangered migrant bird whose uniquely beautiful song he has been communing with up close for years
A few years ago, a group of friends and I followed Barbara Dickson, the Scottish pop star turned folk singer, into a wood deep in the green heart of Kent. We were there as part of Singing With Nightingales, an immersive experience run by another folk singer, Sam Lee. It was night and we had no torches. We came to a small clearing where we sat, silent, until from far off, then closer, and then so close that the sound seemed to be the voice of the very trees around us, a nightingale sang. After listening to its otherworldly carolling for a while, Lee and Dickson took turns singing back to the nightingale, old shanties and folk songs, praising the beauty of its voice, recognising the importance of its role in that bright space where culture and nature meet.
Now Lee, a tousle-haired former Mercury prize nominee (for his 2012 debut album, Ground of Its Own), has turned from song to prose with The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird, a beautiful, lyrical, heartfelt book about the songbird. Part nature writing, part memoir, part miscellany, every page of this book benefits from the incredible intimacy that Lee has built up with the bird over the years of his “undoubtedly romantic and whimsical” pilgrimages to listen to, and sing back to, nightingales. Continue reading...
May 03, 2021
This beautiful portrait of the people who keep farming alive today is part memoir, part social history
In Field Work: What Land Does to People & What People Do to Land, Bella Bathurst identifies a series of painful truths about Britain’s relationship with its land. This is a country whose self-identity is closely bound up with its agriculture, and yet farmers have, over the course of a generation, become “the sort of profession which everyone disrespected without really understanding”. Farmers are responsible, so the narrative of several books goes – see Mark Cocker’s Our Place and George Monbiot’s Feral, for instance – for genocidal cruelty to the animals they process, and for the destruction of the countryside and its ecosystems through a mixture of hyper-intensive agriculture and devastating chemicals. We want our farms to be picturesque yet productive, cruelty-free and yet able to provide us with cheap and tasty food.
Field Work’s aim is to broaden and insert nuance into our understanding of farming. Bathurst moves to live in a cottage attached to Rise Farm, a 180-acre Welsh hill farm run by Bert and Alison Howell. She recognises almost at once that “what I thought I knew of farming was based on living beside it, not within it”. The book is a record of life at Rise Farm and the lives of other rural characters who contribute to the little known but essential functions of British agriculture. Continue reading...
Apr 17, 2021
The acclaimed novelist on the fun of plotting a counterfactual history of the 16th century, reading in lockdown, and his despair at his country’s vaccine rollout
Laurent Binet is one of the most successful French writers of his generation, author of the bestselling HHhH, which won the Prix Goncourt du premier roman, and The Seventh Function of Language, a murder mystery novel based on the life and writing of Roland Barthes. His latest, Civilisations, which won the Académie Française’s Grand Prix du roman in 2019, is a counterfactual novel, a wild romp of a book that turns history on its head. In Binet’s mirror-world, the Vikings discover America, Christopher Columbus never makes it back to Spain, the Inca king Atahualpa invades Europe, while Cervantes is exiled to Cuba. The book is translated by Binet’s long-time collaborator Sam Taylor.
How did the idea to write something counterfactual come to you? Continue reading...
It was really by chance. I was invited to a book fair in Lima. I hesitated to go, but I went to Peru and I discovered the story of the conquest by Pizarro, and it was really an amazing tale – impossible that 200 people conquered this vast place, just as Cortés did in Mexico. I went to museums in Lima and I was fascinated by pre-Colombian culture. When I came back to France I carried on reading about the subject and somebody gave me a book by Jared Diamond called Guns, Germs and Steel. In that book there was a chapter about Atahualpa, Pizarro and their meeting at Cajamarca. Diamond asks why it is that Pizarro comes to Peru to capture Atahualpa, and not Atahualpa coming to Spain to capture Charles V of Spain. And this specific sentence gave me the idea for the whole book.
Apr 03, 2021
A mother and daughter’s tense relationship makes for a devastating, quietly brutal novel
Inter-generational friction is hardly new, but it does feel like the tension between boomers and their millennial children is more fraught than usual. On the one hand, you have a cohort who own their homes and can look back on lives of travel and financial security; their children, however, are perma-renters eking out their existences in precarious jobs and frying their mental health with social media. It’s fertile ground for fiction and few have charted the territory better than Gwendoline Riley.
