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Archive by tag: Kate KellawayReturn
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 Edith believed her baby had been replaced by an impostor.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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Jan 19, 2021

Moments of passing beauty and monumental losses are handled with equal skill in a comforting book

Christopher Reid’s wonderful, calming new collection The Late Sun is a patchwork of sunlight and shade. The opening poem, Photography, set in a sunny restaurant before lunch, ends contemplatively:

What I can see and am smitten
by is a cool, square depth
of shadow and nuance,
fixed for an instant, an age.

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Jan 03, 2021

Father and son combine poetry with photography to elegant effect, locating our inner turbulence in nocturnal seas

This book belongs in a category of its own. It is an unusual collaboration between the poet David Harsent and his photographer son, Simon – not a poetry collection in an ordinary sense, but a startling and beautiful double act about the moon on the sea at night. Through a glass darkly, we see the sea – never the shore – in a sequence of black-and-white photographs. The stills are never still. The moon keeps changing and the water’s texture changes too: feathers, fur, oil paint. Stippled and amniotic, it is suggestive of an ultrasound scan and tempts one into fancifully seeing this book as a birth of sorts – of an exceptional and elegant hardback.

What briefly promises to be a bird’s eye view becomes the dizzying consciousness of a sightless bird – a blind vision

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Nov 23, 2020

Dedicated to her partner, Atwood’s first poetry collection in more than 10 years is wry and entertaining

Margaret Atwood does not do nostalgia. This collection of poems, her first in over 10 years, is a reckoning with the past that comes from a place of wisdom and control. Now 81, she harnesses the experience of a lifetime to assume a wry distance from her subjects – as if, in an astounding world, nothing could throw her off balance. This mastery, even at her most subversively fantastical, is part of what makes her an outstanding novelist. But poetry is different. Atwood is an undeceived poet and, even though the collection is full of pleasures, reading her work makes one consider the extent to which poetry is not only about truth but about the importance of being, at times, mercifully deceived – what Robert Lowell dubbed the “sanity of self-deception”.

The title poem is about words threatened with extinction.

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Oct 27, 2020

From postwar London and empty afternoons to a perfect love affair, this masterly new collection is rich in beautiful phrases

Sean O’Brien, although familiar as one of our most garlanded poets (winner of the TS Eliot prize and, three times, of the Forward), is still in no way – to his credit – a known quantity. His masterly new collection, It Says Here, is partly about unknown quantities. In the title poem, he writes:

That the sky is a page where with a flourish
The birds write the truth in invisible ink
And the eye is too slow to be certain
That this word and that word are never to meet

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Oct 03, 2020

Hermione Lee’s masterly biography of the playwright argues that emotion is as vital to his writing as ‘mental acrobatics’

“I simply don’t like revealing myself,” Tom Stoppard once said. “I am a very private sort of person.” It takes a persistent, unflappable and penetrating biographer to take him on. Hermione Lee is perfect casting and Stoppard himself was, it turns out, casting director, inviting her to write this biography in what was, presumably, a judiciously pre-emptive strike to see off less capable contenders. Lee is celebrated for her biographies of Edith Wharton, Penelope Fitzgerald and Virginia Woolf (a writer Stoppard thought overrated). But her task is daunting because it is not only about his life that Stoppard has been retiring. He has tended to see scrutiny of his work as futile. His image has been of the critic as customs officer and himself as “duped” smuggler: “I have to admit the stuff is there but I can’t for the life of me remember packing it.” Lee is calm, unofficious and benign in her scrutiny of the contraband. But will she let Stoppard, one of our greatest contemporary playwrights, through?

He was born Tomáš Straüssler, in 1937, in Zlín, Czechoslovakia – and Lee traces an arc to his narrative: beginning with his detachment from his Czech roots and incomplete awareness of his Jewishness – he did not know, until 1993, that his three aunts, four grandparents and great grandmother had died in concentration camps – to the eventual embracing of both (which led to his magnificent play Leopoldstadt at the beginning of this year). Stoppard’s father, Eugen, was doctor for the Bata shoe company, a man with a “first-class brain, great modesty and total integrity”. Like father, like son, one thinks (though he appears too early for Lee to make the point herself).

