The Built Moment by Lavinia Greenaw review – coming to terms with grief


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This collection focuses on a father’s slide into dementia, and the daughter’s acceptance of time passing

Time – what it is, how it shifts, what happens when we lose our grip on it – is at the heart of Lavinia Greenlaw’s new collection. The first section describes, in snatched, harrowing glimpses, her father’s descent into dementia, a state in which the present is the only available tense; in the second, her grief, which is a function of memory, plunges her into the fourth dimension. In both halves, there’s a subtlety and an intellectual curiosity to Greenlaw’s interrogation of this most fundamental subject that belies the wrench and rawness of the material: through her use of form, micro and macro, she manages to exemplify both her father’s experience of time and her own.

The poems, short and desolate, capture discrete, disconnected moments: their titles (“My father appears”, “My father’s weakness”, “My ...

The Redeemed by Tim Pears review – finale of a lyrical West Country trilogy


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Set during the first world war, the last instalment in Pears’s exemplary series powerfully conjures a sense of bereavement for a world gone by

Over the last three years, I’ve gained a new annual tradition. In the drained days of the new year, with the Christmas lights packed away and no reason to leave the house, I go to ground with the latest instalment of Tim Pears’s West Country trilogy. His project – a layered, lyrical portrait of early-20th-century England, begun in January 2017 with The Horseman and continued in January 2018 with The Wanderers – concludes this year with The Redeemed, in which he draws the stories of his protagonists, Leo and Lottie, to something like a close. These are novels that, in their attentive, slow-building descriptions of a seasonal, rural world, attempt to reconnect us with something we’ve mostly lost: a sense of the rhythm of the ...

The End of the End of the Earth by Jonathan Franzen review – hope in an age of crisis


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A writer at the top of his game considers climate change, what we can do and what keeps him from despair

How is it possible to live with despair? If, in the wake of last month’s horrifying UN report on global warming, you’ve been asking yourself this question, take some solace (or at least solidarity) from the knowledge that you’re not alone. Jonathan Franzen has been grappling with it for years, and as the final-countdown title of his new volume of essays suggests, his despair at the state of the planet and our absolute inability (“political, psychological, ethical, economic”) to save it is, if anything, deepening. “I don’t have any hope that we can stop the change from coming,” he says bluntly at the conclusion of his opening essay, and nothing in the following pages suggests he is anywhere close to changing his mind.

But by refusing to hope for ...

playtime review – paeans to beauty and selves that might have been


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McMillan’s follow-up to his celebrated debut, physical, is a tautly controlled exploration of nostalgia and loss of innocence

When Andrew McMillan published his first poetry collection, physical, in 2015, the response was extraordinary. A tidal wave of praise and celebration pouring in from all sides marked it out as the sort of once-in-a-generation debut that causes everyone to sit up and take notice. It was also shortlisted for pretty much every prize going (the Polari, the Forward prize for best first collection, the Dylan Thomas, the Costa) before becoming the only poetry collection ever to win the Guardian first book award. Straightforwardly indebted to Thom Gunn and Sharon Olds, but at the same time fresh, vivid and utterly unexpected, physical was a collection unlike any other. Raw and visceral in its descriptions of male bodies and their wants and needs but equally elegant and cerebral in its ...

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss review – back to the iron age


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Ancient rituals and present-day abuse converge in a brief and brilliant novel with its roots in England’s deep past

For novelists, there are two paths to a place in the literary firmament. The first (and undeniably the ritzier) involves the publication of a novel, generally a debut, that bursts forth in such a blaze that its author remains permanently backlit by it. The second is slower, quieter, less sensational but ultimately perhaps more sustainable: the steady brightening of a reputation over the course of several books, until finally it’s impossible to imagine a time when the author wasn’t a fixed point in the heavens. Hilary Mantel is an obvious example; Tessa Hadley another; Kamila Shamsie a third.

Of course, it’s easy to identify the writers who have taken the second path once they have hit household-name status; the real trick is spotting them before they get there. But if you’re ...

