West by Carys Davies review – stunning debut novel from a short-story writer

Not a word is wasted in this tale of American exploration that holds tragedy and comedy in delicate balance

Carys Davies won multiple awards for her 2014 short story collection The Redemption of Galen Pike, a spare and wonderfully varied anthology that illuminated moments of human drama against the vast backdrops of landscape, history and myth. From the isolated wife fearing the visit of a neighbour in “The Quiet” to the nanny who is too much in love with her charge in “The Taking of Bunny Clay”, her stories overturned expectations with brutal, breathtaking flair: the world could shift in a sentence.

In her slim first novel, again not a word is wasted; the canvas is as wide as her brush is fine. It opens abruptly, as though lights are coming up on a dark stage: “How far must you go?” “That depends.” “On where they are?...

Donal Ryan: ‘Writing is like being gloriously drunk, and it’s always followed by a hangover of guilt’

The award-winning author made headlines when he went back to his day job in the civil service. He talks about seeing ghosts and almost giving up writing

Donal Ryan made his name with his debut novel The Spinning Heart, a portrait of recession-hit rural Ireland in 21 voices, which won the Guardian first book award in 2013 and was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. Two other novels and a short story collection quickly followed, set around the same fictional village, a composite of various places in Limerick and Tipperary. Ranging from the boom years of the Celtic Tiger to the experience of Irish Travellers, they dug deep into the psyche of Irish communities, with marginal voices summoning the intensity of small-town loves and hates to uncover a complicated history and uncertain present.

His fifth book, From a Low and Quiet Sea, begins with a very different story: ...

Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado review – powerful debut collection

Horror, science fiction and fairytale merge in these short stories from a writer of rare daring

“How much to get that extra stitch?” the narrator’s husband asks in the labour room as his wife is sewn up after a difficult birth. “You offer that, right?” “The husband stitch” – the term for an extra stitch to tighten the vaginal opening when repairing an episiotomy – is considered a dark joke from the battlefield of birth, but has been attested to as part of the violence visited on women’s bodies during labour. It’s also the title of the standout story in Carmen Maria Machado’s debut collection, a finalist in last year’s US National Book awards: a tense, seductive fairytale about rumour and silence, sex and power, autonomy and being ignored.

The narrator begins as a bold girl in the tradition of Angela Carter: “This isn’t how things are done, but this ...

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 ...

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen review – a profound interrogation of freedom and fate

A speck of rock off Norway’s coast is the setting for this fascinating portrait of hardship and wonder at the start of the 20th century “An island is a cosmos in a nutshell …” The setting for this Norwegian bestseller, translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw and now shortlisted for the International Man Booker prize, is a speck of rock off Norway’s coast at the start of the 20th century. Barrøy is a world entire for the one family who live there: it is scoured by storms and at the mercy of the sea that both provides a living and brings so much death, but is seemingly eternal, and seemingly theirs. Stoical, intense, gruffly matter-of-fact – “islanders have a dark disposition, they are beset not with fear but solemnity” – Hans and Maria, along with daughter Ingrid, Hans’ father Martin and sister Barbro, who has learning disabilities, endure physical ...

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt review – inside the mind of Lizzie Borden

One of America’s most notorious murder cases inspires this feverish debut about family resentments and frustrationsLizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother 40 whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41 …” A century and a quarter after Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered with a hatchet on a sweltering Massachusetts morning, the skipping rhyme still resonates and the case of Lizzie Borden – arrested, tried and acquitted by a jury unable to believe a woman could do such a thing – continues to fascinate. It has been immortalised in countless books, a TV series, a short story by Angela Carter; a film starring Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart is due to be released this year. The house where the killings took place is now a B&B-cum-museum, with the most requested room the one where Abby was murdered. Tours run ...

The Transition by Luke Kennard review – how to grow up

This ingenious debut about underachieving millennials is a dystopia in a velvet glove “The Transition isn’t a punishment, it’s an opportunity.” So says Stuart, explaining the eponymous scheme at the heart of Luke Kennard’s smart and funny debut novel. We’re in Britain, a few years from now: driverless cars and self-stocking fridges are a reality, but the housing crisis has only got worse. Like most thirtysomethings, “middle-class underachiever” Karl and his wife, Genevieve, find that their rent always outstrips their earnings, even though their living space is a wallpapered conservatory in a shared house. Credit‑card juggling and a spot of last‑ditch online fraud land Karl in trouble, but instead of prison, he and Genevieve are offered a place on The Transition: a six‑month hiatus during which they will live with an older, more successful couple, learn from them about all that boring adult stuff like self-reliance, financial planning and dental ...

Sebastian Barry’s second Costa win crowns a singular career

Days Without End sees the novelist venturing in to the 19th-century American west to find a tender story of ‘two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world’ Sebastian Barry’s unprecedented second win of the Costa book of the year is a marker of the singular place he occupies in contemporary fiction, combining a highly literary style with wide popular appeal. After starting out as a poet and playwright, for two decades he has met with great acclaim for intense, lyrical novels about Ireland’s faultlines and fissures, all inspired by the stories of his own ancestors. Related: Days Without End wins Sebastian Barry second Costa book of the year award Continue reading...