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Sep 29, 2020

Natalie Diaz’s second collection plunges the reader into Native American culture and bold takes on sexual love

Natalie Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She grew up on the banks of the Colorado river and water is her element. Her second collection, nominated for the Forward prize, is authoritative, original and sinuous. It is a fascinating plunge into Diaz’s culture, especially in The First Water Is the Body, a long, defiant, breathtaking poem in which she shares the way she sees river and person as one: “The river runs through the middle of my body.” Water and its fate are also fused with the treatment of Native American people as “exhibits from The American Water Museum” states plainly:

Let me tell you a story about water:
Once upon a time there was us.
America’s thirst tried to drink us away.
And here we still are.

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Sep 13, 2020

The inventor of the beloved puzzle on what life and his Cube have taught him – and how fast he can solve it

Ernó Rubik, 76, is the Hungarian creator of the Rubik’s Cube. The idea came to him almost out of nowhere: he simply asked himself if it might be interesting to put small cubes together so that they remained joined but could move individually. A professor of architecture, he has written an idiosyncratic and gripping memoir about his life and the indomitable career of the Cube, which has been handled (although not solved) by one in seven people worldwide.

What was your favourite toy growing up in Budapest – and what sort of a boy were you?
I was a solitary child and loved toys. I’d find toys in books and make models of them. The more difficult, the better. I hope I’m much the same now– although I was cleverer back then.

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Sep 01, 2020

A mixed-race poet raised by white supremacists addresses his country – and his president

Shane McCrae is a mixed-race American poet, who, at the age of three, was taken to Texas by his grandparents – who were white supremacists – away from his black father who had, until then, been bringing him up. It was an unhappy childhood and he stopped paying attention at school until he discovered poetry (responding, as many unhappy teenagers do, to Sylvia Plath’s work). His faith that he would one day become a poet was unswerving – even after dropping out of formal education. And perhaps it was as simple as this: he knew he would become a poet because he was one. Now, he is a teacher at Columbia. That is the potted biography ­– but there is nothing potted about his unusual and unbridled poetry.

Many poems in The Gilded Auction Block address the US directly, alongside its president. The idea is in a great tradition (think of Allen Ginsberg’s America, Danez Smith’s Dear White America or even, in its less embattled way, Walt Whitman’s One Song, America, Before I Go). The collection opens with The President Visits the Storm, demonstrating Trump’s imperviousness towards the victims of Hurricane Harvey. A few pages in, Everything I Know About Blackness I Learned from Donald Trump almost does not need the poem to unpack its title. The sense, throughout, is of an America with selective hearing and Trump as a complacently grotesque Goliath, against whom a poet must aim a particularly sharp stone.

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Aug 30, 2020

A mystery woman woos a prisoner on day release in a well-observed novel about shame and desire

Lottie Moggach’s talent is her own, yet it is impossible not to speculate
– if you have read Deborah Moggach’s fiction – about the possibility of a narrative gene passed down within families. For the Moggachs, mother and daughter, know how to tell a story. Their plotting evolves naturally. Many people write well but a fluent narrative gift is rarer, tougher to learn and often underrated. Lottie’s debut novel, Kiss Me First, was about a young woman seduced by an online community into taking on a dangerously assumed identity. It was a page-turner of a performance and deservedly attracted notice (nominated for the Guardian first book award). Under the Sun, her second, was another gripping tale, about a solitary woman caught up in a claustrophobic expat community in Spain whose life starts to slide out of control as she gets caught up with a sinister local businessman. The third, Brixton Hill, shares the confident sheen of its predecessors and offers her most accomplished plot yet. Once again, the story involves false identity as a woman named Steph gives herself the slip.

