Lost Property by Laura Beatty review – a phantasmagorical Brexit odyssey


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A couple journey to the heart of Europe to unravel the roots of nationalism in this luminous upheaval of culture and history

After Pollard and Darkling, Laura Beatty’s third novel – if novel it be, for it regularly feels like something stranger and more elusive – opens in a harsh version of contemporary London. It is a “make-or-break place of thieves and cutthroats”, with street sleepers beneath glittering towers, and humanity nowhere recognisable. The narrator, a novelist, begins by reimagining the city as Dante’s dark wood, and is clearly herself in a state of florid breakdown: unhinged by her country’s divisions, talking to herself, imagining a bag lady on her doorstep to be one of her own characters from a previous book come to taunt her by singing “Rule Britannia!”

Though it hangs oppressively over the narrative, the word Brexit appears only once, halfway through the book, ...

A miracle in action: Diana Athill’s editorial genius


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Joining André Deutsch in the late 80s, I saw a great editor at the top of her game, tirelessly working to bring good writing to perfection

Independent publishing was at a dangerous moment in 1987 when I was ushered at the age of 26 into a lowly place in the publicity department of André Deutsch Ltd. But the company was flourishing. Deutsch had Gore Vidal, Molly Keane and John Updike. Penelope Lively won the Booker for Moon Tiger in my first week and the backlist-bookshelves lining the corridor to the dim publicity offices were a treasurehouse of the boldest and the best in fiction, from Don DeLillo to Jean Rhys, Jack Kerouac, Wole Soyinka and VS Naipaul. But most significant for me was the unparalleled commitment and intelligence of an editorial department led by Diana Athill.

It is hard to overstate the importance of those editors – who were almost ...

Our Friends in Berlin by Anthony Quinn review – life during wartime


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This enjoyable thriller about hunting down Nazi sympathisers is shot through with postmodern melancholy

When we first meet Jack Hoste, one of the two protagonists of Anthony Quinn’s taut new novel, it is London, March 1941, and it is far too early to think of him as a hero. On the contrary, this “unremarkable” man of “no distinguishing features” in his shabby ARP warden’s uniform appears to be carrying on some fairly dirty and dangerous business: at the height of the blitz, Hoste is in the back room of a smoky pub in Cheapside, trying to recruit a Nazi sympathiser to his fifth column and persuade him on to the payroll as a spy for “our friends in Berlin”.

It soon becomes clear that in the early stages of the war those bonds of politics, class, affection or culture that connected a certain British sensibility to pre-war Germany – a place ...

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett review – family fears in a walled-off world


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An Oxfordshire estate is the focus of this extraordinary study of social upheaval down the years
Lucy Hughes-Hallett, a cultural historian best known for The Pike, her award-winning biography of Italian poet and proto‑fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio, has now written an extraordinarily accomplished first novel. It opens in 1663, as landscape designer John Norris paces the boundaries of an ancient Oxfordshire estate, Wychwood, where he is charged with the establishment of a great park. In the nervous extended aftermath of the civil war, allegiances are still dissolving and re-forming. Norris’s master Lord Woldingham is returning from exile, while his sister, chatelaine of Wychwood under Cromwell, has been relegated to the estate’s borders along with her daughter Cecily. Not for nothing is it called Wychwood: spies, witches and religious dissenters conceal themselves in the woods Norris must civilise. Enclosure is, whether Norris likes it or not, a political act: and the designer’s ...

The Purple Swamp Hen & Other Stories by Penelope Lively review – a voice of wisdom


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From a garden of poisonous passions to quiet tales of lost love – exquisite black humour and sage observations Across Penelope Lively’s long and productive writing career – over five decades, writing novels for adults and children as well as autobiography – she has at regular intervals found space for that most deceptively unassuming of forms, the short story. At first glance her fifth collection, The Purple Swamp Hen, appears modest on a number of fronts: with the exception of the title story, their territory is the familiarly English, the bookish, the intellectual, the middle-class; and their language is precise and careful. And yet the story that looks at first like the odd one out turns out to set the tone for this immensely enjoyable collection. It is narrated by a small but exotic bird ornamenting an ancient garden in the lethal shadow of Vesuvius, which is “unlike any ...

A Quiet Life by Natasha Walter review – cold-war love and lies


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The American wife of an English spy hides her political subterfuge behind social conformity in this deft debutAs she watches the sun set over Lake Geneva in 1953, Laura Last, the diffident protagonist of Natasha Walter’s quietly impressive first novel, is a woman deprived of her identity and stranded between worlds. She is exposed to public opprobrium as the deceived wife of the traitor Edward Last, who abandoned her, pregnant with their daughter, two years earlier to defect to the Soviet Union with a friend purported to be his homosexual lover. Any status – social, political, legal, sexual – Laura might have won during the turbulent mid-century years has been stripped from her. Under surveillance by the authorities and living in exile, she is reduced to squabbling with her mother over childcare and waiting for cocktail hour, and appears to be the emblem of female submissiveness. But before Walter’s tense ...

Mothering Sunday: A Romance by Graham Swift review – a perfect small tragedy


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A last moment of intimacy between English maidservant and heir is at the heart of this masterful novellaOn Mothering Sunday, 1924, with one war not long past and a second waiting over the horizon, young Jane Fairchild – foundling, maid to the Niven household in the green home counties, and the narrator and protagonist of Graham Swift’s enchanted novella – has no mother to go to. Instead she has “her simple liberty”, along with a book and half a crown in her pocket bestowed by a kindly employer who, his sons dead in France and his domestic staff reduced, is inclined to be indulgent to her youth. The Nivens and their fellow servant-owning tribes, the Sheringhams and the Hobdays, have two children left between them in the aftermath of the first world war, and on this day a “jamboree” is planned, an excursion to Henley to celebrate the surviving pair’s impending marriage. ...

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith review – a daft but enjoyable hunt for a serial killer


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The third crime caper from JK Rowling’s alter ego sees private detective Cormoran Strike haunted by his own and his mother’s past

On his third outing in fiction, irascible private detective Cormoran Strike – taciturn, reckless and permanently hungover, the creation of JK Rowling’s alter ego Robert Galbraith – is ambushed by a leg. The leg in question is delivered by motorcycle courier to his lovely assistant, Robin, in their cramped offices above the guitar shops of Soho’s Denmark Street – “And it’s not even my size,” deadpans Strike, ex-military policeman and amputee, to the detective inspector in charge of the investigation.

The leg is also the wrong sex, having been detached from the body of a young woman, and is accompanied by a quote from a song by hard rock band Blue Öyster Cult that resonates with Strike’s murky past: his dead, super-groupie mother had an intimate tattoo of ...

Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks review – a moving tale of memory, love and war


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A retired doctor flees London for the south of France but can’t escape his own buried trauma in a novel of integrity and intelligence

When we first encounter Robert Hendricks, narrator of Sebastian Faulks’s novel of madness and memory, he is in guilty flight from New York. It is 1980, the city is at its lowest ebb, and Hendricks is escaping a dismal encounter with a call girl. Washed up in the doldrums of what he is later to term “a century of psychosis”, never did a physician so transparently need to heal himself.

Austerity Britain may be long gone and Hendricks a veteran of the Anzio landings and a successful doctor and author, but the London of bedsits, drycleaners and transients he returns to recalls Greeneland, a place of obscure shame: his name even echoes that of Graham Greene’s Maurice Bendrix from The End of the Affair. Hendricks ...