Darker With the Lights On by David Hayden review – stories of the subconscious

An undercurrent of primal violence runs through this Irish author’s brilliantly disturbing and unclassifiable debut collection

Once in a blue moon, a book comes along that really is like nothing you’ve ever read before. The 20 stories in this debut collection from David Hayden are strange, uncomfortable fables of memory, metamorphosis, time, disassociation and death: hard to fathom, but impossible to ignore; twisty and riddling, yet with a blunt impact that reverberates long after the final page. They are dreamlike, but they feel like one’s own dreams, with the ability to change you from the inside out. A kind of primal violence runs through all of them, as though they are taking place in some collective unconscious. People come apart or are chopped into pieces, change from one thing into another, move through scenes that shift by the sentence yet are as starkly delineated as a child’s drawing.

In the ...

The best fiction of 2017

We look back on a year that saw Arundhati Roy’s return and George Saunders’ Man Booker victory, along with dark short stories and a haunting last novel

One of the joys of the novel is its endless capacity for reinvention, and 2017 saw fiction writers trying out fresh approaches and new forms. The Man Booker winner was a debut novel from an author with 20 years of short stories under his belt: George Saunders’s magisterial Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury), in which the death and afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s young son is told through snippets of civil war memoir and a cacophony of squabbling ghosts, was a fantastically inventive exploration of loss, mourning and the power of empathy. There was an injection of the fantastic, too, in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Hamish Hamilton), which added the device of magical portals opening up across the globe to its spare, devastating portrait ...

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty review – marriage under the microscope

An elderly couple remember their past and face up to the future in this quietly brilliant novel from the Northern Irish author The married couple at the centre of Bernard MacLaverty’s first novel in 16 years have reached that stage of life where “every time I open my glasses case nowadays, I am pleasantly surprised to find my glasses”. Gerry and Stella have survived the Troubles, raised a son now living in Canada, had careers in architecture and teaching. Their memories reach back to Northern Ireland in the 40s and 50s; their future is both circumscribed and uncertain. Don’t they deserve a little holiday? But the midwinter break of the title turns out to refer not only to their long weekend in Amsterdam, but to the possibility of a rupture between them, as well as the more general stumbling blocks of old age. Stella has an agenda for ...

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty review – marriage under the microscope

An elderly couple remember their past and face up to the future in this quietly brilliant novel from the Northern Irish author The married couple at the centre of Bernard MacLaverty’s first novel in 16 years have reached that stage of life where “every time I open my glasses case nowadays, I am pleasantly surprised to find my glasses”. Gerry and Stella have survived the Troubles, raised a son now living in Canada, had careers in architecture and teaching. Their memories reach back to Northern Ireland in the 40s and 50s; their future is both circumscribed and uncertain. Don’t they deserve a little holiday? But the midwinter break of the title turns out to refer not only to their long weekend in Amsterdam, but to the possibility of a rupture between them, as well as the more general stumbling blocks of old age. Stella has an agenda for ...

The Man Booker prize 2017 longlist: who should be on it?

This year’s ‘Booker dozen’ is released on Thursday. Who will make the cut is hard to guess, but there are plenty of strong candidates From the longlist to the eventual winner, in the last couple of years, second-guessing the winner of the Man Booker prize has become harder than ever. With the field now open to American authors, and a focus on bringing indie gems such as His Bloody Project and A Brief History of Seven Killings into the spotlight, each July the Booker dozen has been full of surprises. It certainly makes the “posh bingo”, as Julian Barnes put it, more exciting – but who could we, should we, might we see on the longlist this Thursday? This Booker year runs from 1 October 2016 to 30 September 2017, putting some brilliant novels from big-name authors in the running: Sebastian Barry’s intimate epic of the US civil ...

H(a)ppy by Nicola Barker review – visionary satire of a new information age

Barker is as glorious and gnomic as ever in this vision of a dystopian future which defies narrative and typographic conventionFor two decades now, Nicola Barker has been writing extravagantly ununusal books. Her subjects have ranged from a 15th-century court jester in Darkmans to the anxieties of golf in The Yips; her characters have been outliers, oddballs, obsessives of all kinds. Her last novel, 2016’s The Cauliflower, was a typically playful portrait of the 19th-century Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna, riffing on holiness and eccentricity, the sacred and the profane. So the odd thing about her 12th novel – a phantasmagoria in which willing submission to constant surveillance in a regulated virtual reality keeps the population happy, or at least h(a)ppy – is that it begins on such familiar ground. The trope of a society in which to deviate from the norm is to risk instant public shame is ...

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter review – parenting in the end times

This fragmentary debut novel sets the shock of new motherhood against an England hit by apocalyptic floods Having a baby can feel like the end of the world. In her slim, fragmentary debut novel, Megan Hunter examines new motherhood against an apocalyptic scenario in which flooding tips England into chaos: as the narrator’s waters break, the waters in London rise. As in Emma Donoghue’s Room, where the notorious Fritzl case inspired an exploration of the claustrophobia and intensity of the mother-child relationship, the extremity of the setting powers the novel’s central metaphor at the same time as throwing the repetitions and revelations of parenting into sharp relief. It is also part of a growing trend to approach parenthood side on, smash it into fragments, and offer up the shards. Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation did this brilliantly in 2014, jumbling together motherhood, marriage and stifled ambition. Rivka Galchen’s Little ...