May 06, 2021
A celebration of the art of trompe-l’œil confirms this French prize winner as one of our most gifted stylists
As she wanders the immense backlot of Rome’s Cinecittà film studio – “Hollywood on the Tiber” – the heroine of Maylis de Kerangal’s Painting Time is struck by how unreal the sets seem up close, how patently confected. “A set doesn’t have to be real,” her guide explains, “it has to be true.”
There is something magnificently true about De Kerangal’s fiction, which braids technical fluency with winged prose. A meticulous researcher, she draws immensely humane stories out of niche vocational knowledge: the world-bending muscle of mechanical engineering (Birth of a Bridge); the hermetic brutalities of transplant surgery (Mend the Living, which won the Wellcome science book prize in 2017); the explorations of haute cuisine (The Cook). In her new novel, Painting Time, translated by Jessica Moore, the French author turns her granular attentions to trompe-l’œil and its artisans: those “bamboozlers of the real” who can conjure marble, wood and ethereal skyscapes from pigment and lacquer. Continue reading...
Apr 30, 2021
The writer’s ingenious debut Night Blue is narrated by Australia’s most infamous and triumphant canvas: Blue Poles
It’s closing-in on half a century since Gough Whitlam approved the purchase of Blue Poles, the painting that divided Australia. Spend an hour people-watching at the foot of Pollock’s canvas, and you’ll hear visitor after visitor come and tell the painting exactly what they think of it. “Do you know how much they paid for that thing?” an old bloke strides across the room to tell me, voice a-thunder. “1.3 million, love. 1.3 million!” You can sense the outrage brewing, the roiling incredulity. He shakes his head as he stares into the expressionist tangle. “What a fucken’ bargain.”
What if the painting were listening? And not just to our bombastic opinions, but to our quiet agonies. What might it think of us? Continue reading...
Dec 03, 2020
This page-turning thriller about class and race in the midst of unfolding catastrophe explores stasis, indecision and the agonies of parenting
An unexpected knock at the door. It’s the narrative spark of children’s jokes, fairytales and campfire ghost stories, of drawing-room dramas and horror film bloodbaths. When a midnight knock breaks the quiet of Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, any one of these plot creatures might be waiting on the doorstep. Alam’s trope-heavy third novel has the makings of a farce, and the portents of a slaughter.
It is a dark and stormy night. In a field surrounded by woods stands a lone brick house – “the very material the smartest piggy chose because it would keep him safest” – a luxurious Long Island vacation rental that is out of reach of mobile phone service, and out of earshot of the neighbours. The walls are white, the picket fence is white, and inside the house is a white middle-class family of holidaymakers “pantomiming ownership”. The children – Archie and Rose – are sun-kissed and sleeping; their Brooklynite parents – Amanda and Clay – are basking in a post-coital glow. “They’d made a nice life for themselves, hadn’t they?” Continue reading...
Oct 15, 2020
In this magical realist tale, Flanagan’s extinction metaphor is not subtle – but the fiction of the Anthropocene can’t afford to be
Richard Flanagan has described his eighth novel – a magical realist tale of ecological anguish – as “a rising scream”. The Living Sea of Waking Dreams combines the moral righteousness of a fable, the wounded grief of a eulogy, and the fury of someone who still reads the news. And smouldering underneath it all is the red memory of last summer’s reign of fire.
When 87-year-old Francie is admitted to a Hobart hospital with a brain bleed, her children assemble at her bedside: there’s rockstar architect Anna, trawling Instagram while the doctors prognosticate; unyielding Terzo, a wealth manager with an iron-clad sense of certainty; and failed artist Tommy, the sibling punching bag (“that most bourgeois of embarrassments: the lower class relative”). Death is waiting in the wings, and there are decisions to be made. Continue reading...
