Sep 22, 2022
Greer’s eccentric novelist returns in a quirky sequel to the Pulitzer-winning Less – but is the reprise worthwhile?
Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer-winning 2017 novel Less is a frenetic and often hilarious account of “minor American novelist” Arthur Less navigating zany twists of fate during a series of literary engagements across the globe. Less bounces from Mexico to Morocco to India, jet-setting in a bid to distract himself from romantic turmoil back home. Absurdity and playfulness are the crowd-pleasing hallmarks – and the same is largely true of the follow-up, Less Is Lost.
Our narrator, Freddy Palu, is Less’s boyfriend. He recounts one of Arthur’s bizarre interludes early on, in the course of researching a travel piece. “For local detail and colour [Less] headed to a hot springs recommended by his lodge … He came upon the springs, peeled off his clothes and settled naked into the pool … very quietly but startlingly … an enormous moose came out of the forest, walked over and sat beside him in the pool … Less urinated freely in pure terror. And yet, in those few minutes, as man and moose, they watched the setting sun, and Arthur Less felt chosen … when it left him ... when the moose-moment had passed ... Less accepted that he could survive anything … to hell with doubt and worry.” Continue reading...
Sep 15, 2022
A refreshingly intimate account of Enninful’s rise from refugee status to editor-in-chief
Edward Enninful’s memoir gives the impression of someone in perpetual motion. He has, after all, made the journey from refugee to the hallowed offices of Condé Nast, becoming the editor-in-chief who brought true diversity to the pages of British Vogue. Make it past the preface, notable for the number of names dropped in one particularly glitzy passage, and you’ll find a text more intimate in tone and easier to relate to, emotionally at least.
The story begins with his middle-class childhood in 1980s Ghana. We’re given fascinating, deftly sketched insights into the experiences of a dreamy, imaginative boy growing up on an army base in Accra under the stern eye of his father, a major in the Ghanaian army. Enninful’s mother, an enterprising and talented dressmaker, is the comforting counterweight. He credits time spent in her studio and visits to measure clients for new gowns with teaching him how to talk to women about style and how to empower them to experiment. Continue reading...
Jul 21, 2022
The poet explores his Catholic upbringing, queerness and the highs and lows of love, in an elegantly conceived memoir
The poet Seán Hewitt’s first foray into memoir unfolds in the nonlinear way favoured by many contemporary exponents of the form. We move with elegant fluidity between phases of Hewitt’s life: recollections of growing up near Liverpool with a developing sense of his queerness; his complex and furtive sexual experiences at university; the development of his literary interests; the illness and devastating death of his father.
At the core of the book, however, is the writer’s relationship with the inscrutable Elias. Elias is a Swedish student Hewitt meets while backpacking across South America after having finished his English degree at Cambridge. They begin a whirlwind romance. The bright green waterfalls and infectious reggaeton of their surroundings are as transfixing to Hewitt as Elias’s “confidence … aloofness ... easy sociability”. Continue reading...
Jun 10, 2022
A repressed art historian expands his horizons in a 90s-set novel that moves from campus satire to something queerer in every sense of the word
James Cahill’s hotly tipped debut about art, privilege and power takes us first to the rarefied environs of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. It’s 1994 and winds of change are blasting through the university. An installation entitled Sick Bed – very much modelled on Tracey Emin’s groundbreaking My Bed – has been erected on the quadrangle. Sick Bed is “an iron frame packed with coil springs … propped up at one end by a mound of empty liquor bottles, crushed beer cans and snarled up clothes. On the grass beneath is an industrial lamp that rotates with slow, robotic gyrations.”
This unprecedented intervention amid cloisters and sandstone is met with mixed reactions. Don Lamb, an art historian at Peterhouse who is writing a monograph about skies in the works of rococo master Tiepolo, is particularly irked. For him, Sick Bed is emblematic of all that is wrong with contemporary art: the modern dismissal of transcendental beauty in favour of garish spectacle. Cahill uses Don’s conservative response to introduce his protagonist’s underlying anxiety about his place in a shifting world and, more broadly, to highlight Don’s characteristic rigidity. Don is something of an ascetic aesthete: adoring of expressiveness on the canvas, but a bastion of prudence in real life. A bachelor and scholar in his early 40s who has been at Peterhouse since his undergraduate days, Lamb’s is “a life of sexual abdication”: erudition dominates, while his gayness is studiously repressed. Continue reading...
Apr 07, 2022
This energetic debut about dreamers, misfits and otherworldly beings creates a queer Nigerian phantasmagoria
Set in and around Lagos, Eloghosa Osunde’s raucous debut is dotted with glimpses of the city’s famous nightlife. At a party in the Old Ikoyi district, “[the] apartment was high out of its mind. The bodies inside were teeming with energy … They could turn the music down, but why? It was a good night to feel this alive. A great night to feel the beat in your thighs, in your stomach, in your chest, pounding through your veins. You can’t breathe, sure, but do you want to? This loud love, the rapid-fire desire, all of it is what resuscitates you after all, is what makes you want to love the world again.”
