Bookface Blog

Archive by tag: Kate KellawayReturn
May 10, 2022

This exceptional collection from the Belarus-born poet digs into what happens when the self goes missing in an authoritarian regime

Valzhyna Mort was born in Minsk, Belarus, moved to the US in 2005 and now teaches at Cornell University. She speaks three languages: English, Belarusian and Russian and wrote Music for the Dead and Resurrected in Belarusian and English versions. She recently claimed in an interview not to be at home in any of her languages, but reading the English poems, I find this hard to believe. I read her exceptional collection with the excitement you feel on encountering a poised new voice. The opening pieces each contain the words “Self-Portrait” in their titles but this collection is more about what happens when the self goes missing, buried beneath the Minsk snow that falls in poem after poem, muffled by a regime in which it is not safe to speak.

The opening prose poem begins: “I grew up in a microregion of apartment blocks on the south-western edge of the capital city in a provincial Soviet republic…” The sentence continues at length, enjoying its own bulk, and the second begins: “A long sentence, yes, but so was my apartment building, stretching for two bus stops, twelve entrances long and eleven floors high.” Her humour proves a wild and winning card in the pack. She goes on to describe, deadpan, the grim view from the family apartment on to the state dental clinic below and blood on the snow (an image that takes in more than dental trauma).

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Mar 22, 2022

The bestselling psychotherapist explores how trauma and anxiety can pass through generations in these hugely sensitive first-hand accounts

“How are you?” is a question – as I remember my mother telling me long ago – best avoided. Once you start to think about it, you realise most people prefer not to have to respond to the inquiry truthfully (a polite “fine” covers it).

In Every Family Has a Story: How We Inherit Love and Loss, a collection of eight family narratives, psychotherapist Julia Samuel finds herself asking Archie, a man in his 50s with a brain tumour who has been told he has no more than a year to live, how he is, and he “gently” reminds her of her “insensitivity” – and she reproaches herself. What makes Samuel outstandingly sympathetic as a therapist and as a writer is her unusual willingness to admit to faultiness and not to be remote or over-authoritative. She is a virtuoso listener, but wears her heart on her sleeve and will occasionally admit to feeling unequal to what she is witnessing. Her lovely – and in no way insensitive – character leavens the narratives assembled here.

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Mar 15, 2022

These strange, intimate poems blur the boundaries between waking and dreaming, past and future

In Emily Berry’s third collection, Unexhausted Time, nothing is off limits and limits themselves are consciously defied: the membrane between waking and dreaming is semi-permeable, the boundary between past and present is blurred: “How is it the things that happen to us seem to have happened already,” she asks in one unsettled and untitled poem (titles are rarities here). In another, she blends with the weather as if her body were unconfinable: “Prolonged heat made me feel smudged./It was not a bad feeling…/to be a smear on a windowpane…” Her metaphors are prone to melting too or, at least, not allowed a final say.

Berry’s earlier collections were more anchored: Dear Boy (2013) was a buoyantly liberated debut and Stranger, Baby (2017) a moving response to her mother’s death, underpinned by loss. This book is driven by ambivalent maturity. More than ever, there is a sustained wariness about the words she uses so well: she resists the way that words, like capable housekeepers, purport to sort things out when atmospheres are so often defiantly non-verbal.

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Feb 14, 2022

The winner of the TS Eliot prize offers a rallying cry for gay unity amid prejudice and death

Joelle Taylor, the 54-year-old Lancastrian and poetry slam champion, is a fighter on the page. C+nto, the bold, combative and moving winner of the TS Eliot prize, is a passionate reconjuring of 1980s-90s butch lesbian counterculture in London (there used to be dozens of lesbian bars in the city; now there is only one). This is a dramatic narrative that does not reflect any improvement in attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ society; its context is turbulence. In her preface, she declares: “There is no part of a butch lesbian that is welcome in this world” and reminds us that 72 countries still criminalise same-sex relationships and that there are “11 jurisdictions that support the death penalty for lesbians”. She believes the loss of face-to-face encounters in clubs and the divisive nature of the internet have unravelled gay unity and her poetry is a rallying cry to put that right.

