The Burning Chambers review – Kate Mosse’s latest tour de force

The Labyrinth author’s new historical adventure, set amid the wars of religion in France, is ambitious and skilfully constructed

Kate Mosse’s multimillion-selling 2005 novel Labyrinth reinvented her as a novelist, and reinvigorated the historical adventure genre by putting women’s stories firmly at its heart. After the two subsequent novels, Sepulchre and Citadel, that completed her Languedoc trilogy, and a brief diversion into gothic fiction, Mosse has returned to the geographical and historical terrain of Labyrinth and the epic form that suits her storytelling so well.

The Burning Chambers is the first in a planned series charting the Huguenot diaspora from the wars of religion in 16th-century France to 19th-century South Africa, and here a prologue set in a Franschhoek graveyard in 1862 hints at the sweep of the story to come. But this volume is rooted 300 years earlier in the Languedoc, in the city of Carcassonne that Mosse ...

The cult of the unreliable female narrator must be stopped | Stephanie Merritt

In fiction and life, women’s testimony is held up to scrutiny and dismissed on the grounds that our biology makes us irrational

One of the recurrent responses to the flurry of #MeToo allegations, in Hollywood and beyond, was for those accused to cast doubt on the credibility of the women involved, either by implying that they were seeking publicity, or that they were too unstable to be taken seriously.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the case of Rose McGowan, a woman whose sometimes erratic behaviour, candid discussion of her troubled childhood and history of emotional fragility was pounced on by lawyers bent on undermining her version of events.

Continue reading...

Women write literary fiction’s big hitters. So where are their prizes? | Stephanie Merritt

The 2017 bestseller list was dominated by women, with Margaret Atwood at the top, but the Booker still favours men

On the face of it, the revelation that female writers dominated the UK literary bestseller lists in 2017 might seem cause for celebration, a long-overdue correction that seems especially welcome in a year that exposed systemic bias in many forms across the creative industries. According to the Bookseller’s analysis of sales, only one man, Haruki Murakami, made it into a top 10 that saw a new generation of female writers, including Sarah Perry, Naomi Alderman and Zadie Smith, displace venerable fixtures of the literary landscape such as Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro.

Related: Kamila Shamsie: let’s have a year of publishing only women – a provocation

Continue reading...

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich review – fertile ground for dystopian nightmares

This diary to an unborn child shows a world where the treachery of our genes has distorted society

There was an exchange on Twitter that went viral recently: a man, deliberately trolling, wrote: “Look out the window and name one thing women have made.” Without missing a beat, a woman tweeted back: “EVERY. SINGLE. HUMAN. BEING.” The power of female fertility is simultaneously so mundane as to be overlooked and so significant that it remains the principle battleground in culture and gender wars, a tool or a weapon to be appropriated by those who seek to control the masses. Feminists and writers of speculative fiction have long known this. “The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet,” wrote Margaret Atwood earlier this year, on why her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is resonating so forcefully in the age of ...

Winter by Ali Smith review – luminously beautiful

A fraught family Christmas in Cornwall is the setting for the second part of Smith’s seasonal quartet, a tender tale inspired by Dickens and Shakespeare

Think of a classic winter tale, and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol might be the first to mind. It’s clearly one of the models for the second part of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, a novel of great ferocity, tenderness, righteous anger and generosity of spirit that you feel Dickens would have recognised. Sophia Cleves is a Scrooge for our time, a retired businesswoman whose work always took precedence over family. Now holed up in her 15-bedroom house in Cornwall, she is, as her estranged sister, Iris, observes, “an old miserly grump who had nothing in the house for your son and his girlfriend for Christmas except a bag of walnuts and half a jar of glace cherries”.

But Sophia has not been alone; as the story ...

The Last Hours by Minette Walters review – mass graves and power plays

The first novel in a decade from the queen of psychological crime is a historical drama set during the Black Death

In the book business, when you have had a success, the smart thing to do is write the same sort of thing once a year for the rest of your life,” explains Ken Follett, in the introduction to his 1989 bestseller The Pillars of the Earth. Follett ignored that advice, frightening his publishers by abandoning thrillers to embark on a historical epic. Now Minette Walters – formerly the multimillion-selling “queen of psychological crime” – has gambled on the same change of direction. After retiring from the genre she helped popularise, amid much speculation about burnout or writer’s block, she has spent most of the last decade working on a mammoth two-part historical saga set in her home county of Dorset during the early ravages of the Black ...

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett review – a well-marshalled family saga

The biographer has turned her hand to fiction with this accomplished ensemble tale set on a single English estate through the agesYou can’t help wondering if Lucy Hughes-Hallett realised, when she began her first novel, how prescient its themes would turn out to be. Peculiar Ground is concerned with walls and borders, and the significance of land – what it means to appropriate it, to enclose it, to fence certain people in or out; ideas that feel particularly pertinent in the present. Hughes-Hallett has already enjoyed critical acclaim as a biographer; her third and most recent book, The Pike, a life of Gabriele D’Annunzio, won the Samuel Johnson prize and the Costa biography award in 2013. She might have been expected to attempt a repeat of this success, but instead she announced her intention to become “the world’s oldest first-time novelist”. At 65, she hasn’t quite broken the ...

Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan review – a novel take on the writer’s own life

The French author toys with the reader while blurring memoir and fiction and eventually arriving at a gripping thrillerIs this a novel? That is the question Delphine de Vigan wants you to ask on opening her new book; she is playing with the reader from the beginning. The title itself introduces a note of ambiguity about veracity that permeates the story; throughout, we are obliged to ask ourselves who exactly is speaking to us, and how much we should believe. The narrator is a writer named Delphine; she lives in Paris with her two teenage children, is in a relationship with a well-known journalist called François, and has recently achieved success with an autobiographical novel about her family, resulting in strained relationships with relatives who did not welcome the exposure. Thus far, the details correlate with what is known of the author. But this is fiction – isn’t it? ...

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor review – an aftermath in elegant slow motion

In the author’s first novel for seven years, formal experimentation gives way to a delicate, subtle study of the effects of a disappearance on a village’s inhabitants Jon McGregor has been quietly building a reputation as one of the outstanding writers of his generation since 2002, when he became the youngest writer to be longlisted for the Booker prize with his debut, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, published when he was 26. Reservoir 13 is only his fourth novel, but it confirms his gift as a poet of ordinary lives and his skill in taking risks with form and style. After the experimental narrative of 2010’s Even the Dogs, a story of drug and alcohol addiction told in fragmented bursts by a series of urban ghosts, Reservoir 13 may seem, at first glance, a more conventional and pastoral novel. This could come as a relief to those ...

Bright Air Black by David Vann review – Medea is a portrait of defiance in a compelling reimagining

The Greek heroine pays the highest price rather than surrender control in this vivid, sympathetic reinterpretationMedea has been one of the most consistently reinterpreted and debated characters in western drama for the past two and a half thousand years: a woman whose story has largely been told by men. To some she is a proto-feminist, to others an aberration: a woman who defies the “natural” bonds of motherhood to exact her rage and vengeance on her husband. The novelist Rachel Cusk wrote a new interpretation for the stage in 2015, in which she transposed Euripides’s play to contemporary London and emphasised the failure of a modern marriage amid the societal expectations of domestic roles. Now the American writer David Vann, best known for his acclaimed 2009 debut, Legend of a Suicide, has taken up Medea’s story in his new novel, Bright Air Black. Continue reading...

Cousins by Salley Vickers – review

In this scalpel-sharp novel, a dramatic accident leads to three women unearthing a dark family secretThere is a moment in Salley Vickers’s 2012 novel, The Cleaner of Chartres, when the central character, Agnès, observes the famous labyrinth on the floor of the cathedral: “It was clever,” she reflected, “the cross, being composed not of the stones that made the path, but of those that marked its absence.” Hetta Tye, one of the narrators of Vickers’s new novel, Cousins, reiterates this idea: “I’m fascinated by the gaps made by people and the gaps in people, and how those gaps get filled, sometimes to our detriment.” Cousins is a story whose shape is defined by absences. Narrated in turn by three women from three generations of the Tye family, it is principally the story of two young men, Nat and Will, both of whom suffer the same ...

Tristimania by Jay Griffiths; Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon – review

Two depression memoirs aimed at different readerships both offer optimism and enlightenment When the novelist William Styron wrote a piece for Vanity Fair in 1989 describing his battle with depression, he could hardly have known that he was pioneering a new genre. He expanded the essay into a book, Darkness Visible, the first modern example of a now burgeoning literary form, the depression memoir. Styron’s candour helped to break down some of the stigma around the condition, and in the 25 years since it was published, such personal memoirs have become almost commonplace, particularly among writers and journalists (myself included). The fact that so many personal accounts continue to be published is testament to the way these stories have made it easier to discuss an illness that is still too often regarded as shameful or somehow less than valid. Jay Griffiths is an impossible writer to categorise; ...

Shakespeare dominates Hay festival during anniversary year

Despite Benedict Cumberbatch’s surprise appearances at the 2016 Hay festival, it’s Shakespeare who has been the star of the programme One figure has towered over the 29th Hay festival more than any other since it kicked off last weekend, his name echoing around the canvas from children’s events to political debates. No, not Benedict Cumberbatch, despite his surprise appearance at two charity performances of festival favourite Letters Live, and delighting partygoers by dancing until the small hours on two consecutive nights. No, it’s William Shakespeare, whose presence in this anniversary year has dominated the programme, from Russell T Davies and Maxine Peake discussing how to update him in their Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Marcus Brigstocke giving audiences his Romeo as part of John Sutherland and John Crace’s Abridged Shakespeare event; there’s Malorie Blackman presenting her young adult novel inspired by Othello, as well as more unexpected appearances, such ...

