Bookface Blog

Archive by tag: Anthony CumminsReturn
Jun 27, 2022

From The Simpsons to QAnon via The Stepford Wives, the psychoanalyst’s absorbing study of mind control is part media studies, part political history

Continue reading...
Read More
Jun 06, 2022

Two writers take on a tale of exile, personal tragedy and literary friendship in a stirring reimagining of the political novel

One of the US’s largest overseas military bases lies in the Indian Ocean on Diego Garcia in the Chagos Islands. How that came to pass is murky, to say the least. The islands were once part of Mauritius, a British colony until 1968. Knowing the US wanted a base there, Britain made independence conditional on retaining Chagos, which it promptly leased to the US in exchange for cut-price nuclear submarines. None of this came before parliament or Congress – or the Chagossians, who over the next five years were removed from the islands by subterfuge and force, barred from returning to live there.

If ever there were a subject for a protest novel… Yet the concept of political fiction is just one of many things complicated by Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams’s wonderful new book. Opening in 2014, it follows two Edinburgh-based writers, Damaris, who is British-Mauritian (like Soobramanien), and Oliver, who is Scottish (like Williams). The story turns on their encounter with Diego, a garrulous Mauritian who vanishes after a couple of nights out in their company, leaving them only with his luggage, both literal and figurative in the form of his tale of the misery, or sagren, which followed his mother’s childhood expulsion from Chagos in 1973.

For Damaris and Oliver, his story is an education, and perhaps for us, too, as the writers’ subsequent, increasingly outraged reading-up on the Chagossians (once dismissed as “a few Man Fridays” in a British government memo) finds its way directly into the narrative, glossed or verbatim, in an unfussy manner akin to Ali Smith. But the stakes are raised when, to Oliver’s quiet dismay, Damaris composes an experimental story that, comprising the second part of the novel, maps Diego’s tragedy on to the tragedy of Oliver’s brother, a video artist who killed himself after leaving a psychiatric ward.

There’s much warmth in the book’s portrait of literary friendship, as the two writers talk of Adorno and autofiction en route to and from the library and pub, getting by on teaching gigs and bitcoin trading. But the first thing you notice is the book’s style. Cigarettes are always referred to as “tubes”, books “blocks” and the text splits into two columns whenever Damaris and Oliver are apart; when they’re together, run-on sentences meld first-person plural and third-person singular: “We’d spent [the morning] the way we spent every morning, him coming to her room with coffee, her accusing him of switching the heating off, him denying this.”

More than a gimmick, the style is key to a novel that unsettles the notion of writing as a solitary pursuit, letting air out of the egotism that tends to hang over literary production. Co-authorship is one strategy – Soobramanien also wrote two chapters of Williams’s 2011 debut, The Echo Chamber (a difficult-sounding enterprise alluded to in Oliver and Damaris’s backstory) – but the narrative thrust also draws us away from the idea of literature as a winner-takes-all pursuit. Even before Oliver questions Damaris’s motives, we’re invited to raise an eyebrow at her desire to write a book that will “connect the social death of the Chagossian people ghosted by the British government to the structures of intercontinental superexploitation… The blow my book will deal to the military-industrial complex!”

Diego Garcia is righteously scandalising yet it recognises, vitally, that the imperative to circulate the painful history of the Chagossians doesn’t require anyone to claim it for themselves. Instead of setting out to leave us acclaiming the authors’ skill in evoking the islanders’ plight, it sends us off in the direction of other articles, books and films, such as Olivier Magis’s remarkable documentary Another Paradise, about the Chagossian community in Crawley. Intimate yet expansive, heartbroken but unbowed, and a book about writing that is anything but solipsistic, it’s a stirring novel that lights a way forward for politically conscious fiction.

Continue reading...
Read More
May 30, 2022

A teenager has to care for his terminally ill parent in Lish’s formidable follow-up to his lauded debut, Preparation for the Next Life

The biographical note to Atticus Lish’s 2015 debut, Preparation for the Next Life, lost no time answering the question: yes, he is the son of “legendary writer and editor” Gordon Lish, whose noted severity with a blue pencil made Raymond Carver a byword for minimalism. Yet Lish Jr’s other credentials were nearly as unique: in place of the usual creative writing degree and magazine credits, he listed past jobs as a removal man, builder, factory worker, security guard and (briefly) a marine. The novel itself tugged against literary trends too: outward facing, without a writer-adjacent protagonist in sight, it told of the thwarted romance between a homeless Iraq veteran and an undocumented Uyghur refugee down and out in post-9/11 New York.

His equally formidable new novel likewise draws power from plunging into lives most writers ignore. Set largely over four years in mid-00s Boston, it follows Corey, who drops out of high school in his late teens to earn money and keep house after his mother, Gloria, is struck at 40 by a degenerative nerve disease. Their plight spares him none of the regular coming-of-age yearnings and the gut-level dread that hangs over the book lies not only in the steady creep of Gloria’s symptoms, but in our dawning sense that Corey is looking in all the worst possible places for help figuring himself out.

For a start, there’s his uneasy friendship with another student, Adrian, a body-building Nietzsche fanatic interested in explosives and what he unironically declares “the problem of women”. Closer to home, there’s his estranged father, Leonard, a security guard who drifts back into Gloria’s orbit in the wake of her diagnosis, but seemingly to sponge rather than help. When she falls over while navigating public transport – because Leonard has gone awol with her car – it’s the first round in a simmering father-son feud that gives Lish’s title one of the meanings it accrues over the course of the novel.

Lish’s third-person narration unfolds mostly from Corey’s perspective with occasional dips into other points of view, as well as the odd nudge to hint that everything is being recounted from a regretful vantage point decades hence. Brisk, vivid scenes chart the boy’s foiled attempts to rise to his predicament, whether fending off spiralling healthcare bills with zero-hours construction gigs or lancing his anger with jiu-jitsu training (the source of some of the novel’s most compelling scenes). Pressure grows when Gloria finds she can’t type or hold a fork – signs of more painful trials to come – but another fuse is lit, too, when Corey asks himself why Leonard, obsessed with a decades-old unsolved murder, walks around with police issue handcuffs, to say nothing of a holdall full of knives.

