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May 27, 2022

The Indian novelist and her translator scooped the £50,000 prize with Tomb of Sand, a novel about death – but with laughs. The morning after their triumph they talk about fun, feminism and famous ancestors

“If you handle a heavy thing with lightness, you actually increase the poignancy, and it puts a different kind of focus on it.” Geetanjali Shree is talking to me about her novel Tomb of Sand, which, in its translation from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, won the International Booker prize on Thursday. It’s now early Friday morning and Shree and Rockwell join me from London’s Groucho Club – bright, fresh and talkative despite the night’s festivities (Rockwell was still tweeting about it at 2am).

Shree has been writing for more than 30 years, and three of her previous books have been translated into English. Why did this one strike such a chord with readers and judges? “I think it speaks to the pluralism of the world, the polyphony of the world, and that somehow captures the imagination of people. I also think there’s a lot of inventiveness in the language, which seems to have appealed.”

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May 27, 2022

Not sure whether to read or revisit White Teeth, or go for one of the celebrated author’s other works? Novelist Yara Rodrigues Fowler who was “raised” on Smith has a handy guide

Zadie Smith made a splash in the literary scene at the turn of the millennium with her debut novel White Teeth. She has since written everything from short stories to playscripts, and made headlines earlier this year when she sang with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. South London writer Yara Rodrigues Fowler, whose second novel there are more things has been nominated for this year’s Orwell prize for political fiction, told the Observer that she was “raised” on Smith, recognising the London she knew in the novels. Here, Rodrigues Fowler suggests some good places to start for those wanting to read or reread Smith’s work.

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May 27, 2022

A call to embrace wildness, a guide to shells, a tall tree tale, wishing candles, paper spirits, and a tough apology to make

Be Wild, Little One by Olivia Hope and Daniel Egnéus (Bloomsbury, £6.99)
This luminously beautiful picture book is filled with tender, thrilling exhortations to embrace wildness: diving into the deepest blue, swinging along with chimpanzees or wishing on every star.

The Boy Who Sailed the World by Julia Green and Alex Latimer (David Fickling, £6.99)
A little boy loves the sea so much that he builds a boat and sets sail in it, weathering sea currents and storms, making friends, and finally sailing home – before a new voyage beckons. Words and images are rich with wonder in this lovely picture book, based on the adventures of the author’s dauntless son.

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May 27, 2022

Author who has previously called himself a Conservative tells Hay festival he ‘can’t understand’ the government’s actions

The writer Anthony Horowitz has said he is “still waiting to see the benefit” of Brexit and criticised Boris Johnson’s government, despite having previously called himself a Conservative.

Speaking at the Hay festival, the author of the Alex Rider novels said he had been “already moving more to the left” before the 2016 referendum, but that Britain’s decision to leave the EU made him “very personally upset”.

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May 27, 2022

The novelist on adoring Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, being inspired by Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark and crying at Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

My earliest reading memory
When I first went to school, aged six, copies of The King of Ireland’s Son by Padraic Colum were handed round. Too embarrassed to admit I couldn’t read, I sat staring at the illustrations.

My favourite book growing up
I was living in a stepfamily of five girls when I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I adored it, identified with each of the sisters and couldn’t wait to read the sequel – my disappointment was extreme!

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May 27, 2022

Two of the bank’s economists attempt to soften the formidable institution’s reputation with this jaunty handbook

By its own admission, the Bank of England is a “forbidding place”. It is responsible for storing gold bars and setting monetary policy, but is currently best known for making ominous predictions about the economic outlook. Located on Threadneedle Street in the City of London, its headquarters is a neoclassical fortress, with walls so high they seem built to deter anyone from looking in. Can’t We Just Print More Money?, by Bank of England economists Rupal Patel and Jack Meaning, is a well-timed attempt to show the public what goes on inside – and familiarise them with some basic economic concepts. Each chapter tackles a different question, such as “Where does my breakfast come from?” or “Why am I richer than my great-great-grandmother?” The book is punctuated with jaunty anecdotes and neat examples: price increases are explained by reference to Dairy Milk bars; the value of collective bargaining is illustrated with an episode of The Simpsons. Most of the time this chirpy tone works, but it can occasionally grate: “Hopefully, you’ll come to see that [money] is not just a piece of metal or plastic,” the authors write (surely anyone already reading wouldn’t need telling).

This is all “quite different from most things the Bank has published over the last three centuries”, its governor, Andrew Bailey, writes in a foreword. The bank has been attempting to explain economics to the public since at least 2018, when it first launched a series of citizens panels. As living standards have plummeted in the UK, a trend has emerged for talking about things such as “financial inclusion” and “money management”. You might think of this as the Martin Lewis theory of social change: educate people in how to navigate an increasingly unforgiving economy, and they will be able to improve their lot.

