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Archive by tag: Clare ClarkReturn
May 11, 2022

Ward follows her inventive debut with a wayward blend of adolescent trauma and police procedural

It would have been a dauntless pundit who gambled on where Sophie Ward would go with her second novel. Her 2020 debut, the Booker-longlisted Love and Other Thought Experiments, took the form of a series of loosely interconnected stories, each one a riff on a well-known philosophical thought experiment such as Pascal’s wager, a bet on the existence of God, or Heraclitus’s river, the idea that change is the only constant. Inventive and ideas-heavy, the novel defied genre, taking in everything from modern relationships to space exploration and AI. One chapter was narrated by a child in the process of being born, another from the point of view of an ant living inside a human character’s brain. While the book divided critics, it established Ward as a literary provocateur, a writer pushing at the bounds of what fiction could do.

Yet her follow-up, The Schoolhouse, is a much more conventional undertaking. The novel takes place over a long December weekend in 1990, and divides its increasingly interwoven narrative between two female protagonists in north London. Isobel is a librarian whose life is carefully and consciously proscribed. Deaf as a result of a childhood accident, she does everything she can to avoid “the intrusion of the outside world”, sticking to strict routines and retreating each evening to the safety of her small upstairs flat, where she keeps the curtains and doors tightly closed. Sally Carter, meanwhile, is a detective sergeant, battling the stultifying hierarchy and institutional sexism of the Metropolitan police. On Friday morning, as the story begins, Carter is assigned to a missing persons case. Ten-year-old Caitlin Thompson has failed to come home after school and her parents are frantic. Meanwhile Isobel, whose schooling concluded abruptly 15 years ago, returns from the library to find a letter from one of her teachers, informing her that her old classmate Jason has been released from prison and is asking if they can meet.

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Mar 31, 2022

Fictional imaginings ignite the historical facts in this darkly comic tale of political intrigue, with revealing insights into the making of a dictator

In May 1907, to the great excitement of the British tabloid press, the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour party met at the Brotherhood church in Hackney, east London. Among the delegates were Lenin, Trotsky, Litvinov, Rosa Luxemburg, the writer Maxim Gorky, at least two spies from the Russian secret police and a 29-year-old shoemaker’s son from Georgia who went by the nom de revolution of Koba. The original Koba had been a Georgian folk hero in the Robin Hood mould, an outlaw who defended the weak against the strong. History would remember his namesake by a later pseudonym, a play on the Russian word for steel: Stalin.

Stalin spent about three weeks in London, lodging first and very briefly at Tower House, a notoriously grim doss house in Stepney, and then, at his insistence, in rather less squalid private accommodation nearby. In Sell Us the Rope, Stephen May weaves real-life events with fictional imaginings to create a novel that defies easy categorisation: a convincing slice of history that is also a darkly comic tale of political intrigue and a revealing portrait of the dictator who would go on to mastermind the Great Terror of the 1930s, the bloodiest and most brutal campaign of political repression in Russian history.

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Jan 27, 2022

Two young Prussian women emigrate to Australia in Kent’s rapturous but overblown third novel

The Australian writer Hannah Kent has found critical and commercial success with fictionalised reworkings of real-life historical crimes. Her bestselling debut, Burial Rites, shortlisted for the 2014 Women’s prize, examined the case of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, condemned to death in Iceland in 1829 for the savage murder of her master. Her second, The Good People, was based on 1820s newspaper reports about the violent attempts by an Irish village to banish a child they believed to be a changeling. Both books cleaved closely to the historical record, working within the constraints of the known facts to invest those bleak and brutal stories with ambiguity and depth, and to give a voice to participants whom the past had long condemned to silence.

With Devotion, Kent returns for a third time to the same period, this time to the Prussian village of Kay and a close-knit community of Old Lutherans, compelled by the strict religious reforms of their emperor to worship in secret. Many of Kent’s familiar themes are here: the fierce connections and exclusions that bind small communities; the tension between doctrinal religion and superstition; the power of landscape. This time, however, the history is much closer to home. Kent grew up (and still lives) in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia. Most of the émigrés who settled in this unceded Indigenous land were English, but some were Prussians like the Old Lutherans of Kay, in search of a place where they could practise their faith in peace. Those Prussians were Kent’s forebears – the start of her own story.

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Jun 05, 2021

This moving novel about mental illness and sisterly love finds hilarity and wisdom in anguish, without ever diminishing pain

In her poem “Tango”, 2020’s Nobel laureate Louise Glück concludes that “Of two sisters, one is always the watcher, one the dancer”. It is a pattern familiar from life and from literature. In fiction it is usually the watching sister who takes on the role of the storyteller.

