Motherhood by Sheila Heti review – to breed or not to breed?

A deeply ambivalent and complex study of the choice between procreation and art

In all the literature about motherhood – enthusiastic, anxious, joyfully fecund, heartbreakingly infertile – there remains very little about voluntary childlessness. This is so much the case that the decision not to have children may now be more of a taboo than maternal ambivalence. There was Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed, an essay collection edited by Meghan Daum in 2015, and there are a few self-help books. But now Sheila Heti’s book seems likely to become the defining literary work on the subject, perhaps most of all because as a novel, replete with ambiguity and contradiction, it refuses to define anything, and certainly not the childlessness that provides its subject or the motherhood that provides its title.

On the eve of her 37th birthday, Heti’s narrator, who may or may not be Heti herself, asks, fearfully, whether ...

Book clinic: which male authors excel at writing female characters?

From Tolstoy to John Banville, our expert suggests the men who can write from a woman’s perspective

I read a lot of contemporary fiction by women and would like to have a shift. I want to read fiction by men, but written from a woman’s perspective. I have read Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and The Testament of Mary, so I would prefer if you don’t mention him because I’m enthusiastic about his work already.
Okwudili Nebeolisa

Lara Feigel is the author of Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing
The men I immediately think of who write women well are Tolstoy and Henry James. Anna Karenina and Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady are both female characters who have taken on the status of real women, in my mind, and it’s worth spending time with them if you haven’t already. If you find Isabel Archer compelling, then the great news is that ...

Monsieur Ka by Vesna Goldsworthy review – a deft continuation of Anna Karenina

The mysterious stories behind Tolstoy’s characters are explored in an atmospheric tale set in postwar London

“The fictional lives we read about … are so much more authentic than ours,” says Albertine, the heroine and narrator of Vesna Goldsworthy’s new novel. “They leave a deeper, more permanent mark on the world, while we, so-called real people, vanish without a trace.” Perhaps this partly explains the trend for contemporary novels that continue or update the lives of characters from the past. Recently, we’ve had Francesca Segal’s drawing inspiration from Henry James’s The Awkward Age and John Banville’s continuation of The Portrait of  a Lady, Mrs Osmond. Having made her name with her memoir, Chernobyl Strawberries, Goldsworthy updated The Great Gatsby in her first novel, Gorsky. Now she has written a complex continuation of Anna Karenina.

The story is set in the winter of 1947. London is covered in ice ...

The parent trap: can you be a good writer and a good parent?

Doris Lessing left her marriage and children to write. Seventy-five years on, Lara Feigel examines the author’s maternal ambivalence and explores her own struggle to balance motherhood and freedom

When I tell people that I’m writing a book about freedom and Doris Lessing, their first response is often the same. “Didn’t she abandon her children?” Implicit is the assumption that freedom, in whatever complex ways she sought it, came at too high a cost: she paid the price of unwomanliness, even of monstrousness. When I say I’m writing the book partly as a memoir, and that it began with a process of intense identification with Lessing, I feel implicated in the judgment. Defending her actions, stressing that they didn’t result from a straightforward absence of maternal love, it can feel as though I’m admitting to such a deficiency myself.

It’s partly because these questions are so difficult that I ...

Maybe Esther by Katja Petrowskaja review – a family story of 20th-century Europe

Petrowskaya’s relatives, as described in this bestselling Sebaldian memoir, collectively conjure up the Russian revolution, the world wars and the Holocaust

In 1941 an elderly woman who might have been called Esther, great-grandmother of Katja Petrowskaja, remained in her apartment in Kiev when her family left. They told her that they’d be back soon; in fact they took seven years to return. In the meantime, Esther took it on herself to follow the instructions of the Germans that all Jews were to report to the central square. Frail though she was, she sought her neighbours’ assistance in leaving her apartment and walking doggedly to her death.

In her great-granddaughter’s memoir, a bestseller on the continent, the word “maybe” has come to describe not just Esther herself but the whole of her family’s history and its telling. Indeed, it’s hard to define what kind of book Maybe Esther is, except ...

