Butterfly by Yusra Mardini review – the refugee swimmer whose story swept the world

Trained relentlessly by her father in Syria, Mardini helped steer a people-laden dinghy to safety, then competed in the Olympics

When, at the 2016 Rio Olympics, five women stepped on to the starting blocks for the first heat of the 100m butterfly, one stood out. While the others were identified with a name and their country’s flag, Y Mardini was identified by a white flag emblazoned with the Olympic rings. A beep, and they were curving into the blue pool. Mardini was slightly ahead for the first length, but lost momentum on the turn. She struggled to catch up to the Grenadian swimmer next to her – until the last few strokes, when, like her childhood hero Michael Phelps, she found a final burst of speed, and touched the wall first. The butterfly is a powerful, uncompromising stroke, and head-on pictures of Mardini in full flight only underline this: delicate face ...

‘A stab at truth’: my grandmother and the problem with family histories

Secrets, missing pieces and shocking opinions: writing a family’s story is never simple. Can a biographer tell the truth without rewriting the past?

In his mid 30s Michael Ondaatje, who grew up in Sri Lanka but was by then living in Canada, realised he had “slipped past a childhood I had ignored and not understood”. So he returned, determined to talk to his relations and “touch them into words”, which is a kind of comprehension. Those words became Running in the Family, which conjures up a vivid world of rackety, racy, disappearing privilege, of overgrown garden and monsoon, of generous, eccentric people given to amateur dramatics and a kind of wild, untethered, grief-laced chasing of fun. So vivid, in fact, that a note in the acknowledgements comes as a slight shock: “I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or ‘gesture’. And if ...

Somebody I Used to Know by Wendy Mitchell review – fighting early-onset dementia

A heart-rending account of a 58-year-old woman’s fight with Alzheimer’s and its consequences

Things begin, as so often, with a fall. A hard fall, while out running along the River Ouse in York, hard enough that Wendy Mitchell has to go to A&E; hard enough that when she goes back later to find the flagstone that caused it, the blood from where her face hit the pavement serves as a bright marker. Yet there is no obvious hazard.

Then, another day, another fall. And another. The year before, she had completed the three peaks challenge; now she finds she must give up running. Then, after a couple of unsafe incidents on the road, driving. Parts of herself crumbling, or, one day, when she looks up from her desk at work and finds she has no idea what she’s doing there, dropping so fast it’s like “ripping a plaster away”. When ...

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani review – brilliantly unsettling

She seemed like the perfect nanny… A stylishly written French thriller probes at fault lines of gender, race and class to devastating effect

Anyone who has ever had to hire someone to look after their children in their own home knows that it is unlike any other working arrangement. The contractual lines should be the same – fair salary, paid holidays, disciplinary measures if anything goes wrong – but they are also a civilised gloss on something far messier: physical and emotional intimacy, a requirement of absolute trust in a stranger and a power relationship whose collateral damage, if things go wrong, can easily be visited on a defenceless child. And not only the child. In her Prix Goncourt-winning novel, which has taken France by storm, Leïla Slimani’s brilliantly executed insight is that there is great emotional jeopardy for everyone involved.

Related: Macron appoints author Leïla Slimani to champion French language

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Jorie Graham: ‘I am living in the late season, but it has its songs, too’

The Pulitzer-winning poet on mortality, makeup and capturing life’s complexity

The last lines of the last poem in Jorie Graham’s most recent collection, FAST, imagine dawn giving way to day: “Leaving / grackle and crow in the sun – they have / known what to find in the unmade / undrawn unseen unmarked and / dragged it into here – that it be / visible” – which is as good a way as any of summing up what Graham has tried to do ever since she began writing poems: to look hard at the world around her, especially the natural world, but also at the hard questions – what does it all mean and what is it all for? To stay as open as possible in order to catch whatever answer there might be unawares, and hold it up to the light.

Nothing is out of bounds – geese, laundry, erosion, ...

