May 02, 2021
The third of Levy’s memoirs, which sees her leaving home for a fellowship in Paris, is a drily funny contemplation of what it means to be a female writer
Deborah Levy’s trilogy of what she calls “living autobiography” – Things I Don’t Want To Know, The Cost of Living and, now, Real Estate – has been an extended experiment with the form. These first-person narratives, “using an I that is close to myself and yet is not myself”, are at once memoir, cultural analysis and self-interrogation, attempts to keep past and present simultaneously in view as she pursues the question of how a woman – specifically a woman artist – should live in the second act of her life.
In Real Estate, as in The Cost of Living, Levy is preoccupied with the meaning of home, that “gendered” space that has so long been regarded as the domain of women. What does it cost a woman to make a home or to unmake one? The Cost of Living examined the author’s decision, in her 50s, to leave her marriage of 23 years and the family home that grounded it, and create a different kind of home, in a “crumbling apartment block” with her teenage daughters. In the chaos of this all-female household, she found creative liberation: “My 50s had been a time of change and turbulence, energetic and exciting. A time of self-respect and perhaps a sort of homecoming.” Continue reading...
Apr 18, 2021
This fictionalised account of the Egyptian uprising of 2011 has an eye for telling detail in the choice between struggle and self-preservation
Early on in Alaa al-Aswany’s new novel, The Republic of False Truths, a conversation takes place between an older and a younger man that proves bleakly prophetic for what is to follow. Essam Shaalan, once a student protest leader in the 1970s, is now the manager of a foreign-owned Cairo factory; Mazen Saqqa, a young engineer, is the son of Shaalan’s former comrade and a union representative for the striking workers.
“You want to know the truth?” Shaalan tells Saqqa. “Egyptians don’t revolt, or if they do, their revolution is bound to fail because they’re cowardly and submissive by nature… The Egyptians love a dictatorial hero and feel safe when they submit to despotism. In Egypt, the only thing your struggle can lead to is your own destruction.” Continue reading...
Mar 29, 2021
This superb fictionalised account of the 1645 Essex witch trials, by an award-winning poet, resonates painfully with the experiences of women today
It’s hard to think of any recent time when a historical novel about the persecution of women wouldn’t resonate painfully with current headlines, but AK Blakemore’s exceptionally accomplished debut feels especially pertinent now, as women’s protests against their treatment by men are met with further aggression or accusations of hysteria. The Manningtree Witches is a fictionalised account of the Essex witch trials of 1645, and includes excerpts from the trial records, fleshed out in the imagined narrative of one of the accused women, 19-year-old Rebecca West.
Though the early skirmishes of the civil war are far from the Essex coast in 1643, when the novel begins, a profound sense of destabilisation pervades the country: “It is an upside-down time. If the herring and trout were to rise from the waterways and take flight like birds it would surprise no one, for surely God’s Day of Judgment is near at hand…” The men of Manningtree are away fighting, there are food shortages and the threat of famine, the women scrape out a hard living from the land and water, and into this combustible mix arrives the enigmatic Matthew Hopkins, the man who will go on to be known as the Witchfinder General. Continue reading...
Mar 01, 2021
Katherine Angel’s thought-provoking book examines the limitations of the concept of consent, while Vanessa Springora’s powerful memoir recounts the horrors of its abuse
In a post-#MeToo world, consent has become the failsafe marker by which all sexual encounters must be judged; indeed, to a sexual culture that has cheerfully made all manner of kink mainstream, the absence of clear consent might be considered the only measure left by which any kind of sex should be judged immoral.
But as Katherine Angel shows in her succinct and thought-provoking book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, consent itself is a murky concept that cannot be separated from existing power dynamics: “Much sex that women consent to is unwanted, because they agree to it under duress, or out of a need to feed and clothe themselves and their family, or a need to remain safe.” There is also the danger that a woman’s freely given consent in one area will later be used to exonerate a man’s violation of different boundaries. Continue reading...
