Family history

A GP diagnosed me with ‘acute anxiety’ – only to exacerbate it

In 2008, after his first child was born and before he was due to get married, Tom Lee began to unravel. It was as if, he explains in his fragile and unforgettable memoir, ‘some internal switch had been clicked or shorted, leaving my body and mind in a state of unrelenting and unsolvable emergency’. The breakdown began in his body: tight headache, nausea, a stiffness in his hands so extreme he couldn’t hold a pen. Welts erupted on the surface of his skin; he ate only bananas, one half at a time. The discarded halves blackened around the house. He was unable to work or sleep; but these early weeks

Prejudice in Pennsylvania: The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, by James McBride, reviewed

If chicken soup is balm for the soul, then James McBride’s eighth book, set in 1930s Chicken Hill, a neighbourhood in a small town in Pennsylvania that is home to Jewish, black and other immigrant people, is its literary equivalent. There is something nourishing about The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, a warm story about the power of community in the face of prejudice that both salutes the American dream while exposing it as a sham. Like much of McBride’s previous work, which includes four other novels, a biography of James Brown and his 1996 memoir, A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, about his Jewish mother, Ruth, The

A potent seam of violence: The Wren, the Wren, by Anne Enright, reviewed

The Irish novelist Anne Enright is now in her sixties. Her deceptively modest new novel, The Wren, The Wren, opens with a long section narrated by Nell, a woman in her early twenties living in contemporary Dublin. Nell scrapes by, ‘writing content non-stop’: travel pieces about places she’s never been to, stories for a wealthy ‘actress/eco-influencer’. Adrift and vulnerable, she falls into an on-off relationship with a man called Felim, who is emotionally cruel and photographs her naked without her permission. With this extended portrait of a much younger woman, Enright quietly establishes her excellence. Laid against similar endeavours by writers of her generation – Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at

A shocking claim about the Baghdad bombings of 1950 and 1951

Avi Shlaim’s family led the good life in Baghdad. Prosperous and distinguished members of Iraq’s Jewish minority, a community which could trace its presence in Babylon back more than 2,500 years, they had a large house with servants and nannies, went to the best schools, rubbed shoulders with the great and the good and sashayed elegantly from one glittering party to the next. Shlaim’s father was a successful businessman who counted ministers as friends. His much younger mother was a socially ambitious beauty who attracted admirers, from Egypt’s King Farouk to a Mossad recruiter. For this privileged section of Iraqi society, it was a rich, cosmopolitan and generally harmonious milieu.

Polly Toynbee searches in vain for one working-class ancestor

Polly Toynbee’s fascinating, multi-generational memoir comes with a caveat to a Spectator reviewer. While her book is written with ‘self-conscious awareness’, Toynbee predicts, with a cautionary wag of the finger, that it will be reviewed in publications where ‘introspection is inconvenient’. Not a page goes by without a reference to the iniquities of class, accent, snobbery or patriarchal dominance Of course, introspection drives her narrative. Toynbee, a self-confessed ‘silver-spooner’, was born into a family of towering academic and literary influencers who, while enjoying connections and lifestyles as posh as they come, almost consistently resisted and campaigned against conservative elitism and privilege. As with all families, these ‘crusty old relations’ contain

Literary charades: The Writing School, by Miranda France, reviewed

A recent YouGov survey found that 60 per cent of Britons dream of being writers, compared with 31 per cent who dream of being film stars. Although the chances of success, or even subsistence, are equally remote in both professions, aspirant authors flock to the country’s ever-proliferating creative writing courses. Miranda France’s splendid third book, blending fact and fiction, is set on one such course: a week-long residency in a rural retreat house, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Arvon Foundation at which France has taught. The unnamed narrator, a Spanish translator and travel writer with two novels to her name, leads an eclectic group of 12

