Break.up by Joanna Walsh review – the end of a virtual affair

From tantalising texts and passionate emails to heartbreak and rootless wandering … an examination of modern intimacy, this autofiction challenges genre boundaries

A woman has a love affair – or not quite a love affair, or something more than a love affair. She and the man meet in person a few times, but their relationship is never consummated, since it exists only in the world of emails and instant messaging, where responses are thrillingly instant and gratification tantalisingly deferred:

We met wherever there was WiFi, which is almost everywhere nowadays, so that when you left, there was never a space from which you could be erased, tidied over. There was never a place where you weren’t, a place from which you could be properly missed.

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Never-ending nightmare: why feminist dystopias must stop torturing women

The Handmaid’s Tale has inspired a new generation of writers whose dystopian worlds are ever more bleak, dark and sadistic. But where is the hope?

A woman, pregnant by rape, is denied an abortion, legally detained and subjected to a forced caesarean. A woman on low income wants to leave her controlling partner but can’t, because a government policy designed to “prevent family breakdown” means all their benefits are paid into his account. A woman reports a sexual assault, but the police don’t believe her, so they prosecute her for making a false allegation, while her attacker remains free to attack more victims. Girls are systematically groomed into prostitution, and police ignore their abusers. A man boasts on tape that he can “grab” women “by the pussy”: he is elected president. These are all things that happened in Ireland, the UK and the US over the last decade.

As the ...

Among the Living and the Dead by Inara Verzemnieks review – a memoir of the bloodlands

An American writer uncovers the remarkable story of her Latvian grandparents, as their homeland is conquered by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union

The map of Europe was shaped in the 20th century by complicity and disappearance. Mass murders. Expulsions. Colonisation. Countries vanished; whole peoples exterminated and displaced. For Europeans, this is the story of our continent, although rarely the version of the story we choose to say out loud. For Inara Verzemnieks, as the granddaughter of Latvian refugees who settled in the US, it’s the story of her family. Among the Living and the Dead is her effort to recover that family history – splintered as it is by war, migration, shame and loss – and put the unspeakable into words.

It is, like all attempted redemptions, both partial and painful. Renowned for her journalism in the Oregonian newspaper, she begins as any reporter should: by going to the ...

Peach by Emma Glass review – turning anguish into art

This surreal debut uses wit and wordplay to convey female trauma – but does it simply skip along the surface of language?

Pain is a snare for women. If we don’t name the ways in which we are hurt – through male violence, harassment, rape – then we end up protecting those who hurt us. If we do, we risk becoming “wound dwellers”, as essayist Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams, was labelled by a boyfriend: accused of luxuriating in our injuries, defining ourselves by them. Worse, there’s a tradition of using the fact of female pain as proof that women deserve to suffer. Genesis tells us Eve’s labour pangs are a punishment for her temptation of Adam; today, if a woman says she was assaulted, many will insist that it only happened because she’s a slut. In the backwards logic of a just-so story, our pain isn’t a testament to our ...

So Happy It Hurts by Anneliese Mackintosh review – an epistolary novel

Diary entries, emails and receipts are used to great effect in this untidy, generous and funny storyOttila McGregor has a new year resolution. She’s going to make herself happy – “so happy it hurts,” she tells her therapist, “SO FUCKING HAPPY IT REALLY FUCKING KILLS,” she writes to herself. At the moment, she’s just hurting herself, via a destructive relationship (an affair with her boss) and too much drink. That’s not too much drink in a Bridget Jones, fake-horrified, unit-totting sort of way. It’s too much drink in a sexting-your-manager-again, tweeting-that-you-want-to-die, having-your-stomach-pumped way. So Ottila is going to “turn everything around”, confiding the process to the “grief scrapbook” she’s assembling inside a vandalised copy of The Little Book of Happy. Ottila knows about grief scrapbooks: she works in a support centre for people with cancer and their families. What is she grieving for? Booze, of course – and other ...