We know right from the start where this gruelling story must go, yet in Lish’s universe even death brings no respite: any glimmer of release only ever heralds just another tightening of the screw. You can’t look away: what begins as a pulverising portrait of the financial and emotional jeopardy of terminal illness morphs, by the end, into a gothically horrific tale of predatory manipulation. That Lish keeps you nothing but rapt by his last-gasp gear change (nigh on unbearably grim, be warned), is, I suspect, just one of many signs that in years to come he’ll be spoken of as a legendary writer entirely on his own account.

Continue reading...
Read More
May 28, 2022

The author on pranking JM Coetzee, his huge debt to Labour, and his new book about the twilight of careers for artists, writers and sportsmen

Geoff Dyer, 63, grew up in Cheltenham and lives in Los Angeles. His 19 books include Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction, and Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room, on Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. In the words of the New Yorker, Dyer “delights in producing books that are unique, like keys”; for Simon Armitage, “he’s a clever clogs, but he’s one of us at the same time”. His new book, The Last Days of Roger Federer, reflects on the nature of endings, with reference to Bob Dylan, DH Lawrence and JMW Turner, among other artists.

What led you to write (a bit, eventually) about Roger Federer?
He’s so gorgeous to watch, and it’s very satisfying when the most aesthetically beautiful way of playing a sport is also the most efficient. Those of us who loved Roger have only loved him even more in the twilight of his career as he became that crucial thing, a gracious loser. He just seems so nice; if we met, I’m convinced we could become great friends. I asked my agent to drop his agent a line for an endorsement, but an endorsement from Roger starts at upwards of about a million dollars. Because he’s a busy guy, I’d even suggested a blurb – something along the lines of “I thought there might be more about me in it”.

This isn’t the tennis book you once planned to write...
No, I felt I could only use the title if the cover made clear it wasn’t a tennis book. I was writing about endings just as the world itself came to an end, conveniently. Before the pandemic, I had a young sort of life – lots of travel, loads of fun – then suddenly I got catapulted into a glimpse of old age. Writing this book got me through [that period]. What’s on offer here is a dive into a person’s consciousness – mine – with no introduction and no chapters, so you have to start thinking, what’s going on? The task of structuring it really preoccupied me: I hit upon the idea that I could make the book exactly 86,400 words, a word for every second in the day, which became a real nuisance at the proof stage.

Did you feel you were smuggling these typically free-range reflections under the guise of a book on Federer?
I think in the last 10 years or so this kind of writing has been sort of legalised, like marijuana. When I was first doing it [in the 90s], these weird books of mine got kicked around the bookstore, getting more and more dog-eared as they were moved from section to section. Now this uncategorisable cross-genre hybrid stuff has become a category of its own. Far from smuggling, I turn up at customs and say, here it is!

Continue reading...
Read More
May 14, 2022

The American author on how his own experience of psychedelic therapy sparked his debut novel, and his poems about the opioid epidemic

William Brewer, 33, is the author of I Know Your Kind (2017), a collection of poems about poverty and drug addiction in West Virginia, where he was born and grew up. Selected for the prestigious National Poetry Series in the US, and cited as an inspiration by Ocean Vuong, he has been described by New York magazine as “America’s poet laureate of the opioid crisis”. Psychiatry, debt and quantum gravity are among the themes of his first novel, The Red Arrow, narrated by a troubled ghostwriter urgently in search of a vanished Italian physicist whose memoirs he must deliver. Brewer, who teaches creative writing at Stanford University, spoke to me over Zoom from Oakland, California, his home since 2016.

Where did The Red Arrow start?
The writing really got going in 2019 after I finally underwent psychedelic therapy for the depression that had controlled my life for a long time. I was able to write in a way I hadn’t before because my brain had just been so clouded. The therapy showed me all the ways that depression had run the show; it was hard to realise how much the disease had allowed me to hurt people I care about. I was given a dose of psilocybin mushrooms at 10 in the morning, and by 4.30 in the afternoon it felt like a 50lb tumour had been cut out of my back. I wanted to carry that energy into the writing.

The Red Arrow isn’t a drug book, but it does try to inhabit certain qualities of psychedelic experience, one of which is the complete destruction of linearity. A lot of the time when people try to write about that, they write incoherent, scrambly text, like something from the era of the beats, but psychedelic experience can actually be very lucid: it isn’t a wild and crazy light show so much as an elegant revelation of how things are connected. Psilocybin, especially, gives you this real sense of momentum, and I wanted that for the book.

Continue reading...
Read More
May 08, 2022

A lax approach to plot and character makes this near-future fantasy about a murdered man and his wife only fitfully funny

“Now that I’m dead… ” begins the murdered narrator of Steve Toltz’s new book, whose chapters alternate between the afterlife and a near-future Sydney beset by “drone terrorism, nanobot murders, hurricane firestorms and utter global chaos”. The Covid era, known as “the Fattening” (“all that gruelling isolation and silly panic buying and overeating… The only thing we learned was how to hide from deliverymen”), has given way to a new pandemic, K9, spread by dogs.

When the news seems like a novel, you may as well play loud, but I’m not sure Toltz knows any other way. The salty explorations of masculinity in his previous books, A Fraction of the Whole (shortlisted for the Booker in 2008) and Quicksand, sometimes resembled being stuck in a lift with an aspiring standup. While the intricate concept behind Here Goes Nothing hints at newfound discipline, the scattershot result suggests he’s still figuring out how to make his routines amount to more than the sum of their parts, which isn’t to say there isn’t fun to be had en route.

Continue reading...
Read More
May 02, 2022

The prizewinning New Yorker journalist provides more questions than answers in a tantalising tale of a psychiatrist fascinated by predicting disasters

Sam Knight is a prizewinning British New Yorker journalist whose features and profiles fizz with doggedly chased-down detail distilled into compelling narrative, whether he’s writing about Ronnie O’Sullivan, the £8bn-a-year sandwich industry or preparations for the death of the Queen (“Operation London Bridge”). The Premonitions Bureau, his first book, showcases the gifts that make him so endlessly readable. A richly researched feat of compression, it tells a tantalising tale of the unlikely interplay between the press, psychiatry and the paranormal in Britain during the late 1960s.

