May 22, 2022
The novelist’s collection of essays on translation only hint at what led her to take refuge in Italian
There aren’t many writers who radically remake their style over the course of their life: we might think of Joyce’s revolutions, Woolf’s renewals, or what Jeanette Winterson called the “furnace work” that Eliot undertook on his mature style for Four Quartets.
Rarer still are those who change the language they write in, but to names such as Beckett and Nabokov we can add Jhumpa Lahiri. At the turn of the millennium, Lahiri was a young star of American literature, winning a Pulitzer prize for her debut, Interpreter of Maladies. She could have carried on like that, but little over a decade later, after publication of her novel The Lowland in 2013, she stopped writing in English and took up Italian. Continue reading...
May 15, 2022
First published in 1964, this striking account of Greenberg’s years in a psychiatric hospital reveals her boredom and fear – and the ignorance of the era
At the beginning of Joanne Greenberg’s striking 1964 autobiographical novel, now reissued by Penguin Modern Classics, is a one-way journey. Deborah Blau, 16, is with her parents, who try to normalise the trip: stopping at a diner, catching a movie. But there’s no getting away from it – her parents look upon her as a “familiar face that they were trying to convince themselves they could estrange”. Deborah has schizophrenia, with episodes of psychosis that they can no longer manage, and they are taking her to a psychiatric hospital.
Deborah has retreated to an imaginary world she calls Yr, speaking a language nobody else understands. As we unpeel her past – a tumour in childhood, experience of antisemitism – it’s not surprising that she doesn’t consider our world to be a good fit. But we see the anguish not only of Deborah but of those around her: no one is guilty here; all are suffering. When her parents return home, they are tortured by what they have done, but admit that the family now has periods of “calmness, even of happiness” without her. Continue reading...
May 08, 2022
The impact of blowing up a hydroelectric dam, the limits of identity politics and the Renaissance polymath feature in the Dutch writer’s funny and clever first novel
The Dutch writer Lieke Marsman has established herself in this country as a poet of exceptional skill with her collection The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes (2019), which was inspired by her diagnosis of a rare form of bone cancer at the age of 27.
Her debut novel, The Opposite of a Person, predates that collection, but is appearing in English now, translated, like her poetry, with empathy and clarity by Sophie Collins. It feels in a sense like the most modern book you could read: not only is the ostensible subject timely (climate change), but it also falls into a number of current literary trends. Continue reading...
Apr 22, 2022
Portrait of an Unknown Lady by María Gainza; The Trouble With Happiness by Tove Ditlevsen; The Land of Short Sentences by Stine Pilgaard; The Old Woman With the Knife by Gu Byeong-Mo
Portrait of an Unknown Lady by María Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead (Harvill Secker, £14.99) Continue reading...
Insincerity, said Oscar Wilde, “is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities”. It’s a principle that María Gainza applies with brio to her dazzling novel about art and authenticity, seeing and not seeing, evocatively titled La Luz Negra (The Black Light) in its original Spanish. There are plenty of unknown ladies in the book. Our narrator is unpicking the life of her late employer Enriqueta, “the single, despotic authority on the price and authenticity of all paintings”, who turns out to have been providing fake authentication for forgeries, particularly of works by the real-life artist Mariette Lydis. An assemblage of literary quotations, court papers, auction catalogues and the “fairground kaleidoscope” of memory, the novel packs a huge amount into its 208 pages. If the reader is never quite sure what’s fact and what’s fiction, that’s just part of the fun.
Apr 04, 2022
Johal weaves stories of Southall citizens with economy and skill in this compelling debut collection
“There were two different realities in the room,” writes Gurnaik Johal in the title story of We Move, a debut collection of such precocity and aplomb that it stands comparison to the likes of Junot Díaz and Bryan Washington. In Johal’s stories, different realities are always colliding and occasionally merging into one. This is busy fiction: he alternates viewpoints, builds his effects by accretion of brief details, rarely staying with one character or one scene for more than a page.