The Answers by Catherine Lacey review – how to solve the love problem

A ‘Girlfriend Experiment’ to discover why attraction ebbs away is at the heart of this smart novel literalising the concept of emotional labourAs the computer Deep Thought pointed out in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it’s no good spending seven and a half million years working on the answer if you don’t start with a good idea of what the question is. Lacey’s second novel, the follow-up to 2015’s Nobody Is Ever Missing, opens with a full-scale assault on readerly curiosity: a female narrator wakes up in her own bed and then locks eyes, shockingly, with a woman called Ashley who is outside her window, staring in. The who, what and why are a powerful incentive to drive through the pages. But for the characters in The Answers, the thing they are looking for is always being deferred or displaced. Mary, the woman whose bedroom we ...

The Nothing by Hanif Kureishi review – sex and the soapbox

An ageing film-maker crafts a rich fantasy of cuckolding, while railing against the death of liberal Britain The narrator of Hanif Kureishi’s short novel is feeling his age. “One night, when I am old, sick, right out of semen, and don’t need things to get any worse, I hear the noises again,” says Waldo, in an arresting first sentence. Our man is a film-maker, though these days feature-length pictures are beyond him and he sticks to making shorts. In fact, a lot of things are beyond him: “almost paralysed and dead”, he can no longer get about on his own, and he hasn’t had sex with his ravishing and 22-years-younger wife Zenab (or indeed with anyone else) for some years. But his creativity has not wholly deserted him, and nor has his libido. From his bedroom, he eavesdrops on Zenab (Zee for short) and their dubious friend Eddie, a film industry ...

Death of a She Devil by Fay Weldon review – a reactionary sequel

Three decades on, Weldon’s most brilliantly monstrous creation returns as a grandee of women’s liberation
There are two parts to Fay Weldon’s reputation: first that she is a feminist writer, and second that she is a very funny one. The “funny” is earned, the “feminist” less so, and Death of a She Devil is a credit to neither. When Weldon introduced Ruth Patchett in The Life and Loves of a She Devil, 34 years ago, she created one of literature’s greatest monsters. Deserted by callous husband Bobbo for the simpering romance novelist Mary Fisher, ugly doormat Ruth remakes herself as the She Devil and has her revenge on the adulterers. Her punisher’s progress takes her through every circle of society, from underclass to judiciary, from family to clergy, until finally she is surgically transformed into “an impossible male fantasy made flesh” – even losing six inches of leg ...

Death of a She Devil by Fay Weldon review – a reactionary sequel

Three decades on, Weldon’s most brilliantly monstrous creation returns as a grandee of women’s liberation
There are two parts to Fay Weldon’s reputation: first that she is a feminist writer, and second that she is a very funny one. The “funny” is earned, the “feminist” less so, and Death of a She Devil is a credit to neither. When Weldon introduced Ruth Patchett in The Life and Loves of a She Devil, 34 years ago, she created one of literature’s greatest monsters. Deserted by callous husband Bobbo for the simpering romance novelist Mary Fisher, ugly doormat Ruth remakes herself as the She Devil and has her revenge on the adulterers. Her punisher’s progress takes her through every circle of society, from underclass to judiciary, from family to clergy, until finally she is surgically transformed into “an impossible male fantasy made flesh” – even losing six inches of leg ...

Death of a She Devil by Fay Weldon review – a reactionary sequel

Three decades on, Weldon’s most brilliantly monstrous creation returns as a grandee of women’s liberation
There are two parts to Fay Weldon’s reputation: first that she is a feminist writer, and second that she is a very funny one. The “funny” is earned, the “feminist” less so, and Death of a She Devil is a credit to neither. When Weldon introduced Ruth Patchett in The Life and Loves of a She Devil, 34 years ago, she created one of literature’s greatest monsters. Deserted by callous husband Bobbo for the simpering romance novelist Mary Fisher, ugly doormat Ruth remakes herself as the She Devil and has her revenge on the adulterers. Her punisher’s progress takes her through every circle of society, from underclass to judiciary, from family to clergy, until finally she is surgically transformed into “an impossible male fantasy made flesh” – even losing six inches of leg ...