My Phantoms is Riley’s seventh book in a career that began in her early 20s and has now stretched over almost two decades. Her novels are told in the first person, always from the perspective of an enigmatic, slightly distanced female narrator whose reliability is gradually revealed to be suspect. Here we meet Bridget Grant, daughter of parents who separated long ago but who each maintain a fierce and inexorable hold over her. This is despite the fact that she barely sees her mother, Hen, while her father, the riotously awful Lee, died several years ago. Continue reading...
Mar 14, 2021
The author of the 2017 Booker-shortlisted Elmet takes an unexpected turn into a Soho brothel for her deeply humane second novel
The reason that second novels so often fail – and I speak here from bitter experience – is that they tend to be written in the clutches of a dilemma, particularly when the first novel has done well. To stick or to twist? To give your audience more of the same, or to write something daringly different? Too often, second novels provide neither one thing nor another. This is not an accusation that can be levelled at Hot Stew, Fiona Mozley’s follow-up to her bestselling 2017 Booker-shortlisted debut, Elmet.
Hot Stew is expansive and ribald where Elmet, set in rural Yorkshire, was claustrophobic and restrained. It’s ambitious, clever, brilliant and very funny. It shows what happens when an author, rather than letting expectations weigh upon her, uses them to catapult her writing to a whole new plane. The story unfolds in a Soho brothel whose existence is threatened by developers seeking to drive out the last denizens of the once grimy and lubricious surrounding alleyways. The development company is led by Agatha Howard, a cartoonish representation of the rampant capitalist, who hasn’t reckoned on the depth of feeling and hidden networks of solidarity that run between the inhabitants of old Soho. Continue reading...
Mar 01, 2021
The Booker winner’s brilliant eighth novel expands on his theme of what it means to be not-quite-human, exploring love and loyalty through the eyes of an android
In a 2015 interview with the Guardian, Kazuo Ishiguro revealed what he claimed was his “dirty secret”: that his novels are more alike than they might initially seem. “I tend to write the same book over and over,” he said. It seemed a particularly ludicrous statement from a writer who had just followed a clone romance (Never Let Me Go) with an Arthurian epic (The Buried Giant). With Klara and the Sun, his eighth novel, though, it feels like Ishiguro is bringing that dirty secret slightly more into the light. This is a book – a brilliant one, by the way – that feels very much of a piece with Never Let Me Go, again exploring what it means to be not-quite-human, drawing its power from the darkest shadows of the uncanny valley.
Klara is an AF – an Artificial Friend – androids bought by parents to provide companionship for their teenage children, who, for reasons that become clearer over the course of the book, are home-schooled by “screen professors” in the novel’s polluted and anxious future America. Klara is chosen by Josie, a fragile young woman who we soon learn has an illness that may kill her as it killed her sister. As with Never Let Me Go, one of the enormous pleasures of Klara and the Sun is the way Ishiguro only drip-feeds to the reader hints and suggestions about the shape of this futuristic world, the reasons for its strangeness. We are left to do much of the imagining ourselves, and this makes the novel a satisfyingly collaborative read. Continue reading...
Feb 14, 2021
A woman hanged for her part in a real-life 17th-century scandal narrates a scintillating exploration of female sexuality and class
Anne Turner, narrator and heroine of Lucy Jago’s A Net for Small Fishes, feels like she steps straight from the stage of a Jacobean masque. To an extent, she does. Turner, the widow of a London doctor, was a historical figure hanged at Tyburn for her part in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. She became an instant celebrity, vilified by contemporary playwrights. Turner was the subject of the anonymous play The Widow, and features in Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The World Tossed at Tennis.
This is Jago’s first foray into adult fiction – having made her name with an award-winning biography of Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland (The Northern Lights) and a YA novel, Montacute House – and she presents a different, more sympathetic Turner. She concentrates on the friendship between Anne and Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, her fellow defendant in what would become known as the “Overbury scandal” in this superb exploration of female agency, sexuality and class in early 17th-century England. Continue reading...
Jan 09, 2021
The US novelist on getting through the pandemic, Trump’s legacy of fear, and why a slow apocalypse could be the threat we didn’t see coming
Jenny Offill’s first novel, Last Things, was published in 1999. It took a decade and a half for her next to appear – Offill suffers from depression and was unable to write for much of this period. The wait was worth it, though: her second novel, Dept of Speculation, was widely heralded for its innovative use of brief, impressionistic paragraphs and a luminous stream-of-consciousness first-person voice. Weather, her third novel, was published in February 2020 and shortlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction. It is about the climate crisis, Trump, and the state of the US. Offill lives in upstate New York with her husband and daughter, and teaches at Bard College. She was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 2016.
