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Archive by tag: Stephanie MerrittReturn
May 24, 2022

The Canadian author once again mines her cultural background in a wonderfully drawn celebration of intergenerational bonding

Miriam Toews’s fiction always puts me in mind of the paintings of Agnes Martin: both artists use repeating patterns, creating distinct pieces from variations on the same basic elements. For Toews, the motifs that are reworked through all her books are largely autobiographical. She draws on her cultural background – growing up in a strict Mennonite community in rural Canada – as well as her family history: both her father and her sister killed themselves after long battles with mental illness. While these recurring themes are threaded through her eighth novel, Fight Night, the tone is markedly different from that of its predecessor, Women Talking. That book fictionalised a historic case of sexual assault in a Bolivian Mennonite village, where multiple women were repeatedly drugged and raped while unconscious; if they questioned the resulting injuries and pregnancies, they were told by the male church authorities that it was the work of the devil. There is a seam of grim humour in that novel, but Toews has said that holding the pain of these women while writing it was one of the most intense experiences of her life, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that she has shifted to a more obviously comic register.

Fight Night is an exuberant celebration of female resilience – though it too is shot through with grief and pain, and its power is in showing how these are not merely inseparable but interdependent. The plot is spare and focuses on the relationship between three generations of women in one Canadian family, most particularly on the bond between the narrator, Swiv, and her grandmother, Elvira. These characters are at once wholly themselves and reassuringly familiar; they share DNA with a number of predecessors in Toews’s fictional universe. Swiv most nearly resembles Nomi Nickel, the teenage narrator of A Complicated Kindness, and there is an obvious link between them: Nomi’s childhood nickname was “Swivelhead”, from her habit of absorbing adult conversations by whipping her attention between the speakers. Elvira shares a name and part of her biography with the author’s own mother; in the novel, she too has lost a husband and a daughter to suicide and escaped a repressive small-town religious community with an authoritarian leader.

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May 08, 2022

The novelist shows her expertise in the briefer format in tales of sexual power, self-delusion and flawed personality

“This book came out of years spent learning to be a writer, a process that will never be complete,” Maggie Shipstead writes in the acknowledgments of her first story collection, You Have a Friend in 10A. It may sound over-earnest – indeed, the whole section does – but with Shipstead there’s always a sharp layer of self-awareness just beneath the surface. In this case, it works as a knowing wink to the reader, since the second story in the book, Acknowledgements, is narrated by a solipsistic young male writer as he considers how best to use his novel’s acknowledgments to air long-held grievances against former mentors and women who’ve turned him down.

Shipstead’s third novel, the extraordinary historical epic Great Circle, was shortlisted last month for the Women’s prize, following on from her Booker shortlisting and giving the impression that she is something of an overnight success. But the stories in You Have a Friend in 10A chart the evolution over more than a decade of her unnerving ability to capture a character’s inner life in a few choice phrases and to pinpoint the unique collision of personality flaws that will trigger the story’s drama. In the most haunting piece here, Souterrain, she reverses cause and effect, moving backwards between present-day and wartime Paris to show how a careless remark or a small lie can have fatal consequences, the ripples of guilt and shame spreading through generations.

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Apr 24, 2022

A memoir by the Pulitzer-winning New Yorker writer offers a fresh look at the most profound experiences of our lives

“Just as every grief narrative is a reckoning with loss, every love story is a chronicle of finding,” writes Kathryn Schulz in her eloquent and tender memoir, Lost & Found. “And so, much as my father’s death made me wonder about the relationship between large losses and smaller ones, falling for someone made me think about what finding love has in common with the broader act of finding anything at all.”

This is the deceptively simple premise of this slim book: losing and finding are such seemingly unremarkable elements of everyday life that we rarely pause to think about their significance, until, of course, it comes to losing and finding people, experiences that are among the most profound of our lives and that go to the heart of what it means to be human. Living through these life-changing moments in quick succession – she met her partner shortly before her father died – means Schulz is ideally placed to consider, through the prism of her own experience, the various ways people have tried to make sense of loss and discovery. Like her late father, she possesses a “panoptic curiosity”, drawing on cultural and artistic history, poetry, psychology, philosophy and scientific theory to examine what is at once universal yet intensely personal.