Feb 21, 2021
The prostitutes of Georgian London power this deeply satisfying follow-up to Shepherd-Robinson’s acclaimed Blood & Sugar
Laura Shepherd-Robinson seemed to emerge fully formed as a novelist with her award-winning 2019 debut, Blood & Sugar, a sophisticated historical murder mystery set in Georgian London at the heart of the slave trade. Her equally impressive follow-up, Daughters of Night, explores the lucrative and often dangerous demimonde of prostitution. It was estimated that one in five women in late 18th-century London had at some point participated in sex work, and the potential for scandal, blackmail or disgrace reached to the highest ranks of Georgian society. Continue reading...
Feb 07, 2021
The second volume of Mosse’s wars of religion trilogy vividly depicts persecution and how politics can upturn ordinary lives
Exile and emigration are perennial themes in literature, especially historical fiction, but it’s noticeable, reading the second volume of Kate Mosse’s Burning Chambers trilogy about the Huguenot diaspora, how timely a story of refugees seems at this moment in Europe’s history and how sharply the parallels stand out.
The City of Tears opens, as did its predecessor, The Burning Chambers, with a prologue set in 19th-century South Africa, a foreshadowing of where this epic story of war and displacement will end up, before the narrative returns to 16th-century France, 10 years after the end of the previous book. Minou Joubert and Piet Reydon are living in relative peace in their castle in south-west France, their own family and estates an example of how Catholics and Protestants can amicably coexist. It’s an experiment soon to be imposed on the whole country, as the queen mother, Catherine de Medici, attempts to broker peace by marrying her Catholic daughter Margot to the Huguenot Henri of Navarre, a union opposed by the hardline Catholic faction led by the Duke of Guise. As Minou and Piet make their preparations to visit Paris for the wedding, she asks her brother Aimeric about rumours of trouble. Continue reading...
Jan 18, 2021
The fragmentations of the Balkan war and Brexit are never far from the surface in this confident, timely novel
“My writing often feels like a struggle to communicate some danger,” Olivia Sudjic says in her extended essay Exposure, the follow-up and postmortem to her debut novel, Sympathy. Her second, Asylum Road, is narrated by a young woman, Anya, whose detached observations of her own actions and inner monologue feel as if they are struggling to convey an underlying menace. Anya is neurotic, paranoid; she spends her nights arguing on the internet about Brexit: “It was not the specifics of opposing arguments that upset me, but that the things I held on to, which kept me from being sucked back into the past, were coming loose.”
Anya’s mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is trapped in the time of the siege, convinced they are still being shelled Continue reading...
Nov 30, 2020
The Australian-American writer’s short fiction is full of precisely observed studies of thwarted connection
Shirley Hazzard produced only four novels in a writing life that spanned nearly five decades, and was principally known – at least at the beginning of her career – as a writer of short fiction. This new edition of her collected stories, edited by her biographer Brigitta Olubas, brings together Hazzard’s two previous volumes, Cliffs of Fall and Other Stories (1963) and People in Glass Houses (1967), with a selection of previously uncollected and unpublished stories. These include Woollahra Road, a child’s-eye view of depression-era Australia and the first story she ever submitted for publication, marking the beginning of her long relationship with the New Yorker, where the majority of these stories first appeared.
Hazzard’s recurring themes here – enlarged upon in her novels – are love, self-knowledge and disappointment. Her characters measure their failures against a bigger picture, of global events or their own ideals, and often dislike the result. “But no man, he assured himself irritably, could be entirely satisfied with what had happened to him. There must always be the things one had chosen not to do.” The subject here is Clem, a middle-aged married man who appears in a pair of stories from Cliffs of Fall. The first, A Place in the Country, deals with the end of his brief affair with his wife’s young cousin, Nettie, a rupture that causes considerably more grief to the girl. The Picnic sees the characters reunited eight years later. Clem tries to persuade himself that he made the right choice in not leaving his wife, May; Nettie acknowledges the ways in which their affair has shaped her life, despite his indifference: “She sympathised with his attitude. It was tempting to confine oneself to what one could cope with. And one couldn’t cope with love. (In her experience, at any rate, it had always got out of hand.)” But the story ends, with absolute precision, on May, whose share of the narrative is a mere four lines as she watches the former lovers: “On either side, her palms were pressed hard against the stone.” Continue reading...