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes is ‘a great shout of life’

Defying the genteel harness of Edwardian spinsterhood, this novel’s heroine instead becomes a witch and dallies with Satan himself Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel Lolly Willowes is an act of defiance that gladdens the soul. Put simply, it’s the story of a woman who becomes a witch – but it will subvert any expectations prompted by that synopsis as gleefully as it subverts every theme it touches on: gender roles, family love, social convention, religious propriety.
Born into a stuffy, self-satisfied family who are content to stay in the Victorian era while the world changes around them, Laura Willowes is a dreamy young woman with no interest in marriage. On the death of her father, it seems quite natural that she be “absorbed into the household” of her brother Henry and his wife Caroline “like a piece of family property forgotten in the will”. In their London home, she ...

The best fiction of 2016

We thumb through a year that saw a US author win the Booker, the death of a short-story master – and the first Brexit novel

• Vote: What was your favourite book of the year?It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times ...” From its opening line Ali Smith’s Autumn (Hamish Hamilton), written and published at speed to become the first Brexit novel, faced up to the sometimes despairing mood of Britain in 2016 with humour and grace. This being an Ali Smith novel, it also found solace in the consolations of friendship and art, spinning a typically lightfooted meditation on mortality, mutability and how to keep your head in troubled times around the tale of an uncertain young woman and her elderly childhood friend. But times were good for fiction: this was a rich 12 months, with plenty of big names and ...

Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton review – portrait of an author ahead of her time

This luminous biographical novel about unconventional 17th-century writer Margaret Cavendish is a small miracle of imaginative sympathyMargaret Cavendish was an anomaly. Born into an aristocratic family in 1623, in an era when women’s writing was vanishingly rare and usually anonymous, she put her name to poetry, plays and philosophy, scientific observations and fantastical romances. She was also unashamedly, publicly ambitious, in a way still discouraged in women today: well aware that her sex barred her from public and intellectual life, she nonetheless insisted that “though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second, yet I endeavour to be Margaret the First”. And she was: the first woman to be invited to a meeting of the Royal Society (and the last, for 200 years), in Restoration London she got the fame she wanted – but as celebrity, rather than thinker. Crowds ran after her carriage, calling her “Mad Madge”, ...

Sweary Lady’s riot of invention is a well-deserved winner of the Baileys prize

The judges were right to pick Lisa McInerney, whose novel The Glorious Heresies, reveals the harsh realities of modern Ireland There’s a spectacular energy now in Irish fiction and the momentum just keeps building. Lisa McInerney was not the only Irish contender on the shortlist of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016. Anne Enright, whose magisterial sixth novel, The Green Road, was the bookies’ favourite, would also have made a worthy winner. But by choosing McInerney’s novel, The Glorious Heresies – a debut work raw in places yet overflowing with flair and ambition – the judges have celebrated one of the foremost voices in a new wave of talent that includes authors such as Sara Baume, Mary Costello and Colin Barrett, as well as 2014 Baileys winner, Eimear McBride. They have also chosen a novelist born out of the uncertain landscape of post-crash Ireland. Continue reading...

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker review – a skilful recreation of Beckett’s war years

The author of Longbourn illuminates Beckett’s work by dramatising the privation and adventures of his wartime experiences, from his work with the resistance to his long walk southAmid all the Jane Austen reboots and ripoffs, Jo Baker’s 2013 debut Longbourn, which developed the events of Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ perspective, seemed restrained yet revelatory. Fresh, fascinating and beautifully achieved, it was that rare beast: a critical success with wide commercial appeal. What would one expect from the follow-up? Probably not a re-creation of Samuel Beckett’s war years, from his desperation to leave the Ireland that stifled him, through his time in occupied Paris working for the resistance and escape to the south after being betrayed to the Nazis, to his postwar job helping set up a French hospital. And always, through danger, penury and privation, the compulsion to continue with writing that doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere, that he is driven ...

Not Working by Lisa Owens – a comic debut about self-knowledge

The search for professional fulfilment drives a sparky comedy of angst and uncertainty

“Love and work … work and love, that’s all there is,” said Sigmund Freud. Literature has tended to concentrate on romance, so it’s refreshing to find in Lisa Owens’s sharp, self-deprecating comic debut a focus on the role and purpose of work – and its absence.

Claire is in her late 20s, and has quit her marketing – sorry, “creative communications” – job to find out what she really wants to do with her life. To her dismay, despite now having the oodles of free time she once fantasised about, she finds that she still doesn’t want to read Ulysses or train for a marathon; instead, predictably enough, she falls down a rabbit hole of despondency, procrastination and online careers quizzes. “If I can just digest enough TED talks, self-improvement podcasts, overviews on the Aristotelian sense of ...