Calypso by David Sedaris review – a family affair


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Sedaris’s stories are as funny as ever, but his diary-essays also confront tragedy, politics and depression

There’s nobody quite like David Sedaris. He’s been likened to an American Alan Bennett, or an “evil Garrison Keillor”, but neither is precisely right: his collections of wry, sidelong diary-essays (there isn’t a label for what he does; he’s the lone inhabitant of a category of his own invention) have sold in their millions around the world, and his regular TV and radio appearances and sell-out reading tours have garnered him legions of fans. Devotees are well acquainted by now with the wider Sedaris clan His smart, adoring, yarn-spinning mother, who died in 1991; his father, distant and reactionary (a man “who laughs appreciatively at such bumper stickers as DON’T BLAME ME, I VOTED FOR THE AMERICAN”) though softening at the edges as he ages; his clutch of wayward, wise-cracking siblings, against ...

Milkshakes and Morphine by Genevieve Fox review – a moment of revelation


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A cancer memoir with a difference, this book’s originality comes not in its account of experiencing the disease but its delving into the past

Cancer memoirs are such a fixture of our bookshops these days that it’s jolting to realise just how recent an innovation they are. The genre came into being in the late 1990s, when journalists Ruth Picardie and John Diamond chronicled their experience of the disease in national newspapers; two decades later, on the other side of the rubicon, it’s hard to recall, or comprehend, the controversy this caused. Debate raged over the responsibility of their public airing of the details of an illness that had, to date, been shrouded in fear and shame: the writers were lauded as brave by some and accused of “emotional pornography” by others, but indifference wasn’t an option.

Fast forward to 2018, and the legacy of those accounts is clear: cancer’s ...

The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor review – a new light on Reservoir 13


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The Costa award-winner returns to the scenes of his success with a collection of linked stories

Last April, when his Costa award-winning novel Reservoir 13 was published, Jon McGregor gave an interview in which he took polite issue with the praise heaped on him throughout his career for writing about “ordinary” lives. “It’s quite an othering statement,” he said. “My take is that nobody is ordinary to themselves. Everyone’s life story is interesting, complicated and nuanced.”

As a position, it’s irrefutable – but to me it seemed to undercut McGregor’s formal experiment. Despite Reservoir 13’s classic crime-fiction set-up (it opens with the New Year’s Eve disappearance of a 13-year-old girl), the book soon reveals itself to be the chronicle of a community, in which the lives of the inhabitants are merely threads in the wider warp and weft of village life. The novel is delivered almost entirely in ...

21st Century Yokel by Tom Cox review – rich and glorious rural brew


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Cats, scarecrows and Devon are just a few of the ingredients in this melange of nature writing, memoir and more

Tom Cox’s latest foray into non-fiction is, he tells us, “the result of my stubborn conviction that something that a lot of people told me wouldn’t be ‘marketable’ enough to work would be a much better book than the marketable stuff they recommended that I did instead”. He was right – but spare a thought, if you can, for the publishing types to whom he’s referring. Consider the thing from their side: in an industry where the first essential of marketing consists of being able to distil your author’s work into a pitch of a single sentence, Cox’s book presents a formidable challenge. Although superficially it shares characteristics with the nature writing-cum-memoir subgenre that’s been giving the medical writing-cum-memoir subgenre a run for its money in recent years, it quickly ...

21st Century Yokel by Tom Cox review – rich and glorious rural brew


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Cats, scarecrows and Devon are just a few of the ingredients in this melange of nature writing, memoir and more

Tom Cox’s latest foray into non-fiction is, he tells us, “the result of my stubborn conviction that something that a lot of people told me wouldn’t be ‘marketable’ enough to work would be a much better book than the marketable stuff they recommended that I did instead”. He was right – but spare a thought, if you can, for the publishing types to whom he’s referring. Consider the thing from their side: in an industry where the first essential of marketing consists of being able to distil your author’s work into a pitch of a single sentence, Cox’s book presents a formidable challenge. Although superficially it shares characteristics with the nature writing-cum-memoir subgenre that’s been giving the medical writing-cum-memoir subgenre a run for its money in recent years, it quickly ...