A striking example is the opening story, Arrival, which last month won the Galley Beggar Press short story prize. (I was one of the judges.) It’s barely 1,500 words long – five pages in the book – but it packs in multitudes. It brings to life a couple, Chetan and Aanshi, who live near Heathrow, have no car and let friends use their drive to save on airport parking. When one acquaintance doesn’t return for her car, they tentatively begin to use it as their own. Johal weaves the way this changes their lives with how they cope as the woman’s fiance turns up to reclaim the vehicle and their speculation on why she didn’t come back. It’s a perfect miniature. Continue reading...
Mar 13, 2022
The author’s very funny fifth novel, about two artists and their toxic relationship, deserves its place on the Women’s prize longlist
It’s a modern mystery why Charlotte Mendelson, one of the funniest writers in Britain, isn’t a bestseller (though she has just been longlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction). Her new novel is so devoid of secondhand sentences that it’s quite possible she spent all nine years since its predecessor polishing her jokes and turning phrases round until they shine.
The Exhibitionist is about artists: a popular subject for novelists, who get to write about the creative process in a slightly more glamorous field than their own. It has two focal points: one is Ray Hanrahan, an ageing painter who is a reminder that not every overlooked artist deserves a renaissance. Ray – obstreperous, self-involved (“Soon he’ll be in the bath with his accessories: the paper and a large bacon sandwich”) – is the physical centre of his ramshackle London house, where “what Ray insists are just very big mice have tunnelled into the compost bin”. Continue reading...
Feb 22, 2022
A new translation of the writer’s 1960s journey from Togo to the Arctic is a window into a lost time
“I had started on a voyage of discovery, only to find that it was I who was being discovered,” writes Tété-Michel Kpomassie in this memoir of his time as “an African in Greenland”, first published in 1981 and now reissued by Penguin Modern Classics in a translation by James Kirkup.
His discovery begins, as many do, in a book. As a teenager in 1950s Togo, one of Africa’s smallest countries, he finds The Eskimos from Greenland to Alaska, stocked by accident in an evangelical bookshop. The world of “the little men of the north” seems exotic to a boy brought up in a country where a python was wound around his naked body to cure a head injury. “In that land of ice, at least, there would be no snakes!” He returns to the bookshop to buy a map of the world. Continue reading...
Jan 21, 2022
The Holocaust and history; a young gay man in South Korea; a wartime epic from Finland; plus two tales of love and abandonment
The Memory Monster by Yishai Sarid, translated by Yardenne Greenspan (Serpent’s Tail, £12.99)
“This is where the illusion we call humankind was erased,” a guide to Holocaust sites tells the visitors on his tour. He is so steeped in its history that he has become corrupted by the horror, increasingly unable to see good in the world (humans are “worms with aspirations”) and even applying its grim lessons (“it’s all about power, power, power”) to his son’s problems at school. Sarid boldly highlights the risks of “harnessing [ourselves] to the memory chariot” and of how remembrance can calcify our views, in this complex, rewarding story of a man brought low by good intentions.
Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park, translated by Anton Hur (Tilted Axis, £9.99) Continue reading...
It’s a mark of the generous spirit of the South Korean author’s English-language debut that it made me laugh on the first page. The novel’s loosely autobiographical account of a young gay man losing and finding his way in a conservative society isn’t always so funny, but even bad news is delivered with a spark. “Your mother has cancer! In the uterus! Hallelujah.” Despite the loss of friends, lovers and parents, “the only three things floating around my brain were iced Americano, Kylie Minogue and sex”. Kylie’s name later becomes a euphemism for something darker, and the modulation of tone casts out any initial fear that the novel might just skate across the surface.
Nov 29, 2021
A close escape from the jaws of a bear leads to an exploration of trauma and survival in the French anthropologist’s funny and horrifying memoir
With her second book, French anthropologist Nastassja Martin seeks to tell us what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. In August 2015, when living among the Even people of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, she – the immovable object: a headstrong, combative woman – met the unstoppable force of a large brown bear.
Her story to begin with is simple, and beautifully gruesome. She writes of “the bear’s kiss on my face, his teeth closing over me, my jaw cracking, my skull cracking” – but, impaled by a well-placed ice axe, he changes his mind, departs, and leaves her with “features subsumed beneath the open gulfs in my face, slicked over with internal tissue”. And so this short but chewy book thickens up into a stew of memoir, drama, anthropology and metaphysics – or how the immovable object moved, and changed. Continue reading...