It reminds us that it is possible to be in a prison of life’s devising even when apparently surviving on the outside

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Aug 22, 2020

The don of nature writing on the lure of the world underground, staycations with his family, and the planet’s prospects for the future

Robert Macfarlane, 44, writer and Cambridge University professor, made his name as a revelatory close reader of landscapes and language. His eighth book, Underland – considering underworlds actual and mythical – has been hailed as his most remarkable achievement yet.

In what ways has your scrutiny of “underlands” changed the way you see life above ground?
Above all, it has confirmed my sense of human ignorance and of wonder. We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet. It’s only in the past quarter-century that science has confirmed what many indigenous cultures have known for millennia; that trees are connected into intercommunicating forests by a subterranean “wood-wide web”. In Yorkshire, I watched an astrophysicist search for “dark matter” a kilometre below the fields; in northern Norway, I made a winter journey to a sea cave where bronze age people painted red, dancing figures on to the cave wall. Again and again, I met versions of humans across history drawn down into darkness in search of visions and knowledge. My first book, Mountains of the Mind (2003), tried to explain why people were attracted to the summits of mountains. Now I know this urge to get high is only a few hundred years old; the urge to go low dates as long as we have been human.

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Aug 11, 2020

A journalist’s attempt to reconstruct the life of the Parisian artist and muse through an old address book glitters but lacks real curiosity

Brigitte Benkemoun, a high-achieving French journalist, gets her story off to an intriguing start. She explains that after her husband lost his small Hermès diary, she managed to find a replacement on eBay, listed under “small vintage leather goods”. The diary arrived, almost a twin to the original, with the “same smooth leather, but redder, softer with a well-used sheen”. And there was another difference. In the address section, Benkemoun found telephone numbers, written in brown ink, for Breton, Brassaï, Braque, Balthus, Cocteau, Éluard… “the greatest postwar artists listed in alphabetical order”.

Benkemoun describes herself as an “obsessive” sleuth and discovers that the 1951 diary belonged to Dora Maar, photographer, artist and Picasso’s mistress and model (subject of Weeping Woman). She decides to tell Maar’s story through her notable addressees and even includes, charmingly, Maar’s plumber (he installed a bathtub for Picasso).

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Aug 04, 2020

The novelist teaches lessons in miniature in this deft and entertaining collection

Whenever a novelist takes flight into poetry, one has, however unreasonably, misgivings – based on a received, under-examined idea of poetry as an exclusive vocation. And with a novelist of Kingsolver’s stature, the last thing one wants is to see her as an impostor. I had imagined myself putting How to Fly quietly aside, but instead – only a few poems in – found it to be irresistible, the purest pleasure to read. In an age where almost no one writes letters, this collection is a stand-in for a personal, entertaining and generous correspondence. Is this a way of saying Kingsolver is not a poet? Absolutely not. As a novelist, she is a smart craftswoman, at ease with the grand scale, and here proves herself a committed miniaturist, innovative with the shape of poems, at home with a villanelle and with a particular flair for last lines that concisely turn the tables.

Kingsolver’s wisdom and wit are always proportionate – she never misses the bigger picture

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Jul 19, 2020

The late writer’s singular qualities shine through in these brilliant columns for the London Review of Books

When the novelist Jenny Diski was diagnosed with cancer, she wrote in an essay in the London Review of Books (A Diagnosis) that her first feeling was of embarrassment: she did not want to join the herd who had already written about cancer; and yet she recognised that, as a writer, she could not avoid the subject.

If you knew nothing of her, you might assume this to have been the disdainful shunning of what she seemed to see as a cancer club, but it was more that apartness was key to the way she wrote. Debating in another essay (The Natural Death Centre) a friend’s proposal that they jointly buy a plot in Highgate cemetery, she envisaged her possible headstone: “Jenny Diski lies here. But tells the truth over there.” Solitude being her thing, she decided against the grave share, but her DIY epitaph remains appropriate. For in these brilliant, singular, posthumously published columns from the LRB, she writes in an adjacent way: the truth is “over there”.