Knight’s central character (so fluently does he tell his outlandish story, it’s hard not to think of it as a novel) is John Barker, a Cambridge-educated psychiatrist whose interest in clairvoyance led him to pitch the Evening Standard late in 1966 with the idea of a “Premonitions Bureau”, by which readers would come forward with portents of catastrophe, such as that year’s deadly landslide at Aberfan. The paper went for it and over the following year received 732 premonitions, 18 of which seemed to be borne out, of which 12 came from two people: Kathleen Lorna Middleton, a privately wealthy ballet teacher, and Alan Hencher, a switchboard operator who had been experiencing premonitions, accompanied by intense headaches, since a car accident.

Continue reading...
Read More
Apr 23, 2022

The young Brazilian-British writer on wanting to agitate readers with her new Brexit-era novel and how MSN Messenger has informed her writing style

Yara Rodrigues Fowler, 29, is a Brazilian-British novelist and activist from London. In 2019 she was shortlisted for the Sunday Times young writer of the year award for her debut, Stubborn Archivist, cited as “a formally inventive novel of growing up between cultures”. That same year, the Financial Times named her one of “the planet’s 30 most exciting young people” after she was credited with boosting youth turnout in the 2017 general election, when she co-created a bot that encouraged Tinder users to register to vote. Fowler’s new novel, there are more things, turns on the political awakening of Melissa and Catarina, two London flatmates with roots in Brazil.

What drew you to write about millennials in the period around the Brexit vote?

I was thinking about what happens if you’re born just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In England, when I grew up, everyone was like, things can only get better; there was a Labour government, people were becoming less poor, and it was similar in Brazil when the Workers’ party came to power, the first leftwing government ever, really. What happens when you grow up believing everything’s going to be all right, only to see how that period of neoliberalism has actually taken us to a time where fascism is rising and the planet’s burning?

It’s sometimes said that politics and fiction don’t mix…
I wasn’t worried about writing a political novel – every novel is political – but I was asking myself how I could really agitate the reader. I heard a podcast with Sebastian Faulks talking about this fan letter he got from a woman who said: “I read Birdsong and the sex scenes made me realise I’d never known true love or sexual pleasure and so I left my husband of 20 years.” He was like, whoa. It made me wonder what it would be like if you wrote a piece of fiction that made people feel so full of revolutionary possibility and desire that they want to take to the streets, not necessarily for what might be achieved in their own lifetime, but for generations to come.

Continue reading...
Read More
Apr 17, 2022

This follow-up to the Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad is packed with smart ideas about digital authenticity but lacks the human moments that made the first book fizz

Jennifer Egan made her name with 2011’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, a zig-zagging multigenerational saga centred on a multiplatinum record producer, Bennie Salazar. The quirky title referred to time’s ravages; Bennie, once part of 1970s outfit the Flaming Dildos, finds himself by the book’s discreetly futuristic end catering chiefly to “pointers”, tablet-wielding preschoolers whose tastes are the main driver of income in an industry altered beyond recognition.

The Candy House, Egan’s follow-up, likewise hops around a large cast, this time from the 1990s to the 2030s, and once more has its eyes on the internet (the title refers to the seduction of free-to-use online services that sneakily turn us into the product, the echo of “the White House” presumably intended as a suggestion of where true power now lies). Like Goon Squad, it turns reality up a notch: this is an America in which – in a big-tech data grab – 21-year-olds are urged to upload their memories to guard against brain injury.

Fertile ground, to be sure, but Egan has ideas to burn, and in this novel that’s what she does: her painstakingly constructed backdrop has barely any impact on the book’s drama, ill served by characters reduced to a trait. Remember 13-year-old Lincoln, whose obsessive cataloguing of “great rock’n’roll pauses” was recorded by his younger sister in a series of PowerPoint slides, Goon Squad’s most eye-catching narrative stunt? Lincoln, now in his mid-20s, gets his own chapter, but his hyper-attentiveness (previously the focus of a between-the-lines take on family life) is now just a distinguishing tic, as he longs for a colleague who “wears hair bands 24 percent of the time, scrunchies 28 percent of the time, and her hair loose 48 percent of the time”.

Lincoln works in data mining (of course) and his storyline tees up some background action involving privacy activists known as “eluders”, who implant the brains of tech employees with “weevils”, electronic mind-control bugs that Egan keeps explaining until 20 pages from the end – a mark of how little the book’s gizmos ultimately contribute. There’s a shortage of the human moments that made Goon Squad fizz; Bennie feeling like a fish out of water at his upstate country club, for instance, or his assistant, Sasha, hiding her kleptomania. Here, action is seen as if through gauze: witness the 2032-set chapter about a “citizen agent” programmed by a shadowy government agency, told as 30 two-column pages of bulletpoint-like diktats from her handlers.

You sense the novel’s laborious scaffolding when the narrator of a mid-1960s interlude asks: “How can I possibly know all this? I was only six... How dare I invent across chasms of gender, age, and cultural context?” She’s accessing a rapacious tech giant’s “Collective Consciousness”, it turns out – Google with knobs on, basically – and you suspect Egan only tells us that so she can write this: “Getting hold of that information is arguably more presumptuous than inventing it would have been. Pick your poison – if imagining isn’t allowed, then we’ll all have to resort to gray grabs” (a whizzy form of memory capture).

That thought is more than enough on its own to feed the kind of topically chewy novel Egan seems to want to write. But after a long-winded set-up, it’s tossed aside, and the sense grows that the novel’s expository heft demands too much. By far the most enjoyable chapter unfolds as a late exchange of emails between various Goon Squad stalwarts out to revive their reputations by piggybacking on the fortunes of an elderly actor seeking a comeback of his own. At last, the book breathes: not only do we get the heady backstairs view of celebrity that was part of Goon Squad’s allure, but – more vitally – we relax into a rare moment of real-time interaction between characters otherwise mired in private recapitulation.

Maybe the book’s biggest problem (and its point, if you’re generous) is that Silicon Valley will never be rock’n’roll. Either way, conundrums of digital-era privacy and authenticity have been better addressed in novels such as The Circle and Klara and the Sun. As for the question of whether you can read The Candy House without first reading A Visit from the Goon Squad, well... if you haven’t, you’ll probably be left baffled, but perhaps a good deal less disappointed than readers who have.