Weather continues the fragmentary style of your previous novel. How much do you think about the effect this has on the reader’s experience of the book? Continue reading...
I think about it a lot. I really want the writing act to be collaborative with the reader. I often feel, when I’m reading a lot of contemporary novels, like so much is filled in and spelled out, so much backstory is put in. For me, so much of the joy that comes from reading a good book is the conversation you’re having in your head with the author. I feel like the white space in my writing is for the reader to bring their own thoughts and ideas to the book. I know what would go in between if I were to write it, it’s not a mystery to me. I’m not trying to withhold exactly, but rather to distil. Asking myself how much is essential and how much is the part that you plod through to get to the interesting bits.
Dec 27, 2020
With a host of dazzling second novels in the offing, plus the return of big hitters such as Kazuo Ishiguro and Jon McGregor, 2021 is shaping up to be a special year
2020 ended up being a decent year for the publishing trade, at least as far as book sales went. Perhaps we also learned to cherish our bookshops and literary festivals – vital elements of our cultural lives whose absence for much of the year was painful to endure. The loss of these forums for discovering new books caused publishers to delay the release of many titles until 2021. So it’s a massive year of fiction ahead, meaning that I’ll concentrate here on books published in the first six months (with a brief nod to autumn titles from Jonathan Franzen, Richard Powers, Jennifer Egan, Colson Whitehead and a new Sebastian Faulks novel, Snow Country (Hutchinson), coming in September). I’ll also leave first novels to the Observer New Review’s superb debut feature.
First up, I’m struck by the fact that two of the best American novels of the year are written by Brits. Tahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife (Canongate, June) is a brilliant and trenchant portrait of hi-tech America’s frat-boy misogyny, and Jonathan Lee is quietly becoming one of the best young novelists on either side of the Atlantic. His fourth book, The Great Mistake (Granta, June), is a sweeping historical novel that is also a gripping mystery. As far as American novels by actual Americans go, there’s We Run the Tides (Atlantic, February) by Vendela Vida, a dreamily evocative story of California, adolescence and grief. Also look out for The Committed (Black Cat, March) by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the lyrical sequel to his Pulitzer-winning debut, The Sympathiser. Continue reading...
Nov 30, 2020
The American author imagines a comic-book post-apocalyptic future on a New England farm
You could trace an interesting history of recent western culture through its dystopias. From Zamyatin’s We to Brave New World to Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, it started with a mistrust of political systems. Then, in the shadow of the mushroom cloud came On the Beach, A Canticle for Leibowitz and Riddley Walker. The looming environmental crisis brought us The Drowned World, The Road and The Year of the Flood. Now a sudden rush of books explore our complex relationship with technology – Don DeLillo’s The Silence, Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind and here, Jonathan Lethem’s The Arrest. All of these dystopian visions of the near future – published within a few months of one another – imagine what would happen if the computers, telephones and networks on which we depend suddenly stopped working.
Related: Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City | Interview Continue reading...
Nov 08, 2020
With echoes of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, this superb end-of-the-world novel captures the generalised panic of 2020
It wasn’t only because I read Rumaan Alam’s stupendously good Leave the World Behind immediately after Don DeLillo’s latest, the rather more meagre The Silence, that I was struck by the parallels between the two. Both novels see cataclysmic but mysterious events shut down the communication networks on which we all rely, both are suffused with an almost overwhelming sense of dread, both look at what happens to well-heeled New Yorkers when catastrophe strikes. But where The Silence was thin gruel, enigmatic to the point of meaninglessness, Alam’s novel is simply breathtaking, full of moments of exquisite recognition, as terrifying and prescient as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Related: Rumaan Alam: ‘What we are experiencing now is part of a bigger moment’ Continue reading...
Nov 07, 2020
The novelist and Harvard academic on her mother’s dementia, getting in touch with her teenage self, and how she reacts to bad reviews
Claire Messud is the author of seven novels, including the Booker-longlisted The Emperor’s Children and The Burning Girl. She was born in Connecticut, the daughter of an Algerian pied-noir father and a Canadian mother. She studied at Cambridge University, where she met her husband, the author and critic James Wood. They now live in Massachusetts, where Messud teaches at Harvard, with two teenage children and two beagles. Her latest book, Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write, a collection of essays and reviews from the past 20 years, was published last month.
