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Archive by tag: Alexandra HarrisReturn
May 11, 2022

A remarkable portrait of the remorse that followed a difficult marriage, and gave birth to great poetry

When Thomas Hardy’s wife Emma died in 1912 she left behind the recollections she had been writing of her life in Cornwall before her marriage, evoking her joy as a young woman riding over the cliffs of Beeny and St Juliot. She also left the many diaries she had kept through two decades of increasing alienation from a husband who seemed to have abandoned her for the separate reality of his novels. The bereaved Thomas confronted these documents in shock, encountering in their pages both the young woman he had loved and a horrifying picture of their failed marriage. From the unexpected depths of his grief and remorse came his great sequence of elegies, Poems of 1912-13.

With remarkable steadiness and fine judgment, Elizabeth Lowry goes right into the midst of this legendary literary maelstrom and opens a space for fiction. She inhabits the household at Max Gate, the house Hardy built in Dorset, in the days after Emma’s sudden death and before the poems gave lasting shape and voice to the lost woman on the Cornish hills. Was Hardy the jailer of a neglected wife? Was Emma thwarted in her own writing? Why did it all go so wrong – and did the trouble start with Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Slowly and feelingly, the novel pores over questions about the costs of art, refusing to shout out answers, letting many perspectives tell upon each other.

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May 13, 2021

Disaster in the Antarctic necessitates heroism at home, in this beautifully restrained interrogation of language, care and loss

Jon McGregor has a quietly and brilliantly transformative way of mixing up genres. His 2017 novel Reservoir 13, winner of the Costa novel award and shortlisted for the Goldsmiths prize, began with news that a girl was missing. Search parties gathered; torchlight scoured a northern village. Even the title, with its sinister coolness, suggested that this book would follow the contours of a crime novel, and accordingly it was wise to be on the alert, paying heightened attention to each location, person and event. Gradually it became clear that we were not really there to solve the crime. All the watching and searching was failing to bring back Rebecca, but it was not without purpose. Each page, charged with intensity borrowed from the crime plot, was revealing the complex life of the village – its landscape and wildlife as well as human inhabitants – through the cycle of seasons and passing of years.

Lean Fall Stand moves into different territory entirely, but again McGregor pivots from one kind of story to another with profound effect. This new novel looks as though it’s going to be about an Antarctic expedition. It will doubtless be concerned with character and endurance under extreme pressure; struggling figures will cross the wilderness; sublimity and quotidian banter will tell upon each other. Partly that’s right; a storm strikes in the first pages and the ensuing battle for survival is narrated with riveting immediacy. But the second and third sections of this three-part book unfold far from the ice floes. Conditions remain challenging, endurance and discipline are required more than ever, but the work in hand is now the gruelling task of living with a brain injury and (for others on this most testing expedition) the task of caring for a man who has lost his powers of speech.

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Jan 21, 2021

What if five children killed in the blitz had survived? With bold metaphysical engineering, the Golden Hill author conjures miraculous everyday existence

Five years ago, Francis Spufford took us leaping over the rooftops of 18th-century New York in his prize-winning fiction debut Golden Hill. The superb opening sequence of his latest novel involves a pile of saucepans and the slowing down of time, so that we can watch what happens in a ten-thousandth of a second. It’s November 1944 and a Woolworths store on a south London high street is busy this wartime Saturday because there are saucepans in stock for the first time in ages. Mothers have young children in tow and we see them in the crowd: Ben, spindly kneed Alec, sisters Jo and Valerie and chunky Vernon, who is caught there – at just this moment, as we peer into the “hairline crack” opening in the expanse of time – like a statue, with his finger up his nose.

Spufford is a tremendously varied and surprising writer whose work might turn up in any section of the bookshop, but a warmth of style and nimble dance of intellect travel with him across subjects and genres. There is a recognisable combination of elements here among the saucepans. The ordinary shopping scene is transfigured by the author’s bold metaphysical engineering. History and fiction are clearly locking hands, though we don’t yet know quite how. The notion of statues (and this novel is to be the children’s memorial) is immediately slanted away from grandeur towards the comical, real and humane.

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Jul 23, 2020

Further adventures in love and language from the author of Attrib., as two lexicographers a century apart juggle meaning and made-up words

Eley Williams won prizes and delighted readers with Attrib. and Other Stories (2017), a collection in which dazzled celebrations of love were inseparable from a head-over-heels courtship of language. The letters of the alphabet were stroked and tickled into life; the epigraph was Samuel Johnson’s wistful dictionary entry for Trolmydames: “Of this word I know not the meaning.” In fact trolmydames is the ballgame ninepins, but in the evolving games of her own writing Williams prefers to keep conclusive definitions on hold. Now her first novel offers further adventures in love and language, taking us deep into the world of lexicography and asking: can a dictionary lie? Would the addition of a little fiction to an authoritative work of reference be a desecration or the making of it?

There are two alternating and converging stories. Peter Winceworth is working on the “S” section of Swansby’s Encyclopaedic Dictionary in 1899. Ignored, taken for granted, suddenly but unrequitedly in love, he is a consciously unheroic figure quietly resigned to his lot – except for a small kindling of rebellion that emboldens him to insert new words of his own devising. Mallory is an intern at Swansby’s a century later, tasked with rooting out aberrant entries that seem to have crept in. She imagines the person who might have made up these words; he imagines the reader who will one day find them.

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