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Apr 18, 2022

A tale of female disempowerment in the 50s and 60s gets a culinary tweak in this sweet revenge comedy

Every now and again, a first novel appears in a flurry of hype and big-name TV deals, and before the end of the first chapter you do a little air-punch because for once it’s all completely justified. Lessons in Chemistry, by former copywriter Bonnie Garmus, is that rare beast; a polished, funny, thought-provoking story, wearing its research lightly but confidently, and with sentences so stylishly turned it’s hard to believe it’s a debut.

Since the success of The Queen’s Gambit and The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, there’s been a renewed interest in stories of pioneering women fighting to prove themselves in traditionally male arenas in the years – late 50s and early 60s – before second-wave feminism took off. Elizabeth Zott, the heroine of Lessons in Chemistry, follows firmly in their footsteps; the book also nods to the rediscovery of TV chef Julia Child as a trailblazer, and even echoes Breaking Bad’s Walter White in Elizabeth’s mantra: “Chemistry is change.”

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Mar 19, 2022

The spy novelist, whose latest book tells the story of her grandfather Kim Philby and the Soviet agent Edith Tudor-Hart, talks about the perils of writing about family, and why female spies get overlooked

Charlotte Philby, 39, is a former investigative reporter and the author of three critically acclaimed spy novels. She is also the granddaughter of Kim Philby, the notorious double-agent known as “the third man” in the Cambridge spy ring. Her fourth novel, Edith and Kim, tells the linked stories of her grandfather and Edith Tudor-Hart, a Jewish photojournalist born in Vienna, who studied at the Bauhaus, married an Englishman, worked as a Soviet agent in London and introduced Kim to his Russian handler. Philby lives in Bristol with her husband and three children.

Putting real historical characters into a novel is a minefield, especially those who existed within living memory. How much more so when it’s your own family?
My relationship to my grandfather is complex and constantly evolving. I’m conscious that his story belongs to different people in different ways, within our family and also more widely. I think part of the appeal of writing this book was trying to reconcile the ways in which I’ve come to understand him: as a grandfather; a father; a friend; a traitor; an idealist. But I had to find the right way to approach it. When I happened upon the story of Edith Tudor-Hart, I knew that she was the person I had to write about. She’s always cast as a bit player if she’s mentioned at all, but she was a remarkable woman. Anthony Blunt referred to her as “the grandmother of the Cambridge spies”.

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Mar 06, 2022

Mystery and fantasy weave a tangled web in this richly atmospheric debut novel set in turbulent 17th-century Norfolk

Witch trials, with their heady mix of religious fervour, misogyny and repressed desire, have held an enduring fascination for fiction writers. Rosie Andrews’s enormously enjoyable debut, The Leviathan, takes this familiar setup and makes of it something strange and original: part horror story, part fantasy, part historical mystery.

The body of the story takes place in 1643, at the onset of the English civil war. The narrator, Thomas Treadwater, a young man enlisted to fight for the parliamentary forces in order to redeem himself from an indiscretion with his tutor’s niece, returns for Christmas to his family farm in Norfolk with a sense of foreboding; his 16-year-old sister, Esther, has written to him of “a great ungodly evil” that has entered the house in the form of a new servant, Chrissa Moore. Tom arrives to find all their livestock dead, his father incapacitated by a stroke and Chrissa arrested for witchcraft. In order to delay her trial, she has claimed to be pregnant with his father’s child.

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Feb 27, 2022

Whether reflecting on pet preoccupations or the pressing issues of the day, the novelist remains a bold and fascinating thinker

Margaret Atwood was recently described in a Guardian interview as “arguably the most famous living literary novelist in the world”, and she is undoubtedly the most venerable. In the Introduction to Burning Questions, her third collection of essays and nonfiction pieces, spanning the years 2004 to 2021, she laments, with her characteristically tongue-in-cheek style, her much-lauded productivity: “Looking back at my sporadic, badly-kept and not very informative journals, I notice that one of the leitmotifs is a constant moaning about taking on too much. ‘This has to stop,’ I find myself saying.”

