Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page review – lives under the microscope

From war to class anxiety to feminism, this story of a long marriage is also a wonderfully evocative sketch of Britain in the 20th century

Philip Larkin summed up the trouble with long relationships in his poem “Talking in Bed”, a snapshot of a grim nightly intimacy in which it becomes “still more difficult to find / Words at once true and kind, / Or not untrue and not unkind”. Kathy Page brings this deadlock into sober focus in her portrait of a 70-year marriage. Harry Miles, born between the wars to working-class parents in south London, is a scholarship boy with a literary bent and an ambition to escape the “sooty little terraces” of his childhood. When he meets Evelyn Hill, from a background very like his own, he is instantly attracted to her “appetite for the better things” and her acerbic qualities: “quick judgement, a very strong ...

Top 10 books about psychiatry

Spanning unusual cruelty and extraordinary kindness, authors from Pat Barker to Janet Frame explore an unsettling branch of medicine

Throughout human history, few people have been more consistently feared and abused than the insane, and our misunderstanding of mental illness has typically determined how sufferers are treated. From ancient times – when psychological disturbances were attributed to demonic possession – to attempts in recent centuries to place insanity under the umbrella of medicine, where it belongs, the story of mental healthcare in the western world is fraught with misdiagnoses and crackpot therapies: purging and bloodletting, shackles and straitjackets, trepanning and lobotomies.

Related: Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry review – savagery at sea

Continue reading...

The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II: 1956-1963 – review

Infidelity, agony rage ... Plath’s correspondence captures life with Ted Hughes and her terror of being alive

Volume one of the collected letters of Sylvia Plath – one of the most original poets of the 20th century, and a prolific correspondent – ended with her marriage, while studying at Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship from America, to fellow poet Ted Hughes in June 1956. The second volume begins with her 24th birthday in October. The new Mr and Mrs Hughes are penniless and without a home of their own, but she has absolute faith in him as a writer and human being. He is “a genius”, the best poet “since Yeats & Dylan Thomas”. Inconveniently, he is also unpublished, and has no strategy for getting into print – but Plath is equal to the challenge. She is an old hand at approaching poetry magazines in Britain and her native US and promptly sets herself up as his agent.

By the start of ...

Never Anyone But You by Rupert Thomson review – life transformed by art

Reinventing themselves and resisting Nazi occupation: the French surrealists Claude Cahun and her lover Marcel Moore inspire a taut, magnificently controlled novel

Rupert Thomson’s 10 novels are spectacularly diverse, covering brain damage (The Insult, 1996), female on male sexual violence (The Book of Revelation, 1999), enigmatic dystopias (Divided Kingdom, 2005) and origins and chance (Katherine Carlyle, 2015). They also share striking preoccupations with trauma, gender and identity. We meet Katherine, the heroine of Thomson’s previous novel, as a frozen embryo eight years before she is born via delayed IVF. Later, we see the teenage Katherine buying Gerhard Richter postcards in an art gallery shop, a moment that skilfully illuminates her struggle to make sense of the apparently contingent nature of her life: “His blurred portraits,” she thinks, “seem a comment on my own existence.” It’s the sort of ontological ...

Walking Wounded by Sheila Llewellyn review – beautiful and humane debut

The psychological costs of war are revealed in a fine novel that invites comparisons to Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy

This quietly self-assured first novel contains some of the most graphic descriptions of brain surgery likely to be found outside a medical textbook. Set in a military psychiatric hospital in 1947, Sheila Llewellyn’s tale of the psychological costs of war is an often nightmarish yet deeply touching interleaving of the stories of resident psychiatrist Daniel Carter and his newest patient, Burma campaign veteran David Reece.

David has what was once known as “war neurosis”: crippling anxiety, flashbacks and debilitating depression, or what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. In 1942, aged 18, he was sent into the Burmese jungle, one of the so-called “forgotten army” whose horrific experiences of guerrilla warfare in the far east remained overshadowed by the action in Europe. When he is unable to reintegrate himself into ...

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd review – mercilessly amusing

Featuring artists’ affairs, literary revenges and Bond-style thrills, these short stories by the acclaimed novelist are glossily knowing

In William Boyd’s teasing short story collection, a second-rate artist called Fernando Benn peddles a painterly style he calls “faux-faux naïf”: “‘Naïf’ painting is crap but charming … ‘faux naïf’ is good painters trying to paint in a crap but charming way and ‘faux-faux naïf’ is just crap but everyone will think it’s amazing.” Most of Boyd’s characters are dilettantes, or in some way on the make – would-be artists, actors, film directors or writers – and he is merciless in skewering their pretensions.

Boyd knows perfectly well that, as the ending to a thriller, this just won’t do

Continue reading...