Continue reading...
Read More
Apr 10, 2022

Barnes experiments with narrative – and the reader’s patience – in this literary, in-joke-filled story of a man obsessed with a female lecturer on culture

Continue reading...
Read More
Apr 02, 2022

The novelist on being too literary for crime fiction and too ‘crimey’ for literary fiction, and the mysterious death that concludes his Tokyo trilogy

Continue reading...
Read More
Mar 28, 2022

Freestyle poetry is teamed with kick-by-kick reports in this stirring novel about Uriah Rennie, the Premier League’s first black match official

Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool may yet have a say in the matter, true, but Manchester City look set to win a sixth Premier League title since the club was bought by Abu Dhabi royals in 2008. Hard to imagine any of that making sense at the turn of the century, when City were out of the top flight and managed by Kevin Keegan, who could be found blaming yet another cup exit on a 27th-minute red card from the referee. “People should write about Uriah Rennie,” he fumed to reporters after the match, “because that’s what he wants.”

One imagines the glee with which Ashley Hickson-Lovence seized on those words for the epigraph to Your Show, a stirring, stylistically unorthodox novel that sets out to do exactly that by fictionalising the life of Rennie, the Premier League’s first black referee. Told as a montage of urgent second-person scenes, it’s a nervy psychodrama fuelled by ambition, envy, doubt and ego, cutting from his Jamaican boyhood and 1970s youth on a tough Sheffield estate to the highs and lows of a trailblazing career forged in a new era of professionalism for officials amid the sport’s sudden, Sky-fuelled glamour of the 1990s.

Hickson-Lovence re-creates all the talking points that launched a thousand phone-ins, from the time Rennie broke FA protocol to yank Roy Keane away from an opponent he was about to wallop to the red card he gave Alan Shearer, on the striker’s 100th appearance for Newcastle: the first in a series of run-ins that left the England captain (as fond of an elbow as Rennie was of a card) mischievously wondering aloud whether the referee was pursuing a vendetta.

These moments and others are narrated in insistent, fragmentary rhythms that meld You are the Ref-style dilemmas (“Should you caution [Neil] Ruddock? Should you caution [Ian] Wright? Should you book both?”) with freestyle poetry and kick-by-kick match description that speaks of endlessly rewound YouTube footage, to say nothing of quality time spent with David Peace’s Red or Dead, a blueprint for Hickson-Lovence’s biblically iterative prose.

As in Peace’s novel, the compositional method feels so basic that it really shouldn’t work, and yet it does, not least because Hickson-Lovence understands the value of ambiguity for his fundamentally celebratory enterprise. While it’s part of the book’s purpose to unpick the caricature of Rennie as a card-happy attention-seeker (the title reclaims an infamous incident in which a stadium announcer sarcastically welcomed back fans after half-time by saying: “Enjoy the second half of the Uriah Rennie show”), it clearly takes delicious pleasure in playing devil’s advocate for more Keeganesque views too: “Auf Wiedersehen, pet,” Rennie thinks, when Shearer finally retires.

Those tussles with Shearer, together with Rennie’s dream of overseeing an FA Cup final, add page-turning drive as well as poignancy once Rennie, injury-plagued, likewise hangs up his boots in 2008, just when the petro-dollars started flowing into the game. For Hickson-Lovence, you suspect Rennie’s story represents a simpler time, before VAR, NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and “men… in overpriced PSG tops yapping on about Mbappé”, yet the bittersweet air overhanging this bold and powerful narrative experiment probably has more to do with things that haven’t changed, given that the Premier League’s first black referee is still its last.

Continue reading...
Read More
Mar 20, 2022

In these two excellent collections set in Ireland, Colin Barrett deftly captures alarming violence and the richness of family saga, while Wendy Erskine frequently leaves the reader wrongfooted

It’s eight years since the Irish writer Colin Barrett made a splash with his debut story collection, Young Skins, whose standout piece, Calm With Horses, about an ex-boxer working as the muscle for a grudge-bearing drug dealer, was turned into a well-received film of the same name. Homesickness is another finely crafted collection, again set largely on Barrett’s home turf of County Mayo, portrayed once more as a cauldron of alarming violence and simmering disappointment.

Crisply told, fond of an eye-catching flourish (pint glasses “honeycombed” on a pub table; a “sudsy” blowjob), the stories draw energy from the rhythms of west of Ireland small talk, added to Barrett’s eye for striking detail: witness the music leaking from the headphones of a gunshot victim in the opening story, or the barman who explains that his sunburnt neck is the result of falling asleep on his mother’s roof while listening to a mixedmartial arts podcast.

The Alps starts with the pub banter of three burly brothers but shifts gear when one of them returns from the gents, having “thrummed a sulphurous piss into the gurgling trough”, to find a sword-wielding stranger named Derek has joined the drinkers. Barrett plays the situation for off-kilter laughs as well as peril; a similar left turn animates Anhedonia, Here I Come, about a self-regarding poet who, out to buy weed from his regular dealer (a camogie-playing schoolgirl about to go straight), finds himself propositioned by a fellow customer, a man carrying a baby girl in a sling.

The scenarios are richly layered, with punchy payoffs. The Low, Shimmering Black Drone, about an unpublished writer paid to look after a novelist’s dogs during lockdown, is a smart bit of post-pandemic fiction that manages to send up the clamour for such a thing without compromising its emotional force. Barrett has any number of cute exit strategies: a story involving a delinquent school pupil ends with him falling asleep in front of a video game blinking “Do you want to continue?”, while the one about the gunshot victim ends with a cop reviewing her notes to write up the report of what we’ve just seen.

Barrett is hardly shy of explosive drama, but he’s just as interested in how life plods on in the face of adversity. Where he truly excels is in his ability to condense the richness of family saga into just a couple of dozen pages, as in The 10, about a young car salesman, Danny, living in the shadow of his disappointment at being let go by Manchester United as a teenager. Probably the best football-related fiction since Ross Raisin’s A Natural, it deftly portrays the desires and disappointments of a range of characters in Danny’s orbit, including the widowed sister of the girl he’s seeing, and his older brother, left using a wheelchair since a childhood car accident.

