May 10, 2021
A car accident knocks a sixtysomething surfer’s life off balance in the veteran travel writer and novelist’s intricate page-turner
Paul Theroux, who has averaged roughly a book a year since 1967 and who turned 80 last month, isn’t slowing down. Not for him the approach of Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, whose fiction dwindled into novellas before stopping entirely. Theroux’s new novel is a full-fat epic, inspired by his adopted home of Hawaii (he divides his time between there and Cape Cod: must be rather tiring, to quote Basil Fawlty).
This is the story of champion surfer Joe Sharkey, to whom surfing is “a dance on water … not a sport at all … but a way of living your life”, who surfs a wave as though “carving his signature on it”. But this surfer dude – famous at 17, a champion at 20 – is now 62 years old, not really a dude any more, and not too sure about the surfer bit either. He enjoys a level of renown, though some younger surfers haven’t heard of him, and ageing fame isolates. He doesn’t have any friends, and chatting up a young waitress, he’s stopped short when she says her boyfriend’s father “used to see you in the lineup when he was a kid”. Oof. Continue reading...
May 03, 2021
The American writer’s first eight novels for adults have been reissued as Penguin Modern Classics, offering a banquet of whimsical delights
There are two types of people: those who rejoice that Russell Hoban’s first eight novels for adults have just been reissued as Penguin Modern Classics; and those who will rejoice once they’ve read them for the first time.
The Pennsylvania-born Hoban lived and worked in England, publishing his first novel in 1973, aged 48. He died in 2011. Best known at first as writer of children’s fiction, then for his post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker (1980), he once referred to his fans as a “bunch of charming weirdos”, which is a fitting description of his books too. Artworks by Eduardo Paolozzi used for the covers of these editions capture Hoban’s colourful eccentricity. Continue reading...
Jan 25, 2021
A welcome, posthumous translation of a magnificent 1968 novel about the mental sufferings of a children’s author
Here is a book whose time has come, first, because it fits the openness of conversations about mental health today, but also because there’s an appetite for more work by Tove Ditlevsen, following the publication of her exceptional trilogy of memoirs in 2019. The Faces, which was published in Danish in 1968 and now has its first UK publication, translated by Tiina Nunnally, was written in the same period as Ditlevsen’s trilogy and is inspired by her life, but transforms the material alchemically into art.
The central character, Lise Mundus, is a writer of children’s books, struggling with arbitrary success; she has won an award for a book she “considered no better or worse than her other books” and is phoned up by newspapers seeking the views of “prominent women” on trivial issues (“are miniskirts destroying marriage?”). Fame has “brutally ripped away the veil that always separated her from reality” and now she “clings to that fragile sense of security which was nothing more than the absence of change”. Continue reading...
Jan 23, 2021
The novelist and editor of The Good Immigrant on telling his children about racism, his relationship with food and coming to terms with his mother’s death in his new memoir
- Read an extract from Brown Baby below
In July last year, Nikesh Shukla tweeted a photograph of 11 books, captioned: “This is a decade’s worth of work.” At the top was his debut novel Coconut Unlimited, and at the bottom his latest book, Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family and Home. It was supposed to come out in June, but the pandemic pushed it back, by which time – everyone supposed – bookshops would reopen and live events would return. Instead, we are back in lockdown and Shukla and I are peering at one another down the barrels of our laptop cameras to discuss Brown Baby.
The book’s title comes from the beautifully sober 1960s ballad by Oscar Brown Jr, expressing hopes to his son (“When out of men’s hearts all hate is hurled / You’re gonna live in a better world”) and Shukla’s Brown Baby is addressed to his own two daughters, who are now six and three years old. “I love the tradition of writers writing letters to their children,” he says. “James Baldwin writing to his nephew [“My Dungeon Shook” in The Fire Next Time], Ta-Nehisi Coates [in Between the World and Me]. I didn’t want it to be an overly intellectualised book about race and all the other things. I wanted it to be someone not quite having the answers, manoeuvring in that way that when you’re a parent, your opinions on things change all the time.” Continue reading...
Jan 14, 2021
A former insurgent and her daughters navigate life after wartime in an intense narrative of hope and despair
In her 1983 book Salvador, Joan Didion wrote that El Salvador during its 13-year civil war was “not a culture in which a high value is placed on the definite”, but that “terror is the given of the place”. Both characteristics are vividly honoured in Claudia Hernández’s Slash and Burn. It shares with Anna Burns’s Milkman a focus on how women cope in a conflict made by men; like Milkman, this is a story that could come from only one place, but is carefully unspecific in its details, leaving country and characters unnamed. At its heart is a woman who joins a guerrilla movement, becoming a compañera in the war after suffering abuse by soldiers who terrorise the locals. But the horrors of her experience are a prelude, and most of the book is about the future that during the fighting seemed unreachable.
Several years after the war, the woman has four daughters, though one of them lives in Paris, having been sold to a French family to fund the insurgent cause (there is no “good” side here). Paris represents another world, elusive yet containing everything the woman desires. We see-saw with her through hope and despair: when her daughter does come home for a time, it’s only to tour the country talking to other families who have also lost children. Continue reading...