And yet – thankfully – she hasn’t. One of the most notable aspects of this collection is how engaged Atwood, now 82, has remained with the pressing issues of the day, and how vigorously she continues to pursue the public life of a writer; many of these pieces first took the form of speeches. When her long-term partner, Graeme Gibson, died during her 2019 tour for The Testaments, she carried on with her international speaking commitments – a decision of which she writes, “given a choice between hotel rooms and events and people on the one hand, and an empty house and a vacant chair on the other, which would you have chosen, Dear Reader?” In tribute to Gibson, the final section of Burning Questions includes the introductions she wrote to reissues of two of his novels, as well as the foreword to his The Bedside Book of Birds.

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Feb 06, 2022

This hymn to climbing and the natural world is beautifully written but may be too technical for casual readers

Mountains have been firing the imaginations of writers and adventurers for centuries, and Anna Fleming’s debut is the latest addition to a long tradition of literary reflections that includes Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain and Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind, both of which have clearly influenced Fleming’s writing.

There has been a vogue in recent years for memoirs by women seeking to immerse themselves in the natural world as a means of overcoming some deep trauma: divorce, addiction, the death of a parent. Fleming’s book has no such heroine’s journey at its heart; she just loves climbing. At one point she mentions the end of a relationship driving her to a more intense focus on her craft, but skates quickly across the surface of her feelings: “Some people turn to drink, I relaxed on the rock.”

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Dec 26, 2021

Zoë Playdon uncovers the timely story of a Scottish lord who had to fight for his gender and his inheritance

Historical biography always involves a certain amount of detective work, but Professor Zoë Playdon has had to contend with an additional challenge in the writing of her first book, The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes. As the title implies, information about her subject was not just scant, but much had been actively suppressed. Now Playdon’s determined labours have brought this extraordinary story to light.

Playdon first came across Sir Ewan Forbes-Sempill in 1996 as the result of advising on a legal challenge to allow transgender people to change their birth certificate – something that had been the norm in the UK until the late 1960s, although it was unclear how or why the law had changed. In the wake of their defeat, they were approached by a solicitor named Terrence Walton, who provided a missing piece of the puzzle.

The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes by Zoë Playdon is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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Aug 02, 2021

Whether examining sex dolls or transhumanism, the novelist brings her skill as a storyteller to these ambitious, hugely entertaining essays

Jeanette Winterson is not usually considered a science-fiction writer, yet her novels have always been concerned with alternative realities, and for more than two decades she has drawn on the imaginative possibilities offered by technological and digital advances. Her 2000 novel, The Powerbook, was an early exploration of the fluid identities and connections offered by virtual personae; The Stone Gods (2007) combined history with interplanetary dystopias and featured a relationship between a robot and a human. Her most recent fiction, Frankisstein, reworked Mary Shelley’s story of an artificially created intelligence into a modern novel of ideas about the present and future limits of AI and the implications for art, love, sex and biology.

Now, in 12 Bytes, her first collection of essays since 1996’s Art Objects, Winterson examines all these preoccupations without the mediation of fiction, though the narrative style is as conversational and erudite as you’d expect from her, peppered with irreverent asides and mischievous flashes of wit (“Dry as dust I don’t do,” she has said of the previous collection). The 12 essays here are grouped into four “zones”, loosely covering the past, the imagination, relationships and the future, and together offer an eclectic odyssey through the history of technological progress – a history that for too long sidelined some of its most influential figures because they were inconveniently women or gay, and has only recently begun to restore their reputations. Winterson pays tribute here to the contributions of Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing, along with women such as Stephanie Shirley, the founder of all-female company Freelance Programmers, and the forgotten teams of female programmers during the second world war, their work unacknowledged for decades because it didn’t suit a narrative of male expertise.

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Jul 12, 2021

A damaged woman embarks on a sexual odyssey in this visceral exploration of empowerment and consent

Lisa Taddeo’s bestselling debut, Three Women, made headlines as much for its process as its theme; Taddeo spent eight years moving around the US, immersing herself in her subjects in pursuit of an intimate portrait of the sex lives of (straight, white) American women. In each of her three case studies lurked the shadow of past or present abuse; female desire, the book seemed to conclude, is inseparable from what has been done to us by men.