In Sorrow and Bliss, New Zealander Meg Mason’s first novel to be published in the UK, it falls to the dancer to tell her story as she sees it, even as she dances closer and closer towards the abyss. Martha Friel is 40, the writer of a “funny food column” that, once her editor has cut out all the jokes, is – as she sardonically acknowledges – just a food column. She has few friends, but is intensely close to her sister Ingrid. Her husband Patrick adores her. It is clear from the start, though, that Martha does not make things easy. Recalling a party not long after their wedding, she remembers Patrick suggesting that, instead of staring at a woman standing by herself and feeling sad on her behalf, she should go over and compliment her on her hat. “Even if I don’t like it?” she asks him. “Obviously, Martha,” Patrick replies. “You don’t like anything.”

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Mar 17, 2021

The third in Harding’s cycle of novels about the Ashe family brings wisdom and compassion to a tale set against the bleak, beautiful Norfolk landscape

Since her debut novel, The Solitude of Thomas Cave, in 2007, Georgina Harding’s fiction has ranged widely, from a 17th-century whaling boat in the Arctic to communist Romania in the 1950s. For all their differences, her books are profoundly connected, each one in its own way a meditation on survival and the aftershocks of trauma. Again and again they return to the implacability of memory, the intolerable weight of bearing witness, the struggle to build – or rebuild – a present-tense self on the ruins of the past. Like memory, they unspool in loops, the clouded silences of the present parting briefly to expose glimpses of secrets that can never be spoken, that can barely even be thought.

Harvest is the third in Harding’s cycle of novels about the Ashe family. Their very name summons aftermath, something irrevocably lost. The first, The Gun Room, tells the story of Jonathan Ashe, a young photojournalist responsible for one of the defining images of the Vietnam war. He moves to Tokyo, seeking refuge in the city’s anonymity. Instead a much older trauma begins to surface. The second, The Land of the Living, steps back 30 years to Jonathan’s father Charlie’s shattering experiences in the remote jungles of Assam during the second world war, and his struggle, as a newly married farmer after the war, to unshackle himself from their horror. In both novels place is vividly, viscerally evoked, the exotic strangeness of the Asian landscapes contrasting sharply with the windswept fields and flat wide skies of Norfolk. But while the latter is profoundly familiar to both men, that familiarity does not bring safety or peace.

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Feb 05, 2021

A young woman is haunted by memories of Sarajevo in this powerful study of trauma and psychological disintegration

In 2018, Olivia Sudjic spent two months alone in Brussels. Her debut novel, Sympathy, had been published to critical acclaim and she hoped to make progress with a second. Instead, she found herself in the grip of an agonising spiral of anxiety and self-doubt, unable to write, unable almost to think. She later wrote about the experience in a long-form essay, Exposure, a scrupulous examination of the pressures of social media and the personal scrutiny to which she believes female writers are particularly subjected. In that essay Sudjic argues that her periodic episodes of anxiety, while agonising, are necessary to her writing: the writer’s duty, she contends, “is to seek out chaos, or the very thing of which she is most afraid”.

In Asylum Road, she appears to have done exactly that. Anya, a twentysomething PhD student in London, grew up during the brutal siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s. The siege, lasting three and a half years, was the longest in modern history. Snipers surrounded the city, picking off targets; buildings were shelled daily. There was little food, water, no electricity or heat. Residents burned furniture to keep warm and foraged for wild plants including dandelion roots. By the time the siege was finally lifted, nearly 14,000 people were dead.

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Jun 12, 2020

From the cold war era to the war on terror, the corrosive effects of fear are closely observed in this portrait of a friendship over six decades

Stuart Evers’s hefty second novel was written before Covid-19 upended our lives but it is a vivid reminder that, while the current crisis might be unprecedented, the existential terrors it inflames are not new. For 40 years, from the advent of Soviet weaponry in 1949 to the collapse of the eastern bloc, the threat of nuclear war loomed large over the world. In a survey in the late 1950s, 60% of American children reported suffering nightmares about nuclear apocalypse.

Evers’s protagonist Drummond Moore is a shy, unassuming lad fresh from two years in the Ford factory at Dagenham in east London; he meets Jim Carter in 1959 when they embark on national service. Carter, wealthy and well connected, has just been sent down from Oxford. Their fellow conscripts are being posted to South Korea, Cyprus, Ireland, Sudan, but after Drum saves Carter from being fleeced in a card game, Carter returns the favour and secures them both cushy jobs in the Catering Corps.

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