The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez review – a history of conspiracy

The acclaimed Colombian novelist investigates two defining political murders in Bogotá’s past, in a multilayered critique of conspiracy aesthetics

In October 1914, in Bogotá, two disaffected carpenters hacked to death General Rafael Uribe Uribe, “undisputable leader of the Liberal party, senator of the Republic of Colombia and veteran of four civil wars”. Years later, on 9 April 1948, Liberal firebrand and presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was shot and killed by Juan Roa Sierra; the assassin was beaten to death by a mob before his motives could be made plain or his associates – if any – discovered. This clever, labyrinthine, thoroughly enjoyable historical novel by the Colombian author of The Informers and The Sound of Things Falling entangles the two deaths and investigates the internecine politics that lay behind them.

“I accepted very early,” the narrator tells us of the Gaitán killing, “as we’ve all come to accept over ...

The Devil’s Highway by Gregory Norminton review – on a Roman road to ruin

An ancient route links Britain’s deep past and far future in an ecologically aware tale spanning thousands of years

Gregory Norminton’s fifth novel arrives after a gap of nine years and is very much the ecologically aware fiction you would expect of a contributor to Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine’s Dark Mountain project, the network of writers, artists and thinkers who believe that the conversations we are having about environmental collapse are too comfortable to encourage change.

The Devil’s Highway accounts for some thousands of years of human history in very slightly more than 200 pages, a feat of compression managed by three interwoven timelines, alternating chapter by chapter and linked through the presence of a real Roman road – the titular highway – which in our day can still be followed from Sunningdale in Berkshire, across the Blackwater river, to Silchester and beyond.

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Devil’s Day by Andrew Michael Hurley review – dark tales from the moors

Gothic ritual and horror come to the Lancashire uplands in this lively follow-up to The Loney

The problem is that in the Endlands one story begs the telling of another and another,” admits John Pentecost to his 10-year-old son Adam, “and in all of them the devil plays his part.” The obliquity of this statement, perhaps our earliest indication of John’s self-deception, will be revealed as things develop. He is telling Adam the devil’s own story, while Andrew Michael Hurley is telling John Pentecost’s. They are inextricably entwined.

The Endlands are a cluster of weatherbeaten smallholdings located deep in the Lancashire uplands: less a place than a habit, a node of obsolete human activity. Up there, contrary to their name, nothing is ever finished: farming is a never-ending fight against entropy, with no outcome. The sheep wander off. The buildings rot and decay. Everyone dies “in the midst of repairing something”. Equally, though, the moors bring ...

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami review – a quiet panic

There are shades of Hemingway in these stories about men who choose loneliness in the avoidance of pain A quiet panic afflicts the male characters in Hemingway’s 1927 collection Men Without Women, that touchstone in the development of both Hemingwayism and the short story. Men should never put themselves in the position where they can lose someone, a bereaved Italian soldier warns Hemingway’s long-running protagonist Nick Adams: instead, a man “should find things he cannot lose”. Ninety years later, Haruki Murakami’s men without women have come to the same conclusion, polishing it into a postmodern lifestyle. Kafuko, a middle-aged character actor, used to be married. Throughout their life together, his wife had affairs, but he loved her, and though it was painful – “his heart was torn and his insides were bleeding” – he never dared ask her what deficiency she was tryng to make up for in their relationship; ...

The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks review – a dark, enchanted debut

Set in the aftermath of the first world war, this is a twisted fairytale populated by wounded servicemen, establishment radicals and a ‘discount Aleister Crowley’It’s 1923. Lucy Marsh and her friend Winifred, mid-teenagers from an enclave of dying pubs and dead industries in north-east London, find themselves effectively sold into prostitution by their families. Once a week in Epping Forest they meet with and service four bizarrely wounded ex‑servicemen who have given arms, legs, hands and faces for their country in the recent world war. Lucy isn’t sure if they’re named after Dorothy’s companions in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or if the characters in the story were named after them. The “funny men” seem as decent as they are damaged, puzzled to the point of inarticulacy by the things that have happened to them. But though they’re shy they know what they’ve lost – homes, wives, children, ...

The Fall Guy by James Lasdun review – shades of Hitchcock and Highsmith

A banker, his wife and cousin take a holiday in the Catskills in this menacing thriller of money and betrayalSummer, 2012: Charlie and his cousin Matthew set out one evening in Charlie’s Lexus to join Charlie’s wife, Chloe, at their summer home in the Catskills. It’s a complex relationship. Charlie, you sense, usually gets what he wants. Matthew is more the junior partner, always offering, always giving, always biddable. In fact, before we know it, he has already agreed to get out of the car, catch a train back to New York and pick up a bracelet Charlie left behind. By page four you think it’s odd that Charlie’s so insistent, in his understated, manipulative way; by page five you’re wondering which of them might be the fall guy of the title. Matthew is perfect for that role, but James Lasdun’s third novel is billed as a thriller – albeit a psychological one ...