Nov 01, 2020
The restaurant critic’s funny and poignant account of life with her father and how it shaped her relationship with food
Hungry is a story about food, class and families and the distance travelled between a terraced house in Carlisle and multimillion-pound London restaurants that quake at your arrival. Above all, it’s a gorgeous, unsentimental tribute to the relationship between Grace Dent and her father, George. It’s about the ways in which love is communicated in a working-class family that doesn’t do “touchy-feely” and what happens when a man who has never been one for intimate talk slowly slides out of reach into dementia.
In a media career spanning more than two decades, Dent has trained her irreverent eye on most aspects of popular culture, but she’s best known now as a restaurant critic and the early part of Hungry revisits the ways in which family life shaped her relationship with food. Ex-soldier George teaches her to cook with Campbell’s tinned soup. The Dents were a happy, if undemonstrative, family, though George is given to hugging his daughter and telling her: “You’re my only little girl.” When this later proves untrue – he turns out to have two previous daughters, whose photo she finds in a drawer – Dent finds ways to excuse him so that she doesn’t have to revise her feelings. Continue reading...
Oct 12, 2020
The writer and broadcaster rescues the reputation of the women demonised in classical literature in this erudite and funny study
For the past few years, Natalie Haynes has been building a career out of rescuing the women of the ancient world from obscurity or cliche. Her most recent Women’s prize-shortlisted novel, A Thousand Ships, told the stories of the women of the Trojan war. With Pandora’s Jar, she returns to nonfiction to examine the origin stories and cultural legacies of the best-known women of classical literature, with the characteristic blend of scholarship and sharp humour that will be familiar to fans of her Radio 4 show, Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics.
All the usual suspects are here, including Helen, Medusa, Jocasta, Penelope and Medea, and it’s striking, considering their stories en masse, how often they have been passed down the literary and artistic canon as scapegoats for the mistakes of men, or else muted altogether. Take the title character, who never had a box in the original version (the confusion is likely the fault of Erasmus in the 16th century, mistranslating the word for a large jar), and whose name means simply “all-giving”. Though she is described by Hesiod as “kalon kakon”, usually translated as “a beautiful evil”, there is no suggestion in his version that it was her curiosity or defiance that released the horrors of her jar into the world; like Eve in later Christian myths, she, the first woman, has been made to carry the blame. Continue reading...
Sep 27, 2020
Madeleine Bunting and Christie Watson bring personal experience to bear on heartbreaking studies of the UK’s ailing care system, and academics suggest a way forward
It’s a shame, in a way, that Labours Of Love, Madeleine Bunting’s vital and eye-opening study of the “invisible” care crisis in the UK, couldn’t have been delayed to take into account the many ways in which all the subjects and conclusions of her five-year research have been forced centre stage by the coronavirus pandemic. She was in time to add an author’s note, written in March, acknowledging that a system already stretched to breaking point by staff shortages and relentless budget cuts has buckled under the onslaught of the current crisis. She expresses a hope that the pandemic will “trigger a massive cultural shift in which we come to recognise the foundations of care on which all human wellbeing rests”.
Labours of Love is an inescapably political book, in both the Westminster and the broader sense. The decade of cuts inflicted by the coalition and then Conservative governments since 2010 in the name of austerity makes for grim statistics on the funding of social care, and the Brexit vote in 2016 led to a dramatic shortage of care workers and nurses from the EU (nurses registering to work in the UK fell by 96%). But Bunting also considers the history and concept of care in a wider context as a feminist issue, because it’s impossible to do otherwise. Care is perhaps the feminist issue, something else the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief. But caring for those who are dependent – children, the sick, the disabled, most pertinently the elderly – has long been undervalued and overlooked precisely because it is dismissed as “women’s work”, the sort of home-based drudgery from which second-wave feminism promised to liberate women. As a result, Bunting writes, care has been “largely abandoned by liberal feminism”. Continue reading...