Jun 28, 2021
This 1945 novel, republished as a Penguin Classic, is rooted in its author’s short, intense life
In few writers are the life and the work so commingled as with Denton Welch – who died in 1948 at the age of 33 – or so simultaneously interesting and restricted. His life began as one of relative privilege and expansiveness: born in Shanghai to a family of merchants, he travelled widely in childhood but couldn’t read until he first attended school at the age of nine. Later, he attended Repton school, where in a Shakespeare reading he played Juliet to Roald Dahl’s Romeo.
But his defining experience, which shrank his life to the size of a grave, was a catastrophic cycling accident at the age of 20, which fractured his spine and left him bedridden for long periods. In 1942 he launched his writing career (as well as doing illustration work for Vogue), and in the following six years wrote three novels, almost 60 short stories and articles, and 200,000 words of a journal, all based on his own experiences. He was promoting his life to art even as the complications of his accident condemned him to death. Continue reading...
Jun 20, 2021
The International Booker prize winner is a brilliant, shifting tale of a Senegalese soldier’s descent into madness
Winning a big prize can be bittersweet for a writer: now the majority of people who read your book will have sky-high expectations, higher, indeed, than the judges who gave the award. And by the time it won the International Booker prize earlier this month, David Diop’s second novel At Night All Blood Is Black (translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis) had already scooped awards in France, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the US. Could this be… the best book ever?
In fact, it’s possible to feel underwhelmed with Diop’s novel at first. It begins in a forceful but repetitive way, hammering over and over the same points in the narrative by Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese soldier in the first world war. He has, “God’s truth”, a horror story to share. It involves the escalation of violence – he has taken to cutting off the hands of dead German troops (“my trench-mates began to fear me after the fourth hand”) – and his descent into madness. “The mad fear nothing. The others […] play at being mad.” Soon, he is believed to be a dëmm, a “devourer of souls”, and spurned by his fellow troops. Continue reading...
Jun 13, 2021
A beautifully constructed novella carefully reveals the failings of a hopelessly unperceptive British army engineer
Adam Mars-Jones’s new novella – new to us, that is, as it was first published in Areté magazine in 2017 – is one of those books that proceeds by what it doesn’t tell us. On the one hand, it doesn’t tell us much at all, being fewer than 100 pages long. On the other, narrator Barry Ashton likes to talk a lot, but seems to have trouble getting to the point.
Barry is on the surface a new type of narrator for Mars-Jones: bit of a bloke, an engineer with the British army (“attached to a peacekeeping mission in a hellhole”), oh, and he’s heterosexual too. But scratch his chirpy, guileless, exclamation-mark-spangled exterior (“Often it’s the smallest birds that have the richest song. Making no claims for myself!”) and there are familiar qualities. A fussy meticulousness, like John Cromer in Pilcrow and Cedilla. And a refusal to see what’s under his nose, like Colin in Box Hill. Continue reading...
Jun 08, 2021
The American author’s latest collection takes a brighter turn as it delves into families ‘of all flavours’
I was still on the first page of Elizabeth McCracken’s new collection of stories, where a couple drive out of Dublin – “It was 10pm and raining. If Ireland was emerald she couldn’t say” – when I sighed with pleasure at being back in her sharp-witted world. She writes both novels and stories and her last collection, Thunderstruck (2014), was infused with grief. The Souvenir Museum is brighter and cheerier – up to a point – as the sunny yellow cover with a balloon animal on it suggests.
The subject is families, those people there’s no escaping from because we’re made of the same stuff. McCracken’s families aren’t warring: they’re good natured at heart and she has a gift for spotting the comic potential in situations many of us have endured, such as attending our first family event with a new partner (The Irish Wedding, where Sadie “would have to perform as herself in front of Jack’s family”). Her prose is stippled with just-so observations, as in the title story where a souvenir is “a memory you could plan to keep instead of the rubble of what happened” and Joanna notices her son having “thoughts all the time that she hadn’t put in his head, which she knew was the point of having children but destroyed her”. Continue reading...