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch review – a medieval warrior for the mid-21st century

Yuknavitch transposes Joan of Arc’s story to a post-apocalyptic future in this compelling examination of gender, semiotics and warfare

The Book of Joan opens with an epigraph from Doris Lessing: “We are all creatures of the stars”. It’s a quote from her 1979 science fiction novel Shikasta, about a world that has destroyed itself through environmental damage and war. At a moment when the end of life as we know it feels even more likely than it did in 1979, Lidia Yuknavitch follows Lessing in imagining in precise detail what might come after life on Earth. Her book has a similar level of ambition to Lessing’s novel, going deep into history at the same time as it dwells in the future. In this case, the history is medieval.

One premise of The Book of Joan is that the 21st century, for all its technological advances, has returned us to ...

Enemies Within by Richard Davenport-Hines review – the Cambridge spies and distrust of the elite

Did Burgess, Philby and Maclean wreak more damage to the British establishment following their exposure than they had while they were actually spying?

Before Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean disappeared in 1951, both were disarmingly open in admitting to spying. “I work for Uncle Joe,” Maclean had announced drunkenly at the Gargoyle club to anyone who wanted to listen. Nonetheless, westerners found it almost inconceivable that they had actually defected to Russia, so they focused on their sexuality rather than their politics. “The frog papers are quite sure it is sex,” wrote Nancy Mitford from Paris, while half-aware that “if they were just bouncing about on some double bed they would have been found by now”. TS Eliot was sure that the mystery would soon be solved and the “denouement will be undramatic and quite unconnected with anything to do with communism or the Iron Curtain”.

Almost 70 years later, the ...

As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths review – midlife crisis or the voice of God?

A man turns his life upside down in an ambitious, generous novel about the limits of faith and love

In an insistently rational, middle-class world, how do you respond if God appears unexpectedly in your life? Proctor McCullough is a successful professional, albeit in an unusual field – an “atrociologist”, he advises the government on probable mass behaviour amid disaster. He is unusually happy with his partner, Holly, and is a devoted father to their six-year-old twins. He has never been interested in religion before, preferring to channel his spirituality into the appreciation of art: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Wallace Stevens, Mark Rothko, JS Bach. But suddenly he experiences an unmistakable call to ready himself for God. “He was being presented with a rent in the world’s fabric and needed to make himself available for a gift that might be passed through.”

Abandoning his London home, McCullough decamps ...

Mischka’s War by Sheila Fitzpatrick review – my husband in Nazi Germany

The renowned historian of the Soviet Union recounts the early life of her late husband, including his unforgettable story of the bombing of Dresden

Show yourself as you are, make the readers like you,” Fitzpatrick pleads with Mischka, the subject of her new biographical-historical investigation. It’s an unusual situation for any writer to be in. Mischka is her dead husband, yet she’s telling his story as a historian, reconstructing his early life from largely written sources.

Theirs was a late marriage. She was successful, known for her revisionist work on the Soviet Union; he was a successful physicist. They met on a plane in 1989, when she was 48 and he 67. “Five years if you must, but please, if you possibly can, 10 years,” she pleaded at the time. He died 10 years later. Now Fitzpatrick has decided to make the most of “the power to bring the ...

The Ghost: A Cultural History by Susan Owens review – spectres hold a mirror to society

This intriguing account of how the spirit world has changed with the times tells us a lot about ourselves

As Halloween approaches, we prepare to confront our ghosts. Soon we’ll be used to ghoulish children leaping out of shadows in the street. Meanwhile in churches, for the three days of Allhallowtide, Christians will remember the faithful dead.

But ghosts aren’t always as recognisable as they are now in the guise of trick-or-treaters. “Ghosts have grown up,” Elizabeth Bowen wrote in a preface to a new book of ghost stories in 1952. They had laid aside their original bag of tricks – “bleeding hands, luminous skulls and so on” – and were now more likely to be found in a prosaic scene. “Today’s haunted room has a rosy wallpaper.” Most frighteningly, “contemporary ghosts are credible”. They lurked at the border of known reality, just believable enough to unnerve those who ...