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng review – hidden passions


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A burning house sparks tensions within an all-too-perfect suburban community in a story exploring race, identity and family secrets

Is it possible to plan a community; to construct it from scratch, instil it with virtues and benefits, and order it to your satisfaction? The founders of Shaker Heights, Ohio, certainly thought so: in 1905, railroad magnates the Van Sweringen brothers picked a wide place in the road and set about developing one of the United States’ first garden cities. Their intention was to create a suburban retreat, connected to the industrial powerhouse of nearby Cleveland but insulated from its fug and bustle: a place built on notions of harmony and cooperation, with rules regulating every aspect of communal life, down to the colours you could paint your house (“slate blue, moss green, or a certain shade of tan”) and how high (“six inches”) your lawn was permitted to grow.

...

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng review – hidden passions


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A burning house sparks tensions within an all-too-perfect suburban community in a story exploring race, identity and family secrets

Is it possible to plan a community; to construct it from scratch, instil it with virtues and benefits, and order it to your satisfaction? The founders of Shaker Heights, Ohio, certainly thought so: in 1905, railroad magnates the Van Sweringen brothers picked a wide place in the road and set about developing one of the United States’ first garden cities. Their intention was to create a suburban retreat, connected to the industrial powerhouse of nearby Cleveland but insulated from its fug and bustle: a place built on notions of harmony and cooperation, with rules regulating every aspect of communal life, down to the colours you could paint your house (“slate blue, moss green, or a certain shade of tan”) and how high (“six inches”) your lawn was permitted to grow.

...

Little Labours by Rivka Galchen review – when a baby is like a puma


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The Canadian-American writer has produced a fragmentary set of observations about new motherhood that lodges in the memoryOne of the most conspicuous things about the novelist and short story writer Rivka Galchen’s collection of essays on new motherhood is how clearly resistant she was to the writing of it. She “didn’t want to write about” her baby, she says, a few pages in. “Mostly because I had never been interested in babies, or mothers; in fact, those subjects had seemed perfectly not interesting to me.” Post-birth, however, she is unexpectedly ambushed by her own preoccupation; she finds herself “in the position (now interested in babies) of those political figures who come to insights others had reached decades ago only after their personal lives intersected with an ‘issue’, like, say, Dick Cheney, with his daughter who married a woman.” This is not, we are to understand, a ...

The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes review – an Oedipus myth for the 21st century


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Sidelined by Sophocles, two women find their voice in this reimagining of his three plays Natalie Haynes has found success in the fields of journalism, broadcasting, children’s fiction and comedy – but she is a classicist by training, and it’s to her first love that she returns in her second novel. The Children of Jocasta, which joins a slew of classical retellings this year from Colm Tóibín, Kamila Shamsie, David Vann and others, takes the story of Oedipus as it unfolds in Sophocles’ trio of Theban plays, and attempts to recast it for the 21st century. Haynes’s aim, as she explains in a lengthy afterword, is to rescue two of the plays’ minor characters from unjust obscurity. In Oedipus Tyrannos, it is the doomed, anguished king who stands in the limelight. (Haynes has no truck with those who reach for the tragedy’s Latin name: “I can’t stop you from calling it Oedipus Rex, ...

Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry review – deeply moving study of loss


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A rising poet draws on Freud in a piercing, highly intelligent interrogation of her response to her mother’s death

Emily Berry’s second collection opens with an epigraph from Sigmund Freud. “The loss of a mother,” he muses, in a letter in 1929, “must be something very strange …”. It’s a peculiar – and peculiarly unsympathetic – quotation, conveying as it does the sense of the great psychoanalyst examining the condition of motherlessness with lofty detachment, and viewing the afflicted not as objects of empathy or even pity, but of clinical curiosity. But in her book-length interrogation of her response to the loss of her own mother, to whom the collection is dedicated, it is this strangeness to which Berry cleaves, articulating and then wrestling with it in an attempt to make sense of a situation that is fundamentally senseless; to exert control over an event that could not be controlled. “If ...