Once you have heard Taylor recite on YouTube, looking sharp in her tweed suits, her poems on the page seem unattended without her. There is swank, swagger and firecracker protest in her writing and the ideal is to hear her perform. The book’s title is from the now obsolete Italian literary verb cuntare (to recount) and much of it is divided into “rounds” as though in a boxing ring. But the past is also envisaged as a series of vitrines, their stillness in contrast to Taylor’s pounding blood. Nostalgia’s first cousin, it turns out, is rage.

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Feb 12, 2022

The author of Light Perpetual on a childhood spent hiding in books, dropping a V2 on a fictional London borough and giving up church politics

Francis Spufford, born in 1964, is an uncommonly gifted, adventurous and versatile writer. He began with nonfiction that included a powerful apologia for Christianity, Unapologetic, in 2012. He published Golden Hill in 2016 and it was golden: an outstanding debut, set in 18th-century New York, it won the Costa prize for a first novel. Light Perpetual, his second novel, was longlisted for the Booker prize and is a bold departure in fiction that imagines how it might have been if people who died when a German V2 rocket fell on south London had been able to live their lives.

Tell me about the starting point for Light Perpetual.
I’ve been walking to Goldsmiths [where he teaches writing] every Wednesday for the last 14 years and there’s a small, round memorial plaque on the branch of Iceland on the corner of the New Cross Road. There’s no reason to look at it, it’s part of the south London landscape. The plaque says 168 people were killed on that spot, one November lunchtime, in 1944, when a V2 fell on Woolworths and destroyed it. As well as beginning a fascination with that story, it began a train of thought about the extraordinary things cities ordinarily contain, then lose. I wanted to find a way of remembering the event that was faithful but not literal, so had to invent a London borough and drop a V2 of my own on to it, not to trample on anybody’s real grief.

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Jan 24, 2022

The playwright’s fascinating book shows how a decade-long struggle with the condition profoundly affected her sense of self

A writer does not need to smile – on the page, words can do the smiling. This is something you are aware of throughout American playwright Sarah Ruhl’s extraordinary tale of being struck with Bell’s palsy a day after giving birth to twins. The first sign something is awry is when a lactation consultant casually observes that one of her eyes looks droopy. And when she gets up to look at herself in the bathroom mirror, she finds that the left side of her face has “fallen down. Eyebrow, fallen; eyelid, fallen; lip, fallen, frozen, immovable.” The smile she has, all her life, taken for granted is gone. She explains that, before seeing her reflection in the mirror, she was one person. Now she is another. But she is not self-pitying. Her prose is smart, quipping, pacy. It has the quicksilver mobility her face lacks.

She was unlucky: for many people, Bell’s palsy passes quickly. Hers proved depressingly tenacious. Ruhl describes a decade of paralysis but begins with her pregnancy (her second – she has a daughter at pre-school). Her account brought back memories (having had twins myself) of an in-body experience that at times seems almost an out-of-body experience, a physical overachievement that doubles as a hitch, a risk, an extravagant burden. She writes vividly about the marathon of early days after birth: “The sleep deprivation when breastfeeding twins can feel like a form of psychosis”, yet she does not neglect to celebrate her children, their joyous existence. Charmingly named after the intersection where she and her husband Tony (a child psychiatrist) met in Providence, Rhode Island - “Williams Street and Hope Street” - their twins are called William and Hope.

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Jan 18, 2022

Jamaica’s poet laureate gives equal attention to magpies, rum-soaked puddings and racial injustice in a playful, empathic collection

There can be no excuse for not knowing Olive Senior – who has recently taken over as poet laureate of Jamaica, where she was born (although she has lived in Canada for much of her adult life). Yet I have to admit that I had, unaccountably, not read her until now, and after days immersed in her splendid Hurricane Watch: New and Collected Poems, I have emerged with the sense of having met a life-enhancing person through the most beguiling poetry – filled with intransigent tropical gardens, singular birds and a keen social conscience. I cannot think of a better way to read your way into 2022.

