Family life

What do we mean when we talk of ‘home’?

Given that I know the author, would I feel inhibited about reviewing her new book critically, I asked myself. But other than meeting her once at a party for two minutes, I realised that I know Clover Stroud only through her raw, ravishing memoirs and – like the rest of her 37,000 Instagram followers – the intimate and honest way in which she documents her life. Perhaps more than any other writer, Stroud has taken the elegant, elliptical memoir and forged it into the genre of life writing. She has lived a lot of life. The Wild Other documented her mother’s life-changing brain injury as a result of a riding

Ménage à trois: Day, by Michael Cunningham, reviewed

Set over the course of the same April day, with morning, afternoon and night ascribed to consecutive years, Michael Cunningham’s Day is built around time’s march towards an inevitable ending. This feeling of being caught up in time and trapped by its onward force is shared by the novel’s small cast of characters. A married couple, Isabel and Dan Byrne, along with Isabel’s brother Robbie, are struggling with their floundering careers, ageing bodies and their place in the world. They are also balancing a painful platonic love triangle, with both Dan and Isabel more in love with Robbie than with each other. The claustrophobic domesticity of the novel is amplified

She’s leaving home: Breakdown, by Cathy Sweeney, reviewed

The narrator of Cathy Sweeney’s first novel has finally cracked. I say ‘finally’ because there have been signs: drinking alone; disliking her daughter, or at least her type; having an affair with her friend’s son; opening a separate bank account in her maiden name when her mother died. But in the beginning we don’t know any of this. We don’t know what she’s doing, and neither does she. It’s an ordinary Tuesday in November when she leaves her comfortable home in the suburbs of Dublin, which she shares with her husband and their two almost-adult children: ‘I grab my handbag and keys, let the front door shut behind me. I

Scenes from domestic life: After the Funeral, by Tessa Hadley, reviewed

The cover image of Tessa Hadley’s fourth short story collection is Gerhard Richter’s ‘Betty’ (1988), a portrait of the artist’s daughter facing away from the viewer. It’s an apt choice for Hadley’s work, which turns on the fundamental unknowability of human beings. The titular tale, about a widowed mother and her two daughters confronting reduced circumstances, is loosely inspired by Mavis Gallant’s story ‘1933’. Its climax, which pulls off the feat of being both shocking and inevitable, is a testament to Hadley’s skill as a storyteller. Some of the stories’ incidents are entirely internal: in ‘Cecilia Awakened’, a teenaged girl on a family holiday in Florence wakes up ‘inside the

Turmoil in Tuscany: The Three Graces, by Amanda Craig, reviewed

The title of Amanda Craig’s enjoyable and provocative ninth novel might conjure the dancing trio in Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ (which we visit in the book, set in Tuscany); but the three graces here are Ruth, Diana and Marta, elderly expat friends who meet for weekly gossips over coffee, ‘united by age, exile, the love of dogs and their disinclination to discuss their infirmities’. The women may be less beautiful than Botticelli’s, but they are certainly more formidable. By the end of the first chapter they’ve already smashed a car window to rescue an overheating dog. Their idyll is thrown into turmoil when Ruth finds herself hosting her grandson’s ill-matched wedding, Diana’s

The perfect holiday read: The Bee Sting, by Paul Murray, reviewed

Hello, summer! This is it. If you have been waiting for your big holiday read, finally here it is: an immersive, brilliantly structured, beautifully written mega-tome that is as laugh-out-loud funny as it is deeply disturbing. It is never a good idea to begin a review (or indeed to end one) with a round of applause unless you want to sound like a complete pushover or a total patsy, but full credit where it’s due: Paul Murray, the undisputed reigning champion of epic Irish tragicomedy, has done it again. He did it first with An Evening of Long Goodbyes (2003), which read as if a young, Irish P.G. Wodehouse were

The view from on high: The Sleep Watcher, by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, reviewed

The Sleep Watcher, the third thoughtful novel by the gifted Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, features a narrator who floats free from her body at night and circles around invisibly, observing her family and friends. This departure into the supernatural from the author’s previous work does not leaven the sadness of her writing, and the book is even more melancholic than her Starling Days (2019), which opened with the protagonist contemplating suicide.   Sixteen-year-old Katherine, or Kit as she is known, does not always like what she sees as she wanders about unobserved – though it does allow for some moments of comedy. She lives with her parents, F and M, and

