Sep 20, 2022
The reader is cast as detective, in this ludic novel about nationalism, pandemics and propaganda, set in the latter days of the Ottoman empire
Orhan Pamuk likes to play new games. Every one of his books has differed markedly from the others, yet each shares a capacity for disconcerting the reader. This one is long and intellectually capacious. It tackles big subjects: nationalism and the way nations are imagined into being; ethnic and religious conflict; the decline of an empire; the political repercussions of a pandemic. It includes many deaths.
Yet, for all the weight of its subject matter, its tone is lightly ironic, arch, even flippant. It has many flaws. It is repetitive; it contains far too much exposition. All the same – formally and in terms of content – it is one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year. Continue reading...
Aug 25, 2022
Inspired by Robert Browning’s poem My Last Duchess, this follow-up to Hamnet mingles fact, portraiture and poetic fantasy for the simple tale of a girl forced into marriage
Here is a novel inspired by a poem describing a painting portraying a young woman who actually lived. Art and artifice are intrinsic to it. In Maggie O’Farrell’s imagining of 16th-century Italian courtly life, manners make the man, clothes make the woman, and an image is more durable than a person.
In 1558, Lucrezia, daughter of Cosimo de’ Medici, was married to Alfonso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara. A year after entering her husband’s court in 1560, aged just 16, she died. Poison was suspected. Several portraits of Lucrezia survive. Nearly 300 years after her death, Robert Browning wrote My Last Duchess, a dramatic monologue in which Duke Alfonso displays a portrait of his late wife and allows the reader to deduce that – insanely jealous – he murdered her. Now O’Farrell has shuffled historical fact, portraiture and poetic fantasy together and used them as the basis for a piece of fiction in which a simple tale, of a girl forced too young into a dynastic marriage, is overlaid and embellished with elements from fairytale and myth. Continue reading...
Mar 29, 2022
Lyrical visions alternate with fables and farce, history with Covid, in the scheme-busting fifth part of Smith’s seasonal quartet
Ali Smith revels in etymology. She loves wordplay and puns and homonyms and what Samuel Johnson – another great lexical player – disapprovingly called a “quibble”. I’m sure she knows that “current” means “running” (from the Latin currere). So the proclaimed purpose of her four previous books was always going to be problematic. Four novels, named for the seasons of the year, were written fast and published even faster in an attempt to close the gap between experience and a writer’s response to it. But the trouble with writing about current events is that they keep running on ahead of you. And running away from you. And running in directions you might not have foreseen. (Remember when Covid seemed like the world’s worst worry?) Besides, almost as soon as the series began, it became evident that Smith’s genius is too wayward to be contained within a programme, even a self-imposed one.
Smith’s writing is discursive and protean. She writes stories that turn into spells and exchanges that morph from Platonic dialogues into music-hall patter. In the seasonal novels she writes about Rilke and Katherine Mansfield, about Pericles and joinery and the potency of cheap music. She approaches the topic of immigration by way of an excursion to a second world war internment camp on the Isle of Man, and a plot strand relating to a modern boy’s obsession with Albert Einstein, who once lived as a refugee in a hut on a heath in East Anglia. Continue reading...
Mar 03, 2022
The lives of two working-class women are interleaved in a bold debut novel with flashes of beauty
There are two stories in this novel, but each one has been cut up, and the two sets of fragments shuffled together. They form a composite picture as frustrating, and as full of brilliant moments of illumination, as those church windows where conservators have reassembled the shards left behind by iconoclasts’ cudgels, making a collage of unrelated pieces. Here a saint’s hands reaching out in blessing; there the leering grimace of a snouted devil; a scattering of pieces of drapery lovingly executed; everywhere glimpses of sky, of dirt, of bright colour.
Spanish author Elena Medel is a poet, and she has a poet’s preference for the significant moment over the sustained narrative. In her first novel, she gives us vignettes of two women, each of whom moves to Madrid in search of a new start. María is Alicia’s grandmother, but they don’t know each other. In the final section they will meet, unknowingly, during the 2018 women’s strike, only to pass on by. Their lives echo each other – both of them abandoning ambition, worn down by exhausting menial jobs, both making do emotionally with mediocre men – but they are also opposites. Continue reading...