Sep 02, 2020
Five years after she went missing, a woman returns to rural Tipperary in a novel that explores all forms of love
When a young woman vanishes from her parents’ home in rural Tipperary it can mean only one of two things: “Moll Gladney was either pregnant or dead, and it was hard to know which one of those was worse.” What other reason could there possibly be for a “good little girl” to forsake the Edenic comforts of these soft green hills? Strange Flowers, Donal Ryan’s sixth novel, opens in the early 1970s, in the wake of Moll’s disappearance: an empty bed, a missing suitcase, a one-way train ticket and a vast and terrible silence. It is a perfect lure of an opening. Perhaps too perfect.
Half a decade later Moll returns as abruptly as she left, but remains tight-lipped about her departure. Her parents can’t bring themselves to ask: “No question was enough of a question, and no answer could change the truth of the moment.” Strange Flowers tells the tale of this fraught homecoming, chipping away at Moll’s hard fought secrecy. Revelations loom. But the question that hangs over this novel is whether any explanation can compete with the immaculate mystery of none at all. For as Ryan writes: an absence “is a thing that can’t be touched ... pristine and incorruptible, holy almost”. Continue reading...
Jun 10, 2020
A quest to master the dark art of levitation: this sly echo of The Secret History is entertaining but underpowered
It is elitist, precocious, histrionic and oh-so-earnest, but The Secret History – Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut about murderous classics students – is literary alchemy, a cult novel that is beloved for all the reasons why it shouldn’t work. Decades of imitators have only succeeded in making its singular magic more potent.
Emily Temple’s first novel, The Lightness, is one of the more preposterous Secret History facsimiles: in place of hedonistic scholars, Temple gives us nihilistic Buddhists on a quest to master the dark and furtive art of levitation. It is a premise that requires a mighty belief in suspension in order to suspend disbelief. Continue reading...
May 01, 2020
Financial meltdown looms in this elegant portrait of complacency, from the author of Station Eleven
Few readers will come to Emily St John Mandel’s fifth novel, The Glass Hotel, unaware of her fourth, 2014’s Station Eleven, which imagined a world ravaged by a hyper-lethal form of swine flu. That book was always going to cast a shadow over its successor – such is the curse of a career-defining blockbuster. But as we face Covid-19, the strange, masochistic allure of havoc-lit has catapulted Mandel’s post-pandemic tale of itinerant Shakespearean actors back into bestseller territory. How better to while away a stint in lockdown than by bending our waking terrors into the most comforting and redemptive of shapes – the narrative arc.
A handful of quietly placed clues suggest that The Glass Hotel exists in the same universe as Station Eleven, in a time before the outbreak. The “Georgia Flu” is lurking, but we will never learn if it is days, months, or a year away. Mandel has not penned a ticking-clock prequel; rather, her new novel is a portrait of everyday obliviousness, the machinery of late neoliberalism juddering along with characteristic inequity. This is a tale of Ponzi schemes, not pestilence. Continue reading...
Mar 28, 2020
Seventysomething Bina has taken to her bed in a quirky novel that captures the mind’s twists and turns with crow-black humour
When the high priestess of commodified minimalism, Marie Kondo, encouraged her followers to gut their book collections and keep only the handful of volumes that “spark joy”, Irish-Canadian author Anakana Schofield led the bibliophilic counter-insurgency. “Literature does not exist only to provoke feelings of happiness or to placate us with its pleasure,” she wrote in the Guardian in January. “Art should also challenge and perturb us.”
Schofield is an unabashed agitator, a conjurer of discomfort: whether it’s the agonised mind of a sex offender, or the sorrows of a disintegrating marriage. Like her absurdist compatriots – Beckett, Joyce, O’Brien – Schofield’s novels are existentially confounding, syntactically wild, and buckshot with wit. And while she may behave like a form wrecker, she is at heart a world builder. Each of her novels inhabits the same literary universe she created in her debut, 2013’s Malarkey, a funhouse mirror reflection of contemporary Irish life. Continue reading...