What inspired the title of this collection? Continue reading...
The title comes from Thomas Bernhard writing about how Kant is reduced to his “little East Prussian head” but also to a single sentence, a mere philosophical hue. It’s about the fact that we can’t really take in everything we read in a book. When you think about what you remember of a book a month later or a year later, it’s a distillation – sometimes you remember an image or a scene or a moment in the plot, or an idea in an essay. You don’t actively remember the entire experience, at least not consciously. My father used to say that culture is what’s left when you’ve forgotten everything.
Oct 26, 2020
A Greek film composer recalls Billy Wilder’s impact on her life in a novel that ranks among Jonathan Coe’s best
The renaissance of Jonathan Coe has been one of the more cheering literary stories of recent years. He’s a writer whose career can be usefully arranged in decades. There was the apprenticeship of his 20s; then in his 30s a run of unforgettable, name-making novels – What a Carve Up!, The House of Sleep, The Rotters’ Club. Then it felt as if Coe went off the boil a little, with the books of his 40s and 50s – The Rain Before It Falls, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim and Expo 58 in particular – all lacking the verve and humour of his earlier work. Coe at his best was that rare thing: a writer of page-turners that are full of postmodern flourishes, jeux d’esprit that also engage profoundly with important subjects. In the Costa prize-winning and bestselling Middle England, he seemed to recapture the warmth and sharpness of his mid-career masterpieces.
Following up a success is never easy and yet the life and light that flooded Middle England is preserved and multiplied in Mr Wilder & Me. This is a book that looks back to Coe’s brilliant early period, engaging, like What a Carve Up!, with cinema in a formal as well as a thematic way, delivering the reader a satisfyingly sweeping novel that still manages to push the form in new directions. It hinges on 60 pages in the middle of the book when the narrative morphs suddenly into an approximation of a Billy Wilder script – but this is a film in which Wilder himself is the star. We meet “Billie” as a young man, in the war, when he betrayed a lover and made a film that in some way compensated for this betrayal. The script colours all the story around it and is one of the most strangely moving pieces of writing I’ve read in years. Coe’s best novels always sounded tricksier in summary than they were when you read them. The same can be said here. Continue reading...
Oct 24, 2020
The novelist on writing in the voices of men, the benefits of having a dual identity, and lockdown jogging alongside New York’s mayor
Nicole Krauss is the author of four novels, including the bestselling The History of Love. She was brought up in the splendid isolation of a Bauhaus masterpiece on Long Island. Her mother is British, her father American, both children of Jewish immigrants. Krauss’s work explores Jewish culture and history, particularly the Holocaust and the traces it has left on contemporary American and Israeli life. She lives in Brooklyn with her sons, who are 11 and 14. Their father is the author Jonathan Safran Foer, whom Krauss married in 2004 and divorced in 2014. To Be a Man is her first story collection.
It seems as if you dwell imaginatively in two different places: Israel and America. What does this dual identity bring to you as a writer? Continue reading...
As a writer, it’s an enormous boon. What I don’t have in my American or New York context, for example 2,000 or 3,000 years of history, I have in Israel. What I don’t have here [in the US] is that thing of specifically belonging to a community that I feel I’m an authority on – Roth had his Newark, which I didn’t have. Israel, or at least Tel Aviv, is a much smaller community, much more manageable. I have two societies that offer very different systems of value. So whereas in America there’s the wildness of the idea that one can become anything, in Israel there are these other values that are about what it is to belong to a family, to history, this feeling of knowing what it is to operate under the burdens of history on a daily basis. A strong sense of the urgency of life.
Oct 10, 2020
The bestselling author on his new short stories, catching Covid-19 and why children ought to read Tintin
John Lanchester’s career is a mix of prize-winning novels and popular nonfiction, with a regular output of journalism that straddles literature, finance and politics. His novels include the Booker-longlisted The Wall (2019) and Capital (2012), while his nonfiction analysis of the credit crisis, Whoops! (2010), was a bestseller. Lanchester was born in Hamburg, brought up in Hong Kong and lives in London. Reality is his first collection of stories, each of which takes the reader on an unsettling journey from the seemingly familiar to the eerily uncanny.