The Blot by Jonathan Lethem review – high-stakes backgammon and brain surgery


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A professional gambler’s journey from board games to the operating table dazzles then loses its way Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, The Blot, is a story about – well, I’m not entirely sure. Better perhaps to say that The Blot takes backgammon as its subject matter. Alexander Bruno, Lethem’s detached and disaffected antihero, has spent his life as a professional gambler: shuttling around the globe from one blandly luxurious venue to the next; offering rich men the revitalising thrill of being parted from their money. He is a board game prodigy, a scalp hunter in an impeccable tuxedo, and he’s invariably victorious – until an encounter in Singapore leaves him on the back foot Related: Jonathan Lethem: ‘I’ve always thought of myself as a dark writer, but this is utterly different’ Continue reading...

My Grandmother’s Glass Eye: A Look at Poetry by Craig Raine – a gripping and combative study


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Insight and vendettas in a guide to the right and wrong ways to read a poem “I believe,” says Craig Raine, midway through My Grandmother’s Glass Eye, “that the first and most important question you can ask a poem is, ‘what does it mean?’ The poet … relies on his reader to try to make sense of the poem … We will get nowhere with poetry if we stall at the start and decide it cannot be understood.” On the surface, Raine’s proposition appears to be a modest, even innocuous, one. The centrality of meaning to poetry – the absolute necessity of getting at it, and getting it right – is at the heart of his argument, and he makes it in terms that are hard to gainsay. “Poetry”, he declares, “isn’t diminished by clarity” – and after all, what is? Anyone familiar with the field of poetry criticism ...

Fen by Daisy Johnson review – an impressive first collection


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Johnson’s surreal and atmospheric stories are set in a liminal landscape where girls become eels There was a time when East Anglia’s fenland was nothing more than a silty mix of fresh- and saltwater marshes into which people rarely ventured, an unstable place with one foot on solid ground and one in the sea. Attempts were made to drain it as far back as Roman times, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that technology advanced to the point where its freedom from flooding could be guaranteed. Today it is heavily cultivated, its fertile soil providing some of the country’s richest farmland. But for all that, it remains conditional: a tricksy, liminal landscape lying below sea level whose web of fields and schools and houses is wholly dependent on the system of pumps and embankments that has been constructed to protect it. There is an uncanniness to the fens that derives both from their ...

Sjón: I’m one of the few people who’ve had Björk as a backing singer


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The Icelandic writer self-published poems at 15, was Oscar-nominated for his lyrics for Lars von Trier and gave Björk’s Sugarcubes a hit – but novels are his bedrock The first thing I notice about Sjón is that he’s bleeding. As we shake hands outside a north London cafe, a bright-red drop beads on his upper lip, trembles for a moment, then spills. The sight is so surprising that it throws me completely: I exclaim; he apologises; we ditch the hellos and cast around for a tissue. He cut himself when he was shaving, he explains, hand held self-consciously to his mouth; just a nick, but sometimes they’re the worst. “Is it very bad?” he asks, with a mortified grimace. “Oh dear. Oh no. I’m so sorry.” We are here to discuss Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, Sjón’s 12th novel. Published in his native Iceland in 2013, ...

Deborah Levy: ‘Space Oddity’ seemed to be about leaving the land I was born in. Being unable to return. It can still make me cry


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The Booker nominated author of Swimming Home on success, exile and being too literary to be published In February 2013, Deborah Levy found herself on her feet in front of a room of students at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. A fellow countrywoman by birth, she moved to England with her family at the age of nine in 1968, after her father, who’d been jailed as a member of the ANC, was released from prison. Although she’d made several return visits since, she had always felt, she says, “like an intimate stranger” there; viscerally attuned to the substance of the place, its “birdsong and bright sky”, but emotionally at one remove. This time, though, things were different: five months earlier, her novel, Swimming Home, had been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. “I was coming back with something of my own,” she explains now, in a north ...