Her first novel, Animal, explores the same territory. “I am depraved,” announces her narrator, Joan, with a mixture of pride and shame. At 36, she has a fierce sexual appetite, but she also regards sex as currency, an approach she learned at a young age from her aunt: “She taught me that men will use you unless you use them first.” Much of Joan’s inner monologue – and her dialogue – is concerned with the ambiguity she feels about her own desires, and her obsession with the constant power plays between men and women. “There are rapes, and then there are the rapes we allow to happen, the ones we shower and get ready for,” another woman tells her.

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Jul 05, 2021

Drawing on a wealth of research, Sieghart explores the unconscious bias that belittles and undermines half the population from infancy – and how it can be overcome

Some years ago, Mary Ann Sieghart found herself at a dinner seated next to a banker, who asked what she did. She listed her impressive portfolio career – political columnist, former associate editor of the Times, broadcaster, chair of a thinktank. “Wow, you’re a busy little girl!” he responded. She was 50.

This is one of numerous depressing examples related by successful women of what Seighart calls “the authority gap” – the way women are belittled, undermined, questioned, mocked, talked over and generally not taken seriously in public and professional life. The gender pay gap, obviously a related issue, is by now a well-documented and measurable phenomenon, so much so that it is marked by equal pay day, symbolising the point in the year when women effectively stop earning relative to men. The authority gap is more insidious and harder to calculate because, as Sieghart shows, so much of it is down to unconscious bias. Even more depressingly, women can be just as guilty of this bias in favour of male authority, because it is ingrained from what we see modelled to us in our own families and the prevailing culture from childhood.

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Jun 20, 2021

The police force’s former highest ranked BAME officer tells of her 30-year fight against entrenched racism and sexism

In August last year, when the Metropolitan police ended its active investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence after 27 years, the Met’s commissioner, Cressida Dick, gave an interview in which she rejected the idea that institutional racism still persists in the force. Former chief superintendent Parm Sandhu, the highest-ranked BAME (her preferred term) woman in the Met, begs to differ. Black and Blue is her account of a 30-year career that saw her break through multiple glass ceilings, but which ended in her resignation in 2019 after charges of gross misconduct and a spate of damaging media stories.

Her alleged offence was to have lobbied on her own behalf for honours, a technical breach she concedes, but she points out that she could not rely on the old boys’ network that benefits her white male colleagues. She was later exonerated, and notes that black and minority ethnic officers are twice as likely to be investigated for misconduct as their white counterparts.

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Jun 14, 2021

Charting the parallel lives of two women – one an aviation pioneer, the other a modern movie star – this daring novel reaches great heights

A great circle, Maggie Shipstead’s third novel explains on the opening page, is “the largest circle that can be drawn on a sphere”. The equator is one; so is every line of longitude. The novel’s heroine, pioneering aviator Marian Graves, was attempting to become the first person to fly a great circle intersecting both poles in 1950 when her plane disappeared somewhere in the Antarctic. Decades later, her enigmatic, fragmentary journal is discovered, wrapped in a life-preserver. “What I have done is foolish; I had no choice but to do it,” she has written.

Great Circle is a daringly ambitious novel, traversing in Marian’s story the history of early-20th-century aviation, Prohibition, the Great Depression and the second world war. Threaded through it is a parallel contemporary narrative, recounted by disgraced Hollywood starlet Hadley Baxter, who is trying to revive her career by playing Marian in a biopic. Hadley’s drily cynical voice has more than a touch of Fleabag about it, offering a knowing and prematurely jaded insider’s view of the movie industry (“my career is no longer a blow job-based barter economy,” she remarks). She is positioned as a counterpoint to Marian, whose pure and single-minded determination to fly contrasts sharply with Hadley’s tendency to drift through life with occasional bouts of self-sabotage. “I needed the relief of being someone who wasn’t afraid,” Hadley confesses. But both women, in their separate ways, are pursuing freedom in a male world that wants to confine them within preconceived ideas about who and what they should be. “We’re celebrated for marrying,” Marian writes to her twin brother, Jamie, “but after that we must cede all territory and answer to a new authority like a vanquished nation.”