Continue reading...
Read More
Mar 12, 2022

The American novelist on his stereotyping of white characters, the breadth of the black experience in modern literature, and why he always returns to The Way of All Flesh

Continue reading...
Read More
Mar 06, 2022

The author continues to deftly mine the tensions and resentments of family life with a tender and sprawling saga set across six tumultuous decades

This, blessedly, is now Anne Tyler’s fourth novel since she suggested that 2015’s A Spool of Blue Thread was going to be her last. We might fairly think that some of the things she has said in recent interviews aren’t exactly engraved in stone, not least because French Braid, a warm family saga set between 1959 and the late summer of 2020, appears to represent a U-turn on her intuition that “it’d be really wrongheaded of me to suddenly start talking about the coronavirus at this stage in one of my books”. Responding to a question about whether Covid might break her aversion to putting topical elements in her work, she said: “It would derail the small private story I’m trying to tell.”

After her previous novel, the terrific Redhead By the Side of the Road, generously centred on the blinkered perspective of a middle-aged IT guy, French Braid returns to type: a multigenerational ensemble piece that will have fans marking their Tyler bingo cards, from empty nesters taking later-life left turns and family rifts surrounding odd-one-out siblings.

Set, as usual, in Baltimore, it’s the story of the Garretts: husband and wife Robin and Mercy, children Alice, Lily and David. We meet them on a rare holiday to a Maryland lake, with the girls in their teens and their younger brother a curious seven-year-old happiest playing make-believe with his toys. But Robin, a plumber turned shopkeeper, has other ideas, and his heavy-handed attempt to break David’s reluctance to swim will set family tensions simmering down the decades.

As trauma plots go, it’s not exactly A Little Life, sure, but Tyler has a keen eye for the way small moments can have unpredictable effects in a family’s understanding of one another. The rift, all the more severe for being largely unvoiced, only worsens when David, ready to high-tail it to university in 1970, is forced into a character-building summer job with one of Robin’s plumber friends, rather than volunteer with a community theatre group; Robin wants to teach him that being a man means you can’t always choose.

Among the ironies of Tyler’s reputation as a writer of domestic fiction – that loaded term – is that she’s a shrewd observer of masculinity. In another recent interview she discussed her sense that “it must be very hard to be a man – hard to become a man, when you’re young and not very sure of yourself but you’re expected to be in charge now”. When Robin explains his eagerness to get David swimming by saying that his sister Alice learned when she was four, a line from Alice’s point of view tells us that she was actually eight: “But her father hadn’t worried about it. There were advantages to being a girl and having nothing much expected of you.”

The novel is cut into seven sections, each an individual third-person narrative unobtrusively tied to a particular family member’s point of view, from parents to grandchildren, generating intimacy by showing characters acting in ways we’ve been prepared for by how others see them. Each segment unfolds a decade apart, sometimes a little more, sometimes less, which contributes to the novel’s nicely relaxed sense that Tyler isn’t squeezing her characters into a design so much as just letting them be. And yet there’s nothing slack about it: witness the passing detail, casually dispensed, that Robin and Mercy married on 5 July 1940, a slyly suggestive date – the day after independence day – in a novel shaped by each character’s search for autonomy.

Continue reading...
Read More
Mar 05, 2022

The 2014 Booker nominee on her new novel about the family of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, the ‘horrible secret’ of her sci-fi writing and her long period of despair

Karen Joy Fowler, 72, is the author of four story collections and seven novels, including The Jane Austen Book Club, adapted into a 2007 film, and the million-selling We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2014. Her new book, Booth, takes place in 19th-century America and follows six siblings of John Wilkes Booth through childhood and adulthood in the decades leading up to his assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Fowler, who in 2020 received a prestigious World Fantasy award for lifetime achievement, spoke to me over Zoom from her home in Santa Cruz, California.

What led you to write a historical novel about the Booths?
I began thinking about this book in one of my frequent moments of despair over whether there will ever be gun reform in this country. I’d already written a couple of short stories about the family, and John Wilkes Booth is the most famous man with a gun in all of American history. But I wasn’t interested in him so much as in the family: I wanted to ask what his assassination of Lincoln had done to their lives, whether they could have stopped it or seen it coming, and how culpable or innocent they were.

You portray the differences in their views of slavery...
I did already know Wilkes was a white supremacist who was vocal in his support of slavery, but I didn’t know what the rest of the family thought; they supported Lincoln and were mostly pro-Union but were largely quiet about what was obviously the greatest issue of the time. It’s interesting, I think, to look at it generationally. Their grandfather, father and mother came from England to settle in Maryland as adults, so they’d grown up without the institution of slavery all around them – the grandfather, Richard, was particularly shocked by it and actually participated in trying to help some enslaved people escape to the north. The father and mother, Junius and Mary Ann, also opposed it, but not with the same passion. And then the third generation – the one I focus on – grew up with it as an ordinary part of their community. How they made sense of that is a hard thing to get your head around.

Continue reading...
Read More
Feb 28, 2022

A sorceress mates with a shape-shifting beast in the uncompromising second instalment of James’s sword-and-sorcery trilogy

What do you write after winning the Booker prize? A fine problem to have, to be sure, yet the question of how to follow success – of whether to stick or twist, creatively speaking – hardly seems simple, at least to judge by the number of writers yet to publish another novel since winning.

Post-Booker paralysis hasn’t been an issue for the Jamaican novelist Marlon James, now more than 1,000 pages deep into an ongoing trilogy. After winning in 2015 with his third book, A Brief History of Seven Killings, about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, he thought of writing a “quiet, literary” narrative about Jamaicans in New York; instead came 2019’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf, a gore-slathered fantasy epic in a mythical ancient Africa of warring kingdoms, roamed by a ragtag band of superpower-boosted antiheroes, including a 300-year-old witch, Sogolon, hunting down a swarm of child-murdering demons.

