Lead book review

Sam Leith

Cervantes the seer

William Egginton opens his book with a novelistic reimagining: here’s Miguel de Cervantes, a toothless old geezer of nearly 60, on his way to the printers with his new manuscript. On a hot August day in 1604, a man walked through the dusty streets of Valladolid, Spain, clutching in his right hand a heavy package.

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The pursuit of happiness | 16 June 2016

There is a wonderful portrait of Kenelm Digby by Van Dyke. He is dressed in black. His hand is on his heart. Behind him is a vast, wilting sunflower. The sunflower is a symbol of constancy — it follows the sun. When his wife Venetia died in 1633, when Kenelm was 29, he went into

Time trials | 16 June 2016

What are ‘lost time accidents’, apart from something on building-site signs announcing hours lost to worker injuries? In this novel by the Austrian-American John Wray, the accidents represent time travel, or one family’s century-long, multi-generation, trans-Atlantic obsession and dark joke. ‘Time is our shared disorder,’ says the narrator’s aunt. Waldy Tolliver is that narrator, anxious

Manhattan transfer

Good historical fiction takes more than research. Henry James once said that writers needed to shed everything that made them modern to feel their way into a completely alien world view — a near impossibility. But this ideal historical novel, bristling with ancient prejudice, would be rather heavy going for a general readership, and successful

The folly of youth

Let’s start with arithmetic. Edmund White’s 11th novel is a book about age and ageing. The young man of the title is a French model called Guy. Like Dorian Gray, Guy never seems to grow old. By the middle of the novel he is nearly 40, but he can still convince people — crucially, a

Woolton’s war

In wartime the housekeeping is a nightmare. While fighting Napoleon in Spain the Duke of Wellington sent an infuriated letter to the government in Whitehall. He complained that they had asked him to account for a petty cash deficit of one shilling and ninepence, and a ‘hideous confusion as to the number of jars of

Strange sightings in Essex

I suspect some readers might be too cool for this lovely book, partly because, despite its gothic horror set-up, it sets out unashamedly to lift the spirits; and partly because historical novels are sometimes derided as escapist, as if they’re only a fallback for authors who can’t keep up with, say, immigration or the internet.

Double speak

Tom Fletcher, a young star of the Foreign Office, made his reputation last year when he blogged his ‘valedictory despatch’ from Beirut, where he had served as ambassador for several years. From time immemorial ambassadors had written these despatches on quitting their posts. It was the occasion to spread your diplomatic wings with candid observations

The Redeemer

The political trigger for the Ring was the 1849 Dresden uprising, when the young freedom fighter Richard Wagner financed the hand grenades and debated ethics with his co-revolutionary Bakunin. According to Bernard Shaw, the Russian stood model for Siegfried, the Ring’s hero who would overthrow the old order and install a new realm of personal

Hacks and robbers

Readers of advanced years like me will almost certainly remember the bow-tied figure of Edgar Lustgarten, star of any number of ‘True Crime’ B movies which were an integral part of a visit to the cinema, or ‘flicks’, when we were young. Some of us also remember his catchphrase when describing the downfall of a

Park life

Petrichor. Coined as recently as 1964 but redolent of Eden onwards, the word appears in neither of these volumes but they are suffused with it. In denoting that tang which arises after rain has fallen upon dry ground, petrichor can make a stroll through park or hillside headier than any parfumier’s establishment. Down the centuries,

The clean and the unclean

In 1991, Moby folded the theme from Twin Peaks into a remix of his dance track ‘Go’ and a diminutive, teetotal, vegan Christian abruptly became the American rave scene’s first pop star. He was not the obvious candidate: one critic dubbed him ‘techno’s crazed youth minister’. As a showboating entertainer in a culture sceptical of

Into a cloud-scratched sky

There have been a number of attempts to graft the style of the so-called new nature writing onto the novel: works such as Melissa Harrison’s Clay, for instance, or Amy Sackville’s Orkney. Tom Bullough’s Addlands is a very creditable contribution to this genre. The form does have an intrinsic problem: how does one dramatise seeing?

Missing in action

‘Missing in action is the worst state to which we can lose a human being,’ avers Commodore (Ret.) Ajith Boyagoda — and he should know. A not especially academic young chap from the hill country, Boyagoda joined the then Ceylonese navy for the glamour of it; progressed fair-to-middlingly; saw Southampton, Suez and South India; and,

Get over it!

As someone who managed to move from enfant terrible to grande dame without ever being a proper grown-up, I must say the menopause passed me by. I make a practise of having mostly much younger or male mates so I don’t have to hear old birds banging on about it, but occasionally my bezzie (who