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Jun 07, 2021

The shocking mistreatment of women by the medical establishment is laid bare in a compelling social history

During the recent anxieties about the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine and its possible link to blood clots, many women felt obliged to point out, on social media and in the press, that the risk of fatal thrombosis was significantly higher from using hormonal contraception, and yet this continues to be prescribed to millions of women without anything like the level of concern or scrutiny that the vaccine has received. The potential danger of a medication that only affects women is less of a headline-grabber, it seems. In fact, when the pill was first licensed in the US in 1960 it contained more than three times the levels of synthetic hormones than the modern version, and the side-effects – including fatal pulmonary embolisms and thrombosis – were deliberately downplayed. It took a sustained grassroots campaign by women’s groups to bring the issue to the attention of a congressional hearing in 1970. “From the beginning, the pill was couched as a way for women to take control of their bodies and fertility,” writes cultural historian Elinor Cleghorn in her debut book, Unwell Women. “But this also means that the costs – physical and mental – remain women’s burdens.”

The history of the pill is just one fascinating episode in this richly detailed, wide-ranging and enraging history of how conventional medicine has pathologised, dismissed and abused women from antiquity to the present. A male-dominated medical establishment, influenced by religious, cultural and political ideas about women’s bodies – particularly with regard to sexuality and reproduction – has inflicted immeasurable suffering on women and girls, often with a sense of righteous zeal. Some of the cases Cleghorn unearths could come straight from The Handmaid’s Tale. There’s the 19th-century London surgeon Isaac Baker Brown, an avid proponent of clitoridectomy to cure the hysteric and nervous disorders thought to be brought about by excessive masturbation in young middle-class women. Or the American neurologists Walter Freeman and James Watts, who pioneered the craze for lobotomies in the 1930s and 40s – by 1942, 75% of their patients were women. “In an era when a mentally healthy woman was a serene wife and mother, almost any behaviour or emotion that disrupted domestic harmony could be interpreted as justification for a lobotomy.”

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May 02, 2021

The third of Levy’s memoirs, which sees her leaving home for a fellowship in Paris, is a drily funny contemplation of what it means to be a female writer

Deborah Levy’s trilogy of what she calls “living autobiography” – Things I Don’t Want To Know, The Cost of Living and, now, Real Estate – has been an extended experiment with the form. These first-person narratives, “using an I that is close to myself and yet is not myself”, are at once memoir, cultural analysis and self-interrogation, attempts to keep past and present simultaneously in view as she pursues the question of how a woman – specifically a woman artist – should live in the second act of her life.

In Real Estate, as in The Cost of Living, Levy is preoccupied with the meaning of home, that “gendered” space that has so long been regarded as the domain of women. What does it cost a woman to make a home or to unmake one? The Cost of Living examined the author’s decision, in her 50s, to leave her marriage of 23 years and the family home that grounded it, and create a different kind of home, in a “crumbling apartment block” with her teenage daughters. In the chaos of this all-female household, she found creative liberation: “My 50s had been a time of change and turbulence, energetic and exciting. A time of self-respect and perhaps a sort of homecoming.”

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Apr 18, 2021

This fictionalised account of the Egyptian uprising of 2011 has an eye for telling detail in the choice between struggle and self-preservation

Early on in Alaa al-Aswany’s new novel, The Republic of False Truths, a conversation takes place between an older and a younger man that proves bleakly prophetic for what is to follow. Essam Shaalan, once a student protest leader in the 1970s, is now the manager of a foreign-owned Cairo factory; Mazen Saqqa, a young engineer, is the son of Shaalan’s former comrade and a union representative for the striking workers.

“You want to know the truth?” Shaalan tells Saqqa. “Egyptians don’t revolt, or if they do, their revolution is bound to fail because they’re cowardly and submissive by nature… The Egyptians love a dictatorial hero and feel safe when they submit to despotism. In Egypt, the only thing your struggle can lead to is your own destruction.”

