Echoes of Tom Brown’s School Days: Rabbits, by Hugo Rifkind, reviewed

The year is 1993 and 16-year-old Tommo has been moved from a day state school of 2,000 pupils in brown blazers that ‘when it rained… smelled of shit’ to Eskmount, an elite Scottish boarding school, where boys wear kilts and put their ‘cocks on your shoulder’ when you’re working in the library (easier in a kilt) and routinely hang ‘smaller kids in duvets… out the window’. The horseshoe effect in schooling terms: the more expensive, the more savage. Hugo Rifkind’s Rabbits opens with a bang: ‘When the shotgun went off under Johnnie Burchill’s brother’s chin, word had it, the top of his head came off like the top of a

My prep school scarred me for life

On one blissful, cloudless day during the summer holidays of 1972, Charles Spencer, who had just turned eight, surveyed the scene in his mother’s garden in Sussex. He’d spent the morning cycling and swimming, and a barbecue was being prepared. He remembers thinking: ‘This is too good to last.’ And he was right. A date he was dreading, 12 September, arrived. His father drove him the 100 miles from his house on the Sandringham estate in Norfolk to Maidwell Hall, the boarding prep school in Northamptonshire where Spencer would be a pupil for the next five years. We all remember that end-of-summer-holidays dread: the savage haircut, the putting on of

The danger of making too many friends

Elizabeth Day has found her niche as an astute, approachable social anthropologist, observing emotions and behaviour we are reluctant to discuss – such as failure – and draining them of their stigma. Her new book tackles the subject of friendship, which she points out has been far less analysed than romantic relationships. Her honesty and her ability to listen make her an endearing narrator and charming interviewer. She examines why friendship has always been so important to her. Admirers of her previous book, How to Fail, will recall that her childhood involved a stint at a Belfast boarding school where she was bullied, an experience she touches on again here.

Portrait of a domestic tyrant: The Exhibitionist, by Charlotte Mendelson, reviewed

If vivid, drily hilarious tales about messy families stuffed with passive aggression and seething resentment are your thing, you will gleefully hoover up Charlotte Mendelson’s riotous, prize-winning novels. These buzzing sagas dissect dysfunctional relationships with spiky wit and remarkable acuity. The Exhibitionist is as good as any of her previous books. Ray Hanrahan is a failed artist who once glimpsed mild critical approbation before lapsing into obscurity. He’s also a comically monstrous anti-hero: narcissistic, abusive, controlling, dishonest and a hypochondriac. He has quashed his talented sculptor wife Lucia’s career with guilt- tripping and spurious claims of plagiarism. She is so cowed by his bullying that she jumps to his every

Bernardine Evaristo sets a rousing example of ‘never giving up’

Bernardine Evaristo’s Manifesto — part instructional guide for artists, part call to arms for equality, part literary memoir —shimmers with unfailing self-belief and a strong vein of humility. When Evaristo won the Booker Prize in 2019 for her magnificent seventh novel Girl, Woman, Other, the first black woman to do so, it was the pinnacle of a career devoted not just to honing her craft but to helping others traditionally excluded from the literary world, through teaching, mentoring and activism. There is a great deal of style to Evaristo’s life story; her childhood has strong storybook notes. Her home was a huge, rundown house in south London with 12 rooms,

Why did no one diagnose my sister’s TB?

In 2016, Arifa Akbar’s elder sister, Fauzia, died suddenly in the Royal Free Hospital, London at the age of 45. Until the last hours of her life, the cause of her coughing, chest pain, night sweats and breathlessness had eluded a series of baffled experts. But you do not need a medical degree to hazard a guess at what might have been behind these symptoms. From Keats’s famous death to the consumptive heroines of 19th-century opera, spots of blood on a handkerchief were all that was missing to complete the picture. Only after Fauzia had a catastrophic cerebral haemorrhage, however, did someone think to test a sample of her spinal

Problem parents: My Phantoms, by Gwendoline Riley, reviewed

Gwendoline Riley’s unsentimental fiction hovers on the edge of comedy and bleakness, and has drawn comparisons from Jean Rhys to Albert Camus. First Love, her fifth novel, put a toxic relationship under the microscope, winning the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 2017 and being shortlisted for five others, including the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Expanding on one of its strands, her sixth book zeroes in on child/parent dynamics. In My Phantoms, Bridget, an academic, reflects on her relationship with her late father and mother. Glimpses of her suburban upbringing reveal a mother miserably yet willingly shackled to convention. When Bridget asks Helen why she married the monstrous husband she left