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout review – a subtle collection

In this follow-up to My Name Is Lucy Barton, sharply compassionate stories find suffering, pity and grace in smalltown America In My Name Is Lucy Barton, the novel that came before this collection of stories, Lucy Barton, who is just starting out as a writer, meets and is mentored by a shy novelist called Sarah Payne. Like Lucy – and like Strout herself – Payne grew up in a small town in postwar America. Lucy admires her novels because “they try to tell you something truthful … she wrote about people who worked hard and suffered and also had good things happen to them. And then,” Lucy adds, “I realised that even in her books, she was not telling exactly the truth, she was always staying away from something.” Payne’s books, as described here, resemble nothing so much as Strout’s own. Her habit of oblique understatement has, by now, become ...

When Light Is Like Water by Molly McCloskey review – lust and delusion

The tale of an idle transgression turns into a profound meditation on love in this ferociously well-written novel Adultery is often sentimentalised in fiction, but in her ferociously well written second novel Molly McCloskey gives it to us straight. Alice is a twentysomething American who fetches up in Ireland at the tail end of the 1980s, just before the economic boom of the next decade. She works in a Sligo bar, where her foreignness causes a bit of a stir. McCloskey slyly captures the provincialism of those pre-Celtic Tiger years, when the men Alice meets are “both knowing and a little slow … and yet disarmingly innocent”. One of these men is a suburban furniture salesman called Eddie (rhymes with steady), whom she falls in love with for his reassuring imperturbability. They marry, buy a house overlooking Ben Bulben – the book’s physical world is finely realised – ...

Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler review – a devastating reckoning

A powerful memoir from an acclaimed novelist reveals a past of privilege, violence and possibly murderSouth African-born Sheila Kohler is the acclaimed author of three short story collections and 10 novels, among them Cracks (1999), Becoming Jane Eyre (2009) and Dreaming for Freud (2014), disturbing explorations of femininity featuring heroines who are in some way trapped, silenced or lost. “To the voiceless, the muffled, the frightened, the guilty,” Kohler says, “I attempt to give words.” But it turns out that these fictions about vulnerable women, written during a career spanning nearly 30 years, have simply been screen stories for the truth at the core of Kohler’s own life. In this powerful memoir – her first piece of non-fiction – she finally addresses the truth. Kohler and her elder sister, Maxine, the daughters of a wealthy timber merchant, grew up in the stifling suburban luxury of 1940s and 50s Johannesburg. ...

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler review – a sparky spin on Shakespeare

A brusque nursery school teacher is pitted against a Russian lab assistant in this intelligent revamp of The Taming of the ShrewDysfunctional family relationships are Anne Tyler’s forte, and her retelling of The Taming of the Shew, part of the Hogarth Press’s initiative to give Shakespeare plays a prose remodelling to mark the 400th anniversary of his death, gives her plenty to work with. In Tyler’s revamping, the shrew is Kate Battista, an acerbic preschool teacher with a bad hairdo and an unapologetic line in abrasive truths (“I hate small children … They’re not very bright, if you’ve noticed”). Once a “thorny child” and a “sullen teenager”, Kate is now housekeeper and general dogsbody to her scientist father, the controlling and selfish Dr Battista, and her nubile teenage sister, Bunny. When a prestigious research project of Dr Battista’s is threatened by the imminent deportation of his brilliant Russian lab ...

Thicker Than Water by Cal Flyn review – my ancestor the murderer

A descendent of Angus McMillan, who massacred Indigenous Australians, travels to Gippsland to confront difficult truths In 1843, at Warrigal Creek in the south-eastern corner of Australia, known as Gippsland, between 80 and 200 Indigenous Australians – a significant portion of the Bratowoolong clan of the Gunai people, including children – were massacred by a vigilante gang of white drovers calling themselves the Highland Brigade. The Indigenous Australians were surprised in their encampment on the banks of a waterhole. There was nowhere for them to run; those who tried to flee were gunned down in the water. Afterwards the Scotsmen pulled a 12-year-old boy, who had been shot through the eye but was still alive, from the creek, and marched him on ahead at gunpoint in search of further camps. There were other cullings, at Boney Point, Butchers Creek, Slaughterhouse Gully – the names are grotesquely eloquent. When the first European settlers arrived in Gippsland, 1,800 Indigenous ...

Kid Gloves: A Voyage Round My Father by Adam Mars-Jones – review

Bigoted, irascible, brilliant … a forensic portrait of a homophobic judge by his gay writer son

Adam Mars-Jones observes in this memoir of his late father, the redoubtable high court judge Sir William Mars-Jones, that when writing about the dead, “the writer, the survivor, has all the power”. As a novelist trained in the shady arts of fiction, Mars-Jones is well aware of the loaded nature of this exercise in turning the tables on authority. In the courtroom of biography the dead have “no redress against caricature or cheap insight” – and, just to raise the stakes, “feelings about parents are such primal things that it’s safer to assume you harbour any and every disreputable emotion”. Proceedings could get ugly.

Except that in Mars-Jones’s hands, the arraignment is somehow not just scrupulously fair but tender. The kid gloves of the title are an allusion to “the pair of white kid ...