May 21, 2022
The American author on feminist utopias, surviving the apocalypse and who is really responsible for the scourge of electric bikes on the pavement
Sandra Newman’s fiction is characterised by audacious conceits, utopian thinking and apocalyptic fantasies. In her latest novel, The Men, every single human being born with a Y chromosome suddenly disappears one late August day, leaving a world inhabited solely by women. The American author imagines the feminist utopia that emerges – and is then threatened when online footage emerges of the vanished men marching through a barren landscape alongside freakish elephants and cats.
Newman’s five novels include The Country of Ice Cream Star and The Heavens, a daring time-travel fantasy that moves between Shakespeare’s England and 21st-century New York. She has also written four nonfiction books, including the memoir Changeling. She lives in New York. Continue reading...
May 16, 2022
This muddled feminist reworking of Coetzee’s celebrated novel fails to grasp his book’s ambiguities
Lacuna opens with an extremely peculiar author’s note. Fiona Snyckers informs the reader that her book is not a retelling of Disgrace (1999) by the Nobel prize-winning South African novelist JM Coetzee, but that it does have an “intertextual relationship” with that harrowing, controversial and much-garlanded novel. Lacuna will feature a character called John Coetzee who is “entirely fictional” and another called Lucy Lurie who, like her namesake in Disgrace, is the white victim of gang rape by black men but is otherwise “original and fictional”.
“I use the character of Lucy to explore the phenomenon of white feminism in South Africa,” she announces. For Lucy is “trapped in her own racism and unconscious biases”. She is “solipsistic and selfish”. She makes “flawed life choices” and “practises a shallow form of feminism that does not take into account intersectionality”. Continue reading...
May 03, 2022
This clear-sighted page-turner explores systematic, everyday prejudice against women – not least when it comes to male violence
For Laura Bates, it began with a heavy piece of gold jewellery that her mother found on the passenger seat of the family car. It was a gift from her grandparents. Her mother, after two daughters, had been rewarded for giving birth to a son. “I am five years old,” Bates writes, “and have no idea I’ve already been weighed, valued and found wanting.”
This incident is the first on what the feminist writer and activist calls “my list”. She encourages all women to make one, charting a life in sexism, from the playground to the street to the workplace. “By the time I leave university, aged 20,” Bates writes, “I have been sexually assaulted, pressured to perform topless in a theatre production (I stand my ground, but the experience leaves me in tears) and cornered in the street by two men shouting, ‘We’re going to part those legs and fuck that cunt.’” Continue reading...
Apr 25, 2022
The American writer’s first novel applies her spare, elliptical style to a creepy coming-of-age tale set in Massachusetts
When I finished Very Cold People, I felt my whole body unclench. In the process of reading this creepy coming-of-age tale, I seemed to have trapped a nerve in my shoulder – it’s that tense. It’s a novel in which nothing very much happens for about 100 pages but small objects – Barbie dolls, Girl Scout sashes, bubble gum, nail polish, a knitted scarf – assume vast significance, and small kindnesses feel overwhelming. When a friend tips candy into the hand of the narrator, Ruthie, she says: “I couldn’t believe how much she was giving me. Just giving it to me, when she could have eaten it herself.” Any act of generosity feels too good to be true.
The author of this chilling tale is debut novelist Sarah Manguso, 48, who tried for 20 years to capture the culture of the icy, all-white Massachusetts town of her 1980s childhood in nonfiction, before finally arriving at the spare, elliptical form she uses here. Once home to the wealthiest New England families, the fictional town of Waitsfield has emptied out over the years and yet its residents, with their Mayflower ancestors, are still obsessed with social class. It’s a place of “emotional poverty”, Manguso has said in an interview – a place where “in all of its coldnesses and silences, [it] is ideally set up to protect abusers”. Continue reading...
Mar 20, 2022
Four essays by the author of the Neapolitan Quartet reveal her struggles while developing her literary voice
At the beginning of Elena Ferrante’s last novel, The Lying Life of Adults (2020), the narrator recalls a moment of shame from early adolescence that left her feeling permanently untethered. “I slipped away, and am still slipping away, within these lines that are intended to give me a story,” she writes. Describing herself as “only a tangled knot”, she says: “Nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.”
The sense of self-estrangement, the ugly-beautiful imagery, the mood of anguish – these are the constants in Ferrante’s fiction, from her early first-person stories about desperate women whose lives are going to pieces to her Neapolitan Quartet that made Ferrante an international phenomenon – as well as the world’s most famous literary recluse. She has always been fascinated by the way reality is transformed into art. Who gets to tell whose story? What if the story I’m telling leads nowhere? Is fiction more truthful when seen behind a veil of lies? Continue reading...
Feb 28, 2022
The Argentinian writer follows up her thrilling debut, Optic Nerve, with a truth-twisting tale of forgery
One of my favourite books of the past few years was a debut novel by an Argentinian art critic that didn’t get nearly enough attention when it was published in translation in 2019. Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza is a digressive, virtually plotless account of a woman surveying her life through the paintings that enthral her. I found it so fresh, so piercingly beautiful, I felt like I’d had a door kicked open in my mind, as Bruce Springsteen said of hearing Bob Dylan for the first time.