Even when it confronts darkness in its condemnation of Nigeria’s political and religious corruption and homophobic legislation, Osunde’s partly magical realist novel is imbued with this rich sense of the kinetic and the possible. As intimated by the titular exclamation mark, it is a loud work. It boldly rails against the pernicious sexual orthodoxies and hypocrisies of Nigerian life. It also joyfully resists conventional formal boundaries, both linguistic and generic. Written in “standard” and pidgin English, adopting prosaic and poetic modes, Vagabonds! is a kind of queer phantasmagoria. It consists of short story-like snapshots about disfranchised dreamers and otherworldly beings living in Lagos’s thrall, all drawn with Osunde’s skill for foregrounding moments of quiet connection amid metropolitan cacophony. Continue reading...
Jan 11, 2022
A woman turns her life upside down and feels the allure of swinging London in this poignant tale of mid-life desire
Roger Fischer, the civil servant husband in Tessa Hadley’s 1960s domestic drama Free Love, is a rather circumspect creature. In a conversation with his wife, Phyllis, the protagonist of Hadley’s eighth novel, the couple discuss Roger’s recent work. He has been preparing documents about security in the Middle East. Phyllis offers dutiful but uninformed optimism about the prospects for that troubled region. Roger responds: “I probably come down on the side of not hoping too much. It’s a botched old civilisation, you know. Rather imperfect.”
Free Love initially purports to be a romantic novel, imagining a new kind of existence for Phyllis in opposition to the forces of Roger’s stiff-upper-lipped judiciousness. What might it mean to refuse the lot one has been assigned? What will happen if wild desires and aspirations are allowed to blossom? And how does it feel to be living a conventional life so close to the thrilling allure of swinging London, “a world turned upside down”, where such a sense of the possible was being embraced? Continue reading...
Jun 18, 2021
An accomplished novel that explores difference and belonging with a cool intensity
The difficult experience of feeling stuck between seemingly irreconcilable states is at the core of Chibundu Onuzo’s accomplished third novel. The mixed racial heritage of Sankofa’s fiftysomething protagonist, Anna Bain, is the most powerful manifestation of this. As a Welsh-Bamanian (Bamana is Onuzo’s fictional west African state), London-based Anna is made to constantly confront notions of difference and belonging. Anna, who was raised by her white mother, remembers that, as a teenager, white friends were desperate to touch her hair, wanted to know “if food tasted different with thicker lips”. In the early years of motherhood, she was once assumed to be the nanny of her white-passing daughter, Rose.
The novel opens with “aloof” Anna stuck at a particularly bewildering kind of existential crossroads. After more than 20 years of marriage, throughout which she has kept a lid on her artistic ambitions, she has separated from her unfaithful husband. Her relationship with her high-flying daughter is in flux. Most poignantly, Anna’s mother has just passed away. Continue reading...
May 28, 2021
The real-life story of the Somali seaman who was wrongfully executed for murder in Wales is powerfully reimagined
Discussions of racial inequity often focus on the US as opposed to scrutinising the entrenched racism on our own shores. With The Fortune Men, Nadifa Mohamed takes her place among the growing crop of British artists and writers of colour – including Reni Eddo-Lodge, Steve McQueen and Jay Bernard – committed to correctively shining a light on recent British history.
Set in 1952 among the “tumbledown” docks, milk bars and lodging houses of Cardiff’s multiracial Tiger Bay, The Fortune Men is Mohamed’s third book. It novelises the real events surrounding the wrongful imprisonment and execution of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali seaman and father of three young boys, who was the last man to be hanged in Cardiff prison. Fabricated evidence, false witness testimonies and institutionally racist policing led to him being found guilty of the murder of a shopkeeper, Lily Volpert, here renamed Violet Volacki. Continue reading...
Apr 20, 2021
This eccentric, capacious novel takes the reader on a surreal ride around a fictional archipelago
Although the fictional archipelago of Popisho in Leone Ross’s third novel is imbued with a Caribbean sensibility, it is an entirely original place. Here, clouds rain down torrents of physalises. Houses morph, stretch, bend over backwards to accommodate their inhabitants’ whims. The citizens of Popisho are just as remarkable: each possesses a special power, or “cors”. Some islanders can converse with cats. Others walk through walls. Some have prehensile tails that fluff up in response to injustice. While the despotic Governor Intiasar ostensibly presides over the state, it is the Fatidique, an esoteric council of female visionaries, who really hold the reins of power.
Ross undertakes the task of world-building this trippy realm with tremendous gusto, wit and style. Lushly chromatic landscapes reminiscent of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road teem with tangled bougainvillea, “polymorphic butterflies” and trees whose blue fruit is covered with lines of poetry. In the market, men walk about “criss-crossed with blood-splattered chickens”; the hawkers’ urgent cries weave into intoxicating melodies. When asked about the influences on his magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez cited his grandmother’s propensity for telling outlandish tales “with a brick face”. Ross similarly recounts the extravagantly bizarre – descriptions of “three buttocked” youngsters and “butchers who taught their goats to meditate” – in a breezily unfazed voice. Continue reading...