Olive Senior – the name itself nudging towards becoming a poem – has an inclusive attitude towards her work and never disdains humble things. She will give full, equal and affectionate attention to mango trees, magpies and even to a Christmas pudding (a recent, gorgeous poem, soaked in rum) as well as to global and racial injustice and environmental issues. There are playful, shaped poems here too: an egg about to hatch, a nutmeg charged with history, slanting rain. She is unlofty, humorously humane and I read her back-to-front, beginning at the end, focusing on her fine new work and later learning, by chance, how she has propped herself and readers up, internationally, during the pandemic.

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Dec 27, 2021

The young poet who electrified Joe Biden’s inauguration has produced an impressive, if uneven, first collection

From the moment Amanda Gorman started to speak at President Biden’s inauguration, on 20 January, the effect was spellbinding. A graceful young woman in a brilliant yellow suit, speaking to millions – she seemed like sunshine itself, bathing the audience in her light. That performance of her poem, The Hill We Climb, had star quality – and her words, pressing for national unity and reconciliation, soared. The sentiments might not have been out of the ordinary but their delivery was. “The new dawn blooms as we free it./For there is always light,/ If only we’re brave enough to see it./If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

Gorman is brave enough to be it. And to be able to perform at a political gathering and at once lift up and move an audience in this way is rare – the legacy of Martin Luther King needs no labouring. She is now celebrated as a US national youth poet laureate and could even be described as the country’s dazzling new secular preacher. For, as her poem Cordage, or Atonement, puts it: “Poetry is its own prayer,/The closest words come to will.”

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Nov 20, 2021

The author of the bestselling whodunnit on co-writing a 2011 film about a pandemic, her love of suspense, and what Dickens has in common with Jackie Collins

Janice Hallett, 52, is the author of The Appeal, an ingenious whodunnit and a new take on the epistolary novel, composed of emails and texts. She studied English at UCL, screenwriting at Royal Holloway and co-wrote the film Retreat in 2011. She has worked as a journalist and in government communications for the Cabinet Office, Home Office and Department for International Development. The Appeal, which centres on an amateur drama group, is a runaway bestseller and has been shortlisted for Waterstones book of the year

You must have felt like a detective yourself when planning the plot – your book is so meticulously detailed…
I never plan a thing in advance – it takes the joy out of it. I drew up a blank page and wrote for about a year and then there was a lot of reverse engineering. I’d been working on an idea for a TV series but wasn’t getting anywhere. So when Cameron Roach, head of drama at Sky, who’d been mentoring me, suggested I write a novel, I wondered if I could focus on minor characters from the TV series and the emails between them.

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Aug 03, 2021

The Yemeni American poet’s debut collection is a dazzling exploration of a life caught between different cultures

Who is the wild fox of Yemen? I busied myself with a form of foxhunting as I read on through Threa Almontaser’s extraordinary debut collection. She is a Yemeni born in the US and uses her in-between position to the full. Her poems are written with ambidextrous energy, acknowledging New York, gravitating towards Yemen and employing two languages: English and Arabic. One of the most original things about them is the use of transliterated – untranslated – Arabic words. You might need your mobile at hand to Google vocabulary as you read – from fajr (dawn prayer) to gahwa (brew of coffee) to miswak (twig with which to clean your teeth). Each Arabic word acts like a tiny perforation through which, as you translate, light pours. (At times, she offers Arabic script as well.) What is fascinating about the decision not to supply translation is that it turns the English-speaking reader into a foreigner. We become, at several removes, go-betweens as we learn about life in Yemen, its beauty and its suffering.

