Turning for Home by Barney Norris review – anorexia and IRA secrets

The second novel from a rising literary star is a tale of public and private reconciliations

This second novel by the highly accomplished Barney Norris, who made his name as a playwright before publishing fiction, begins as a book about the peace process in Ireland, memory, guilt and confession. It moves, gradually, towards a terrifying account of anorexia. And by the end one feels that perhaps it has been most of all a study of the relationship between a grandfather and granddaughter. I’m not sure it entirely holds together, but the disjunctions are part of what makes this courageous piece of work so memorable, strange and sad.

It’s set, for the most part, on a single day somewhere in the Hampshire countryside, at the home of the ageing Robert. The family is gathering for his birthday, as it has gathered each May for the last 40 years. But at 80, ...

Brolliology by Marion Rankine review – thinking about umbrellas

Mary Poppins used one to fly but for most people they are merely ‘portable roofs’. Have brollies lost their magic?

Among the Japanese yokai, or monstrous spirits, one of the most prominent forms of apparition is the kasa-obake: the umbrella ghost. It is always an old umbrella, well used and long ignored, with holes in the oiled paper or a broken rib. One moment it is quietly rolled in the hallway stand, the next it is leaping and leering, its wooden handle now taking the shape of a human leg. From among the folds a single eye gleams with sinister life. An 18th-century haiku by Yosa Buson catches the mood: “Oh, the winter rain / On a moonlit night / When the shadow of an old umbrella shudders.” The Japanese paper parasol is more often a protection against sun than rain, but in both guises it can be beautiful, ...

Winter by Ali Smith review – wise, generous and a thing of grace

In the second volume of a quartet, the winter solstice brings with it a cool clarity of vision, evergreen memories and a reworking of ageless myths

Winter: the dead time, the midnight hour, the dying of the light. Winter: the time of guests, gifts, Christmas memories, cool clarity, the beginning. In the second part of her Seasonal Quartet, which began last year with Autumn, Smith brings all these winters into relationships that are astonishingly fertile and free. She calls up old stories and renews them, she finds life stubbornly shining in the evergreens. She looks out over a contemporary landscape of violent exclusion, lies, suffering (the book has been written and published so quickly that this summer’s tragedies are among its solsticial dark points), and fashions a novel which, in its very inclusiveness, associative joy and unrestricted movement, proposes other kinds of vision.

This is not a continuation of ...

Travelling Light by Alastair Sawday review – the king of quirky B&Bs

A roll-top bath, organic food, local wine? Sawday’s taste is easy to parody but hard to resist, in this envy-making memoirIf you are currently lying in a deep, hot bath, as splashes echo round the ancient stone walls of a farmhouse bathroom, and if you will soon fold back a stitched white eiderdown and move a vase of wild flowers to the windowsill before joining your host for a glass of excellent local wine … there is a strong possibility that you are in a bed and breakfast recommended by Alastair Sawday. “Sawday’s” is a name well known to thousands of travellers who have sought comfort and hospitality in off-beat places throughout Britain and Ireland, France, Italy and Iberia. The idea is that Sawday and his colleagues find potentially enticing accommodation, interview the owners, sample the beds and the baths (preferably old and large), and see that the breakfasts ...

Bosch and Bruegel review – more gripping than a thriller

Two master painters of the macabre and the mundane come together in Joseph Leo Koerner’s frightening, fascinating studyHieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder work like antagonistic muscles in the imagination, pulling with and against each other. Bosch is a painter of medieval hellfire whose fantastical creations exceed our nightmares. Bruegel, most memorably and wonderfully, shows us a recognisable world where children lick bowls clean, bagpipers draw breath and harvesters stretch out in the sun. Turning from metaphysics and from myth, he attends to the ploughman who labours his way across a field while Icarus falls into the sea far below. Bosch’s pale figures belong to the international gothic; Bruegel’s weighty peasants dance vigorously into modern times. Yet Bruegel (born 10 years after the elder artist’s death) was greeted by his contemporaries as a “second Bosch”, and the connections between the two Netherlandish masters have fascinated viewers for ...

Bosch and Bruegel review – more gripping than a thriller

Two master painters of the macabre and the mundane come together in Joseph Leo Koerner’s frightening, fascinating studyHieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder work like antagonistic muscles in the imagination, pulling with and against each other. Bosch is a painter of medieval hellfire whose fantastical creations exceed our nightmares. Bruegel, most memorably and wonderfully, shows us a recognisable world where children lick bowls clean, bagpipers draw breath and harvesters stretch out in the sun. Turning from metaphysics and from myth, he attends to the ploughman who labours his way across a field while Icarus falls into the sea far below. Bosch’s pale figures belong to the international gothic; Bruegel’s weighty peasants dance vigorously into modern times. Yet Bruegel (born 10 years after the elder artist’s death) was greeted by his contemporaries as a “second Bosch”, and the connections between the two Netherlandish masters have fascinated viewers for ...

Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums – review

From John Lanchester at the Prado to Ann Wroe at Dove Cottage, these accounts of favourite museums are a joy to readThe 24 essays gathered here came about when distinguished writers were given what sounds like a most appealing brief: choose a museum that has played a part in your life, go back and write about it. It’s almost as good an opportunity as Desert Island Discs. Still, Richard Ford demurred, explaining that his eyes fail to focus after 45 minutes in a museum; David Sedaris said he prefers the cafe and gift shop. Alice Oswald clearly had her doubts. “I haven’t been to many museums,” she says. “I can’t help being depressed by the aloofness of things behind glass.” There’s nothing to say that writers should particularly like museums, or that their experiences should be any different from those of musicians or teachers or cooks. The editor, ...