A gruelling, invigorating reading experience rife with contradictions, it widened the horizons of swords-and-sorcery narratives while presenting a lurid vision of Africa to rival anything in the imperialist make-believe of H Rider Haggard. It was hard not to wonder if the fluid sexuality of the central characters, combined with the story’s late-arriving anti-patriarchal thrust, somehow served to green light the excesses of its expletive-laden, groin-fixated splatterfest. Hard not to suspect, too, that the relentless chopping-and-fucking emphasis served as counterweight to a literary artist’s anxiety about writing a book whose ambitions lay not only in decolonising the fantasy genre but also in recapturing the heady rush of devouring Star Wars novelisations and X-Men comics in his youth.

Moon Witch, Spider King, the second instalment, dials down, just a touch, the gut-clenching grotesquerie that characterised the first book. For the most part, it’s an origin story fleshing out Sogolon’s emotional stake in the search for a dead child with which the earlier book began. The action unfolds as a kind of nomadic picaresque centred on her flight from her downtrodden girlhood, in which salvation repeatedly heralds a new form of captivity, whether she’s on the run from her abusive brothers or the royal court where, as a servant, she gets a backstairs view of a succession drama she unwittingly fuels thanks to her lethal telekinetic ability to blow people up from inside, used inadvertently to fend off the predatory head of the household she’s taken into after escaping a brothel.

Like its predecessor, this is a long book, scaled to satisfy the genre’s typically pig-out portions, yet with an uncompromising prose style that shuns easy-reading propulsion. Despite the unglossed vocabulary, the novel’s diction tends to be relatively straightforward: in a childbirth scene, for instance, we read that “everything is wet wet wet and red red red” (typically, we’re also shown “the afterbirth in the corner luring flies”). The difficulty lies more in the book’s enviable confidence that we’ll be able to grasp, say, who’s speaking without the narrative making it crystal-clear, or James’s relaxed attitude to (for example) using three different names for the same character in a single paragraph.

Continue reading...
Read More
Feb 13, 2022

The Canadian novelist’s tussle with life’s big binaries finally reaches to be or not to be, in a surreal, witty book that works an impressive spectrum of meaning and feeling

The reputation of the Canadian writer Sheila Heti, who came to prominence amid the reality-hungry vogue of the last decade, rests largely on a pair of candid comic novels mingling philosophy, performance art and self-help. In 2013’s How Should a Person Be?, a divorced playwright, Sheila, is kept from her work by an alarmingly submissive sexual liaison; in Motherhood, from 2018, the Heti-adjacent narrator, nearing 40 in a long-term relationship, doesn’t want kids (“I don’t care about passing on my genes! Can’t one pass on one’s genes through art?”). In both books, an ambling narrative drew a measure of urgency from a dilemma that turns on stubbornly cleft logic: to be a writer, or a lover? Make art, or a baby?

More either/ors drive Heti’s brazenly strange new novel, less openly autobiographical than her past work. It follows Mira, a young female student infatuated with a standoffish peer, Annie, whose eye Mira is busily out to catch when her father dies, unleashing a psychodrama of regret that she didn’t spend more time with him. The stuff of a normal, if momentous, rite-of-passage tale, you might think, except that these events unspool retrospectively from the vantage point of an imminent apocalypse as God contemplates a “second draft” of creation, and that’s just for starters. Mira’s cohort, living in a kind of bizarro version of Toronto, are all in training to become art critics, a uniquely sought-after occupation (one of the novel’s many hard-to-parse jokes), and everyone in the book is said to resemble a bird, fish, or bear, a strict taxonomy conferring pivotal personality traits. And halfway through the novel, Mira finds herself trapped inside a leaf, talking to her father, thanks to the transmigration of souls…

Pure Colour by Sheila Heti is published by Harvill Secker (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

Continue reading...
Read More
Feb 06, 2022

The novelist is on familiar territory and great form with a tale of premarital tension that punctures family life and feminism

A throwaway moment in Monica Ali’s new novel introduces us to a minor character, an unpublished young black author who, when he talks of struggling to sell his manuscript – a futuristic thriller about an eco-terrorist attack on a billionaire’s post-apocalyptic bolthole in New Zealand – finds himself told to try something “closer to home”; drop the sci-fi, in other words, and write about being black in Britain today.

You sense Ali speaks of what she knows; born in Dhaka and raised in England, she has arguably spent her whole career to date wriggling in the jaws of publishing’s authenticity fetish. Brick Lane, her bestselling 2003 debut about a Bangladeshi teenager’s arranged marriage in east London, earned her a reputation as a vital voice of multicultural Britain – which meant no one quite knew what to make of her next book, Alentejo Blue, tales of village life in rural Portugal. She fared better with In the Kitchen, about migrant labour in London; less so – putting it mildly - with the counterfactual shenanigans of Untold Story, in which Princess Diana, fearing assassination, fakes her own death and relocates to the US after cosmetic surgery in Brazil.

The pattern – one novel a market-pleaser, the next a curious left turn – continues with Ali’s latest book, which is set in London in the wake of the Brexit vote and centres on Yasmin, a trainee doctor who is the daughter of Bengali immigrants. She’s about to marry her colleague, Joe, who lives with his subtly domineering mother, Harriet, a feminist academic still famous for posing nude in her 70s heyday.

The setup starts off as giggly meet-the-parents comedy, with early laughs coming at the expense of the malapropisms and wonky grammar of Yasmin’s head-wobbling mother, Anisah, who mistakes a Howard Hodgkin painting on Harriet’s wall for a long-cherished childhood artwork by Joe. For his part, Joe faces embarrassment of his own when his mother’s self-congratulatory liberalism all but corners his fiancee into planning a Muslim wedding against her will.

As Ali pokes fun at the unwitting ironies of one-size-fits-all feminism, the easy gags soon give way to the drama of a busy plot rife with secrets and lies. Yasmin gets a shock when a nurse on her ward lifts the lid on Joe’s double life, foreshadowed in segments told from his therapist’s point of view. An even more seismic upset follows the revelation that her parents’ cross-class marriage was a murkier affair than let on by the family lore of an unarranged love match.

We stick chiefly to Yasmin’s perspective, her self-image slowly unravelling once she begins to grasp the nature of the shadow cast by her increasingly hard-drinking father, also a doctor. Private turmoil is amplified by ever-present workplace aggro, as Ali portrays a hard-pressed NHS prey to dodgy contractors and hidebound hierarchies, with a whistleblower subplot involving overmedicated geriatrics.