There is a fox of sacrifice, a dream creature – perhaps an image of Yemen itself, predicted to be, by 2022, the poorest country in the world. But a fox is also a scavenger, not irrelevant in this context. In her opening salvo, Hunting Girliness, she disdains conventional femininity, her stand brought on by violent global events. She declares that, after the twin towers fell, she “wore/ the city’s hatred as hijab”. The economy of the phrase amplifies its shocking effect. There is a sense, too, in which Almontaser herself is the fox, giving predators the slip in Shaytan Sneaks Bites of My Tuna Sandwich: “I am still afraid to stay out after sundown. They might follow me home/ as an animal.” But it is the fox of language that is wildest of all. In Heritage Emissary, she describes her father reminiscing in Arabic about “catching a wild fox with his cousin”. She observes that Arabic is “the medium through which his body can return home”.

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Jul 17, 2021

The Labour MP on the sit-down strike she organised in primary school, how she copes with death threats and what she reads to relax

Jess Phillips, 39, has been Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley since 2015 and is an outspoken crusader for women’s rights. She is married to a former lift engineer and they have two sons. Her new book, Everything You Really Need to Know About Politics: My Life As an MP, is a robustly autobiographical, entertaining attempt to demystify life in Westminster. Her mission is to enlighten the indifferent about what she does for a living, and why politics matter.

Have you always been outspoken? I bet you were a handful as a child – what did you protest about?
My parents had two older teenagers, so I flew under their radar. I probably was a handful but was seen as a bossy madam. At primary school, I was really good mates with a young black lad called Leon Burnett. I remember vividly a teacher scolding him for something he hadn’t done. I organised a sit-down strike in the playground. I was 10. The strike didn’t work, I got into trouble and had to stand with my face to the wall.

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Jul 06, 2021

Combining two collections in one, the veteran poet immerses us in a mythical kingdom in this extraordinary flow of work

There is always the risk of overlooking an established poet as a known quantity. And it is therefore especially pleasing to be able to hail Penelope Shuttle for her 13th collection, Lyonesse. At 74, she has produced a singular, arresting and moving book in which her talent, far from seeming familiar or faded, is underpinned by the accumulated wisdom of decades. The book contains two collections in one, hinged by a theme of loss.

Lyonesse is Cornwall’s mythical kingdom – its Paradise Lost. It was Thomas Hardy’s name for the county, but is also said to have been a real piece of west Cornwall lost in the bronze age – swept under the sea. It is this kingdom that has fired – watered – Shuttle’s imagination and produced an extraordinary flow of work. I should confess that the prospect of the ancient Cornish myth did not make my heart beat faster – I have a blind spot about folksy revival. But this is no fey evocation of a lost kingdom. Shuttle’s Lyonesse is fresh, clear and convincing. It gives grief geography, an address. I believe in its direct dispatches from a submerged front line.

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Jun 21, 2021

In this moving memoir shot through with love and pain, the author considers why Sebastian Barker chose poetry over parenthood

The father of this book’s subtitle (On Losing a Father) is – was – the poet Sebastian Barker. The tense in which he exists is unstable in Xanthi Barker’s complicatedly nuanced, absorbing and moving memoir. After suffering from lung cancer he died, at 68, of cardiac arrest on 31 January 2014, but for a while, after his death, she felt him to be alive. He was the son of the poet George Barker and the novelist Elizabeth Smart (By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept) and a fine lyrical poet himself. The love his daughter has for him – admiring, tender and sometimes unmanageably intense – is never in question but keeps company with other feelings: disappointment, resentment and pain.

All of which is understandable, given that Xanthi is the daughter of a man who “left when I was a baby” and was “easily bored and did not like to talk about what he called personal matters”. But the subtitle could as well be “on finding a father”. For the fascination of this book is in the attempt to understand a parent posthumously, to consider all the conversations that never happened as well as those that did. This is about making up for lost time – time lost for ever.