Death of a She Devil by Fay Weldon review – a reactionary sequel

Three decades on, Weldon’s most brilliantly monstrous creation returns as a grandee of women’s liberation
There are two parts to Fay Weldon’s reputation: first that she is a feminist writer, and second that she is a very funny one. The “funny” is earned, the “feminist” less so, and Death of a She Devil is a credit to neither. When Weldon introduced Ruth Patchett in The Life and Loves of a She Devil, 34 years ago, she created one of literature’s greatest monsters. Deserted by callous husband Bobbo for the simpering romance novelist Mary Fisher, ugly doormat Ruth remakes herself as the She Devil and has her revenge on the adulterers. Her punisher’s progress takes her through every circle of society, from underclass to judiciary, from family to clergy, until finally she is surgically transformed into “an impossible male fantasy made flesh” – even losing six inches of leg ...

Death of a She Devil by Fay Weldon review – a reactionary sequel

Three decades on, Weldon’s most brilliantly monstrous creation returns as a grandee of women’s liberation
There are two parts to Fay Weldon’s reputation: first that she is a feminist writer, and second that she is a very funny one. The “funny” is earned, the “feminist” less so, and Death of a She Devil is a credit to neither. When Weldon introduced Ruth Patchett in The Life and Loves of a She Devil, 34 years ago, she created one of literature’s greatest monsters. Deserted by callous husband Bobbo for the simpering romance novelist Mary Fisher, ugly doormat Ruth remakes herself as the She Devil and has her revenge on the adulterers. Her punisher’s progress takes her through every circle of society, from underclass to judiciary, from family to clergy, until finally she is surgically transformed into “an impossible male fantasy made flesh” – even losing six inches of leg ...

Death of a She Devil by Fay Weldon review – a reactionary sequel

Three decades on, Weldon’s most brilliantly monstrous creation returns as a grandee of women’s liberation
There are two parts to Fay Weldon’s reputation: first that she is a feminist writer, and second that she is a very funny one. The “funny” is earned, the “feminist” less so, and Death of a She Devil is a credit to neither. When Weldon introduced Ruth Patchett in The Life and Loves of a She Devil, 34 years ago, she created one of literature’s greatest monsters. Deserted by callous husband Bobbo for the simpering romance novelist Mary Fisher, ugly doormat Ruth remakes herself as the She Devil and has her revenge on the adulterers. Her punisher’s progress takes her through every circle of society, from underclass to judiciary, from family to clergy, until finally she is surgically transformed into “an impossible male fantasy made flesh” – even losing six inches of leg ...

The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy review – a simmering gothic joy

This creepingly clever ghost story in which the spirits of the dead can be channelled by mediums encompasses thriller, horror and literary fiction

Some opening lines are so good, you worry that what comes after will disappoint. This is how The Possessions starts: “The first time I meet Patrick Braddock, I’m wearing his wife’s lipstick.” It’s a perfect mystery in miniature. Who is Patrick? Who is speaking? Why is she wearing another woman’s lipstick? Is it all as sleazy as it sounds? The answer to that last question is yes, but not in the way you’d expect, as Sara Flannery Murphy unspools a creepingly clever ghost story that encompasses thriller, horror and literary fiction with seductive swagger.

Our narrator is Edie, short for Eurydice. She is an employee of the Elysian Society, which is a kind of bordello for mediums. The Possessions’ universe is, fundamentally, our universe, with ...

The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy review – a simmering gothic joy

This creepingly clever ghost story in which the spirits of the dead can be channelled by mediums encompasses thriller, horror and literary fiction

Some opening lines are so good, you worry that what comes after will disappoint. This is how The Possessions starts: “The first time I meet Patrick Braddock, I’m wearing his wife’s lipstick.” It’s a perfect mystery in miniature. Who is Patrick? Who is speaking? Why is she wearing another woman’s lipstick? Is it all as sleazy as it sounds? The answer to that last question is yes, but not in the way you’d expect, as Sara Flannery Murphy unspools a creepingly clever ghost story that encompasses thriller, horror and literary fiction with seductive swagger.

Our narrator is Edie, short for Eurydice. She is an employee of the Elysian Society, which is a kind of bordello for mediums. The Possessions’ universe is, fundamentally, our universe, with ...

