Faye, the artful listening presence in Outline and Transit, is back – but this time there’s a self-consciousness to the narrative voice
In Outline, the novel she published in 2014, Rachel Cusk found herself a new sort of protagonist. Her narrator, Faye, is neither an autobiographical fiction, struggling with disguises, nor a memoirist even more embarrassed by the facts. Faye is a woman like Cusk – middle-aged, a writer, a mother, recently divorced – but not Cusk: she is the mother of sons, not daughters, and she meets and talks only with people who have been through the thorough fictionalising that is required to make them breathe on the page. In doing so, Cusk not only joined the “autofiction” avant garde of Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sheila Heti but solved many problems particular to her own writing.
Related: Rachel Cusk: 'Aftermath was creative death. I was heading into total ...
A story about two families in Sheffield – one white English; the other from Bangladesh – meanders through the decades
Like his Man Booker-shortlisted 2008 novel The Northern Clemency, Philip Hensher’s new book is set in Sheffield and describes the lives of two families over recent decades. And like his semi-biographical Scenes from Early Life, it includes many descriptions of the 1971 war of liberation in Bangladesh. While the Spinster family is white and English, like Hensher’s own, their neighbours the Sharifullahs are, like his husband, from Dhaka.
In keeping with Hensher’s recent output, the novel is an ample work: 624 dense pages are stuffed with an immense cast of characters. There are lengthy journeys by train and car, many very detailed meals, and buckets of chat. The setting is bulked out with quantities of period detail – Hensher is especially good on interior design, and snacks – ...
Barnes deftly explores time and memory in his latest novel, about an older man recalling the romance that defined his life
Like his Man Booker-winning 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending, and indeed his 2008 memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes’s latest novel is narrated by an older man puzzling over the meaning of existence. All three speakers share a 1950s childhood in the “Metroland” of Barnes’s debut novel, and a promising, if anxious, academic 60s youth that took them away from their suburban families. Each also has a similarly melancholy, intimate tone, a fine line in rhythmic, elegant, understated prose, and plenty to say about time, love and the slippery nature of memory.
Our new hero, Paul, places himself nearer the truth-telling memoirist Barnes than his fictional predecessor, the fascinatingly unreliable Tony Webster in The Sense of an Ending. Paul begins, as if ...
Marriage, loss and meeting Thomas Mann … these stories are rich in autobiographical insights, but Sontag lacks the craft to carry them off
In her essays, Susan Sontag spoke with one of the great, sure voices of the last century. From her salon at the centre of the cosmopolis, marvellously at one with her books and her learning, she considered, renamed and renewed our relationship with camp, with photography, with illness: a living legend of braininess and cool.
Sontag, was not, though, as her editor Benjamin Taylor admits in the introduction to this gathering of stories from across her career, a committed short-story writer. She turned to the form in order to evade what Chekhov called “autobiographophobia”, which Taylor uses to mean the fear of writing and reflecting directly about one’s life. Evading this fear, Sontag clearly found the name “stories” very helpful: half of them are pure autobiography. “Pilgrimage”, ...
Poet and translator who introduced new audiences to leading poets from around the world
Sarah Maguire, who has died aged 60 from breast cancer, was for 25 years a vital presence in British poetry as a poet and translator. Her three collections of poetry, Spilt Milk (1991), The Invisible Mender (1997) and The Pomegranates of Kandahar (2007), laid out new poetic ground in their concerns with nature, growth and the body. In 2004 Sarah founded the Poetry Translation Centre at London University, which aims to introduce new audiences to leading poets from around the world.
The PTC emerged from workshops she inaugurated during a Royal Literary Fund residency at Soas between 2001 and 2003. The centre extended Sarah’s personal practice of pairing a poet and linguist and bringing a poem into satisfying English, to many others: the PTC has now translated poets from South Korea to Somaliland, with the involvement ...