Mad men plotting: The Unfolding, by A.M. Homes, reviewed

Fifteen years ago, A.M. Homes published The Mistress’s Daughter, an explosive, painful account of how she met her birth mother, Ellen, who had placed her for adoption as a baby when, as a very young woman, she became pregnant in the course of an affair with an older, married man. Perhaps the most memorable scene depicts her mother, who had instigated the contact between them when Homes was in her early thirties, appearing without warning at a reading Homes was giving in a bookshop. The writer’s panic and discomfort at this unexpected ambush, and her sense of what it might foreshadow, were palpable (and she was not wrong. Ellen’s desperate,

Ian McEwan’s capacity for reinvention is astonishing

McEwanesque. What would that even mean? The dark psychological instability of The Comfort of Strangers and Enduring Love? The gleeful comedy of Solar and Nutshell? The smart social realism of Saturday and The Children Act? The metafictional games of Atonement and Sweet Tooth? Ian McEwan’s brilliant capacity for reinvention is a hallmark of his literary career. It’s simpler to say what McEwanesque is not: baggy, meandering, plotless, long. Yet all of these adjectives could be applied to his surprising new novel, Lessons. This cradle-to-grave (well, seven-ish to seventy-something) narrative concerns the life and times of Roland Baines, born, like McEwan, in 1948. Roland shares more than just a birth date

A.N. Wilson has many regrets

‘Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults.’ A.N. Wilson seems, on the surface, to have taken to heart the wise words of the Anglican general confession. Aged 71, he looks back on his life and career and records his regrets and failures both private and professional. His major concern is the failure of his marriage, at the age of 20, to Katherine Duncan-Jones, the Renaissance scholar. Katherine, ten years his senior, was a distinctive Oxford figure, recognisable by her sideways limp and for riding a wicker-basketed sit-up-and-beg bicycle. In later years they reconciled and met weekly for lunch. Wilson records Katherine’s sad, slow descent into dementia, which mimics

An angry poltergeist: Long Shadows, by Abigail Cutter, reviewed

Long Shadows, a powerful novel set mainly in the American civil war, is very unlike Gone with the Wind. The narrator, Tom Smiley, is now an unhappy ghost trapped in his old home, which, apart from snakes, mice and silverfish, has been uninhabited since his widowed daughter Clara died. A young couple arrive: Harry, who has inherited the property, and Phoebe, a psychic. To Tom’s indignation, they start renovating, getting rid of loved objects such as his family’s kitchen table and piano. Letters, medals and his sisters’ clothes are unearthed, prompting painful memories for him. This is the story of a man from a modest Virginia farming family who were

Seize the moment: Undercurrent, by Barney Norris, reviewed

Barney Norris’s third novel opens with a wedding in April. The couple tying the knot don’t matter; it’s the occasion that does, paving the way for a story about love, family and stories themselves, which is apt from a writer who is known for his dramas on the stage as much as on the page. Ed, who narrates half the novel, is there with his girlfriend Juliet, wondering why they’re yet to get married. It’s the expense, he supposes, and the not knowing what sort of ring to buy. And so he allows time to drift by, ‘just letting it happen to me, rather than me doing very much with

Fleshing out family history: Ancestry, by Simon Mawer, reviewed

DNA test kits may have been all the rage in recent years, but how much can they really tell us about our ancestors? Cold, hard data is, by definition, neither sentimental nor sympathetic. Or so says Simon Mawer, whose latest novel asks where, in our austere conception of the past as a graveyard of artefacts, bones, facts and figures, are the personalities of the dead? ‘Where is the flesh and blood?’ Mawer is well known for expertly pillaging the treasure chest of history to serve his fiction. His previous forays into the past, such as the second-world-war-era and Man Booker-shortlisted The Glass Room of 2009, struck an admirable balance between

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

Messy family matters: Bad Relations, by Cressida Connolly, reviewed

Cressida Connolly’s new novel begins with a couple of endings. It’s spring 1855, and on the battlefields of the Crimea William Gale is mourning the deaths of his brother Algernon and his friend Mr Lockwood. He writes to his wife Alice, who back home has befriended the progressive Dr Nolan, and asks her to call on Mrs Lockwood in Cheltenham. Upon returning from the war a medalled hero, William isn’t himself, and after meeting the ‘good lady’ widow and her two little girls, Molly and Kitty, he makes a rash decision that reverberates across generations. It’s hard not to play favourites with a novel divided into three fairly distinct parts,

