Lead book review

The fruits of imperialism

Imagine yourself a middle-class person in England in the 1870s. You sit down to drink a cup of tea while reading The Spectator. It probably doesn’t cross your mind, but in your hand you hold products from around the world. Your tea is from Ceylon, the sugar in it from Jamaica, and your porcelain cup

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The last great adventure

Towards the end of his life, Robert Louis Stevenson travelled widely in the central and southern Pacific Ocean. As well as the region’s exotic reputation, he was drawn by hopes that its benign climate would alleviate his chronic bronchial problems. In 1889 he arrived in Samoa and decided to settle there. He was a hit

The art of the arabesque

The title of this book, By the Pen and What They Write, is a quotation from the Qur’an and comes from the opening of the ‘Surah al-Qalam’ (Chapter of the Pen), in which the authority of the cosmic scribes in heaven, whose writing determines the fate of humanity, is invoked in order to authenticate the

A clash of loyalties

If someone was to lob the name Antigone about, many of us would smile and nod while trying to remember if this is the one about the guy who shagged his mum or the parent who offed their kids. (Bit of both.) For those whose Sophocles is hazy, let me summarise. After a civil war

A grand inquisitor

Hidden behind Kensington Palace, in one of London’s smartest streets, there is a grand old house which played a leading role in Britain’s victory over Nazi Germany. Today it’s owned by Roman Abramovich, apparently — it seems he paid £90 million for it. But during the second world war, and for a few years thereafter,

Mysticism and metamorphosis

‘I frankly hate Descartes,’ states a character in Nicole Krauss’s new novel, Forest Dark: ‘The more he talks about following a straight line out of the forest, the more appealing it sounds to me to get lost in that forest …’ Like the author, this character is called Nicole, lives in Brooklyn, and is a

Stage fright | 31 August 2017

Patrick McGrath is a master of novels about post-traumatic fragmentation and dissolution, set amid gothic gloom. His childhood years spent at Broadmoor, where his father was medical superintendent, have given him a solid grounding in psychiatric illness for these disquieting dramas. His ninth novel is set in London’s theatreland in 1947, and the grey, skeletal

City of dreadful dusk

Fantastic fiction loves contrasts made explicit: Eloi and Morlocks, orcs and elves, and above all humans battling vampires, Martians or robots. Small wonder that Claude Lévi-Strauss specifically invoked science fiction for his theory of ‘binary opposition’. Sometimes these tensions are in the mise-en-scene — not just Earth vs. outer space, but settings — Lilliput and

Well of sorrows

The Red-haired Woman is shorter than Orhan Pamuk’s best-known novels, and is, in comparison, pared down, written with deliberate simplicity — ostensibly by a narrator who knows that he is not a writer, but only a building contractor. Polyphonic narratives are replaced by a powerful, engaging clarity. This simplicity is the novel’s greatest strength, yet

A flawed and dangerous theory

If there were a prize awarded to the book with the best opening line, A. N. Wilson would be clearing a space on his mantelpiece. ‘Darwin was wrong’, he announces at the start of this hugely enjoyable revisionist biography, which will be read in certain scientific circles to the background noise of teeth being ground

Finally tired of London

Iain Sinclair is leaving London — like the croakiest of the ravens taking flight from the Tower. It is a proper blow: across five decades, he has been prowling the streets, part poet, part satirist, part prophet. Very few authors have fashioned a London more real than the one we see: Dickens, Conan Doyle, Patrick

The writer behind the brand

Few publishing phenomena in recent years have been as gratifying as Chris Kraus’s cult 1997 masterpiece I Love Dick becoming a signifier of Twitter and Instagram chic. The ‘lonely girl phenomenology’ it exemplified has now attained cultural status, with first person, inventive writing by women often enjoying centre stage. It’s interesting, then, that just as

Mozart’s mischievous muse

If you were to compare Mozart to a bird it wouldn’t be the starling. Possibly the wood thrush or nightingale, with their beautiful, haunting songs; or maybe the lyrebird with its astonishing ear for imitation; or perhaps the composer would find his match in the exotic rarity of the ivory-billed woodpecker or giant ibis. But