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May 26, 2022

Lavelle weaves his own experience together with the testimony of others in this powerful memoir about Britain’s left-behind

Daniel Lavelle knows how the story of his homelessness might look to the casual observer. Viewed in isolation, he notes, “the circumstances that precipitated my journey to the streets seem entirely of my own making”. As well as racking up considerable rent arrears, he had been drinking heavily, lost a series of low-paid jobs and moved out of his flat voluntarily. But, as we learn in his candid yet resolutely un-self-pitying memoir, there were complicating factors, among them his ADHD (his psychiatrist said his was the most severe case he’d ever seen), long spells in foster care and children’s homes, and multiple exclusions from school. Add to that the rise of zero-hours contracts, soaring rents, and the cuts to welfare and social care implemented during the coalition government’s austerity programme, and it becomes grimly apparent how a man like Lavelle can slip through the cracks.

Down and Out is part memoir, part howl of fury at a system that has led to an estimated 274,000 homeless people in the UK. As well as telling his own story, Lavelle seeks out the testimony of others, many of whom, he notes, have had a harder time than him. Among them is Sunita, who was removed from her mother when she was born and endured physical and sexual abuse in the care system. In her teens, she was in an abusive relationship and, in order to escape the situation, began sleeping in Manchester’s Piccadilly station. On asking local authorities for assistance, she was told she didn’t qualify since she had made herself homeless. Lavelle also meets Stuart, who, after being evicted from his flat for allowing a homeless friend to stay, set up home on the banks of a nearby canal, complete with his living room furniture. “The police kept coming down, saying, ‘You can’t stay here. It’s public land’,” Stuart says. “I said, ‘Well, I am a member of the fuckin’ public, mate.’”

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May 26, 2022

In the followup to the International Booker winner Celestial Bodies, a student reflects on her roots in Oman

Celestial Bodies, Jokha Alharthi’s second novel, used four generations of a family in the Gulf state of Oman to gauge breakneck social transformations after the discovery of oil in the 1960s. Published in Arabic in 2010 (a chapter first appeared in English in Banipal magazine the following year), Celestial Bodies won the Omani writer and her translator Marilyn Booth the 2019 International Booker prize. Through the vexed marriages of three sisters related to a slave trader, it explored liberty, patriarchy, and social control over both women and men. It included intriguing glimmers of Omani history, from Bedouin freedoms and anti-colonial insurgence to Indian Ocean trade and modern enslavement – outlawed only in 1970.

Bitter Orange Tree, Alharthi’s third novel, is her second to appear in English and is also translated by Booth. Aided by Booth’s deft touch, some parts affirm the author’s talent for lyrical shifts between past and present, memory and folklore, oneiric surrealism and grimy realism. Yet structural flaws and an overambitious global reach make for a patchy read.

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May 26, 2022

A new biography of Jean Rhys explores the relationship between her turbulent life and her brilliant work

In a late short story by Jean Rhys, a woman sees a pair of children standing near a house that is very familiar to her, by an exotic, flowering tree. “I used to live here once,” she tells them. They can’t see that she’s there; she is a ghost, haunting her old home. This story lends its title to Miranda Seymour’s new biography, which places Rhys’s upbringing in the Caribbean at the centre of the narrative. She was born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams in 1890, the daughter of a Welsh doctor and a white Creole mother descended from slaveowners on the island of Dominica, “[t]he island which haunted her mind and almost everything that she wrote” and “the wellspring of Rhys’s art”. For the rest of her life Rhys would feel as though she belonged nowhere – not on the island where she felt so at home, and not in England, where she would always be seen as an outsider, her very voice, with its “seemingly ineradicable island lilt” betraying her origins.

This is not the first big biography of Rhys; Carole Angier’s 1990 study is richly detailed and still holds up. But as one of the major writers of the 20th century, Rhys deserves as many biographies as people want to write (or read). So long, that is, as they sensitively and rigorously attempt to understand this complex woman – particularly the relationship between her turbulent life and her brilliant work.

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May 25, 2022

From a meditation retreat via the Charlie Hebdo massacre to a catastrophic personal breakdown, this is a devastating portrait of the western capitalist everyman in crisis

Ranging across novels, memoir, experimental biography and true crime, French author Emmanuel Carrère’s body of work doggedly problematises the rules by which it is understood. The opening of his nonfiction breakthrough, The Adversary (translated by Linda Coverdale), juxtaposes spree killer Jean-Claude Romand murdering his family with Carrère attending a parent-teacher meeting, as if determined to occupy, rather than bridge, the gap between author and subject. His biography of Philip K Dick, I Am Alive and You Are Dead (translated by Timothy Bent), eerily collapses that same distance, constructing for Dick a paranoid inner life so intimate that it feels claustrophobic. Now comes Yoga, with a cast both real and invented.