Jonathan Bate weaves a memoir around madness in English literature

There is a trend for books in which academics write personally about their engagement with literature. Examples include Lara Feigel’s Free Woman, in which the author blends a memoir of her marriage break-up with a close reading of Doris Lessing’s fiction, and Sally Bayley’s Girl With Dove, which fuses an account of a traumatic childhood with sketches that focus on Bayley’s early love of books. Addressed to a wider readership, these works combine autobiography with literary criticism. They are carefully crafted, confessional and ask why literature matters. The advantage of this approach is that it avoids the pitfalls of the now highly professional discipline of English Literature, dominated in universities

Christina Patterson overcomes family misfortunes

The journalist and broadcaster Christina Patterson’s memoir begins promisingly. She has a talent for vivid visual description, not least: ‘We are a pink and navy family. Two pink girls, a navy boy and a navy wife.’ Her early family holidays in Sweden, where her mother is from, are full of lingon-berries, hammocks and mini-golf. She recounts the story of her parents’ courtship as students and says of their relationship: ‘Love at first sight. Love for nearly 50 years. Love till death do us part’ — ominously pointing out how easy they have made love and marriage look. Most arresting, however, in this early part of the book, is her depiction

Variations on a theme: To Paradise, by Hanya Yanagihara, reviewed

My daunting brief: to tell you about Hanya Yanagihara and her new, uncategorisable 720-page novel in 550 words. It’s the book-reviewing equivalent of a heated round of Articulate. Bums on the edge of the sofa, team. Flip that egg-timer. Here goes! American, born 1974, childhood spent largely in Hawaii. Debuted with The People in the Trees, 2013: clever, concept-led story about a fictional island whose inhabitants stumble upon the secret of extreme longevity. Best known for her second novel, the 800-page A Little Life, sold more than a million copies, shortlisted for the Booker. Come on, you know this one! Four gay friends, but mainly about Jude, the victim of

The cosmopolitan spirit of the Middle East vanished with the Ottomans

One of the most depressing vignettes in Michael Vatikiotis’s agreeably meandering account of his cosmopolitan family’s experiences in the Near East is when he, a former journalist with a sharp eye for detail, visits El Wedy, close to the Nile south of Cairo, where just over a century ago his great-uncle Samuele Sornaga built a hugely successful ceramics works employing 200 people. The factory no longer exists. It was nationalised, privatised, closed, and is now a vast construction site. After being harassed and prevented from taking photographs, Vatikiotis discovers it’s being developed as a resort — not for general tourists, mind, but for the army, whose presence looms menacingly everywhere.

From family home to mausoleum: the Musée Nissim Camondo

The potter and author Edmund de Waal revisits familiar terrain at an angle in his third book, Letters to Camondo. Ten years after the publication of his debut memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, he is once again in Paris, lurking about the rue de Monceau, ruminating on dust, trying to make the dead speak. He’s particularly keen to elicit a word from Count Moïse de Camondo (1860-1935), the last patriarch of a clan of absurdly rich French Jewish bankers with roots in Constantinople. The count was a friend and neighbour of de Waal’s cousin, the art historian Charles Ephrussi, whose collection of Japanese netsuke played such a large role

Family secrets: Life Sentences, by Billy O’Callaghan, reviewed

Despite innovative work by younger writers, there remains a prominent strain in Irish literature of what we might call the ‘sad but nice’: tales of desperation elegantly unfolded, popularised by William Trevor and John McGahern and refined by Colm Tóibín and Mary Costello. A newcomer in this lane is Billy O’Callaghan, whose previous books have been so orgiastically praised by the Booker Prize winner and former literary editor of the Irish Times John Banville that I began to think O’Callaghan might be another of his pseudonyms. And if there’s one feature in Irish novels that shouts louder — or with more forceful quietness — than others, it’s the family and