The Doll-Master by Joyce Carol Oates review – chilling short-story melodramas

These macabre tales, set in ordinary American lives, resist easy closureThroughout her extraordinarily prolific career, Joyce Carol Oates’s work has always embraced aspects of the macabre. In her new collection, The Doll-Master, she relishes moments of gothic melodrama, while rooting them firmlyin grindingly ordinary American lives. Her characters are often people who have fallen through the cracks; their desire for connection with others warps into something dark and dangerous. The most chilling story is Soldier, a first‑person account of a murder that broadens into an examination of America’s most painful divisions over guns and race. As with all the stories here, it ends as if with the final scene missing, resisting easy closure; in each case the reckoning is implied but withheld, left to the reader’s imagination, leaving you with an uneasy sense of incompleteness. Overall, it’s a collection that displays Oates’s ability to inhabit distinctive voices to ...

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver – review

This biting near-future satire is played out amid a chillingly plausible US economic collapse“There’s a great book in this upheaval, and she’d be the ideal chronicler of the times. She’s always had the eye. For most people, what lies outside our front door is tragedy. For Enola, it’s material.” So says 99-year-old Douglas Mandible, patriarch of the titular family in Lionel Shriver’s 13th novel. He’s speaking in 2031 of his daughter, Nollie, a former bestselling author back in the days when people still paid for books, but his words could apply equally well to their creator. Shriver too has always had the eye – an unflinching gaze trained on aspects of contemporary American life most of us prefer not to look at for too long, from teenage violence in We Need to Talk About Kevin to the obesity crisis in Big Brother, by way of the US ...

Curtis Sittenfeld: ‘It was like the force of Austen’s language was irresistible’

The author of Eligible on adapting Pride and Prejudice, the 21st-century woman’s lot and being stylistically subsumed by Jane Austen’s words Were you a diehard Jane Austen fan before you took on Pride and Prejudice?
I read it for the first time when I was 16 and that was the first of her novels that I’d read. I’ve come back to it a few times and I loved the BBC miniseries. I would say that, before I took this on, I was an Austen fan but not a Jane-ite; at that point in my life, I had never bought an empire-waist dress, which I have since, by the way. I rented a dress and made my sister take some pictures of me in case they might come in handy. What most attracted you to this project of bringing Austen into the modern world?
What I admire in her books is ...

Maestra by LS Hilton review – many shades of shocking

The historical biographer’s foray into erotica easily outclasses Fifty Shades but sends the idea of female emancipation back to the 19th century

A couple of years ago, on the day it was announced that EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey had sold 1m copies in a week, my agent suggested it was time everyone started writing erotica. He was only half-joking. Judging by the slew of Fifty Shades imitators since then, it seems every other literary agent was offering the same advice. According to a recent interview, historical biographer Lisa Hilton’s agent told her the same thing; the result is Maestra, a much-hyped romp through Europe’s billionaire playgrounds billed in its blurb as “the most shocking thriller of the year”.

It is mildly shocking, though not for the reasons the publisher claims. Judith Rashleigh, a lowly assistant at a prestigious auction house, augments her income with night shifts ...

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier – review

Tracy Chevalier returns to America’s pioneers and a family with a secret struggling to make a living from the landThe lure of the New World in the mid-19th century proved fertile ground for Tracy Chevalier in her last novel, The Last Runaway, the story of an English émigré struggling to find her place in this frequently hostile new land. She has returned to the same period – and in part the same location, the pioneering settlements of Ohio – for her eighth novel, At the Edge of the Orchard. This time her settlers are first- and second-generation Americans making the no less arduous journey across the continent, from the east coast via Ohio to California in the wake of the gold rush. Related: Tracy Chevalier: 'Slavery has to be raised until it's put to bed' Continue reading...









Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson review – a provocative retelling of The Merchant of Venice

Shylock meets his modern doppelganger in the novelist’s playful examination of what it means to be JewishIt’s hard to imagine that the commissioning editors for the new Hogarth Shakespeare series had to deliberate for long before deciding which contemporary novelist should take on The Merchant of Venice, the tragicomedy that gave us the most (in)famous Jewish character in literature. Howard Jacobson, the undisputed British master of black comedies featuring Jewish characters, relocates the drama to Cheshire’s flashy “golden triangle”, though the novel – his 14th – is far from a straightforward retelling. Rather, it is a provocative interrogation of Shakespeare’s play, and most particularly of its antagonist, Shylock, whose name has passed into common usage as a byword for usury and malice or, conversely, antisemitism. “Shylock: victim or villain?” is up there with “Is Hamlet mad?” as a contender for the most well-worn (and reductive) ...

Exposure review – spies with secrets of their own

Helen Dunmore’s fine 14th novel explores the particular perils of homosexuality during the cold warHelen Dunmore’s fiction has repeatedly returned to the theme of war and its aftermath, what she calls “the long shadows of war”. Her previous two novels, The Lie and ghost story The Greatcoat, were concerned with the efforts of the living to rebuild after world wars, and the insistence of the dead that they should not be forgotten. Exposure, her 14th novel, inhabits some of the same territory. While for many, the shadows of war stretch over London in 1960, Britain is engaged in a different conflict, one played out in the clandestine transfer of information and small, secret acts of violence, quickly hushed up. Related: The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore – review Continue reading...