One way to understand Carrère’s oeuvre is to dispense with the idea of him as the author of discrete works. His books, each of which draws on and augments what has gone before, are a single, interrelated project, the subject of which is the project itself – its fraught emergence, its blurred limits.

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May 25, 2022

From Dickens and Du Maurier to Henry James and Shirley Jackson, where there’s a will, there are generally the makings of a great story …

Where there’s a will, there’s often a row. A legacy need be of no great value to cause a spat: I’ve seen grown siblings weep over their dead mother’s favourite salad bowl. But an inheritance seldom brings out the best in people and the larger the prize, the greater the conflict and moral corruption it is likely to occasion. Such ructions were the mainstay of the great Victorian novels, often deployed as the turbines in the vast engine rooms of 19th-century fiction. They feature in Trollope, Wilkie Collins and Dickens and continue into contemporary fiction. Divided fortunes can create divided families – and good stories.

War medals, flowers, a dead boy’s hair: their changing resonance through time brings opportunities to consider the difference between value and values; between family and fortune. How are we to remember the lost sweetness of our own young lives and find ways to memorialise the dead? Ultimately, inheritance isn’t only about stuff. In the end we have to hope, as Larkin wrote, that: “What will survive of us is love.”

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May 25, 2022

His personal life remains an enigma, but this is a valuable primer for anyone looking to get up to speed on Xi Jinping’s rise to global power

In November 2012 Xi Jinping was made general secretary of the Chinese Communist party, the top spot in the country’s political system. Since March 2013 he has also been president, a largely ceremonial but diplomatically significant post. Having held those positions for almost a decade, and showing no sign that he plans to hand either on anytime soon, Xi is now sometimes described not just as the most powerful person in China, but the most powerful individual in the world.

And yet we know relatively little about him, a fact that Kerry Brown’s new biography – though thorough in many respects – fails to fully remedy. The facts of Xi’s early life are fairly well documented. The son of a veteran revolutionary, his family went through a major reversal of fortune late in the Mao period, when his father was purged. Xi went from enjoying a privileged lifestyle in Beijing to becoming one of the millions of “sent down” youths encouraged to learn from the peasants by working in the countryside. Once his father was back in favour under Deng Xiaoping, he studied at China’s elite Tsinghua University and took up various posts, first in the military and then in civilian bureaucracies.

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May 25, 2022

This clever, engrossing debut about an ageing English literature professor explores female creativity, rage and desire

At the opening of this arresting debut, the narrator, an unnamed English literature professor in her late 50s, is gazing at a beautiful colleague, Vladimir. Almost two decades her junior, he is asleep in a chair. “The sight of his arm hair, ablaze in the sun, sends a sob down my spine,” she notes. The arm, it seems, is “the one that I have not shackled” – Vladimir is tied to the chair.

The narrator then goes back to explore how she got to this point, unpicking the complexities and generational tensions around assault in an American university, the power play between professor and student, the tangles of desire and envy, defiance and shame, ambition and failure. Above all, though, Vladimir is a novel about female appetite – for sex, food, power, success – and what the ageing process does to it.

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May 25, 2022

There have been many novels that imagine a world without men – but are these books reductive or freeing?

All the men are gone. Usually this is conceived as the result of a plague. Less often, the cause is violence. Occasionally, the men don’t die and the sexes are just segregated in different geographical regions. Or men miraculously vanish without explanation.

Left to themselves, the women create a better society, without inequality or war. All goods are shared. All children are safe. The economy is sustainable and Earth is cherished. Without male biology standing in the way, utopia builds itself.

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May 24, 2022

Clearing out his loft gives the former Pulp frontman a chance to look back at his formative years, and the objects that shaped him

The first memoir from the former lead singer of Pulp would have been better titled A History of Jarvis in 100 Objects. That’s what it is: an illustrated guide to the things that make Cocker who he is. He doesn’t appear in many of the photos; the great majority show his collection of ephemera: a 20-year-old pack of Wrigley’s Extra gum, a fragment of Imperial Leather soap with its old-style label still attached. That’s him in a nutshell: driven by a lifelong love of the everyday, perceiving romance and poignance in items that others chuck out. It isn’t wrong to say that without this sensibility, there would have been no Pulp, whom he led until 2013, no many-tentacled solo career and consequently no national treasure status.