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Jul 07, 2020

An NHS nurse pines for her native Philippines in her captivating debut as a poet

Romalyn Ante is a nurse who came to the UK from the Philippines when she was 16 and is now based in Wolverhampton. This collection, her captivating debut, gives insight into her life: the everyday labour of working for the NHS – with its emergencies – offset by memories of the country she misses (the antiemetic of the title being a drug used to treat sickness and nausea). The opening poem, Half-Empty, begins with a quotation from Prince Philip: “The Philippines must be half empty - you’re all here running the NHS.”

His remark, balanced between compliment and insult, throws down a gauntlet (or a hospital glove). Ante is more playful than angry but in this moving, witty and agile book, there is more than one full-hearted poem of prince-shaming potential.

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Apr 19, 2020

The prize-winning poet’s new collection, inspired by The Twilight Zone, is a witty, wily hall of mirrors

There is a scene in the black-and-white sci-fi TV programme The Twilight Zone, created by Rod Serling, where a character is unmasked only to reveal a second mask beneath the first. Don Paterson’s new collection, partly inspired by the 1959-1960 first series of the show, is rather like this. In its opening pages, he issues a teasing warning. He writes that readers should not be deceived by what might be assumed to be his confessional tone: “It isn’t, except on those occasions when it is.” The first thing one has to feel comfortable with is the knowledge that Paterson will not wear his heart on his sleeve, that he is more likely to borrow a sleeve than to let us know, directly, what it is he is feeling and that any emotional authenticity – or the fleeting confessions to which he alludes – are to be dispensed via a fantastical autobiographical hybrid, a mix of disclosure and disguise.

The idea of the collection – which sounds barmy at first – is of the midlife crisis as a permanent state of mind, akin to being marooned on some godawful planet where your other half is likely, at least some of the time, to be an alien. This, I thought, after taking a brief look at the poems, has to be self-indulgent baloney. But as soon as I settled down to read these poems properly, I felt different: I love the collection’s minutely wrought originality and the way that even dismaying subjects – loneliness, insecurity, botched relationships – have hilarious side-effects. The book made me laugh aloud. It is bracing to see Paterson – a dab hand at form (40 Sonnets won the 2015 Costa poetry prize) – returning with eloquence and vim to rhythms of speech. And it is worth adding that, although The Twilight Zone is brilliant, you need not be acquainted with it to enjoy the poems: they speak for themselves.

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Mar 22, 2020

Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, who died aged 11, is the inspiration for Maggie O’Farrell’s remarkable new novel. She talks about the link between his loss and the bard’s most famous work

When the novelist Maggie O’Farrell was 16, she was invited to a fancy-dress party and knew at once who to be. She put on a black shirt, with a ruffled paper collar, an inky cloak made out of a skirt, her Doc Martens and cheeky shorts over black leggings. To complete her ensemble, she borrowed a skull from her school’s biology lab. She had become obsessed with Hamlet: “He had got under my skin. I felt he was part of my DNA.” And while there is no mystery about Hamlet’s glamorous turbulence appealing to an adolescent, O’Farrell’s feeling was to be rekindled, as an adult, by her discovery of the play’s connection with Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet. There was, she was sure, a novel in it. Over the years, she repeatedly tried to write that novel and almost gave up. Yet it was a story that refused to abandon her.

And now, here it is: Hamnet – the novel of her career. And that is saying something because O’Farrell is the author of eight accomplished and hugely popular books. She won the Costa novel award, in 2010, for The Hand That First Held Mine, and shortlisted for both Instructions for a Heatwave (2013) and This Must Be the Place (2016). Her wildcard memoir, I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes With Death (2017), about living close to the edge, was a bestseller. But Hamnet is a novel apart. And what distinguishes it from O’Farrell’s earlier work is that while it shares the page-turning verve of its predecessors, it pulls off what younger writers (she is now 47) seldom achieve: the power of letting a story appear to tell itself. It reads like a fairytale rooted in heartbreaking reality – there is no magic with which to save a child.

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