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Jun 06, 2021

The poet reflects on death, depression and guilt with a clear eye in this troubling and fascinating collection

The title pandemonium seems wrong for a collection as collected as this. For although Andrew McMillan is writing about a period of turbulence involving the depression of his partner, the death of his sister’s baby and various reckonings with himself, the overall quality is of stunned calm. He is not only at the eye of the storm, he is the eye of the storm. It is a fascinating collection – troubling and moving to read. Its atmosphere is distinct from his earlier books physical (2015) – an interrogation of masculinity – and playtime (2018) – an exploration of gay adolescence. And this is because there is no poem in it unmarked by suffering. Pain, in these poems, becomes a form of clarity. And, in his charming and modest way, McMillan has mastered the art of self-reproach. He reproves himself early on, in an untitled piece, for failing to spot his partner’s slide into depression, realising “too late what is about to happen”, recording how, after he said “something unconsidered”, his partner curled up “like a draught excluder”.

Draughts prove, at least metaphorically, impossible to exclude. In the poem that follows, routine, he admits his partner to A&E where the wards are overflowing (no need to ask why) and keeps him company, sleeping overnight “on the tiled floor like a dog”. The poem relives a hectic crisis and yet, on the page, becomes trauma recollected in tranquillity. We are later shown how, just as it is possible to miss early signs of depression, it is easy to celebrate too soon. McMillan writes especially keenly about false seasons and false senses of security. In uncivil, he describes: “unseasonal daffodils/curling up tricked/by the few good days we’ve had” and in another untitled poem, behaves like the daffodils himself:

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May 22, 2021

A forensic psychiatrist who’s worked at Broadmoor shows why it pays to treat criminals with compassion in these revelatory case histories of her patients, from serial killers to child abusers

On the face of it, there might seem every reason to resist this book. Dr Gwen Adshead, a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist who has worked at Broadmoor, the secure psychiatric hospital where some of the UK’s most notorious criminals are detained, knows this. In her opening pages, she describes chatting on aeroplanes with strangers and feeling tempted not to reveal what she does for a living to forestall reactions such as: “What a waste to bother with such monsters.” She has even toyed with lying for a quiet life and saying she is a florist. But I’d advise anyone with their own version – compelled and repelled – of being the stranger in the adjoining seat to keep an open mind: Adshead’s warm intelligence, curiosity and nuanced understanding of her work inspire trust in what turns out to be an unmissable book.

Once a criminal has been sentenced and drops out of the news, that is – for us – the end of their story. But for Adshead, it is the beginning. The first question she asks patients is: where does your story start? It is the question of someone who values narrative above psychiatric diagnosis. It is her unsensational enterprise to show that people who do monstrous things are not necessarily monsters. She knows it is more comfortable to dismiss a murderer, arsonist or paedophile as an aberration than to acknowledge any damaged humanity. She sees it like this: “Over the years, I’ve come to think of my patients as survivors of a disaster, where they are the disaster and my colleagues and I are the first responders.”

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May 15, 2021

The prize-winning poet on her bond with her giggly late gran, embracing blush-making subject matter and why reading poetry is key to writing

Hollie McNish, 38, grew up in Reading, went on from a comprehensive school to Cambridge and has attracted an online following of millions for performances of her poetry. Winner of the Ted Hughes prize for new work in poetry in 2016, she combines protest and humour with a refreshing lack of self-importance. She is a natural champion of women, an ace inequality spotter – a mum who refuses to keep mum. Her new book, Slug, is in no way sluggish: it frisks, rages and rejoices.

You’ve a highly developed sense of injustice – where from?
It’s from my mum. She’s a nurse and has seen it all in terms of people with illnesses and what they have to face. She’s given me a sense of how lucky I am. I’m in a privileged position to speak out because although my family might be embarrassed by my poems, they’re not going to disown me.