Histories by Sam Guglani review – linked tales from the world of medicine

An oncologist’s meditation on power, humility and empathy and what it means to be a doctor

The catechism of health/ill-health – age, height, weight, blood pressure, what seems to be the matter – otherwise known as taking a patient’s history, is at the centre of medicine. However hi-tech or interventionist the eventual outcome, this conversation must always come first, and a doctor’s skill resides both in understanding the physical implications of the answers, and in intuiting any mental and emotional troubles that may lie beneath and between them. All life is here, as the long list of doctor-writers, from Avicenna to Chekhov, Bulgakov to Atul Guwande, have always known; Sam Guglani’s specific insight is to locate it in the idea of that first series of questions.

Histories is, therefore, a novel, but a novel structured as a series of linked histories, where each chapter is told from the point of ...

Jacob Polley: ‘I’m a fool as a writer – you have to take risks’

This year’s TS Eliot prize winner on the freedom of his Cumbrian childhood and making a living from poetry

Jackself and Jeremy Wren are setting / nightlines in the kidney-coloured pool … ” From the first line of what would become Jackself, his 2016 TS Eliot prize-winning collection (though not, in the end, the first line of the book) Jacob Polley knew he had something different on his hands. “Oh goodness,” he thought. “What on earth are you doing? This” – each poem telling a small part of a larger story – “isn’t the way to be writing a book of poems, like those ones you wrote before.”

It is a surprise to discover this tentativeness, because Jackself is so confident, both in its handling of narrative (of two boys’ rural childhood), and of emotion. Polley’s voice is by turns mischievous, demotic, delicate, direct – and funny. ...

Now & Again by Charlotte Rogan review – the price of morality

A woman glimpses secret documents at a munitions plant and is faced with a profound moral quandary in this confident followup to The Lifeboat American author Charlotte Rogan’s widely praised first novel, The Lifeboat, took a bare minimum of pages to wreck a passenger liner, set 39 people adrift in an overfilled lifeboat on the Atlantic ocean, and force them to ask the big questions. What to do if the choice is between one’s own survival or the survival of the majority? Who lives and who dies? Her second novel takes an even shorter time to set the questions running. We meet Maggie Rayburn at the same moment in which she sees a secret document on her boss’s desk; she works at a munitions plant that, among other things, makes shells containing depleted uranium. “Discredit the doctors,” she reads. “Flood the system with contradictory reports.” What should she do? Continue reading...

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta review – love and conflict during the Nigerian civil war

A young gay woman looks for forgiveness from God in a brave novel seeking to challenge prejudice ‘Midway between Old Oba-Nnewi Road and New Oba-Nnewi Road, in that general area bound by the village church and the primary school … ” Under the Udala Trees begins in the same way that many of the short stories in Chinelo Okparanta’s debut Happiness, Like Water did: with a clear, attentive setting-down of the parameters of place – streets and street names, houses and bushes, trees and walls – and how they make sense of each other, protect each other. “Ours was a gated compound, guarded at the front by thickets of rose and hibiscus bushes.” The descriptions are cool, exact; yet what grows out of these carefully laid beginnings is a story with the highest of stakes. First comes the war: the little compound is in Biafra, and within a year the area ...

Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans – bright mischief, quiet melancholy

The small, brave heroine of these sweet tales is full of infectious fun, but adult readers can sense the sadness behind the fun

“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines …” If you know these lines at all you cannot help but know more of them; the rhythm practically defies you not to continue: “lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. In two straight lines they broke their bread and brushed their teeth and went to bed.” And the smallest of them all, of course, is Madeline. When I started reading the Madeline books to my daughter it was well over 30 years since they had been read to me by my mother – and yet all the lines were there in my head, waiting. Before ...

Sweet Caress by William Boyd review – love and war in the 20th century

Boyd makes an effective use of real-life pictures to illustrate this photographer’s brisk account of her life

Amory Clay is at boarding school and working her way through the standard teenage rebellions – smoking, sexual experimentation, talking back to a headteacher who’d like to persuade her to try for Oxford – when her father arrives on an unexpected visit. He is cheery, handsome and confident, a successful short-story writer who has produced nothing since service in the trenches. He takes her for a drive in the countryside, past where she thinks they might stop, towards a castle – perhaps there is a tea shop? – but no, they keep going, right into a lake. No one dies (he was misinformed about its depth), but she is thus notified how war and the effects of war will run through her 20th-century life like a rotten seam, cracking open what seems solid ground, twisting ...