I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice review – when the sea is your saviour

A writer’s moving tale of how she found solace from family trauma in the cold waters of the Irish SeaRuth Fitzmaurice was 32 when her husband, the film-maker Simon Fitzmaurice, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2008. She had put her own writing ambitions on hold to look after three small children; his career was just taking off. Suddenly, he was given four years to live and far less time to function normally. They survived by insisting on their capacity for creative and procreative life. They conceived twins; he began work on his first feature film, I Love Emily; she started, tentatively, to write about their life – and she swam. Almost every day since that time, Fitzmaurice has congregated with two friends, Michelle (whose husband, Galen, is also in a wheelchair, following an accident) and Aifric, to swim at their local cove near her house ...

The Idiot by Elif Batuman review – life lived through a Russian novel

A young woman discovers the difference between life and literature in a warm, funny portrayal of university life in the 90sDo events matter more when witnessed in real life than in books? Does language necessarily render experience second-hand? In her first book, The Possessed, New Yorker journalist Elif Batuman complained that as an incipient novelist she was always being told to eschew books and focus on life. Literature since Don Quixote had been seen as false and sterile; disconnected from lived experience. After years as a graduate student of Russian literature, she decided to challenge this by writing an account of her own haphazard attempt to live with and through books. Now she’s continued this project in a long and enjoyably literary novel, The Idiot. At the start of the book, the autobiographical heroine Selin has just arrived as an undergraduate at Harvard and is worrying about how to live. ...

The Good Bohemian: The Letters of Ida John review – making the best of a menage a trois

The wife of the painter Augustus John adapted to his mistress moving in, as she was herself stultified by conventional domesticity
In 1901 the 24-year-old Ida Nettleship shocked her respectable parents by announcing that she had secretly married an artist called Augustus John. They had met while studying at the Slade. Driven by a mixture of curiosity, love and lust, Augustus had pursued Ida temptingly, but she had resisted sex outside wedlock while knowing that her parents would refuse to allow her to marry this penniless, unkempt man, who wore earrings and befriended Gypsies. Forty years ago, Michael Holroyd revived Augustus John’s reputation with one of his wryly empathetic two‑volume biographies. This was an account frequently narrated from Ida’s point of view, thanks to the vividness and copiousness of her correspondence. Now he has joined forces with Ida’s granddaughter to publish her letters, and they offer a compelling glimpse of ...

The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney review – an addictive read

A gripping story of drugs and descent into Cork’s criminal underworld develops a plot line from McInerney’s debutSelf-described “sweary lady” Lisa McInerney was the voice of alternative Ireland before she abandoned her blog The Arse End of Ireland and joined the mainstream literary world. For several years, she’d documented the highs and lows of life on a Galway council estate with joyful cynicism. She then deleted the blog and drew on the material to create her first novel, The Glorious Heresies, which won last year’s Baileys women’s prize for fiction. That novel moved between the heads of a young rebel, a prostitute and a grandmother-turned-murderer in energetic, casually inventive prose. It was the troubled adolescent, Ryan, who was the focus for writerly and readerly sympathy, and it’s his story that takes centre stage in The Blood Miracles, a novel related entirely from his point of view. Continue reading...

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li – review

A startlingly original memoir from the Chinese-American author on her time in a mental hospital and the healing power of readingThis is a season of memoirs by Chinese writers. A month ago Xiaolu Guo published Once Upon a Time in the East, an account of her dramatic transformation from foundling to prodigy to rebel. Now the Chinese-American Yiyun Li has published one too. Given that Li escaped China as soon as she could and has refused translation into Chinese, it’s likely she has a comparably dramatic coming-of-age story. However, Li has chosen to write a book that tells us little about China or, circumstantially, about herself. She has written about China in her fiction. The Vagrants was an emotional depiction of the ignorance and cruelty of a Chinese community in 1979. But there is little of that here. We learn almost nothing about Li’s childhood and hear hardly ...