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May 11, 2021

The Zambian-born British poet explores colonial history, the origin of HIV and survivor’s guilt with a quiet power

Kayo Chingonyi’s A Blood Condition has a dignity that honours the past without indulging in any overflow of personal feeling. Dignity is an interesting quality in a writer – it cannot be faked without presenting as pomposity. Chingonyi’s authentic, reined-in passions are stirring. His impressive first collection, Kumukanda (2017), showed a poet who already understood that you do not need to be attention-seeking to deserve attention. In this second collection, he takes quietness further. The “blood condition” remains unnamed, although even the most defective of detectives will know it to be HIV. Eastern and southern Africa have been ravaged by the disease and Chingonyi, born in Zambia, lost both parents to HIV-related illnesses. Many of his poems bless the departed (in the affecting Guy’s and St Thomas’s he cannot dissociate the memory of his mother from hospital buildings where she once worked). But the collection is about loss in a far wider sense and its precise devastations will find echos in this time of Covid.

The opening prose poem, Nyaminyami, is dedicated to the Zambezi River god and the whole collection runs like a river that keeps breaking its own banks. Chingonyi compresses Zambia’s troubled history into its flow. He describes the insult of colonial interventions: the building of a dam, the greed for copper, the indifference to the old stories:

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May 01, 2021

The celebrated author talks about writing to the calendar, our new Dickensian age, and how she once imagined she’d become a refuse collector

Ali Smith, 58, is one of our most mind-stretching, energetic and playful novelists, and her seasonal quartet of novels, which she has described as a “time-sensitive experiment”, is a literary, historical take on our troubled age. Autumn (2016), written pre-Brexit and shortlisted for the Booker, was followed by Winter (2017), then Spring (2019) and Summer (2020) – out now in paperback.

How did you feel as you completed Summer and your phenomenal, four-season marathon?
I felt the usual failure (it always feels like a failure at the end of a book). Knackered. Curious as to whether the book would hold water, and as for the series: no idea. Hope, despair. All these feelings passed in the 30 seconds it takes to toast something that’s done with a single measure of single malt, then I emerged from my room into the very real, visceral confluence of hope and despair happening to us all in life in Covid lockdown.

Did writing to the calendar surprise you?
All four books surprised me – from their unexpected characters to their osmosis structure, in which I had to have a blind faith. They never did what I’d imagined they’d do. They formed their own connections, unearthed their own structures. But I’ve always felt that a book’s already written, whatever it is we’re writing. Our job is to unearth it without breaking it or doing damage in the digging. And meanwhile, they earthed – and unearthed – me through a time when our time shook, from Brexit to Trump to Covid.

Summer has been dubbed “the first coronavirus novel”, but in style you’re the least locked-down of novelists… Was Covid problematic to include?
It surfaced in January as I began the book, so I was writing about it concurrently as its impact grew. The book was also concerned with other lockdowns: internment of “enemy aliens” on the Isle of Man in the 1940s, and internment of refugees here and now in the UK (which opened up, ironically, and temporarily, because of Covid urgency).

How has your lockdown been? What are your strategies for getting through?
I’m very lucky. I live with my partner, Sarah Wood [artist and film-maker], in a small street in Cambridge and we have a garden, and our neighbours are all good pals. These things helped immensely. Winter was toughest. In the long middle of the night what really helped was Airs, an album of ancient Scottish tunes made new by composer Mhairi Hall… meditative, consoling. For the mornings: Boccaccio’s The Decameron; I’ve never laughed out loud as much as at these stories, written in the 1300s and set in a parallel plague lockdown in 1348. And for winter evenings, box sets: Spiral, Call My Agent!, It’s a Sin.

