Lead book review

The key to a hidden kingdom

It’s a modern pastime to hypothesise about what makes a good relationship. One evening not long ago in a Berlin bar, I listened to a friend diagnose how things were going with his partner: ‘We might have become a bit too symbiotic.’ Surprisingly earnest perhaps, but that’s what you get when a sociologist dates a

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Crying Wolfe

He might be 85 but Tom Wolfe is going strong with a new book and a dustjacket photo that still sees him working the suit and hat look. And although the new book may be small, it’s got big ambitions: first, to take down an establishment icon, and, second, to reveal the secret behind humanity’s

All about C

In March 1981 Margaret Thatcher went to the hospital bedside of Maurice Oldfield, the former head of the Secret Intelligence Service, who was dying of stomach cancer. She found him surrounded by his brothers and sisters, whom she gently asked to leave as she needed to ‘speak privately with Sir Maurice’. When they trooped back

Gale-force lyricism

Centuries before their footballers learned giant-slaying ways, Icelanders knew how to startle the world with tall stories. In the moonscape that birthed Sagas and Eddas, little grew but epic tales. When this novel’s protagonist, the troubled poet-turned-publisher Ari, announces in an interview that he has given up authorship, his aunt Elin sends him a heartbroken

No happy endings

Between agreeing to review this book and receiving it, I got worried. Like many, I adore Doctor Zhivago with its tragic love story between the eponymous doctor-poet and the beautiful Lara, set in post-revolutionary Russia. When in Moscow, I followed the trail of literary pilgrims to Boris Pasternak’s dacha in the writers’ village of Peredelkino.

Chinese whispers

Peter Ho Davies’s second novel, The Fortunes, is a beautifully crafted study, in four parts, of the history of the Chinese in America. Though it deals, of necessity, with racism in all its insidious forms, it does so with humanity, humour, self-deprecation and a hefty dose of irony. Each section — ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’, ‘Jade’ and

Doctor who?

On 25 July 1865, during a heatwave, Dr James Barry died of dysentery in his London lodgings. A charwoman came in to ‘lay out’ the body. She had known the deceased gentleman: a strange-looking fellow, about five feet tall, slight and stooped and with a large nose and dyed red hair. But nothing had prepared

Girls about town

On 8 June 1920 an old beggar woman sat against a wall in Kingsway holding a mongrel in her arms and singing aloud. Virginia Woolf noted in her diary that there was a recklessness to her. She was singing for her own amusement, shrilly, and then fire engines came by singing shrilly, too. ‘Sometimes everything

Tales out of school | 25 August 2016

At first glance Sean O’Brien’s new novel appears to focus on England’s devotion to the past. Even its title carries the sense and long-sustained rhythm of things going on as before. As if to underscore the point, Once Again Assembled Here is set in the autumn of 1968, a year often portrayed in fiction to

A view to a kill

A certain sort of male novelist will always aspire to be Joseph Conrad. The seedy cosmopolitanism of his fiction and its worldly, morally compromised protagonists — those European merchant seamen negotiating far-flung colonies — are an attractive counterpoint to the unmanly business of staying indoors to write a book. Toby Vieira’s entertaining, globe-hopping debut tale