The Booker-shortlisted author interrogates sexuality, motherhood and our animal nature in stories that range from SF dystopias to tales of metamorphosisThe opening story of Sarah Hall’s new collection, Madame Zero
, won the BBC National Short Story award
. It’s called “Mrs Fox”, and in it, a young married woman undergoes a transformation. This may sound soothingly familiar: after all, David Garnett’s story “Lady into Fox” follows the same theme and was made into a film and a ballet; and then there are Colette and her cats, and Manga fox-spirits, and we’ve all heard the term foxy lady.
But Hall’s lady doesn’t turn into any of those anthropomorphic creatures. She isn’t a piquet-playing, clothes-wearing fox, nor a ladylike, balletic fox: she is an actual fox, the light, alert animal, spotlit in Hall’s precise imagery. “At his feet she sits with her tail rearing. Exceptional, winged ears. Eyes like the spectrum of ...
This retelling of the tragedy of the house of Atreus is magnificently dramatic, but loses its way in Orestes’ wanderingsOne of the reasons Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn
and Nora Webster
are such loved novels is that they give mythic grace to ordinary women’s lives. Restrained, restricted and undervalued, his Eilis and Nora are recognisable to many readers as our mothers and grandmothers; and their decisions – to emigrate, to work, to marry, to buy a gramophone – as the stuff of our family legends. Tóibín’s tender, intense attention fills these acts with the weight and difficulty they originally carried, and the heroic significance we feel they deserve, just as his spacious, clean prose clothes the streets of our childhood in Olympian light. His 11th novel reverses the process. Rather than turning human-sized stories into myths, Tóibín sets out to humanise the myths of the house of Atreus: of Agamemnon and ...
From the glamour of Glyndebourne to murder in Greece – a woman’s intriguing quest to find the husband who divorced her
Katie Kitamura’s first novel, The Longshot
, was set in the closed, masculine universe of martial arts, while her second, Gone to the Forest
, was a fable of destruction set in an allegorical, unnamed country. This third novel also takes place in an attenuated world stiff with custom: that of the English upper classes and their sorrowful literary offspring.
Here, everyone lives in the same neighbourhood, attends Glyndebourne and a round of dinner parties, and there are neither politics nor bills. Jobs have atrophied – publishers commission books with no deadlines – and so have gender roles. Our narrator accepts that a mother with three children is ipso facto “always in need of help and companionship”; that men only “achieve a little privacy [on] the shores of ...
Run-down holiday homes, rusting Hollywood pools, empty Malibu malls … themes of rot and decay are vividly explored in this darkly comical collection
, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Booker prize-shortlisted novel, this collection of short stories opens with a self-loathing young woman who works in a nasty Catholic institution: “My classroom was on the first floor, next to the nuns’ lounge. I used their bathroom to puke in in the mornings.” Miss Mooney is alcoholic and way overfamiliar with her senior class, and spends the story considering whether or not to tell her headteacher she is forging the exam results and sleeping on her desk:
she is a blackly comical, richly detailed, nihilistic creation.
A similar, slightly older Eileenesque character appears a little later in the volume, hanging out for the summer in an unattractive holiday house in a depressed town in New England. The protagonist of “Slumming” ...
There are shades of the Coen brothers in this stylish showcase for an American master – but his female characters are sadly two-dimensionalAmerican author Stuart Dybek’s Selected Stories
are arranged in reverse chronology, so that we start with pieces published in the US when Dybek was already in his 70s. These received huge praise and it is easy to see why: not only do they come from the pen of an influential teacher and winner of the Guggenheim and O Henry award, but they are strikingly with-it, distinctly 21st-century in their shape and method.
Related: Bookmark this: from Queen Victoria to Twin Peaks – November's literary highlights
Oyeyemi struggles against the confines of the short story in pieces that range from beautiful, simple fables to tricksy fantasies
Helen Oyeyemi’s new collection of short stories opens with “Books and Roses”: a beautiful tale which is also a beautiful lesson in how to read Oyeyemi. As the tricksy title tells us, it’s all about misdirection. We must learn not to be too attached to our first heroine, even if she is a figure as attractive as a black baby in the lap of the Black Virgin of Monserrat, for she will be unexpectedly supplanted by another, and then probably another again. We must accept that time, too, moves in curious ways, and that there is very little point in trying to work out what historical period you might be in. Geography is not stable either: spaces may appear at any time through secret doors. Mythological reference points are upended, and so ...