Why did you decide to publish these stories, several of which have appeared in print elsewhere, now? Continue reading...
The “Why?” really was that I wrote the first one and read it to friends at the new year and someone said you should send it out. I sent it to the New Yorker and they published it [in April 2017]. It was the first short story I’d ever written. There’s not many things in your mid-50s that give you a tremendous buzz of validation, but that did. It felt like the universe was telling me to write another.
Oct 04, 2020
The gloriously strange follow-up to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is more than worth the lengthy wait
Piranesi lives in the House. He knows the House intimately, every one of its 7,678 Halls. He knows also the number of those who have ever existed: 15. Of these, Piranesi believes only himself and “the Other” are still alive. Piranesi is around 30, the Other almost twice his age. Piranesi knows the patterns of the tides that move through the House, sweeping everything before them, pouring over the statues and ornaments, rushing up staircases and across the House’s marble Halls and Vestibules. Piranesi is a book of imagined worlds and unpredictable capitalisations, of mystery and murder and university life.
For those of us who had been eagerly awaiting a new Susanna Clarke after 2004’s wildly enjoyable Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, it has been a fair old hiatus. I read that superb debut when my wife was pregnant with our son; now, as its successor is published, he is reading Jonathan Strange. Clarke has written powerfully of the illness that kept her from writing during the intervening years, often confining her to bed in the home she shares with her husband. This confinement seems to have provided one of the inspirations for the fantastical framework of Piranesi, where the eponymous hero finds himself exiled to a labyrinthine world, deprived of human contact apart from twice-weekly meetings with the Other. Continue reading...
Sep 20, 2020
The Nazis’ V2 rocket programme is seen through the eyes of a conflicted German and a female air force office in a familiar but absorbing thriller
As the second world war hurtled towards its climax, the Nazis summoned up a final, futile burst of creative energy and channelled it into a rocket, the V2, which gives its name to Robert Harris’s 14th novel. Harris, in a narrative that is characteristically propulsive, tells the story of the V2 through twin perspectives – Dr Rudi Graf, a (fictional) friend and longtime collaborator of Wernher von Braun, real-life head of the Nazi rocket programme, and (the fictional) Kay Caton-Walsh of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
Kay works first in England, then at Mechelen in Belgium, analysing photographs through which she hopes to reveal the location of a secret V2 launch site, deep within the woods outside the Dutch resort of Scheveningen. Kay’s character feels strangely underdeveloped – the doughty SOE type who shows the men a thing or two has become a staple of the second world war literary landscape and it would have been nice to see Harris give her some edges. Continue reading...
Sep 12, 2020
The Italian author’s translator on how they work together, New York’s terrifying lockdown, and her favourite novelists
Ann Goldstein is a New York-based translator, renowned for her work on the acclaimed novels of the enigmatic and pseudonymous Elena Ferrante. Goldstein has also translated Primo Levi and Jhumpa Lahiri, as well as a host of other great Italian language writers, living and dead. She is also head copy-editor at the New Yorker, which she joined in 1974. Her latest work is a translation of The Lying Life of Adults, the first Ferrante novel to be published since the bestselling Neapolitan quartet.
You have been translating Elena Ferrante for 16 years. How do you manage to convey the strange, rhythmic simplicity of her voice? Continue reading...
It’s hard to answer that type of question. A lot of it has to do with my relation to the Italian words on the page. The first draft is the words as they are, more or less in the order they appear. It’s pretty straightforward. But most of the time there is then some shaping of that language into an English that reads like English but still contains some suggestion of the Italian. I’m not sure quite how, but it does. In my first draft I look at the Italian; in the second I am still working with the Italian and trying to solve problems I couldn’t solve first time around. Then, eventually, I try to read just the English, without the Italian, but I never can, because there’s always something I need to go back to check. Sometimes I find I’ve gone too far away from the Italian; sometimes I find I need to go further away.
Aug 24, 2020
A lyrical and terrifying tale of siblings joined by a supernatural bond
If I could bring any writer back from the dead, I think I’d choose Shirley Jackson, only because she’d write so very well about what it was like to be dead. But then again, I might not have to, because Daisy Johnson is the demon offspring of Shirley Jackson and Stephen King, her work a dark torrent of nightmarish images, her gothic vision startlingly vivid and distinctive.