This isn’t the story of his time at the top. The penultimate object in the book is an acceptance letter, dated 1988, from Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design in London. It was while studying film and video there that he “ran slap bang into the subject matter of The Song That Made My Name”, which is the book’s only reference to Common Pe(Please let there be a sequel covering those years.)ople and the starry decade that followed.

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May 24, 2022

Auction of fire-resistant edition comes ahead of an expected US supreme court ruling reversing the right to abortion

Amid political firestorms over books deemed by rightwingers to be unsuitable for school libraries, the author Margaret Atwood has announced an “unburnable” edition of her most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Canadian author, 82, appeared in a short YouTube video to announce the project, attempting to flambé the one-off tome with a flame-thrower.

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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 23, 2022

This astute analysis examines the toxic lottery of Britain’s housing crisis and the devastating outcomes of having no fixed abode

If the government of one of the richest countries in the world can’t adequately house the people who live in it, then what exactly is its point? The journalist Vicky Spratt doesn’t make this case directly in her first book, but she does lay bare our state’s lack of fitness for purpose in its current condition, showing how scarce, unsafe, cramped, unaffordable and, above all, insecure housing lies at the root of Britain’s ongoing public health crisis.

How did we get here? To put it bluntly, we allowed ourselves to be bought off. Instead of investing in skills, industry and people, voters were consistently told that if they bought a house they’d be set for life, and if they didn’t, it was their own fault if they ended up poor and voiceless. Everyone knows it’s a busted flush: even Michael Gove, now housing and “levelling up” minister, has belatedly recognised the urgent necessity for more social housing if he’s going to live up to his job title.

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May 23, 2022

A ‘youthful-memory’ poem from A Square of Sunlight, a debut collection from a poet who didn’t start writing until her 60s

1963

The house is in Chatou, a southwest suburb of Paris.
It has proper French tree lined streets and stag beetles
noisily hovering under a fretted iron street lamp.
The kitchen is three times the size of our kitchen,
and foreign, hung with paintings. There are three windows
all without mullions but they aren’t doors.
It’s dark outside and I’m alone in the house, sitting
on the scrubbed pine table with my bare feet up on the dresser
because I’m painting my toenails and drinking real coffee.

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May 23, 2022

Eight hours a day is a myth. Embracing our individual sleeping patterns could be the key to a better night’s rest

‘Sleep: those little slices of death, how I loathe them”; “sleep is a criminal waste of time and a heritage from our cave days.” Quotes like these, somewhat dubiously attributed to Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Edison, nevertheless reflect our society’s difficult relationship with sleep. Attitudes are changing, but there remains a lingering disdain and suspicion. We know we need it, but resent the fact that we have to do it, and are sometimes misled about how to get it.

What we can be sure of is that sleep is critical for good health. It helps us form memories and solve problems, allows tissue growth and repair, promotes metabolic health and removes toxins from the brain, including amyloid beta which is linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Insufficient and disrupted sleep is now known to result in altered emotional responses such as irritability, anxiety, loss of empathy, impulsivity and a reduced sense of humour. Cognitive performance also takes a hit, leading to a loss of attention, concentration, communication, decision making, creativity, and the ability to multitask. Finally, poor sleep affects physiological health, leading to an increased risk of stroke, heart attack, infection, cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes and mental illness. Hopefully this encyclopedic list will convince you that insufficient sleep is so much more than the inconvenience of feeling tired at the wrong time. It should also prompt the question: so what is “good sleep”?

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May 23, 2022

It’s the little things that strike a chord in this funny, melancholy book about the curdling of a friendship between two single gay men

I might as well come come straight to the point: The Con Artists by Luke Healy is my favourite graphic novel of the year so far, and to be honest, it might just be among my favourite comics ever. I’ve already read it twice, yet still I feel that I could go back to it again some time quite soon. Healy is one of those very noticing artists, and the great pleasure of his deeply satisfying fourth book, which is about an old friendship that will shortly curdle, lies in small things: little details you may not notice the first time around; ambiguities that nag away at you. Then again, even on a first reading, it’s a stand-out: so funny and melancholy, so knowing and true. Frank and Giorgio, the two men at the heart of it, are brilliant, vivid creations, and the passive-aggressive scratchiness between them is so beautifully observed. It isn’t hard at all to imagine such frenemies as the stars of some future film or TV series, though personally I would be quite content if Healy would only give them another outing between hard covers.