Feb 18, 2021
A love affair between a photographer and a dancer is intertwined with a glorious celebration of black exuberance and artistry
The unnamed protagonist of Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel, a young black photographer, often reflects on his artistic process: he is principally trying to compose images that “portray a rhythm”.
The central plot of Open Water, set in 2017-18, may at first glance seem familiar: two young people (in this instance, a female dancer and a male photographer) fall in love when perhaps they shouldn’t (the dancer has “romantic history” with a close friend of the photographer). After a brief period of will they/won’t they, the couple can no longer resist the attraction they feel for one another. Challenges soon test their newly formed relationship. Continue reading...
Oct 21, 2020
Comfortable tropes are mixed with darker themes in a zeitgeisty comic novel about thirtysomething life
Quick-witted Nina Dean, the heroine of journalist Dolly Alderton’s debut novel, is a likable food writer who lives in north London. The challenges she faces as a privileged single thirtysomething may, at first glance, seem like familiar terrain for a millennial novel to explore. Nina wrestles with generational conflict with her parents; the difficulties of maintaining friendships when husbands and babies arrive; and the quiet thrum of the biological clock alongside the vagaries of online dating and, more broadly, of a life increasingly played out online.
No doubt Nina’s sharp-eyed observations on these zeitgeisty issues will remind many of Alderton’s bestselling memoir Everything I Know About Love and the conversations on her The High Low podcast. In Ghosts, the social commentary is often showcased in satirical set pieces where, occasionally, slightly laboured jokes undermine the overall comic force. Nevertheless, these comic turns often made me chuckle: the depiction of a hen do dominated by a passive-aggressive maid of honour is brilliant. The subsequent wedding with the best man’s speech delivered by a “childhood friend who, regrettably, was in an improv group in his spare time which explained the numerous wigs and props that he used [in his] rambling anti-anecdotes” is sharply done too. Continue reading...
Aug 21, 2020
This Booker-longlisted snapshot of the life of a queer black postgraduate forcefully tackles the effects of racism and abuse
Wallace, the queer black biochemistry postgraduate at the centre of US author Brandon Taylor’s Booker-longlisted debut, often seeks out solitude. On the Friday evening on which Real Life begins, Wallace abandons his carousing colleagues and the bars of their midwestern university for the tranquility of a local lake. He dangles his feet in the ripples. He enjoys the bracing freshness. In this formally and conceptually testing book, however, such moments of repose are never without threat. Wallace soon reflects that “there was something slick in the water, something apart from the water itself, like a loose second skin swilling under the surface”.
With its icily cool sentences, mysterious tonal shifts and determinedly open ending, Taylor’s novel is also a curiously liquid thing, with troubling, opaque depths. Set over a late summer weekend, the novel is a snapshot of Wallace’s life in the aftermath of his father’s recent death. Early on in the narrative, Wallace’s friends discover that his father passed away a few weeks ago. Wallace told no one about this, nor did he attend his father’s funeral. Continue reading...
Jun 03, 2020
The author of The Mothers brings fresh sensitivity to the subject of African Americans ‘passing’ in this engrossing novel
Mallard, a fictional town in Louisiana, is a liminal “third place”. Established in 1848, it is inhabited by light-skinned African Americans “who would never be white but refused to be treated like Negroes”. In 1938 it’s the birthplace of “creamy skinned, hazel eyed” identical twins, Stella and Desiree Vignes.
Throughout the opening of this epic novel, Brit Bennett presents the townsfolk as protective of Mallard’s unique constituency. Those within the community marry to maintain the lightness of bloodlines and to ensure that “the darkest ones [are] no swarthier than a Greek”. With a judicious hand, Bennett outlines how this regulating of racial purity comes with no small measure of emotional cruelty. This, and the wider conservatism and privations of provincial life, encourages the twins to run away to the relative freedoms of 1950s New Orleans. Continue reading...
Mar 27, 2020
Partly based on the Stephen Lawrence case, this is an ambitious, darkly comic investigation into corruption and revenge
When peering through the mists of time and reflecting on his training as a novice journalist, Carl Hyatt, narrator of The Treatment, wonders “was a story ever told straight?” British author Michael Nath’s third novel offers entertaining responses to this provocation.
Set in London as the city readies itself for the 2012 Olympics, and by turns blackly comic and meditative, The Treatment is primarily Carl’s story. Carl once worked at the cheekily satirised “G******* newspaper” but lost his job after becoming embroiled in a libel case prompted by his feature about a shady property developer. Chastened, he finds a new position at the Chronicle, an unremarkable local rag which is seemingly not the best fit for his grander notions about investigative journalism. Continue reading...