Sep 21, 2020
Set between Bath and Borneo, this 14th novel skilfully explores familiar themes of desire, frustration and the quest for meaning
Over a distinguished literary career, Rose Tremain has traversed genres with her customary flair, though many readers will associate her primarily with the historical fiction of her most acclaimed novels. Islands of Mercy, her 14th, returns to the 19th century, and considers familiar Tremain themes: desire, purpose, the elusive rewards of art and the small acts whose consequences ripple outwards.
Her cast of interconnected characters watch these consequences play out against two contrasting backdrops: the neat and orderly city of Bath, where “reasons for dying were comparatively few”, and the jungles of Borneo, where even the white rajahs live in fear of headhunters. Independent-minded Jane Adeane, the 6ft 2in daughter of an affluent Bath doctor, spurns a marriage proposal from her father’s assistant, Valentine Ross, and flees to her bohemian aunt Emmeline, an artist living in Chelsea. Here Jane embarks on a journey of self-discovery with Julietta, the beautiful wife of one of Emmeline’s friends, and tries to imagine a life that could accommodate this newfound passion. Meanwhile, in Borneo, Valentine’s naturalist brother Edmund contracts malaria and is nursed back to health by Sir Ralph Savage, a well-meaning British landowner who was discharged from the army for homosexuality and now spends his time in half-hearted attempts to improve the lot of his Malay subjects. Minor characters orbit around these main players, and death hovers constantly at their shoulders: in Paris, Jane and Julietta visit the public morgue after a morning of transgressive sex; later, she shares an intimate moment with Valentine over the body of a patient she has helped him euthanise. Continue reading...
Aug 18, 2020
This tragicomic tale of a thirtysomething mother with a terrible secret serves as a keen-eyed portrait of modern Ireland
Elaine Feeney has published three acclaimed collections of poetry before turning to novels, and her fiction debut, As You Were, is steeped in the rhythms and evocative language that mark her poems. Voices jostle with one another, Galway colloquialisms woven in with text speak and emojis, as a run-down hospital ward serves as a microcosm for contemporary Ireland.
The narrator, Sinéad Hynes, a mother of three in her late 30s, has been admitted after collapsing. It’s eight months since she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, but she has put off telling her husband (and sons): “I thought it was a dreadfully selfish thing to do to another person, fill him up with worry and uncertainty, to try and make him figure out death.” Instead, she obsessively Googles drugs and cures and outcomes alongside the mundane business of daily life. Continue reading...
Jul 26, 2020
Clare Chambers deftly conjures pinched postwar lives – and a possible virgin birth
In 1956, the Lancet published research into the possibility of parthenogenesis – virgin birth – in humans. The Sunday Pictorial had put out a call for women who believed they had experienced the phenomenon; of the 19 who came forward, all were eventually discredited except one, whose story is the partial inspiration for Clare Chambers’s seventh novel, her first in 10 years.
Small Pleasures is, as its title hints, a novel about people who have settled for lives that are less than they’d hoped for, but with a typically English middle-class sense that they mustn’t grumble. The war and its deprivations are only a decade past; bomb damage is still visible in the London landscape. Jean Swinney, a spinster on the cusp of 40, is the only female reporter on the North Kent Echo and therefore charged – to her dismay – with weekly columns on housekeeping and gardening tips. It’s a novelty when the editor sends her to investigate the claims of a Mrs Gretchen Tilbury of Sidcup, who says she conceived her daughter while still a virgin. The evidence seems plausible enough, but as Jean accompanies Gretchen and little Margaret to tests at the Charing Cross hospital, she finds herself growing closer to the Tilbury family, including Gretchen’s husband, Howard, and her professional detachment becomes increasingly compromised even as she begins to suspect the truth about Margaret’s conception. Continue reading...
