Escape into fantasy: My Heavenly Favourite, by Lucas Rijneveld, reviewed

When Marieke Lucas Rijneveld won the International Booker Prize in 2020 for The Discomfort of Evening, a novel set in the Netherlands about the daughter of a dairy farmer growing up in a strict Christian household in the wake of the tragic death of her brother, the earthy, uncompromising voice was striking. The book was disturbing in its subject matter (the parents, blinded by grief, allow their remaining children to become semi-feral, experimenting with sex and death) and its visceral animal similes: bloody birth, brutal mating, culls for foot-and-mouth disease, slaughter. The ten-year-old girl protagonist had a lot in common with the author; and so it is again in My

A redemptive fable: Night Watch, by Jayne Anne Phillips, reviewed

The Appalachians have become fashionable fictional territory. Following Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer and Demon Copperhead comes Jayne Anne Phillips’s Night Watch. Like Cold Mountain, it is set largely in the aftermath of the American civil war, but, for all its wealth of detail, it is less a historical account than a redemptive fable. As befits a portrait of a society riven by war, the novel unfolds in a series of discrete episodes. Its dominant consciousness and first-person narrator is 12-year-old ConaLee, who lives in a remote hillside cabin with her mother Eliza, infant brothers and sister and violently abusive ‘Papa’. Their nearest neighbour is Dearbhla,

Britney Spears is back with a vengeance

I am working on a play about Marilyn Monroe at the moment and, reading Britney Spears’s book, the similarities of these two fragile blondes came to mind. Both were celebrated and castigated for their woman-child sex appeal; both struggled with sinister Svengalis – Darryl Zanuck and Mickey Mouse. But one big difference between the two is that Marilyn often wished she had a father, while one imagines Britney often wishes she hadn’t. In the long and sorry history of parasitical men leeching off talented women, was there ever a more worthless example than Jamie Spears? He used his daughter as a cash-cow from her childhood; when she became an adult

Time to take your meds, Kanye

No one does agonising quite like Mobeen Azhar. In several BBC documentaries now, he’s set his face to pensive, gone off on an earnest quest to investigate a touchy subject and reached his conclusions only after the most extravagant of brow-furrowing. There is, however, a perhaps unexpected twist: the resulting programmes are rather good, creating the impression – or even reflecting the reality – of a man determined to get to the often dark heart of the matter. For a while, it did look as if the programme’s main appeal might be as a comedy of liberal discomfiture In the past, Azhar has applied his methods to such issues as

A doomed affair: Kairos, by Jenny Erpenbeck, reviewed

We all live with boundaries, but few of us feel that as keenly as Jenny Erpenbeck, who grew up in the Pankow district of East Berlin, a stone’s throw from the Wall. Now a leading novelist of a unified Germany, she explained several years ago that when the Wall came down in 1989 and the East German state collapsed (she was 22 at the time), a ‘border’ was created between two halves of her life. ‘Without this experience of transition, from one world to a very other one, I would probably never have started writing.’ It will never be like this again, thinks Hans. It will always be this way,

All about my mother: Édouard Louis’s latest family saga

Shunned by his father and his peers because of his homosexuality, Édouard Louis (born Eddy Bellegueule in 1992) left his village in rural Normandy and moved to Paris, becoming the first member of his family to attend university. By his mid-twenties he had published three well-received autobiographical novels: about working-class machismo (The End of Eddy), his experience of sexual assault (A History of Violence) and the condition of the French welfare state (Who Killed My Father). In his latest book he turns the spotlight on his mother, revisiting ‘the succession of accidents that made up her life’. Monique Bellegueule had ambitions to train as a chef, but was derailed by teenage pregnancies

A gentle soap opera with nudity and book chat: Conversations with Friends reviewed

It’s official: television has a new genre. Its features include leisurely half-hour episodes, plenty of literary chat, several scenes set in libraries, not much humour and lots of close-ups of the thoughtful faces of clever young Irish women. It would also have presented a serious dilemma for teenage boys growing up before the internet, in that there’s not a great deal of exciting incident but there is a reliably high quotient of sex. The genre in question is, of course, the Sally Rooney adaptation – which, having laid the groundwork in 2020 with Normal People, has now cemented its new-genre status with Conversations with Friends. Sure enough, the first episode

Abandoned for a bogus guru – Lily Dunn’s harrowing family memoir

Sins of My Father begins with an ending. Describing her 61-year-old parent’s final desperate flight from a life of vibrant glitter, creativity and affluence, Lily Dunn reveals the extent to which it was simultaneously riddled with devastating addiction. After alcoholism, drugs, money and sex played their destructive role, her father (who is never given a first name) died incontinent, with shoes that ‘let the rain in’, having subsisted on a diet of vodka and scones and, due to the removal of all his teeth, with a mouth that had ‘turned in on itself, a perpetual downward curve of misery’, a smile reversed. Many years earlier the six-year-old Lily was seen