Frank (the standup comedian who is the book’s narrator) and Giorgio were friends as children, and on paper they’re very similar: both Irish in London, both gay and both single. But in adulthood, they’re not especially close, meeting up only every few months or so – until, one day, Giorgio calls Frank and tells him he has been hit by a bus. His wrist is broken. Could Frank look after him when he gets home? It’s worried Frank, not Giorgio, who asks this question, but almost immediately he begins to regret the offer. Giorgio is a nightmare patient, as demanding as a hotel guest, for all that it’s in his house that they’re staying. It’s almost sinister, the way he insists that Frank washes his hair or cuts up his dinner – and there’s something else, too. How is he making a living? In the bathroom, the soap is flashy – Frank would have to play three gigs to buy it – but his friend is getting letters from the benefits office. Nothing makes any sense, and trying to work it all out triggers Frank’s already quite bad anxiety.

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May 22, 2022

This intelligent and knowing debut about a female academic’s dangerous obsession with a younger professor is less risk-taking than it thinks it is

“I ask this one thing:/let me go mad in my own way,” opens the epigraph – taken from Sophocles’s Antigone – of Julia May Jonas’s debut novel. It unfolds in the wake of seven allegations of sexual misconduct against a female academic’s husband, John (another professor at the same college), triggering, in turn, a slew of student signatures calling for his removal. The supposed “madness” of the novel lies not only in the whipped-up condemnation of John, but in the narrator’s slippery descent into her own murky infatuation.

The arrival of debut author Vladimir, a suave, second-generation Russian, “clearly a transplant from the city”, as a professor amid this wreckage spells further disaster for the unnamed narrator, whose wry and shrewd voice steers this novel. Creating a quartet of entanglements, Vladimir brings wife Cynthia (and young daughter) in tow, whose deep, unexplained trauma and “honourable depression” elevates her in our narrator’s eyes.

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May 22, 2022

The comedian fails to strike the right tone in this comedy-mystery set in an Irish border town

The actor and comedian Ardal O’Hanlon’s first novel, 1998’s The Talk of the Town, hinted at the emergence of a distinctive literary talent, equal parts Flann O’Brien and Irvine Welsh. His follow-up has taken nearly a quarter of a century to appear, and unfortunately the boldness of his original debut has been replaced by a jarring mixture of whimsy and brutality. No doubt O’Hanlon’s publisher would like it to be compared to Paul Murray and Colin Bateman, but Brouhaha would probably never have been published were it not for O’Hanlon’s status.

The book is set in Tullyanna (“a smallish border town populated by just three thousand pinched faces and all of them secretive’), a poverty-riddled hellhole that is home to the usual cliches: a reluctantly retired detective trying to do the right thing, a frustrated journalist and the usual supporting cast of hardmen turned politicians, the lucky few who escaped small-town ennui and the far greater number who never had a chance. (There are, of course, Springsteen references to hammer this point home; this is not a subtle book.) All are brought together by the apparent suicide of the street artist “Dove” Connolly, whose death seems to be linked to the disappearance of Sandra Mohan, last seen a decade earlier.

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May 22, 2022

A young black Bristolian is caught between two worlds in McKenzie’s brutal, tender debut novel

Life on the streets can get sticky, and this is a litter-strewn hot mess of a story. Moses McKenzie’s debut novel, set in his home town of Bristol, follows dream-chasing Sayon Hughes as he hustles to save enough money to fulfil a fanciful ambition and buy “the house-atop-the-hill” in Clifton. It’s a dream that at times feels as futile as Lennie’s ambition in Of Mice and Men to live off the fat of the land and tend to rabbits.

An Olive Grove in Ends is a celebration of community, from domino-playing uncles to drug-addled down-and-outs, the inhabitants of a city on the brink of change. The action moves from Bristol’s St Paul’s neighbourhood to Stapleton Road (“Stapes”), where the struggle is between crime and legitimacy, staying out of trouble and getting caught. It’s a landscape enlivened by the police lurking, ready to pounce, and gentrification knocking on the door.

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May 22, 2022

The novelist’s collection of essays on translation only hint at what led her to take refuge in Italian

There aren’t many writers who radically remake their style over the course of their life: we might think of Joyce’s revolutions, Woolf’s renewals, or what Jeanette Winterson called the “furnace work” that Eliot undertook on his mature style for Four Quartets.

Rarer still are those who change the language they write in, but to names such as Beckett and Nabokov we can add Jhumpa Lahiri. At the turn of the millennium, Lahiri was a young star of American literature, winning a Pulitzer prize for her debut, Interpreter of Maladies. She could have carried on like that, but little over a decade later, after publication of her novel The Lowland in 2013, she stopped writing in English and took up Italian.

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