Dec 03, 2020
This playful meditation on lost objects, from paintings to actors and islands, is a satisfying mix of history, imagination and detail
What, asks this book, is “more terrifying: the notion that everything comes to an end, or the thought that it may not”? Such issues – impermanence, the fringes of things, the border between here and there – are catnip to the German writer Judith Schalansky. Her first book to appear in English, Atlas of Remote Islands, was a coffee table beauty that read as good as it looked, reporting on isolated places including the coral atoll of Takuu, slowly disappearing beneath the tide of climate breakdown, and Easter Island, whose “self-destruction” by its own inhabitants likened it to “a lemming marooned in the calm of the ocean”. Her next book, the novel The Giraffe’s Neck, was less successful but equally concerned with the inevitability of decay, the flip side of Darwinian evolution: how “everything eventually was finished”.
An Inventory of Losses seems at first no more optimistic than the earlier books: our desire for human creations to endure, as evidenced by the etched copper discs of cultural markers attached to the Voyager space probes, is “a kind of magical thinking … a means of self-reassurance for a species unable to accept its own utter meaninglessness”. But for Schalansky it’s the failure to last that gives our efforts not just pathos but also power, and her book is a philosophical embrace of loss. Continue reading...
Nov 16, 2020
Satire meets mystery and sexual exploitation in three exceptionally strange novels by the late, great Japanese author
If, as writer and poet Mieko Kawakami says, Japanese literature is filled with books that are “odd, cute and a bit mysterious”, then Kōbō Abe’s novels score two out of three. There’s nothing cute here, but they go right through odd and mysterious – stopping at sinister, strange and discomfitingly sexual – and out the other side. Abe, who died in 1993, is best known in this country for his early novels, The Woman in the Dunes (1962), about a man imprisoned in a pit of sand, and The Face of Another (1964), in which a disfigured guy creates a new identity beneath a mask. Despite the descriptions, they are entry level by his standards. Now we have three later novels that can only be described as deep cuts.
All share recognisable strands of DNA, which they twine around Abe’s central themes of isolation, identity and the inability to know even oneself, let alone other people. The Ruined Map (1967), translated by E Dale Saunders, which feels like a transitional work, takes the most naturalistic approach – up to a point. The narrator, a detective hired to find a missing man, gets tangled up with the man’s wife, her brother, and mysteries involving shady businesses. But our man uses an obsessive attention to objects – papers, matchbooks, patterns of traffic – to try to solve the mystery. Of course he gets nowhere, reducing a firm knot to a mess of loose ends – people are not a puzzle to be solved – and loses even himself along the way. Continue reading...
Nov 04, 2020
Comfort exists on another planet for the heroine of this dark, explosive follow-up to Convenience Store Woman
Sayaka Murata’s new novel takes the quietly spoken themes of her cult hit Convenience Store Woman and sends them into orbit. The two books might be seen as siblings, though Earthlings would definitely be the evil twin. Both feature young women who reject society’s expectations and seek comfort in replacement forms of community. For Keiko in Convenience Store Woman, it was the reassuringly uniform, striplit security of the shop where she had worked all her adult life. For 10-year-old Natsuki in Earthlings, it’s the imaginary planet Popinpobopia, which she believes to be her destiny, at least according to her cuddly toy Piyyut.
So far, so kawaii, but the cute whimsy unrolled before the reader in the opening pages turns out to be covering a trapdoor. Natsuki conjures a makeshift family out of Piyyut and her cousin Yuu because her existing family doesn’t work. Her mother calls her “hopeless … she’s like a weight around my neck”. Natsuki and Yuu carry out a mock marriage, pledging to one another to “survive, whatever it takes”. Continue reading...
Jul 26, 2020
Sci-fi preconceptions are challenged by little-known marvels from James Tiptree Jr, Angélica Gorodischer and others
The border between science fiction and mainstream literature is more permeable than booksellers or publishers would have us think. Double Booker prize-winner Margaret Atwood’s recent novels are SF-themed (though she prefers “speculative fiction”), as is Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s best-known novel Never Let Me Go.
Penguin Classics has launched a new science fiction series to further this cross-pollination, seemingly keen for the general reader to broaden their personal canon. Some of the titles are well established – Edwin A Abbott’s mathematical fantasy Flatland, Kurt Vonnegut’s satire Cat’s Cradle – but others are newer, at least in the UK, and less likely to come loaded with preconceptions. Continue reading...
Mar 25, 2020
This slim portrayal of an abusive gay relationship in the 1970s is the biggest small book of the year
Adam Mars-Jones’s fiction is nothing if not intermittent. His early stories in Lantern Lecture (1981), including one where the Queen contracts rabies, won him a place on the first, influential Granta Best of Young British Novelists list in 1983. His stories focusing on Aids, collected in Monopolies of Loss (1992), put him on the second list in 1993. Clearly embarrassed at having been twice named one of Britain’s best young novelists without a novel, he wrote his brilliant debut The Waters of Thirst in a couple of months and released it the same year.
It was 15 years before his next work of fiction arrived. Pilcrow (2008) was the fat first part of a projected four-volume mega-novel about the life of a disabled gay man; the second volume, Cedilla, came in 2011. These are the great achievements of his fiction to date, though of the third volume there is no sign. (Being an Adam Mars-Jones completist is not a full-time occupation, though it is a rewarding one.) Now we have Box Hill, the slenderest of creatures, and the biggest small book of the year. Continue reading...