Her first novel, the Booker-shortlisted Everything Under, was a watery piece of folk horror in which the relationship between the protagonist and her absent mother was scarcely less creepily compelling than the monster that lurked in the deeps, the Bonak. Now she gives us Sisters, a story that takes familiar themes and wraps them in the web of her careering lyricism and twisted imagination. Continue reading...
Aug 22, 2020
The novelist on creative spaces, the pernicious spread of surveillance and the power of protest
Hari Kunzru is the prizewinning author whose novels include The Impressionist and White Tears. His latest, Red Pill, is the unsettling tale of an American at a Berlin writer’s retreat. It uses the totalitarian past to shine a light on contemporary technologies of control, all wrapped within a sophisticated, fast-paced thriller. Kunzru lives in New York with his wife, the novelist Katie Kitamura, and their two young children.
The seemingly benevolent Deuter Centre denies your protagonist the one thing he needs in order to work – a private space. How important is privacy to art? Continue reading...
I had gone to Germany in the first half of 2016 with a set of questions around privacy and the self. Privacy is under attack in a whole host of ways and surveillance is one of them. I’m really interested in the ways you behave when you think it’s possible you’re being observed. There’s this idea in Hannah Arendt that you need privacy and a space that’s hidden away from the public in order to have the choice when to give yourself to the public space. If you have no ability to withdraw then there’s something essential to being a person that is lost.
Aug 08, 2020
This heart-rending novel set in 1980s Glasgow is deservedly on the Booker longlist and may even give Mantel a run for her money
One of several surprises in a tendentious Booker longlist was the number of debut authors selected – eight of the 13 novels are by first-timers, the largest share in the 51-year history of the prize. It has also raised hackles that nine of the books are by Americans. Douglas Stuart, author of the longlisted debut Shuggie Bain, may hold an American passport, but his novel is resolutely, wonderfully Scottish at heart. I first read the book as part of the selection process for the Observer’s annual January lookahead to the best first novels of the year. It sang then and returning to it now has been a delight. Rarely does a debut novel establish its world with such sure-footedness, and Stuart’s prose is lithe, lyrical and full of revelatory descriptive insights. This is a memorable book about family, violence and sexuality, and could even give Dame Hilary a run for her money when it comes to the Booker’s final knockings in October.
While Hugh “Shuggie” Bain may give his name to the title of the book, it is as much about Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, and her damaged, doomed attempts to be a wife and mother amid the booze-soaked brutality of 1980s Glasgow. The novel opens in the early 1990s with Shuggie as a teenager eking out a life alone in a bedsit, dreaming of going to hairdressing college while stuck working on a grimy supermarket deli counter. Then we spool back a decade, to 1981, when Shuggie is just a boy and lives in a tenement flat with his grandparents, his older brother, “Leek”, his sister, Catherine, and his mother. His father, Big Shug, is a taxi driver and a Protestant (Agnes’s family is Catholic). He’s a wheedling, charming, violent man: “slowly losing his looks, but he was still commanding, magnetic”. The novel moves in leaps through the 80s as we follow Shuggie and Agnes (and, to a lesser extent, the others in the family) as they each attempt to escape, either literally or metaphorically, the misery of their surroundings. Continue reading...
Aug 01, 2020
The last of Ali Smith’s seasonal series, a set of books that defines our fraught era, is also the first serious coronavirus novel
I’m not sure I’ve ever looked forward to a book as eagerly as Ali Smith’s Summer. This is the final instalment of her seasonal quartet, a series that has already been celebrated by reviewers and readers alike. A vast and dizzyingly ambitious project – each book is written and published in just a few months – the novels seek to be as up to date as it is possible for literature to be. With the Booker-shortlisted Autumn published in October 2016, Winter in November 2017, Spring in March 2019, and now Summer, the four books are both independent novels and work together as a complex, interrelated collage of reflections on the way we live now.
Smith’s series has become a central part of my cultural life, one of the tools with which I attempt to read the moment, both a framing device and a lesson in defence against the dark arts. She says: things are bad, life is complicated; but here are Chaplin’s films and Pauline Boty’s paintings, here is Tacita Dean and Barbara Hepworth, here is Shakespeare and Dickens and Katherine Mansfield. She says: yes there’s Brexit, but here are deep shared ties of history and culture; yes there’s indefinite detention and the climate crisis, but here are people willing to lose their freedom, even their lives, to protest against them; yes there’s loss and loneliness, but here are small moments of connection, of recognition, of dignity. And yet so frantic were the headlines of 2020, so febrile the global temperature, I began to wonder if there was too much reality even for this supremely subtle and supple writer. Continue reading...