A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume review – the art of falling apart

The follow-up to Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a fascinating portrait of an artist’s breakdown in rural Ireland In the midst of a breakdown, a 25-year-old artist abandons her Dublin bedsit to move to her dead grandmother’s decaying bungalow, at the foot of a turbine in the Irish countryside. There she falls slowly, even methodically, apart, pausing to photograph dead animals and birds along the way. Sara Baume garnered enthusiastic recognition for her first novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither. What was most exciting about that tale of a lonely man’s relationship with his one-eyed dog was the confidence of the voice, which was at once grounded in a particular character and open to a more universal poetic register. Baume also revealed a remarkable ability to generate narrative pace while eschewing plot, making it enough for the reader to observe a mind observing the world. Continue reading...

Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love by Emily Witt – review

One woman’s quest for personal fulfilment proves a handy guide to sex in the internet ageWhen Emily Witt turned 30 in 2011, she began to wonder if the future might never arrive. For years, she had assumed that adulthood would bring a sexual terminus. “Like a monorail, gliding to a stop at Epcot Center”, she would disembark and find herself face to face with a loving man. In fact, she had recently been discarded by a boyfriend and for years had alternated brief relationships with periods of reasonably cheerful casual sex, usually with friends. Witt set out to explore the sexual landscape of the present more fully, wanting to find out how her experiences related to the zeitgeist and how her own sexuality might be enriched by learning about the practices of others. Her quest lasted for five years and took her to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert, to ...

The Golden Legend review – beauty and pain in Pakistan

Realism and fable combine in Nadeem Aslam’s tale of terrorism, tragedy and romance across religious divides‘Two of their buildings fell down and they think they know about the world’s darkness, about how unsafe a place it is capable of being!” remarks a character in Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil (2008). That was a novel set in Afghanistan amid the ruins of war, juxtaposing eastern and western characters united by the experience of loss. He continued with this setting in his The Blind Man’s Garden (2013), this time populating Afghanistan with characters from his native Pakistan. Now, in his fifth novel, Aslam returns to Pakistan itself for the first time since his 1993 debut, Season of the Rainbirds. And the country he depicts is one bent on completing what the west has begun with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, by revealing quite how dark and unsafe the world ...

The Golden Legend review – beauty and pain in Pakistan

Realism and fable combine in Nadeem Aslam’s tale of terrorism, tragedy and romance across religious divides‘Two of their buildings fell down and they think they know about the world’s darkness, about how unsafe a place it is capable of being!” remarks a character in Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil (2008). That was a novel set in Afghanistan amid the ruins of war, juxtaposing eastern and western characters united by the experience of loss. He continued with this setting in his The Blind Man’s Garden (2013), this time populating Afghanistan with characters from his native Pakistan. Now, in his fifth novel, Aslam returns to Pakistan itself for the first time since his 1993 debut, Season of the Rainbirds. And the country he depicts is one bent on completing what the west has begun with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, by revealing quite how dark and unsafe the world ...

Diary of a Wartime Affair review – an intimate account of adultery

The diary of Doreen Bates, edited by her children, gives an unusually exact view of private life in the 1930s and 40sIn October 1933, the 39-year-old civil servant Bill Evans informed his 27-year-old colleague Doreen Bates that she had the most fascinating mind he had come across. Soon they were having regular lunches in Kensington Gardens and exchanging books and ideas. They started to “love” in countryside clearings, or sometimes on the office floor. Although this was a serious and consuming union of mind and body, Bill was married and seems to have had no intention of leaving his wife. Doreen was content just to be happy in the present until, after three years, she became preoccupied by the desire to have his child. Now Doreen’s diary from these years has been published, edited by her children, Margaret and Andrew. The title Diary of a Wartime Affair is misleading, ...