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry review – a compulsive novel of ideas

An Essex village is terrorised by a winged leviathan in a gothic Victorian tale crammed with incident, character and plot In Sarah Perry’s second novel, 1890s London is mad about the sciences, especially palaeontology. Every six months someone publishes a paper “setting out ways and places extinct animals might live on”, while smart women collect ammonites or wear necklaces of fossil teeth set in silver. New widow Cora Seagrave is patently relieved by the death of her unpleasant husband, a civil servant with “twice the power of a politician and none of the responsibility”; accompanied by her socialist companion Martha and her autistic son Francis, she leaves the capital for the wilds of Essex. There, “never sure of the difference between thinking and believing”, she hears of the Essex Serpent, a folktale apparently come to life and terrorising the Blackwater estuary; and meets its spiritual adversary, the rector of Aldwinter, William ...

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal review – the story of a heart

The journey of a transplant organ explores the metaphysical zone between life and death, in an excellent novel from the French author Young Frenchman Simon Limbeau is full of youth, energy, warmth. He’s a surfer, and like many young men he tries to seem uncommitted about everything else – later, when his parents, Marianne and Sean, are asked to describe him, they’ll conclude that he was like a cat, “egotistical and light on his feet”. We see him get up early one winter morning to go surfing with his friends. We see them ride the wave, “this torsion of matter where the inside proves itself to be more vast and more profound than the outside”. On the way home, though, their van goes off the road, Simon goes through the windscreen, and by the time he arrives at the hospital – “Male, six feet, 154 pounds, about twenty years old, ...

Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson review – swift, shocking and satisfying

How can you be ‘born twice’? A young woman’s existential road trip takes her from Rome to Russia and beyond

When we first meet Katherine Carlyle, she’s a frozen embroyo. Eight years later, she’s born. At 19, she’s living in Rome alone, receiving what she thinks of as “messages” from the near environment – a folded €50 note found while crossing the Piazza Farnese, a “small grey elephant with a piece of frayed string round its neck”.

She’s leaving messages too, at least in a behavioural sense. She’s acting out. She’s having sex in a hotel on the Via Palermo with a man she met five minutes ago, who smiles and calls her “mia piccola strega” (my little witch). Even her friend Dani thinks this a gesture too far. But soon she’s hearing a new, powerful message – a conversation in a cinema in which she picks out the ...

A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball review – enticingly macabre

This wily meditation on how to live explores the social construction of identity

The author Jesse Ball lectures on lying at the Art Institute of Chicago. In an interview with the Paris Review in 2014, he defined a novel as “an account, or a series of accounts” that create “half a world” – the other half being in the gift of, and supplied by, the reader. The ensuing competition between them – the struggle for closure – will induce the reader to create a “rich world, full of paradoxes or conflicting authorities and ideas”. In the end, Ball believes, “that’s a closer approximation of the truth of experience, what it’s like to live, than a single, supposedly objective account”. Rebecca Bates, the interviewer on that occasion, found Ball (pictured) “by turns both serious and coy” – an effective description of his fifth novel, A Cure for Suicide, a deceptively bland ...

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood review – rewardingly strange

A classic Atwood dystopia morphs into a savage, surreal adventure that examines self-deception and corporate control

You make the dystopia you deserve. It’s the near future, and finance capitalism has pushed itself over the edge. The US is a rustbelt. Charmaine and Stan – we never learn their surname, which encourages a slightly patronising relationship with them – started out well: she worked for Ruby Slippers Retirement Homes and Clinics; he was in quality control at Dimple Robotics. Now they live in their car, just two ordinary Americans down on their luck. Charmaine maintains a “lightly positive tone” but misses her flowered throw pillows; Stan, though he “can lean to the mean when he’s irritated”, is a good man underneath, and feels he has let her down. They’re used to the smell, they’re used to being hungry. They have each other. They seem a little naive in the way they maintain their love ...

Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro fascinates M John Harrison with his subtle take on mortality and hopelessness, Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Goby Kazuo Ishiguro
263pp, Faber, £16.99

The children of Hailsham House are afraid of the woods. In the days when their guardians were much stricter, the school myth goes, a boy's body was found there with its hands and feet removed. Sometimes that dark, threatening fringe of trees can cast such a shadow over the whole school that a pupil who has offended the others might be hauled out of bed in the middle of the night, forced to a window, and made to stare out at it.

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