Aug 04, 2022
Based on true events, this harrowing novel charts the police infiltration of environmental groups and its moral fallout
Clare Clark’s seventh novel, her first book to be set in the contemporary world, explores one of the defining scandals of recent times: from the 1980s to the present day, undercover police officers infiltrated activist groups in the UK. They developed sexual relationships with their targets as part of their cover, in some cases fathering children. This story was brought to public attention by the unmasking and subsequent disclosures of the former undercover officer Mark Kennedy. It was also exposed in the Guardian by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, whose landmark work, Undercover, is credited as the source material for Trespass.
Clark’s novel is a harrowing and compelling act of excavation. It feels almost like a moral necessity to read it, and through doing so bear witness to something that wasn’t just perpetrated by the police against political activists. It was done in the name of the people whose taxes fund the state and whose votes decide its direction. Continue reading...
Apr 06, 2022
Two people withdraw from city life and retreat to the countryside in this tender chronicle haunted by loss
The Irish writer and artist Sara Baume is still best known for her 2015 debut, Spill Simmer Falter Wither; Seven Steeples, her third novel, is a glacially beautiful book. I am almost certain it’s a ghost story, but it’s a novel that gives up its secrets warily. Bell and Sigh are a couple who leave the city with their dogs to rent a cottage by the sea and withdraw steadily from their lives, seeking to live in an atmosphere of continuous temporariness. I couldn’t help but think of the ring of bells and the sound of sighs as stock motifs of ghost stories the world over.
But I believe this novel will mean profoundly different things to different readers, because its own presiding spirit is surely Elizabeth Bishop, who worked so carefully at keeping feeling unspoken under the surface of her poetry, only revealing the heart through the physical world: she understood that emotion would shine out through detail, through specific, close observation. As if in tribute, Baume offers up an astonishing prose poem that keeps close religiously and lovingly to the physical throughout. Continue reading...
Jan 26, 2022
The 1966 Aberfan disaster frames the story of a young man struggling to come to terms with his past
In 1966, a colliery spoil tip above the Welsh village of Aberfan collapsed; 116 children and 28 adults were killed when the village was buried under a wave of slurry. Jo Browning Wroe’s debut novel, A Terrible Kindness, purports to be the story of a young embalmer who attends the disaster. The first thing to say is that it resolutely isn’t: it is, in fact, the kind of novel I used to enjoy reading off my grandparents’ shelves, a domestic saga about a young man struggling to overcome his childhood while joining the family business.
Mentally scarred by Aberfan, William Lavery tries, unsuccessfully, to break up with his girlfriend Gloria, and tells her he will never want to have children. The story then spools back to his chorister childhood in Cambridge, his falling out with his best friend, Martin, when Martin more or less assaults him in his sleep, and his determination never to sing again after inviting his uncle, who is gay, and his uncle’s partner to hear him at a service. His mother makes a scene on discovering them there, and William ends up moving in with his uncles. While taking Gloria around Cambridge, William bumps into Martin again; he later embarks on a redemptive trip to Aberfan. Continue reading...
Dec 11, 2021
A mother sets out to excavate the details of her daughter’s life in this outstanding study of bereavement
Yewande Omotoso is known for her second novel, The Woman Next Door, longlisted for the Women’s prize in 2017. As a reading experience, the follow-up An Unusual Grief is like a river. The story gathers turbulence and pace as it passes through its reader, twisting and turning back on itself until at last its emotional torsion seems to open out, as the grief fuelling this narrative achieves acceptance, or perhaps surrender, and the novel subsides into contemplative emotion. As a mapping of the progress of grief it skirts cliche, but only because grief does follow certain patterns. As the shape to a story it’s deeply satisfying.
Mojisola’s daughter Yinka has taken her own life, and in a traumatised fugue state, Mojisola travels to Yinka’s flat in Johannesburg from her home in Cape Town, leaving her serially unfaithful husband, Titus, behind her. She moves into the ruins of her daughter’s life, befriending her daughter’s former landlord and occasional drug dealer Zelda as she rents the flat for herself, and seeks to excavate who Yinka was and what happened to her. This search takes her deep into a life that is entirely unlike the one she herself has lived. Of course, it doesn’t work: the threads left behind do not amount to the person, as Mojisola eventually accepts. In the end, the closest thing to an insight into the day her daughter died turns out to be something Mojisola left behind in Cape Town. What she finds in Johannesburg is the unknowability of any other life – even her own child’s. Continue reading...
May 27, 2021
A woman’s desire for escape from the stasis of domesticity is wryly observed in the poet’s tragicomic second novel
In Luke Kennard’s second novel, The Answer to Everything, the details of his fictional world begin to clarify. Kennard’s first novel, The Transition, coalesced around the slow reveal of a portrait of mental illness under the surface of an apparent dystopia. Here, Kennard pulls a similar trick, turning his readers away from the emotional heart of his work until very late in its unfolding, a revelation that carries a powerful emotional charge when it finally pays off.
Kennard writes about the middle class. Flat whites, home ownership, therapists, teachers – this is his territory, and he subverts and skewers the place where so many of us live with Ballardian flair. The Answer to Everything is essentially the story of an affair that develops when Emily, Steven and their two sons move in opposite Elliott, Alathea and their two sons in Criterion Gardens, a 90s housing estate repurposed as a kind of social project – communal allotment, a pool of “eco cars” with charging pods available to borrow. Continue reading...
Oct 14, 2020
Two lives are revealed through one evening’s blunted dialogue, in a skilful if repetitive excavation of the sublime buried in the mundane
Roddy Doyle’s new novel is a shaggy dog story that seeks to explore the difficulty of saying goodbye to anything, and the experience of losing things and trying to get them back. Its most profound observation is that the sublime moments of our lives are often mundane, and that mundane moments contain the sublime within them. This is expressed with great skill, as the novel’s two protagonists’ whole lives are revealed through blunted dialogue in one dingy pub after another, over the course of a rambling Dublin evening. In its architecture, the milieu and voice Doyle adopts to tell his story, the novel succeeds in communicating something deeply moving about how shabby and run-down our hopes and fears can seem when we put them into words. However, Love is also an almost perverse and occasionally infuriating exercise, which at times resembles a challenge an exceptionally gifted writer has set himself: can I make a good novel out of a pub bore?
Joe meets Davy for dinner in Dublin. As young men, they were almost “the same man” – drinking partners who discovered the adult world of pubs together and fell in love with the same women, though Davy always had more luck. As adult life took them in different directions – Joe moving to England, Davy staying behind – they maintained a friendship, meeting up whenever Joe came home to drink and talk old times. Those meetings became less frequent as the years went by, though, and it seems to Joe that the two men have less and less in common. On this night, having not seen each other for some time, Davy thinks they’re meeting because he needs to tell Joe the story of how he bumped into a woman they were both once in love with, without ever really speaking to her or even, quite possibly, learning her name. He’s ended up leaving his wife, Trish, for this woman. Her name turns out to be Jessica. Continue reading...