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Mar 29, 2021

This superb fictionalised account of the 1645 Essex witch trials, by an award-winning poet, resonates painfully with the experiences of women today

It’s hard to think of any recent time when a historical novel about the persecution of women wouldn’t resonate painfully with current headlines, but AK Blakemore’s exceptionally accomplished debut feels especially pertinent now, as women’s protests against their treatment by men are met with further aggression or accusations of hysteria. The Manningtree Witches is a fictionalised account of the Essex witch trials of 1645, and includes excerpts from the trial records, fleshed out in the imagined narrative of one of the accused women, 19-year-old Rebecca West.

Though the early skirmishes of the civil war are far from the Essex coast in 1643, when the novel begins, a profound sense of destabilisation pervades the country: “It is an upside-down time. If the herring and trout were to rise from the waterways and take flight like birds it would surprise no one, for surely God’s Day of Judgment is near at hand…” The men of Manningtree are away fighting, there are food shortages and the threat of famine, the women scrape out a hard living from the land and water, and into this combustible mix arrives the enigmatic Matthew Hopkins, the man who will go on to be known as the Witchfinder General.

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Mar 01, 2021

Katherine Angel’s thought-provoking book examines the limitations of the concept of consent, while Vanessa Springora’s powerful memoir recounts the horrors of its abuse

In a post-#MeToo world, consent has become the failsafe marker by which all sexual encounters must be judged; indeed, to a sexual culture that has cheerfully made all manner of kink mainstream, the absence of clear consent might be considered the only measure left by which any kind of sex should be judged immoral.

But as Katherine Angel shows in her succinct and thought-provoking book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, consent itself is a murky concept that cannot be separated from existing power dynamics: “Much sex that women consent to is unwanted, because they agree to it under duress, or out of a need to feed and clothe themselves and their family, or a need to remain safe.” There is also the danger that a woman’s freely given consent in one area will later be used to exonerate a man’s violation of different boundaries.

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Feb 21, 2021

The prostitutes of Georgian London power this deeply satisfying follow-up to Shepherd-Robinson’s acclaimed Blood & Sugar

Laura Shepherd-Robinson seemed to emerge fully formed as a novelist with her award-winning 2019 debut, Blood & Sugar, a sophisticated historical murder mystery set in Georgian London at the heart of the slave trade. Her equally impressive follow-up, Daughters of Night, explores the lucrative and often dangerous demimonde of prostitution. It was estimated that one in five women in late 18th-century London had at some point participated in sex work, and the potential for scandal, blackmail or disgrace reached to the highest ranks of Georgian society.

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Feb 07, 2021

The second volume of Mosse’s wars of religion trilogy vividly depicts persecution and how politics can upturn ordinary lives

Exile and emigration are perennial themes in literature, especially historical fiction, but it’s noticeable, reading the second volume of Kate Mosse’s Burning Chambers trilogy about the Huguenot diaspora, how timely a story of refugees seems at this moment in Europe’s history and how sharply the parallels stand out.

The City of Tears opens, as did its predecessor, The Burning Chambers, with a prologue set in 19th-century South Africa, a foreshadowing of where this epic story of war and displacement will end up, before the narrative returns to 16th-century France, 10 years after the end of the previous book. Minou Joubert and Piet Reydon are living in relative peace in their castle in south-west France, their own family and estates an example of how Catholics and Protestants can amicably coexist. It’s an experiment soon to be imposed on the whole country, as the queen mother, Catherine de Medici, attempts to broker peace by marrying her Catholic daughter Margot to the Huguenot Henri of Navarre, a union opposed by the hardline Catholic faction led by the Duke of Guise. As Minou and Piet make their preparations to visit Paris for the wedding, she asks her brother Aimeric about rumours of trouble.

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Jan 18, 2021

The fragmentations of the Balkan war and Brexit are never far from the surface in this confident, timely novel

“My writing often feels like a struggle to communicate some danger,” Olivia Sudjic says in her extended essay Exposure, the follow-up and postmortem to her debut novel, Sympathy. Her second, Asylum Road, is narrated by a young woman, Anya, whose detached observations of her own actions and inner monologue feel as if they are struggling to convey an underlying menace. Anya is neurotic, paranoid; she spends her nights arguing on the internet about Brexit: “It was not the specifics of opposing arguments that upset me, but that the things I held on to, which kept me from being sucked back into the past, were coming loose.”

