Bookface Blog

Archive by tag: Stephanie MerrittReturn
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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Sep 27, 2020

Madeleine Bunting and Christie Watson bring personal experience to bear on heartbreaking studies of the UK’s ailing care system, and academics suggest a way forward

It’s a shame, in a way, that Labours Of Love, Madeleine Bunting’s vital and eye-opening study of the “invisible” care crisis in the UK, couldn’t have been delayed to take into account the many ways in which all the subjects and conclusions of her five-year research have been forced centre stage by the coronavirus pandemic. She was in time to add an author’s note, written in March, acknowledging that a system already stretched to breaking point by staff shortages and relentless budget cuts has buckled under the onslaught of the current crisis. She expresses a hope that the pandemic will “trigger a massive cultural shift in which we come to recognise the foundations of care on which all human wellbeing rests”.

Labours of Love is an inescapably political book, in both the Westminster and the broader sense. The decade of cuts inflicted by the coalition and then Conservative governments since 2010 in the name of austerity makes for grim statistics on the funding of social care, and the Brexit vote in 2016 led to a dramatic shortage of care workers and nurses from the EU (nurses registering to work in the UK fell by 96%). But Bunting also considers the history and concept of care in a wider context as a feminist issue, because it’s impossible to do otherwise. Care is perhaps the feminist issue, something else the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief. But caring for those who are dependent – children, the sick, the disabled, most pertinently the elderly – has long been undervalued and overlooked precisely because it is dismissed as “women’s work”, the sort of home-based drudgery from which second-wave feminism promised to liberate women. As a result, Bunting writes, care has been “largely abandoned by liberal feminism”.

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Sep 21, 2020

Set between Bath and Borneo, this 14th novel skilfully explores familiar themes of desire, frustration and the quest for meaning

Over a distinguished literary career, Rose Tremain has traversed genres with her customary flair, though many readers will associate her primarily with the historical fiction of her most acclaimed novels. Islands of Mercy, her 14th, returns to the 19th century, and considers familiar Tremain themes: desire, purpose, the elusive rewards of art and the small acts whose consequences ripple outwards.

Her cast of interconnected characters watch these consequences play out against two contrasting backdrops: the neat and orderly city of Bath, where “reasons for dying were comparatively few”, and the jungles of Borneo, where even the white rajahs live in fear of headhunters. Independent-minded Jane Adeane, the 6ft 2in daughter of an affluent Bath doctor, spurns a marriage proposal from her father’s assistant, Valentine Ross, and flees to her bohemian aunt Emmeline, an artist living in Chelsea. Here Jane embarks on a journey of self-discovery with Julietta, the beautiful wife of one of Emmeline’s friends, and tries to imagine a life that could accommodate this newfound passion. Meanwhile, in Borneo, Valentine’s naturalist brother Edmund contracts malaria and is nursed back to health by Sir Ralph Savage, a well-meaning British landowner who was discharged from the army for homosexuality and now spends his time in half-hearted attempts to improve the lot of his Malay subjects. Minor characters orbit around these main players, and death hovers constantly at their shoulders: in Paris, Jane and Julietta visit the public morgue after a morning of transgressive sex; later, she shares an intimate moment with Valentine over the body of a patient she has helped him euthanise.

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Aug 18, 2020

This tragicomic tale of a thirtysomething mother with a terrible secret serves as a keen-eyed portrait of modern Ireland

Elaine Feeney has published three acclaimed collections of poetry before turning to novels, and her fiction debut, As You Were, is steeped in the rhythms and evocative language that mark her poems. Voices jostle with one another, Galway colloquialisms woven in with text speak and emojis, as a run-down hospital ward serves as a microcosm for contemporary Ireland.

The narrator, Sinéad Hynes, a mother of three in her late 30s, has been admitted after collapsing. It’s eight months since she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, but she has put off telling her husband (and sons): “I thought it was a dreadfully selfish thing to do to another person, fill him up with worry and uncertainty, to try and make him figure out death.” Instead, she obsessively Googles drugs and cures and outcomes alongside the mundane business of daily life.

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Jul 26, 2020

Clare Chambers deftly conjures pinched postwar lives – and a possible virgin birth

In 1956, the Lancet published research into the possibility of parthenogenesis – virgin birth – in humans. The Sunday Pictorial had put out a call for women who believed they had experienced the phenomenon; of the 19 who came forward, all were eventually discredited except one, whose story is the partial inspiration for Clare Chambers’s seventh novel, her first in 10 years.