Continue reading...
Read More
Jan 30, 2022

A married woman’s fling with a young 1960s rabble-rouser is the centrepiece of this elegant, shrewd and complex novel

The energy in a Tessa Hadley novel typically flows from a character’s unvoiced longing or suppressed desire, gestured at in flashback over the course of a present-day narrative seamlessly encompassing the previous half-century, as in 2015’s The Past or 2019’s Late in the Day, titles that sum up the mood, if not the excitement, of her work.

At first glance, Free Love breaks with all that. It takes us from 1967 into 1968 in the company of a flighty middle-aged mother of two, Phyllis, who quits married life in the stockbroker belt with a Foreign Office high-up after falling for a mouthy young dinner guest, Nicky, the would-be revolutionary son of family friends working in oil. An after-dinner search for a child’s missing sandal supplies the pretext for a clinch in the dusk; soon, Phyllis is knocking on the door of Nicky’s rundown flat in eye-openingly multicultural west London every Wednesday, under cover of visiting her father in Leamington Spa.

If there’s folly here, it’s part of the novel’s trick to tempt us to see it as belonging only to Phyllis, when the tangled roots of the situation truly lie elsewhere. As Hadley shifts fluently between the points of view of the various parties involved, the novel turns as much on long-buried family secrets as it does the yearnings of itchy-footed middle age. Each member of Phyllis’s household, including her children, Colette, 16, and Hugh, nine, know something the others don’t; we’re in the dark, too, thanks to a twist that rests on Hadley not quite playing fair when, halfway through, the novel first accesses the thoughts of her husband, Roger.

Hadley’s complex sentences are purring marvels of engineering, always weighted just so, cut-glass English with a continental inflection, fond of a comma splice, the dialogue marked with a dash. A brilliant writer of interiority who can also do great scenes, she has a gift, especially, for portraying the state of wanting to be wanted, or simply to be seen – a recurring longing in her fiction, whose characters often have cause to be careful what they wish for. We see Phyllis, aching and raw, privately exulting while getting the dinner on back at home; we see the electric thrill of a touch of hands between long-separated lovers; or Colette, drunk, wanting to go “all the way” with a man, “her consciousness swooping over her like a hawk”.

If she shares a theme with Martin Amis and Michel Houellebecq – the pros and cons of the sexual revolution – her method couldn’t be more different: not comic grotesque or authorial hypothesis, but patiently inhabiting her characters, leaving it to us to gauge how their actions are shaped by the weight of experience, a technique that can’t help but elicit readerly sympathy. Yes, Nicky’s political grandstanding puts us in mind of Citizen Smith – when Phyllis extols the virtues of the NHS, he replies: “Keeps the factory workers healthy, so they can work for longer” – but Phyllis’s awakening at his hands isn’t mocked, exactly; Hadley’s too subtle, too generous for that.

Continue reading...
Read More
Jan 29, 2022

The US satirist on why he had to find a UK publisher for his latest novel, his son’s Korean lessons, and the appeal of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth

Continue reading...
Read More
Jan 24, 2022

A nameless student listens to her landlady’s embittered life story in a spare, oddly enthralling novel indebted to Rachel Cusk’s Outline

Pressed to name the most influential novel of the past decade, you could do worse than Rachel Cusk’s Outline, which laid a blueprint for fashionably decluttered fiction about barely-there narrators wafting through random encounters in unspecified European cities.

Jhumpa Lahiri (Whereabouts) and Katie Kitamura (Intimacies) have well-thumbed copies, at a guess, and it seems a safe bet that the Turkish-born Ayşegül Savaş, who writes in (American) English, also had one close at hand while composing this oddly enthralling tale about a postgrad student bearing witness to an artist’s marital breakdown.

Its unnamed protagonist comes to an unnamed city to spend a year viewing gothic nude sculptures as research for a thesis on medieval views of nakedness. She’s renting a flat from Pascal, an academic who lives in a nearby town with his wife, Agnes, a middle-aged painter. A couple of months into the narrator’s tenancy, Agnes turns up to join her in the flat, in a supposedly brief return to the city to plan a new exhibition of work inspired (coincidentally) by local sculpture.

A peculiar bond ensues over kitchen-table coffee breaks as the narrator, craving approval from her magnetically elegant landlady, listens attentively to Agnes narrate at length her bitter experiences as a daughter, artist, wife and mother of two. By contrast, we learn next to nothing of the narrator, as Agnes’s tale unspools in piecemeal vignettes. When Agnes first brought Pascal home to her parents, he cut the visit short to write a paper for a symposium; when, after the birth of her first child, Agnes became friends with another new mother, Pascal hired an “extraordinarily beautiful” au pair to save her needing company.

If the reader twigs more or less right away that Pascal is something of a wrong ’un, Savaş deftly draws a veil over the exact shape of his iniquity until a surprisingly tense climax that sees him deliver his side of the story. For a novel in which, for the most part, very little happens, Savaş maintains suspense impressively via, say, ominously blank descriptions of sunlight playing on the flat’s fixtures and fittings. Rare lapses come when she seems to fret that the action, or lack of it, can’t hold our attention. When Agnes says she’ll stay longer in the flat, the narrator’s reply closes the segment with unnecessary force: “I didn’t mind, I said. In fact, I was glad to hear it, even though I did wonder what it was that kept her away from her marriage.”

It helps that Savaş is happy to acknowledge the in-built contrivance of the book’s delivery mechanism, or what the faceless protagonist calls “the monologue unravelling daily, without cease”. “I’m going on and on,” Agnes admits; the narrator, for her part, tells us she doesn’t know how to “get up and leave”. She’s essentially an old-style frame narrator lent a sliver of psychological intrigue by her situation’s creeping strangeness; eventually, the book plays out as a kind of year-abroad tale in which her education isn’t about her studies so much as Agnes’s painful dispatch from the battle lines of later life.

At one point, Agnes explains that she set herself “the challenge of painting only in white”. By telling its story at a deliberately chilly remove, White on White rises to a similar task, even if its stylish austerity can’t fully shake the sense that it also represents a canny dodge of novel-writing’s more basic grunt work.