Anya’s mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is trapped in the time of the siege, convinced they are still being shelled

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Nov 30, 2020

The Australian-American writer’s short fiction is full of precisely observed studies of thwarted connection

Shirley Hazzard produced only four novels in a writing life that spanned nearly five decades, and was principally known – at least at the beginning of her career – as a writer of short fiction. This new edition of her collected stories, edited by her biographer Brigitta Olubas, brings together Hazzard’s two previous volumes, Cliffs of Fall and Other Stories (1963) and People in Glass Houses (1967), with a selection of previously uncollected and unpublished stories. These include Woollahra Road, a child’s-eye view of depression-era Australia and the first story she ever submitted for publication, marking the beginning of her long relationship with the New Yorker, where the majority of these stories first appeared.

Hazzard’s recurring themes here – enlarged upon in her novels – are love, self-knowledge and disappointment. Her characters measure their failures against a bigger picture, of global events or their own ideals, and often dislike the result. “But no man, he assured himself irritably, could be entirely satisfied with what had happened to him. There must always be the things one had chosen not to do.” The subject here is Clem, a middle-aged married man who appears in a pair of stories from Cliffs of Fall. The first, A Place in the Country, deals with the end of his brief affair with his wife’s young cousin, Nettie, a rupture that causes considerably more grief to the girl. The Picnic sees the characters reunited eight years later. Clem tries to persuade himself that he made the right choice in not leaving his wife, May; Nettie acknowledges the ways in which their affair has shaped her life, despite his indifference: “She sympathised with his attitude. It was tempting to confine oneself to what one could cope with. And one couldn’t cope with love. (In her experience, at any rate, it had always got out of hand.)” But the story ends, with absolute precision, on May, whose share of the narrative is a mere four lines as she watches the former lovers: “On either side, her palms were pressed hard against the stone.”

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Nov 01, 2020

The restaurant critic’s funny and poignant account of life with her father and how it shaped her relationship with food

Hungry is a story about food, class and families and the distance travelled between a terraced house in Carlisle and multimillion-pound London restaurants that quake at your arrival. Above all, it’s a gorgeous, unsentimental tribute to the relationship between Grace Dent and her father, George. It’s about the ways in which love is communicated in a working-class family that doesn’t do “touchy-feely” and what happens when a man who has never been one for intimate talk slowly slides out of reach into dementia.

In a media career spanning more than two decades, Dent has trained her irreverent eye on most aspects of popular culture, but she’s best known now as a restaurant critic and the early part of Hungry revisits the ways in which family life shaped her relationship with food. Ex-soldier George teaches her to cook with Campbell’s tinned soup. The Dents were a happy, if undemonstrative, family, though George is given to hugging his daughter and telling her: “You’re my only little girl.” When this later proves untrue – he turns out to have two previous daughters, whose photo she finds in a drawer – Dent finds ways to excuse him so that she doesn’t have to revise her feelings.

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Oct 12, 2020

The writer and broadcaster rescues the reputation of the women demonised in classical literature in this erudite and funny study

For the past few years, Natalie Haynes has been building a career out of rescuing the women of the ancient world from obscurity or cliche. Her most recent Women’s prize-shortlisted novel, A Thousand Ships, told the stories of the women of the Trojan war. With Pandora’s Jar, she returns to nonfiction to examine the origin stories and cultural legacies of the best-known women of classical literature, with the characteristic blend of scholarship and sharp humour that will be familiar to fans of her Radio 4 show, Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics.

All the usual suspects are here, including Helen, Medusa, Jocasta, Penelope and Medea, and it’s striking, considering their stories en masse, how often they have been passed down the literary and artistic canon as scapegoats for the mistakes of men, or else muted altogether. Take the title character, who never had a box in the original version (the confusion is likely the fault of Erasmus in the 16th century, mistranslating the word for a large jar), and whose name means simply “all-giving”. Though she is described by Hesiod as “kalon kakon”, usually translated as “a beautiful evil”, there is no suggestion in his version that it was her curiosity or defiance that released the horrors of her jar into the world; like Eve in later Christian myths, she, the first woman, has been made to carry the blame.

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