Small Pleasures is, as its title hints, a novel about people who have settled for lives that are less than they’d hoped for, but with a typically English middle-class sense that they mustn’t grumble. The war and its deprivations are only a decade past; bomb damage is still visible in the London landscape. Jean Swinney, a spinster on the cusp of 40, is the only female reporter on the North Kent Echo and therefore charged – to her dismay – with weekly columns on housekeeping and gardening tips. It’s a novelty when the editor sends her to investigate the claims of a Mrs Gretchen Tilbury of Sidcup, who says she conceived her daughter while still a virgin. The evidence seems plausible enough, but as Jean accompanies Gretchen and little Margaret to tests at the Charing Cross hospital, she finds herself growing closer to the Tilbury family, including Gretchen’s husband, Howard, and her professional detachment becomes increasingly compromised even as she begins to suspect the truth about Margaret’s conception.

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Jul 19, 2020

The “up lit” novelist does more than warm our hearts in this 1950-set tale of one woman’s journey from mediocrity to adventure

Since her 2012 bestselling debut The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce has specialised in stories about overlooked people jolted out of their routines into unexpected situations that allow them to face the buried griefs that have kept them trapped in small lives. She might almost be credited with inspiring the recently popular “up lit” genre, but it would be a mistake to think of her novels as merely “heartwarming”, though the word is frequently attached to them. Joyce has a clear-eyed, unsparing view of regret, failure and loss, and the cost that life exacts from so many, even while she counters it with a belief in the resilience of the human spirit and the possibility of second chances.

Margery Benson shares these traits with Joyce’s previous protagonists, but is unhappy in her own way. In 1950 she is a frustrated teacher in her mid-40s, with a secret passion for beetles – an interest inspired by her father, who told her in 1914 of the fabled golden beetle of New Caledonia, shortly before he shot himself on learning that all four of his sons had been killed at Mons. A failed romance put paid to any hope of a career in entomology for Margery – not that she could have aspired to such a thing, except as a man’s assistant. “She was a woman who’d had a period of excitement, who’d dared to dream of adventure and the unknown, but who had retreated instead and made no further disturbance.”

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Apr 26, 2020

The horror writer is at his familiar best with four suspenseful and sometimes surprisingly tender novellas

Stephen King has made good use of the sometimes tricky novella form over his nearly 50-year career, often as a vehicle to explore ideas and styles that lie off the more familiar path of his horror novels. If It Bleeds brings together four new stories, all offering vintage King themes with their own particular twist.

The showpiece here is the title novella, a sequel of sorts to King’s 2018 novel The Outsider, which was shown as a 10-part HBO series at the beginning of this year. The title comes from the callous (but accurate) newsroom axiom “if it bleeds, it leads”. Private investigator Holly Gibney is watching breaking news coverage of a bomb attack at a middle school when she notices something odd about the reporter, Chet Ondowsky. A little background research suggests that Ondowsky’s being first on the scene at incidents of horrific carnage is no coincidence, and Holly wonders if the reporter might be deliberately causing atrocities. King marries an obvious affection for the tropes of old gumshoe movies with carefully researched forensic technology to create an odd hybrid of procedural and horror that ratchets up the suspense, even if it feels a little familiar to readers of The Outsider, or the trilogy of Bill Hodges novels in which Holly first appeared.

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Mar 29, 2020
A fictionalised account of the short life of Shakepeare’s son, Hamnet, is a work of profound understanding

In 1596, William Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son Hamnet died in Stratford-upon-Avon. Four or so years later, Shakespeare wrote the play considered by many to be his greatest work, giving its tragic hero a variation of his dead son’s name. Almost four centuries later still, Maggie O’Farrell was studying Hamlet at school and learned of the boy Hamnet, whose life has been little more than a footnote in his father’s biography. The seed of curiosity planted 30 years ago has grown into her finest novel yet; a reimagining of Hamnet’s death and the long-lasting ripples it sent through his family.

But the title is slightly misleading. Though the novel opens with Hamnet, its central character and beating heart is the boy’s mother, whom O’Farrell calls Agnes. Names are significant in this book; when Agnes eventually sees the version of her son’s name on a London playbill, she feels he has been stolen from her a second time. Meanwhile, the most famous character in the novel goes unnamed; he is variously “her husband”, “the father”, “the Latin tutor”. He is allowed very little direct speech. This deliberate omission frees the narrative of all the freight of association that his name carries; even Stratford is rarely mentioned explicitly, with the author instead naming individual streets and houses to root her story in its location.

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