More penny dreadful than Dickensian: Lily, by Rose Tremain, reviewed

Rose Tremain’s 15th novel begins with a favoured schmaltzy image of high Victoriana: it is a night (if not dark and stormy, then certainly dark and wet) in the year 1850, and a baby has been left at the gates of Victoria Park. Then we have an uncanny detail: the baby is sniffed out by a pack of wolves, one of which bites off her little toe. Thankfully, a police constable finds her and walks through the night to Coram’s Fields to deliver her to the Foundling Hospital. From there she is sent to be fostered by a loving family on a farm in Suffolk for six years, only to

Is the life of Jimmy Savile a suitable subject for drama?

One day in 1975 the Israeli cabinet found themselves being lectured on the most intractable political problem of our age — how to bring peace to the Middle East — by a peculiar white-haired British entertainer wearing a pink suit with short sleeves. His name? Jimmy Savile. That’s how he told it anyway. Remarkably, witnesses back up the generality if not the specifics of the anecdote. Savile indeed visited the Holy Land in 1975. And he did talk to the Israeli president Ephraim Katzir, saying (so he claimed): ‘I’m very disappointed because you’ve all forgotten how to be Jewish and that’s why everyone is taking you to the cleaners.’ Jimmy

The gender identity issue: Kathleen Stock puts her head above the parapet

‘Something is afoot,’ wrote the academic philosopher Kathleen Stock in 2018: Beyond the academy, there’s a huge and impassioned discussion going on around the apparent conflict between women-who-are-not-transwomen’s rights and interests and transwomen’s rights and interests. And yet nearly all academic philosophers — including, surprisingly, feminist philosophers — are ignoring it. Material Girls picks up three years after Stock’s initial musings, and feminist philosophers are knee-deep in debate. Or is debate permitted in matters of gender ideology? During the past two decades there has been a concerted effort by the likes of Stonewall to override women’s sex-based rights in favour of ‘gender identity’. Trans ideology has become embedded within institutions

Meet the front man of ‘the most revolting band in the world’

Corey Taylor, the singer of Slipknot, laughs when I observe that he is disappointingly well adjusted. He had just been explaining that he does his own cleaning at home, that he ‘hates seeing privilege and entitlement’, that he can get from place to place without needing his hand held (you might scoff, but many musicians get infantilised by a life of indulging and being indulged). ‘I have a very healthy ego,’ he says. ‘But I also know to keep it in check as much as I can, because I don’t want to be that dude.’ Which is not to say Slipknot’s career has been free of incident. Far from it.

Child sexual abuse survivors are being let down

The Crown Prosecution Service’s latest grim statistics show that, despite the increasing number of police recorded rapes over the past five years, the prosecution rate has reduced. This state of affairs, has been branded as the ‘decriminalisation of rape’ by the Victim’s Commissioner Dame Vera Baird QC. And the data’s fine print also reveals a heart-breaking truth: the victims suffering from the worst outcomes are children. Just 16 per cent of victims aged 10-13 saw their abuser charged for the abuse they inflicted, with 55 per cent then seeing no prosecution take place. By contrast, the charge rate in the 25-59 victim bracket was 46 per cent, while the no prosecution rate was 30

Is this the last round in the great celebrity Punch and Judy show?

It’s been tough recently being Woody Allen, something that didn’t look too easy to begin with. Last year Amazon breached his four-film contract, preferring to settle out of court. Actors have lodged their public regret at working with him. He is one of Hollywood’s notable sinking stars. In March, following a demonstration by staff, Hachette pulped this book. ‘Everybody should take responsibility for their actions,’ one protesting employee told the Guardian — anonymously, and apparently without irony. The New York Times called him ‘a monster’. And if you think that’s social rock bottom, in 2016 the Clinton campaign refused his donation. Imagine that: money so tainted that not even the

The scars of public school: English Monsters, by James Scudamore, reviewed

‘James Scudamore is now a force in the English novel,’ says Hilary Mantel on the cover of English Monsters, which, given that it’s his fourth book, has the whiff of a backhanded compliment (‘Have you lost weight?’). But despite its less exotic setting than his earlier novels, there is a reach and scope here that makes me think Mantel might be right. This is an English public school story (come back!) that gives us four decades in the life of Max Denyer. Max’s jet-setting parents leave him in the care of the sort of sparky grandfather of whom Roald Dahl would approve (gadgets, projects, home-made cider vinegar: ‘Electric jolt. Scalp