Jul 19, 2020
The acclaimed author of Cloud Atlas hits a bum note with this hackneyed story of a band in the late 1960s
I may never forgive David Mitchell for writing Cloud Atlas. It was a gloriously inventive mind-storm of a novel, leaping wildly through time and space, seemingly unconstrained by the narrative gravity that pins other books to the ground. I was in my early 20s when it came out and remember pressing it on everyone I knew. I devoured his other novels and waited eagerly for new work. I’ve carried on reading him dutifully since, but nothing has come close to the heights of Cloud Atlas, and each new novel is met with a mixture of hope and the sense that he’d pulled a fast one on me with the glory of his one-hit wonder.
So we come to his latest, the hefty Utopia Avenue, which is the story of the rise and fall of a rock band in the late 1960s. The novel is arranged into three separate “albums” – Paradise Is the Road to Paradise, The Stuff of Life and The Third Planet, with each “track” written from the perspective of a different member of the band (or, on one occasion, the band’s manager, Levon Franklin). Dean Moss, on bass, is a heart-throb from Gravesend who speaks in a grating cockney pastiche; Peter “Griff” Griffin, the drummer is “a northern diamond in the rough. Anarchic, sweary, likes a drink”; “Elf” (Elizabeth) Holloway, the singer, has recently separated from her musical and romantic partner, a laddish Australian, and is primly middle class; finally, there’s Jasper de Zoet (yes, a relative of Jacob de Zoet, the title character of Mitchell’s 2010 novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – and living off a Dutch East Indian legacy). Jasper is on guitar, a quiet, troubled, intense young man. Continue reading...
Jul 11, 2020
The offbeat novelist on the difficulty of writing novels about writing novels – and sitting on her roof to watch the sun rise
Nicola Barker is the author of 13 novels, including the Booker-shortlisted Darkmans (2007) and the Goldsmiths prize-winning H(a)ppy (2018). Her work is resolutely avant garde, typically finding revelatory significance in everyday situations, whether on a golf course or in a British seaside town. She’s seeing out lockdown in Faversham, where she lives with two elderly French bulldogs, Moses and Sarge. Barker’s most recent novel, I Am Sovereign, has just been published in paperback.
I Am Sovereign is a novel that is intimately concerned with the difficulty of writing novels. Did writing H(a)ppy somewhat exhaust the form for you? Continue reading...
This book exists to answer that question. It’s a way of explaining to myself why it’s impossible for me now to write novels. After I wrote H(a)ppy, I effectively felt as if I’d destroyed the novel for myself. So it’s what do you do then? How do you come back from that kind of destruction?
Jun 15, 2020
A revelatory book about the avian world – the second by the acclaimed American science writer – shows why it makes no sense to view birds en masse
Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds was a surprise bestseller – a peppy survey of the science of bird intelligence rivalled only by Tim Birkhead’s masterful Bird Sense in its ability to overthrow our misconceptions about the complexity and ingenuity of bird brains. Now Ackerman, one of the most acclaimed science writers in the US, is back with another book about birds, one that delves deeper into the wonders and peculiarities of the avian world, seeking to explode the conventional idea that, as the opening of the book puts it, “there is the bird way, and there is the mammal way”. This book is a celebration of the dizzying variety of bird life and behaviour, one that will enthral birders and non-birders alike.
The recent vogue for books about birds – started by Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk and continued by Birkhead as well as in memorable titles by Adam Nicolson, Tim Dee and Ackerman herself – seems to have been mirrored by an avian turn in scientific research. Despite there being only four years between The Bird Way and its predecessor, it feels like a revolution has taken place in our understanding of birds in that time. The science here is hard, compelling and presented in Ackerman’s engaging and jargon-free prose, and on every page there is evidence to support the book’s thesis: that to speak of birds en masse is to make a category error, one that blinds us to the extraordinary variance in behaviour, appearance and even biology in these creatures we attempt to trap under the same ontological net. As American naturalist EO Wilson said: “Once you have seen one bird, you have not seen them all.” Continue reading...