Jun 02, 2021
The follow-up to cult hit Leonard and Hungry Paul is the tale of a former footballer’s second chance
Rónán Hession’s first novel, 2019’s Leonard and Hungry Paul, won the word-of-mouth success that small publishers dream of, and it hasn’t stopped rolling yet: shortlisted for half a dozen prizes, it recently made the One Dublin One Book choice for people across Hession’s home city to read.
A hard act to follow. Hession’s new novel, Panenka, adopts an amiable, sincere approach that’s similar to his debut, but with a touch of steel at the core. The hero – that word seems apt – is Joseph, a former footballer for Seneca FC living in a rundown part of an unnamed town, “a sort of spare room where all the problems were dumped”. He is 50 but seems older (grandchild, comb-over) and is nicknamed Panenka, after a risky penalty-taking move (straight down the middle) he tried 25 years earlier.
He blames his failure to score in that game not only for his team’s relegation, but for the decline of the whole town: “There are lots of unhappy people here, and it’s a huge relief for them to agree on a single cause of that unhappiness.” Caught in this trap between self-abnegation and self-obsession, it’s little wonder that Joseph suffers from crippling headaches – though his doctor has a more alarming explanation. Continue reading...
May 24, 2021
Written in the 60s, these disturbing but deft tales of Japanese women’s repressed desires are steeped in violence and masochism
This unignorably strange collection of stories evokes warring responses of admiration and disgust in the reader: Taeko Kono is a writer who puts the toxic into intoxicating. The selection, written between 1961 and 1971, is a brave choice for one of the launch titles in W&N’s new list of modern classics. (Though the publisher that first gave us Lolita in this country has never shirked controversy.)
The recurring motifs are sexual violence and masochism, the protagonists women who occupy mid-century Japanese society quietly, but conceal taboo longings. “Fukuko liked physical pain during sex,” we’re told of one character; of another, “Yuko had never been able to be satisfied by ordinary sex... she would demand violent methods of arousal.” Continue reading...
May 10, 2021
A car accident knocks a sixtysomething surfer’s life off balance in the veteran travel writer and novelist’s intricate page-turner
Paul Theroux, who has averaged roughly a book a year since 1967 and who turned 80 last month, isn’t slowing down. Not for him the approach of Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, whose fiction dwindled into novellas before stopping entirely. Theroux’s new novel is a full-fat epic, inspired by his adopted home of Hawaii (he divides his time between there and Cape Cod: must be rather tiring, to quote Basil Fawlty).
This is the story of champion surfer Joe Sharkey, to whom surfing is “a dance on water … not a sport at all … but a way of living your life”, who surfs a wave as though “carving his signature on it”. But this surfer dude – famous at 17, a champion at 20 – is now 62 years old, not really a dude any more, and not too sure about the surfer bit either. He enjoys a level of renown, though some younger surfers haven’t heard of him, and ageing fame isolates. He doesn’t have any friends, and chatting up a young waitress, he’s stopped short when she says her boyfriend’s father “used to see you in the lineup when he was a kid”. Oof. Continue reading...
May 03, 2021
The American writer’s first eight novels for adults have been reissued as Penguin Modern Classics, offering a banquet of whimsical delights
There are two types of people: those who rejoice that Russell Hoban’s first eight novels for adults have just been reissued as Penguin Modern Classics; and those who will rejoice once they’ve read them for the first time.
The Pennsylvania-born Hoban lived and worked in England, publishing his first novel in 1973, aged 48. He died in 2011. Best known at first as writer of children’s fiction, then for his post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker (1980), he once referred to his fans as a “bunch of charming weirdos”, which is a fitting description of his books too. Artworks by Eduardo Paolozzi used for the covers of these editions capture Hoban’s colourful eccentricity. Continue reading...
Jan 25, 2021
A welcome, posthumous translation of a magnificent 1968 novel about the mental sufferings of a children’s author
Here is a book whose time has come, first, because it fits the openness of conversations about mental health today, but also because there’s an appetite for more work by Tove Ditlevsen, following the publication of her exceptional trilogy of memoirs in 2019. The Faces, which was published in Danish in 1968 and now has its first UK publication, translated by Tiina Nunnally, was written in the same period as Ditlevsen’s trilogy and is inspired by her life, but transforms the material alchemically into art.
