Bookface Blog

Archive by tag: Matt Rowland HillReturn
May 13, 2022

Six interlinked stories from a superb new writer about young Londoners and their smartphone addictions

In recent years, much of the most innovative work in the anglophone short story has come from Ireland, from writers such as Colin Barrett, Wendy Erskine and Nicole Flattery. New debut collections by gifted British authors Saba Sams and Gurnaik Johal have shown the unmistakable influence of their Irish peers. The publication of Reward System by Cambridge-born Jem Calder provides further evidence that the medium is attracting some of the most talented young writers of fiction at work today, on both sides of the Irish sea.

Strictly speaking, Reward System isn’t quite a short story collection. It’s a book of six tales, most of which are slightly interlinked through the reappearance of two main characters, and one of which – about an assistant chef in a restaurant kitchen who has an affair with her older boss – is long enough to be classed as a novella. But as up-to-date as these stories feel, Reward System belongs firmly in the tradition of fictional miniaturism: Calder’s stories are all granular portraits of micro-interactions between people in ostensibly mundane settings, tapped out on six inches of LCD glass.

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May 05, 2022

The Pulitzer prize winner reflects on losing her father and finding a partner, in book that combines essay and memoir

Lost & Found, as befits a book about contrasts, is something of a hybrid. On the one hand, it is a memoir of two shattering events that took place almost simultaneously in Kathryn Schulz’s life: the death of her much-loved 74-year-old father, and her falling in love, in middle age, with a woman she calls C. It also veers between two distinct modes: the personal, where Schulz relates these events in affecting prose; and the more detached, essayistic style that will be familiar to readers of her Pulitzer-winning work in the New Yorker.

After establishing the fact of her father’s death in the book’s opening, Schulz takes the reader on a series of long, impersonal digressions on the subject of loss in general: “Phone chargers, umbrellas, earrings, scarves, passports, headphones, musical instruments, Christmas ornaments, the permission slip for your daughter’s field trip … the range and quantity of things we lose is staggering.” She is such a good writer of nonfiction that she is never less than shrewd and entertaining company, dispensing maxims such as “In the microdrama of loss, we are nearly always both villain and victim,” and providing thoughtful readings of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem One Art, in which the narrator contemplates “the art of losing”.

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Mar 10, 2022

A stolen idea has consequences for an aspiring author in this self-conscious satirical caper about the indignities of ambition

Last Resort, the debut novel by Avi Deitsch, is a work of near genius. The story of a man’s holiday romance with a woman who turns out to have weeks to live, it inspired a bidding war among New York publishers, was sold for almost seven figures, and is poised to become the next highbrow American bestseller.

Meanwhile Last Resort, the debut novel by Andrew Lipstein, is a more modest book. Funny, stylish and accomplished, it is a satirical caper about the tangled roots of creative inspiration and the indignities of authorial ambition. There is a time-honoured – some would say moth-eaten – tradition of novelists writing novels about novelists, from Roth and Updike to Rooney, Ferrante and Jean Hanff Korelitz. Are such books interrogations of the moral and material conditions of authorship, or exercises in literary navel gazing? And who on earth wants to read another one?

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Feb 12, 2022

Six years after the Bataclan attack in which his wife was killed, Leiris writes a deft study of memory and rage

On 13 November 2015, Islamist gunmen opened fire on concertgoers at the Bataclan theatre in Paris, killing 90 people. Among the victims was Hélène Muyal-Leiris, who was survived by her husband Antoine Leiris and their 19-month-old son Melvil. Three days later Leiris, a journalist, addressed his wife’s killers in a Facebook post, declaring: “I don’t know who you are and I don’t want to know … I will not give you the satisfaction of hating you”. This wasn’t just a bereaved man’s cri de coeur, it was a pre-emptive protest against a far right that would try to leverage France’s grief for its nationalist agenda. Leiris’s post went viral, was adopted as a liberal rallying cry, and was followed in 2016 by You Will Not Have My Hate, a slim memoir which quickly became an international bestseller.