I’ve always felt that a book’s already written, whatever it is we’re writing

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Apr 13, 2021

The Russian poet’s eloquent writing is caught between a pursuit of the past and the meaninglessness of memorialising

Translated poetry seldom finds its way into this column. It is too high risk: there is the probability the original voice will seem muffled or will not travel. But an exception has to be made for Maria Stepanova, born in Moscow and a leading voice in post-Soviet culture: poet, journalist, publisher and force for press freedom (founding editor of, an online independent site) who has been showered with prizes in Russia but has not, until now, been much known here. She is translated by Sasha Dugdale, a poet herself, whose imaginative instincts serve her tirelessly. Having said this, a sense that we might be playing Russian whispers (I don’t speak the language) cannot be altogether avoided if only because, as Dugdale explains in her introduction, there is much in Stepanova’s challenging writing that does not translate at all. And yet it has been Dugdale’s remarkable project to give Stepanova a parallel life by dextrously furnishing her modernist poems with English examples.

It is essential to read War of the Beasts and the Animals alongside its companion work, the richly absorbing “documentary novel” In Memory of Memory (just nominated for the International Booker prize). Stepanova scrutinises the memorialising drive of writers and artists: Proust, Mandelstam, Susan Sontag, Joseph Cornell, WG Sebald, Charlotte Salomon – the book is, in part, a Jewish history. Yet she has a simultaneous regard for oblivion, for not recording, for the right to vanish definitively. Holocaust photographs, she argues, need protecting from their audiences. Her writing exists on an edge between an avid pursuit of the past and an acknowledgment of the eventual meaninglessness of memorialising. There is a sense that she might, at any point, be tempted into silence. She writes eloquently about modern technology’s influence on memory, about the wantonly comprehensive record digital photography makes possible – its images persisting into an unwanted immortality. By contrast, she salvages piercingly personal material, including letters from “Lyodik”, her grandfather’s cousin, killed in 1942 in the siege of Leningrad.

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Mar 21, 2021

Characteristic humour courses through this emotional illustrated book about the writer’s battle with Covid-19

“Uh-uh! A cave! We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. We’ve got to go through it!” Like the children in his best-known book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Michael Rosen has been through it. With a writer’s ability to extract something from misfortune, he has become Covid-19’s frontline spokesperson, go-to survivor, man who nearly did not make it. It is not a role anyone would gladly choose. He has been interviewed on television, been the subject of Radio 4’s The Reunion, has written newspaper articles and now this book. Even at the beginning of the pandemic, Rosen was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme in reaction to a tweet in which he protested that older people’s lives were being undervalued. What he did not know then was that he had already contracted Covid-19 himself.

He describes what it is to feel like no one – reduced to a bag of bones, his hearing shot, his left eye not functioning

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Mar 16, 2021

Fathers, mothers and grownup children reflect on leaving home and the ‘dance between closeness and distance’ in an outstanding anthology

This is not, as is the usual rule of this column, a collection but an outstanding anthology in which fathers, mothers and grownup children speak of themselves and, sometimes, to one another. A new form of homesickness is identified in which it is home itself that sickens. In the poem from which the anthology gets its title, Carol Ann Duffy suggests that her house “pines” when her daughter is away. Gabriel Griffin in Alone describes his home’s echoing uncanniness, a “golden hum in the house now they’ve gone”, and Sharon Olds registers a “strange quiet” in her wildcard of a poem Forty-One, Alone, No Gerbil in which even her daughter’s thankless gerbils have died.

A child must be allowed to grow up and leave. Several poems describe a retreating back view, more telling than any organised face of farewell. Cecil Day-Lewis sees this early on in Walking Away, dedicated to his son Sean, whom he describes “walking away from me towards the school/With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free…” Sometimes, it is the parent whose back is turned. In Eavan Boland’s The Necessity for Irony (and what a maestro at understanding family she was), this is a cause of regret. She remembers visiting antique fairs with her flame-haired 12-year-old:

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Feb 16, 2021

The British poet, inspired by the tale of a California couple who shared their home with a migrant, examines the nature of hospitality in this TS Eliot prize-winning book

Bhanu Kapil, poet and performance artist, recently won the TS Eliot prize for How to Wash a Heart. Kapil, born in Britain to Indian parents, recently returned to the UK after years in North America. She explains, in her afterword, how the work was triggered by a news item about a “couple in California who had offered a room in their home to a person with a precarious visa status”. Kapil was unsettled by the photograph of the citizen host in the newspaper, observing “taut muscles around her mouth as she smiled”. She felt “something I could not put words to when I read her ornate way of describing the hospitality she was offering”.