It was clear that Gainza, like British authors Rachel Cusk and Claire-Louise Bennett, was opening up new possibilities for the novel as a place of freedom, where you could blend fiction, memoir, art history and anecdote. She immediately felt like a thrilling discovery. I was eager to read her follow-up, though mindful that doors shouldn’t really need to be kicked open twice.
Portrait of an Unknown Lady by Maria Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead, is published by Harvill Secker (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply Continue reading...
Jul 24, 2021
The French-Moroccan author on why she writes, the complexity of identity, and the first book of a trilogy based on her family history
Author Leïla Slimani, 39, grew up in Rabat, Morocco, and moved to Paris when she was 17. Her first novel, Adèle, a melancholy story about a nymphomaniac mother in her 30s, was published in France in 2014. In 2016, she was the first Moroccan woman to win France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, for her second novel, Lullaby, about a nanny who kills the baby and toddler in her care. In 2017, President Emmanuel Macron appointed her as his personal representative for promoting French language and culture.
Last year, Slimani published a nonfiction book, Sex and Lies, a collection of intimate testimonies from Moroccan women about their secret lives. Her latest book, The Country of Others, is the first novel in a planned trilogy based on her family history. Set in the late 1940s and 50s, it centres on her maternal grandparents during Morocco’s period of decolonisation. Slimani lives with her husband and two children in Paris. Continue reading...
May 15, 2021
From Sally Rooney to Raven Leilani, female novelists have captured the literary zeitgeist, with more buzz, prizes and bestsellers than men. But is this cultural shift something to celebrate or rectify?
In March, Vintage, one of the UK’s largest literary fiction divisions, announced the five debut novelists it would be championing this year: Megan Nolan, Pip Williams, Ailsa McFarlane, Jo Hamya and Vera Kurian.
All five of them are women. But you could be forgiven for not noticing it, so commonplace are female-dominated lists in 2021. Over the past 12 months, almost all of the buzz in fiction has been around young women: Patricia Lockwood, Yaa Gyasi, Raven Leilani, Avni Doshi, Lauren Oyler. Ask a novelist of any gender who they are reading and they will almost certainly mention one of Rachel Cusk, Ottessa Moshfegh, Rachel Kushner, Gwendoline Riley, Monique Roffey or Maria Stepanova. Or they will be finding new resonances in Anita Brookner, Zora Neale Hurston, Natalia Ginzburg, Octavia Butler, Ivy Compton-Burnett. The energy, as anyone in the publishing world will tell you, is with women. Continue reading...
Aug 17, 2020
The US author’s fascination with female outsiders offers diminishing returns in this postmodern mystery of a girl presumed dead
Over the past six years, Ottessa Moshfegh has dedicated herself so assiduously to writing about people in self-isolation you have to wonder what she knew that the rest of us didn’t.
The 39-year-old American author has built a cult readership with mordant stories about alienated female outsiders written in a flat, disaffected voice. Extreme solitude can bring clarity but more often leads to a bleak, delusionary existence. Her protagonists are bored, amoral and seek oblivion; they usually have grotesque, violent thoughts. In her 2017 short story collection, Homesick for Another World, the most sympathetic narrator is a homicidal child: “Earth is the wrong place for me, always was and will be until I die,” she says. Continue reading...
Jun 21, 2020
Five wealthy women about to turn 40 rethink their lives in the wake of #MeToo in a caustic reimagining of a 60s classic
It takes a certain insouciance to write a novel about a group of Oxford graduates reminiscing about their Pimm’s-drinking student days in the current climate. Who really wants to peer into the hearts of privileged white women called things like Priss and Helena who employ Bulgarian cleaners and insist on calling themselves “middle class” when they surely mean upper middle class? It’s not as if this substrata of society has been under-represented in literary fiction.
However, Lara Feigel is quite aware of what she is doing – a homemade elderflower muffin, which appears on the first page, is carefully chosen. She is prepared to court dislike in her pursuit of the emotional truth of these women’s lives. As her omniscient narrator, Stella, reflects: “Perhaps that’s the biggest problem of being middle class and white and English and a woman, finding it embarrassing to take ourselves seriously. I’d have done so much more with my life if I hadn’t felt embarrassed.” Continue reading...
May 03, 2020
The follow-up to Garth Greenwell’s much-acclaimed debut novel encompasses the tender and the tawdry in exhilarating prose
Garth Greenwell’s 2016 debut novel What Belongs to You was a spare, spellbinding account of an American academic’s intense desire for a rent boy in post-Soviet Bulgaria. It received a lot of attention for a book set in the public loos of Sofia. It won the British book award for debut of the year, and no fewer than 50 publications across nine countries named it best book of the year.
And rightly so. Written in gorgeously limpid prose, it was fearless and nerve-racking autobiographical fiction, incandescent with yearning, rage and rejection. But it was the middle section, about the molten anguish of growing up gay with a Republican father in Kentucky, that had me gripped. Written in one supple, unbroken paragraph of 40 pages, it remains one of the most heartbreaking accounts of pained desire that I can remember reading. The novel is worthy of its comparisons to James Baldwin and Alan Hollinghurst as well as Virginia Woolf and WG Sebald. Continue reading...