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund review – God and grooming

A teenager struggles to come of age in a world of religious zealots and predatory teachers in this stark debutThe coming-of-age novel can be almost as painful as actually coming of age. It’s a genre that demands a tricky combination of narrative knowingness and character naivety, while recruiting the reader’s sympathies for one of God’s least sympathetic creations: the teenager. Even so, many novelists choose it for their debut, and last year offered two examples that exemplified both the successes and frustrations of the form. Emma Cline’s The Girls was a woozy hormonal fug that found the horror in the thrill of growing up; Tiffany McDaniels’ The Summer that Melted Everything smothered its story’s gothic potential in stentorian hindsight. Emily Fridlund’s debut falls between the two. Teenage narrator Linda gets called “commie” and “freak” by her schoolmates, and it’s small wonder that she doesn’t fit in when her background ...

Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine review – men’s and women’s brains are not different

The psychologist provides more evidence that the inequality of the sexes in society is cultural not natural Cordelia Fine is an optimistic writer. In her two earlier books of popular neuroscience (A Mind of Its Own and Delusions of Gender), the psychologist established a reputation for exemplary clarity on complex topics, pleasing wit, feminist principle – and beneath it all, the animating faith that people can be improved through knowledge. Testosterone Rex starts with a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists that establishes the Fine approach perfectly: “But in addition to being angry, I am also hopeful, because I believe deeply in the ability of humans to make and remake themselves for the better.” “Testosterone Rex”, Fine’s target, is the name she gives to “that familiar, plausible, pervasive and powerful story of sex and society”, which holds that inequality of the sexes is natural, not cultural. ...

The Girls by Emma Cline review – the Charles Manson ‘family’ reimagined

This finely written fictionalisation of the Manson murders explores the trials of adolescence, forcing us to look at the ordinariness underlying extraordinary crimesThere will be blood and plenty of it by the end of Emma Cline’s California-set debut, which is loosely based on the Manson “family” and their crimes. But first, ketchup. The linguist Deborah Cameron tells a story in The Myth of Mars and Venus about a family dinner. When the daughter says to the mother, “Is there any ketchup?”, the mother replies, “Yes, it’s in the cupboard.” But when the father says to the mother, “Is there any ketchup?”, the mother gets up and fetches it for him. It’s a scene that’s less about condiments than it is about power, and who is entitled to ask for what of whom. Both father and daughter make demands of the mother, but only the father gets his ...

The Blade Artist by Irvine Welsh review – a troublesome follow-up to Trainspotting

Edinburgh’s hardman Begbie is given an unconvincing makeover as a sculptor, family man and torturer with moral intent

At the end of Trainspotting, the characters’ lives seemed mapped out until death – apart from Mark Renton, who gave fate and his friends the lastminute slip by stealing the proceeds of a drug deal and escaping to Amsterdam. But everyone else’s doom looked fixed. Thinking about psycho hardman Francis Begbie’s newborn son, Michael, Renton could see the family’s future clearly: “That kid’s name wis doon fae HM Prison Saughton when it was still in [Begbie’s girlfriend] June’s womb, as sure as the foetus of a rich bastard is Eton-bound. While this process is going on, daddy Franco will be whair he is now: the boozer.”

But that certainty didn’t stop Welsh from returning to his characters, first in Trainspotting sequel Porno, then in prequel Skagboys. And now there’s ...

Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa review – in the thick of leftwing activism

This debut, set during the Seattle World Trade Organisation protests of November 1999, aims to reanimate a lost moment of violence and hope for the leftMillennials might struggle to believe it, but there was a political world before the Manichean split of 9/11. Sunil Yapa’s debut, set during the Seattle World Trade Organisation protests of November 1999, aims to reanimate a lost moment of violence and hope for the left – as in the title, tenderness and trauma go hand-in-hand all the way through. We are put right in the thick of it, where anticorporate chants rise and pepper spray flies. Vibrantly told and jumping from consciousness to consciousness with each chapter, the novel is a crowd scene in 302 pages: young black runaway Victor is the stepson of the white police chief Bishop, who is in command of officers Park and Ju, who are in a confrontation out on ...