England is gripped by cold war paranoia and a family is torn apart, in a thrilling novel with uncanny echoes of The Railway Children
Like Alice in Wonderland
opens with a dream. Slumped in a southbound second-class smoker from Victoria, Simon Callington is lost in his childhood. In the next chapter, the whistle of a train penetrates the London fog, calling a woman in her garden, a gentleman with an overcoat and briefcase and a child in a schoolroom to attention. Next, as if summoned by these classic elements of golden-age English children’s literature, these four begin to enact the story of The Railway Children
: one winter night in London, a loving father doesn’t come home to play trains with his three children. Instead, he is arrested as a spy and taken away by suddenly unfriendly policemen. Soon, the children will have to leave their cosy home in London’s Muswell Hill for a gritty and ...
This impeccable account of the trial of a father who murdered his children has gathered a following to become one of the most highly rated of recent non-fiction worksOn Father’s Day 2005, an Australian window cleaner named Robert Farquharson was driving his young sons back to his estranged wife after an access visit. Halfway home, on a lonely stretch of Geelong road, he swerved across a dam into a deep, manmade pond. He swam free; all three of his children drowned. Farquharson told the police he’d suffered a coughing fit and passed out at the wheel. His wife supported him. The trials and appeal that followed took seven years and gripped Australia. They also drew the attention of one of Australia’s greatest living writers, Helen Garner, who after visiting the “little white crosses, three of them, knee-deep in grass” embarked on her third book-length account of a court case.
A fictional version of the fugitive Radovan Karadžić arrives in a credulous and gentle Irish village
In July 2008 the Butcher of Bosnia, Radovan Karadžić, was finally arrested for his crimes. He’d been hiding in plain sight in Vienna, working as a new age healer and sex therapist, disguised simply but effectively in beard and ponytail. In her latest novel, Edna O’Brien boldly transplants this haunting example of the banality of evil to her own country: a small seaside village in the west of Ireland.
When “Dr Vlad” arrives in Cloonoila, he sits by the river in the mist and listens to the sea and the screeching peacocks: had he read a few more novels and a little less Serbian nationalist poetry, he might even have recognised the place as an Edna O’Brien landscape. The year, however, is 2013, and O’Brien shows us how the Irish countryside has become ...
The follow-up to the Costa-winning Pure is an extraordinary portrait of an enigmatic woman, an unlikely marriage and a solo sea-crossing
Andrew Miller’s characters often have a peculiar relationship with pain. The protagonist of his first novel, the Impac-winning Ingenious Pain, was an 18th-century doctor who couldn’t feel it at all, while Maud Stamp, the briskly contemporary heroine of his latest, has at the least an exceptionally high threshold. She spent her childhood taking blows at judo and battering herself on dinghies, and, when we first meet her, is falling silently past us from the elevated deck of a yacht in dry dock: “a movement through the air, a blink of feathered shadow”. When she lands, on brick, she refuses to stay down, and staggers 12 paces before collapsing.
But is this exceptional bravery, or just bald insensitivity? Is Maud a mythic figure – a “feathered” angel or perhaps a mermaid – or just a ...
The sale of a house in the west of Ireland once the children are grown is at the centre of a brilliant, radical novel that refuses to offer any neat solutions
Anne Enright’s new book, the blurb tells us, is set around an enticing moment: matriarch Rosaleen Madigan calling together her grown-up children to discuss the selling of the family house. Families and their particular unhappinesses; Ireland and her madness; houses and inheritance – the very stuff of novels. We anticipate character arcs and plot lines steaming out from the will-making with all the coal-fired, piston-pumping energy of Bleak House.
But The Green Road is nothing like that. Rosaleen is certainly a fine specimen of matriarchal monster, but she doesn’t get round to the summoning of offspring, let alone the disbursement, until more than halfway through the book. The first part is instead given over to separate episodes in the lives of the four children, each spaced widely ...