Finding the necessary words became Kapil’s project. In her earlier work, she has written about trauma in the south Asian diaspora. Here, trauma is amplified by displacement. There is a deliberately uncomfortable sense of breaking a taboo in being critical of hospitality, of seeing its – in this instance – self-serving complexity and nouveau colonialism. This is an extended song about “host-guest chemistry”, about mutinous dependence. By implication, it establishes that real hospitality should not be merely about food and shelter, let alone about a host’s self-congratulation. It should be about creating the conditions in which a guest can feel free.

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Feb 13, 2021

The Scottish crime writer on working in a newsroom in the 70s, coping with lockdown and the transformation of attitudes to gay couples in her home nation

Val McDermid, 65, is sometimes referred to as the queen of crime, and her triumphantly Scottish oeuvre is dubbed “tartan noir”. She has written four series, the best-known featuring clinical psychologist Dr Tony Hill. She has sold more than 16m novels and been translated into 40 languages. Her latest, Still Life, now out in paperback, is tremendous, an effortlessly gripping read.

Why is it we relish violent crime in fiction that we would be appalled to encounter in real life?
Watching lightning strike in somebody else’s house can be almost talismanic – seeing off the possibility of evil in your own life. It can be comforting reading crime novels where endings offer resolution. I don’t mean that everything gets tied up with a neat little bow as in Agatha Christie novels – there are more flexible, open endings now – but something gets resolved.

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Feb 06, 2021

This fascinating investigation by a psychiatrist examines the intricacies of the human brain, revealing how and why our minds can play tricks on us

Veronica O’Keane is a professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin. Early in her career, while working on a perinatal psychiatric ward at the Bethlem Royal hospital, now part of the Maudsley in south London, she encountered Edith, who was suffering from postpartum psychosis. Edith believed her baby had been replaced by an impostor. She was convinced her husband, too, had been swapped for a substitute. When interviewed, she was locked in, fearful and reluctant to talk to what she saw as an equally suspect medical team. On her way into the hospital, she had spotted, in the local graveyard, a small, tilted gravestone and was certain her baby had been killed and buried there.

Edith’s story was the beginning of O’Keane’s investigation into memory. What fascinated her was that, even after being treated with anti-psychotic medication and being reunited with reason and her living baby, Edith was, on seeing the gravestone again, filled with horror. O’Keane wished to be reassured that Edith understood her psychotic ideas were illusory. “What she said next set me on a long-term pathway of inquiry about the nature of the matter of memory. She looked straight at me and said: ‘Yes… but the memories are real.”’ It was as if memory had a persisting autonomous authority. Memory had a mind of its own.

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Jan 24, 2021

Five young victims of a wartime bomb are resurrected in the Golden Hill novelist’s audacious meditation on life and death

This novel has been greedily anticipated by Francis Spufford’s many fans – I’ve had a copy of it sitting temptingly on my desk like the promise of a treat to come. Yet there is one thing we know about Spufford: you cannot second-guess him. He began as an elegant writer of nonfiction – historical, theological, autobiographical – before producing, aged 52, Golden Hill, a novel of exuberant virtuosity about an English chancer in 18th-century Manhattan. A gorgeous escapade of a read, it was hard to believe it was a first novel. In an interview at the time, Spufford said he had just been waiting to be “on reasonable terms” with his own psyche before turning his hand to fiction. But Golden Hill set the bar so high that I had wondered if he might offer us something unriskily modest with which to sneak past the famously challenging second novel post.

His elegant structure allows time to pass rapidly, imaginatively leaping 15 years at a stretch

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