Now, six years later, comes a kind of sequel. Whereas the first book zoomed in, recounting how Leiris and Melvil survived the 12 days after the attack, the second pans back. Life, After covers four years, describing how they build a life together “like two escapees from the ordinary world”. Seeking a fresh start, Leiris moves them from a historic street in Montmartre to a sixth-floor new-build apartment in the 16th arrondissement. “I am embracing the now,” he tells us in his brisk present tense, lucidly translated by Sam Taylor: “the immediate, the convenient, the practical, the ephemeral, the washable, the soundproofed”.

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Dec 30, 2021

An erudite attempt to skewer our media overload amid the sound and fury of the Trump years – but character and heart are missing

How should writers respond to the sound and fury of the current political moment? When the times frequently produce dramas more lurid and fantastical than anything even the most gifted novelist could dream up, how can literature compete? The solution offered by the Indian-born US journalist, author and professor Amitava Kumar is not to turn away from the daily outrage of the news and #fakenews but to embrace it. By engaging in an “activism of the word”, this erudite, original and ultimately unsatisfying book intends to pit the “radical surprise of real life” against the “lies of the rulers”. In this way, Kumar hopes to “preserve the uncomfortable or disturbing truth against unrelenting and widespread assault”.

We can be sure what this novel is trying to do, because it keeps telling us. It does so via its narrator Satya, an Indian-born US journalist, author and professor who is attending an artists’ retreat on an Italian island that is “said to be where George and Amal Clooney spend their summers”. Satya is working on a novel called Enemies of the People which, he says, is based on an untrue story – in fact, “on the many untrue stories that surround us”. The plot of A Time Outside This Time, such as it is, comprises a collage of news clippings, tweets and anecdotes Satya has collected – as well as abstracts of psychology papers he has read and journalism he has conducted on the subject of truth and lies.

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May 05, 2021

Family breakdown is observed from a child’s perspective in a novel about poverty, race and inherited trauma

Childhood is a state of absolute dependency, so what happens when a child’s caregivers are struggling with dependency of a different kind? Karla Neblett’s debut novel, King of Rabbits, tells the story of Kai, the fourth child in a mixed-raced family on a rural council estate, whose parents are sliding headlong into crack addiction. At five, Kai wants nothing more than to be the fastest sprinter at school and to hang out with the rabbits he loves because “they live in big families” and “have real feelings and look after each other”. But as the tale progresses his own family begins to fall apart like the glass pipe with “black gaffer tape wound round it” through which his mother and father smoke their “stinky stuff”.

Neblett is perceptive about the ways in which dysfunction is handed down through generations. When Kai is told off for getting into a playground scuffle, he discovers a glaring contradiction between official morality and that of his parents: “At home, if he pushed one of the girls, they pushed back … Dad said when someone pissed you off, you had it out.” However bad Kai’s domestic situation, the services charged with protecting him pose a greater threat; he has heard dark rumours “of kids getting taken away by horrible grownups” after which “they had to live with other families”. Even the protagonist’s sense of smell indicates his home is different from other local families: “Their houses smelled spicy and of pizza dough. Kai’s house always smelled like fags and burnt toast.” Kai finds relief in an affecting friendship with Saffie, and in the local woodland, where “Just before spring, starlings danced over the valley … Watching them made me feel I could fly too.”

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Aug 28, 2020

The tension between the author’s ultraviolent life on the streets and his university studies are at the heart of this autofictional Booker-longlisted debut

Contemporary English fiction is, with a few exceptions, a bourgeois affair: middle-class authors writing for middle-class readers about high-class problems. So Who They Was, the Booker-longlisted autofictional debut by Gabriel Krauze, arrives on the literary scene like the sound of gunfire over a south Kilburn housing estate.

The book’s protagonist Gabriel – Snoopz to his friends – spends most of his time bunning zoots and cotching with mandem in da endz (or smoking weed and hanging out with his mates in the neighbourhood). He has a foot each in two cultures: the university where he is studying for an English literature degree, and the world of gang warfare which forms the greater portion of the book’s subject. It is the tension in his double life that gives this novel its extraordinary force.

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