The central character, Lise Mundus, is a writer of children’s books, struggling with arbitrary success; she has won an award for a book she “considered no better or worse than her other books” and is phoned up by newspapers seeking the views of “prominent women” on trivial issues (“are miniskirts destroying marriage?”). Fame has “brutally ripped away the veil that always separated her from reality” and now she “clings to that fragile sense of security which was nothing more than the absence of change”. Continue reading...
Jan 23, 2021
The novelist and editor of The Good Immigrant on telling his children about racism, his relationship with food and coming to terms with his mother’s death in his new memoir
- Read an extract from Brown Baby below
In July last year, Nikesh Shukla tweeted a photograph of 11 books, captioned: “This is a decade’s worth of work.” At the top was his debut novel Coconut Unlimited, and at the bottom his latest book, Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family and Home. It was supposed to come out in June, but the pandemic pushed it back, by which time – everyone supposed – bookshops would reopen and live events would return. Instead, we are back in lockdown and Shukla and I are peering at one another down the barrels of our laptop cameras to discuss Brown Baby.
The book’s title comes from the beautifully sober 1960s ballad by Oscar Brown Jr, expressing hopes to his son (“When out of men’s hearts all hate is hurled / You’re gonna live in a better world”) and Shukla’s Brown Baby is addressed to his own two daughters, who are now six and three years old. “I love the tradition of writers writing letters to their children,” he says. “James Baldwin writing to his nephew [“My Dungeon Shook” in The Fire Next Time], Ta-Nehisi Coates [in Between the World and Me]. I didn’t want it to be an overly intellectualised book about race and all the other things. I wanted it to be someone not quite having the answers, manoeuvring in that way that when you’re a parent, your opinions on things change all the time.” Continue reading...
Jan 14, 2021
A former insurgent and her daughters navigate life after wartime in an intense narrative of hope and despair
In her 1983 book Salvador, Joan Didion wrote that El Salvador during its 13-year civil war was “not a culture in which a high value is placed on the definite”, but that “terror is the given of the place”. Both characteristics are vividly honoured in Claudia Hernández’s Slash and Burn. It shares with Anna Burns’s Milkman a focus on how women cope in a conflict made by men; like Milkman, this is a story that could come from only one place, but is carefully unspecific in its details, leaving country and characters unnamed. At its heart is a woman who joins a guerrilla movement, becoming a compañera in the war after suffering abuse by soldiers who terrorise the locals. But the horrors of her experience are a prelude, and most of the book is about the future that during the fighting seemed unreachable.
Several years after the war, the woman has four daughters, though one of them lives in Paris, having been sold to a French family to fund the insurgent cause (there is no “good” side here). Paris represents another world, elusive yet containing everything the woman desires. We see-saw with her through hope and despair: when her daughter does come home for a time, it’s only to tour the country talking to other families who have also lost children. Continue reading...
Dec 03, 2020
This playful meditation on lost objects, from paintings to actors and islands, is a satisfying mix of history, imagination and detail
What, asks this book, is “more terrifying: the notion that everything comes to an end, or the thought that it may not”? Such issues – impermanence, the fringes of things, the border between here and there – are catnip to the German writer Judith Schalansky. Her first book to appear in English, Atlas of Remote Islands, was a coffee table beauty that read as good as it looked, reporting on isolated places including the coral atoll of Takuu, slowly disappearing beneath the tide of climate breakdown, and Easter Island, whose “self-destruction” by its own inhabitants likened it to “a lemming marooned in the calm of the ocean”. Her next book, the novel The Giraffe’s Neck, was less successful but equally concerned with the inevitability of decay, the flip side of Darwinian evolution: how “everything eventually was finished”.
An Inventory of Losses seems at first no more optimistic than the earlier books: our desire for human creations to endure, as evidenced by the etched copper discs of cultural markers attached to the Voyager space probes, is “a kind of magical thinking … a means of self-reassurance for a species unable to accept its own utter meaninglessness”. But for Schalansky it’s the failure to last that gives our efforts not just pathos but also power, and her book is a philosophical embrace of loss. Continue reading...