Continue reading...
Read More
Jan 22, 2022

The Goldsmiths prize-shortlisted author of little scratch on being mistaken for the book’s protagonist, conveying the ‘immediate present-tense experience’, and why her next novel is even more ambitious

Rebecca Watson’s first novel, little scratch, now published in paperback, is narrated over the course of a single day by an unnamed office junior living in the wake of a sexual assault. The New Yorker called it an “extraordinary debut [that] conveys the shapes and the rhythms of thought” by “arranging text in unconventional ways”. Shortlisted for last year’s Goldsmiths prize, it was recently staged in a production directed by Katie Mitchell. Watson, 26, grew up in the South Downs and spoke to me from London, where she works part-time as an assistant editor on the arts desk of the Financial Times.

What led you to the book’s unusual form?
It came from a very clear moment. A colleague walked past me and asked what I’d been reading recently. And for 10 seconds I couldn’t come up with an answer, then I did, and he left. I was just really struck by that encounter, which was nothing, but for a moment had stakes that were kind of far too high. It made me very aware of the layers and channels of present tense. I remember saying to myself, how would you write it? And I just instantly wrote that moment on a [notebook] page to show the way in which things [and thoughts] happen simultaneously. It was only a few hundred words, but in it was the answer to how to present immediate present-tense experience.

What did it look like written down?
It was very much that as you went down the page you passed through time, and that the page also really seemed like the mind: the left- and right-hand side had different feelings to them and there were different kinds of tonal spaces across the page. It flipped a switch: I had the insinuation of the book’s formal system.

Continue reading...
Read More
Jan 02, 2022

Two compelling first-person narratives take the reader from 80s Paris to a dystopian Melbourne in this funny, intelligent double novel

Michelle de Kretser’s slyly intelligent sixth novel pairs two first-person narratives. One takes place in a dystopian near-future Melbourne, where Lyle, an immigrant father of two, is employed by the state to write sinister-sounding “evaluations” nominating fellow migrants for arrest and repatriation; the other half of the book is set in 1981 and follows Lili, a 22-year-old Australian working as a teaching assistant in France, prior to postgraduate literary study in Oxford. It’s typical of De Kretser’s sophistication that she leaves the link between these narratives entirely up to you – even the order in which they are to be read is left to the individual reader, given the book’s reversible, Kindle-defying two-way design.

I plunged straight into Lili’s intimately conversational reminiscence of running with a circle of young Europeans attached to her Montpellier lycée, in particular Minna, who takes a year out of art school in London to tag along with her boyfriend Nick. Lili struggles for cash, has problems with her landlord and neighbour, and faces everyday racism (her family emigrated to Australia from Asia, like De Kretser, who was born in Sri Lanka). She can’t help but fall for Minna and Nick’s rackety aura of entitled glamour, not least when she learns that Nick is at work on a novel, something it never occurred to her she could do, even as an aspiring scholar under the spell of Simone de Beauvoir.

Continue reading...
Read More
Dec 27, 2021

The author and critic reveals his weakness for lugubrious writers in this mischievous, enthusiastic guide to his favourite books, interspersed with reflections on his druggy youth

In 2019, when he was living in Berlin, the Irish author Rob Doyle wrote a short weekly column about his favourite books for the Irish Times. The series began with The Unwomanly Face of War, Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of Soviet war widows, and ended, 51 books later, with The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller’s Greek travel memoir of 1941. In between came, well, everything, from Virginia Woolf to Virginie Despentes, via Carl Jung, Philip K Dick and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, each introduced with unstuffy critical acuity and lapel-grabbing comic hyperbole: “Is it preposterous to suggest that Fyodor Dostoevsky prophesied the election of Donald Trump, Brexit and the seething hate-pits of social media?”

Readers of Doyle’s autobiographical novel Threshold won’t be shocked that these columns, collected in his new book, fall hardest for writers mischievously lugubrious in outlook – Michel Houellebecq, say, or the Romanian author EM Cioran. Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents gets a thumbs-up for its “honest theoretical acknowledgment of the unbridled aggression, depravity and lust for annihilation that constitute the dirtiest secret of the individual in society”, while Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals “might be one of the greatest horror novels ever written”; Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À rebours, “a kind of 19th-century American Psycho” about a sickly aristocrat’s outré self-help programme, which Doyle read while tripping on psychoactive cacti in Bolivia, is plain “evil”.

Inserted between these snippets of high-grade consumer advice are longer, looser reflections written upon Doyle’s return to Ireland early in 2020, a visit that became a long-term stay on account of you know what. Thus does the book morph into a Covid-era tour of Doyle’s psyche, as he reflects while stuck at home on a roving youth spent in druggy squats and house shares in London and Paris, bumming around Asia and Latin America with the cash earned from sorting supermarket coupons on a Dublin industrial estate.

Uppermost on his mind is sex, relegated by the pandemic to a memory, save for half-hearted clicks on PornHub (“like a nightmarish roam through an infinite wet market”), to say nothing of a lockdown-breaking “amatory visit” to his girlfriend. Amid moist-eyed recollections of a three-way at a Berlin nightclub or the Vietnamese lover he followed to San Francisco, we’re told how Doyle didn’t attempt to be faithful, even in a serious relationship. In the darkest days of 2020, he lost his nerve while drafting a tongue-in-cheek Facebook post that he feared his friends might take seriously, because it actually wasn’t wholly light-hearted: “If there’s a silver lining to all this, it’s that the new generation won’t get to enjoy the freedoms I made such a beast of myself exploiting.”

Doyle’s self-guying impulses make him good company on the page. When he imagines writing a book such as Thomas Bernhard’s My Prizes, in which the Austrian writer recalls his experience of accepting various awards (Doyle’s version would be made up of “acerbic speeches to mark the literary prizes I did not win”), the ensuing rant about “some schmoozing chump win[ning] the latest popularity contest with her bullshit book” is funny, not only bitter, in part because Doyle recognises he’s no outsider. He talks of an ex-lover who is a lauded French novelist and says Geoff Dyer (a heavy influence) still texts him about an epic night out they once shared; Rachel Kushner told him that, inspired by an idea about a Houellebecq scholar he gave up after 10,000 words, she’s going to make the French writer a character in her forthcoming novel.

Continue reading...
Read More
Page 1 of 3 FirstPrevious [1]