Jul 19, 2020
The “up lit” novelist does more than warm our hearts in this 1950-set tale of one woman’s journey from mediocrity to adventure
Since her 2012 bestselling debut The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce has specialised in stories about overlooked people jolted out of their routines into unexpected situations that allow them to face the buried griefs that have kept them trapped in small lives. She might almost be credited with inspiring the recently popular “up lit” genre, but it would be a mistake to think of her novels as merely “heartwarming”, though the word is frequently attached to them. Joyce has a clear-eyed, unsparing view of regret, failure and loss, and the cost that life exacts from so many, even while she counters it with a belief in the resilience of the human spirit and the possibility of second chances.
Margery Benson shares these traits with Joyce’s previous protagonists, but is unhappy in her own way. In 1950 she is a frustrated teacher in her mid-40s, with a secret passion for beetles – an interest inspired by her father, who told her in 1914 of the fabled golden beetle of New Caledonia, shortly before he shot himself on learning that all four of his sons had been killed at Mons. A failed romance put paid to any hope of a career in entomology for Margery – not that she could have aspired to such a thing, except as a man’s assistant. “She was a woman who’d had a period of excitement, who’d dared to dream of adventure and the unknown, but who had retreated instead and made no further disturbance.” Continue reading...
Apr 26, 2020
The horror writer is at his familiar best with four suspenseful and sometimes surprisingly tender novellas
Stephen King has made good use of the sometimes tricky novella form over his nearly 50-year career, often as a vehicle to explore ideas and styles that lie off the more familiar path of his horror novels. If It Bleeds brings together four new stories, all offering vintage King themes with their own particular twist.
The showpiece here is the title novella, a sequel of sorts to King’s 2018 novel The Outsider, which was shown as a 10-part HBO series at the beginning of this year. The title comes from the callous (but accurate) newsroom axiom “if it bleeds, it leads”. Private investigator Holly Gibney is watching breaking news coverage of a bomb attack at a middle school when she notices something odd about the reporter, Chet Ondowsky. A little background research suggests that Ondowsky’s being first on the scene at incidents of horrific carnage is no coincidence, and Holly wonders if the reporter might be deliberately causing atrocities. King marries an obvious affection for the tropes of old gumshoe movies with carefully researched forensic technology to create an odd hybrid of procedural and horror that ratchets up the suspense, even if it feels a little familiar to readers of The Outsider, or the trilogy of Bill Hodges novels in which Holly first appeared. Continue reading...
Mar 29, 2020
A fictionalised account of the short life of Shakepeare’s son, Hamnet, is a work of profound understanding
In 1596, William Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son Hamnet died in Stratford-upon-Avon. Four or so years later, Shakespeare wrote the play considered by many to be his greatest work, giving its tragic hero a variation of his dead son’s name. Almost four centuries later still, Maggie O’Farrell was studying Hamlet at school and learned of the boy Hamnet, whose life has been little more than a footnote in his father’s biography. The seed of curiosity planted 30 years ago has grown into her finest novel yet; a reimagining of Hamnet’s death and the long-lasting ripples it sent through his family.
But the title is slightly misleading. Though the novel opens with Hamnet, its central character and beating heart is the boy’s mother, whom O’Farrell calls Agnes. Names are significant in this book; when Agnes eventually sees the version of her son’s name on a London playbill, she feels he has been stolen from her a second time. Meanwhile, the most famous character in the novel goes unnamed; he is variously “her husband”, “the father”, “the Latin tutor”. He is allowed very little direct speech. This deliberate omission frees the narrative of all the freight of association that his name carries; even Stratford is rarely mentioned explicitly, with the author instead naming individual streets and houses to root her story in its location. Continue reading...