Nov 16, 2020
Satire meets mystery and sexual exploitation in three exceptionally strange novels by the late, great Japanese author
If, as writer and poet Mieko Kawakami says, Japanese literature is filled with books that are “odd, cute and a bit mysterious”, then Kōbō Abe’s novels score two out of three. There’s nothing cute here, but they go right through odd and mysterious – stopping at sinister, strange and discomfitingly sexual – and out the other side. Abe, who died in 1993, is best known in this country for his early novels, The Woman in the Dunes (1962), about a man imprisoned in a pit of sand, and The Face of Another (1964), in which a disfigured guy creates a new identity beneath a mask. Despite the descriptions, they are entry level by his standards. Now we have three later novels that can only be described as deep cuts.
All share recognisable strands of DNA, which they twine around Abe’s central themes of isolation, identity and the inability to know even oneself, let alone other people. The Ruined Map (1967), translated by E Dale Saunders, which feels like a transitional work, takes the most naturalistic approach – up to a point. The narrator, a detective hired to find a missing man, gets tangled up with the man’s wife, her brother, and mysteries involving shady businesses. But our man uses an obsessive attention to objects – papers, matchbooks, patterns of traffic – to try to solve the mystery. Of course he gets nowhere, reducing a firm knot to a mess of loose ends – people are not a puzzle to be solved – and loses even himself along the way. Continue reading...
Nov 04, 2020
Comfort exists on another planet for the heroine of this dark, explosive follow-up to Convenience Store Woman
Sayaka Murata’s new novel takes the quietly spoken themes of her cult hit Convenience Store Woman and sends them into orbit. The two books might be seen as siblings, though Earthlings would definitely be the evil twin. Both feature young women who reject society’s expectations and seek comfort in replacement forms of community. For Keiko in Convenience Store Woman, it was the reassuringly uniform, striplit security of the shop where she had worked all her adult life. For 10-year-old Natsuki in Earthlings, it’s the imaginary planet Popinpobopia, which she believes to be her destiny, at least according to her cuddly toy Piyyut.
So far, so kawaii, but the cute whimsy unrolled before the reader in the opening pages turns out to be covering a trapdoor. Natsuki conjures a makeshift family out of Piyyut and her cousin Yuu because her existing family doesn’t work. Her mother calls her “hopeless … she’s like a weight around my neck”. Natsuki and Yuu carry out a mock marriage, pledging to one another to “survive, whatever it takes”. Continue reading...
Jul 26, 2020
Sci-fi preconceptions are challenged by little-known marvels from James Tiptree Jr, Angélica Gorodischer and others
The border between science fiction and mainstream literature is more permeable than booksellers or publishers would have us think. Double Booker prize-winner Margaret Atwood’s recent novels are SF-themed (though she prefers “speculative fiction”), as is Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s best-known novel Never Let Me Go.
Penguin Classics has launched a new science fiction series to further this cross-pollination, seemingly keen for the general reader to broaden their personal canon. Some of the titles are well established – Edwin A Abbott’s mathematical fantasy Flatland, Kurt Vonnegut’s satire Cat’s Cradle – but others are newer, at least in the UK, and less likely to come loaded with preconceptions. Continue reading...
Mar 25, 2020
This slim portrayal of an abusive gay relationship in the 1970s is the biggest small book of the year
Adam Mars-Jones’s fiction is nothing if not intermittent. His early stories in Lantern Lecture (1981), including one where the Queen contracts rabies, won him a place on the first, influential Granta Best of Young British Novelists list in 1983. His stories focusing on Aids, collected in Monopolies of Loss (1992), put him on the second list in 1993. Clearly embarrassed at having been twice named one of Britain’s best young novelists without a novel, he wrote his brilliant debut The Waters of Thirst in a couple of months and released it the same year.
It was 15 years before his next work of fiction arrived. Pilcrow (2008) was the fat first part of a projected four-volume mega-novel about the life of a disabled gay man; the second volume, Cedilla, came in 2011. These are the great achievements of his fiction to date, though of the third volume there is no sign. (Being an Adam Mars-Jones completist is not a full-time occupation, though it is a rewarding one.) Now we have Box Hill, the slenderest of creatures, and the biggest small book of the year. Continue reading...