Connecticut connections: A Little Hope, by Ethan Joella, reviewed

A Little Hope, Ethan Joella’s debut novel, is about the lives of a dozen or so ordinary people who live in smalltown East Coast America. By helicopter over Connecticut ‘you wouldn’t notice Wharton right away’. Yet the problems its inhabitants face are universal. There is the seemingly American Dream family – Greg, Freddie, Addie the daughter and Wizard the dog. In line with the novel’s themes of ‘hurt’ and ‘hope’, Greg develops an aggressive blood cancer and is fighting for his life. Chemo and radiotherapy weaken him; ginger ale tastes like metallic fizz and the side-effects diminish his resolve. Freddie helps out as a seamstress at Crowley Cleaners, which Darcy

A child’s eye view: Fight Night, by Miriam Toews, reviewed

Writing from a child’s point of view is a daredevil act that Miriam Toews raises the stakes on in her latest novel. The nine-year-old narrator is meant to have written the words that appear on the page. But then there is something inherently risky about Toews’s whole undertaking as a novelist. She has made her name in fiction that grapples with the restrictive Mennonite community in which she was raised – keeping faith with it and betraying it simultaneously. Her masterly Women Talking confronted the community head on, depicting the secret meetings of a group of women deciding how to respond to pervasive sexual violence. Now we move outside the

The Belfast Blitz: These Days, by Lucy Caldwell, reviewed

Caught outside at the start of a raid in the Belfast Blitz as the incendiary bombs rain down, Audrey looks up at the sky, transfixed by its eerie beauty. She watches ‘the first magnesium flares falling, bursting into incandescent light, hanging there over the city like chandeliers’. It is the sort of thing you never forget, she thinks, ‘not in a lifetime’. This scene in These Days, by the Northern Irish writer Lucy Caldwell, brilliantly captures familiar territory for anyone who has read about the Blitz. The awe at the peculiar beauty, the feeling that this is unforgettable and will change people forever, the desire to domesticate these undomesticated happenings

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

Knotty problems: French Braid, by Anne Tyler, reviewed

Anne Tyler’s 24th novel French Braid opens in 2010 in Philadelphia train station. We find the teenage Serena, who has the ‘usual Garrett-family blue’ eyes, with her boyfriend James, waiting for a train back to Baltimore, where they’re at university together. Serena runs into her cousin Nicholas – although she’s not certain it’s him – and doesn’t seem especially keen to speak to him. There’s an awkward meeting; then Serena and James go to catch their train. A sense of unease hangs over the whole encounter. James speaks for the reader when he says: ‘Maybe there’s some deep dark secret in your family’s past.’ Uncovering this secret is at the

The home life of Shirley Jackson, queen of horror

‘One of the nicest things about being a writer,’ Shirley Jackson once noted in a lecture titled ‘How I Write’, ‘is that nothing ever gets wasted. It’s a little like the frugal housewife who carefully tucks away all the odds and ends of string beans and cold bacon and serves them up magnificently in a fancy casserole dish.’ In Raising Demons, newly reissued as a Penguin Classic, Jackson, perhaps best known for her definitively macabre — and, on its publication in the New Yorker, riotously controversial — 1948 short story ‘The Lottery’ and for her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, most recently wrenched (‘adapted’ would scarcely be the

Dreading demobilisation: The Autumn of the Ace, by Louis de Bernières, reviewed

The Autumn of the Ace begins in 1945, as the second world war ends, but both Louis de Bernières and his protagonist Daniel Pitt appear reluctant to leave warfare behind. Pitt is a flying ace, but so nervous about returning to civilian life that he argues against handing back his service weapon. Eventually he capitulates. During the war, he lost two toes after being tortured by the Gestapo but he nonetheless appears to prefer physical peril to the prosaic dysfunctionality of his family life. His mother and one of his daughters are dead, his marriage has disintegrated and he has fathered two children by his wife’s bohemian sister. His son

Stockholm syndrome: The Family Clause, by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, reviewed

Some faint hearts may sink at the idea of a torrid Swedish family drama peopled with nameless figures identified only as ‘a grandfather who is a father’, ‘a sister who is a mother’, and so on. Stick around: this gets better. That grandfather, an immigrant trader who ‘could sell sand to a beach’ or ‘wind to a hurricane’, remembers his first taste of Swedish TV: a child- ren’s programme featured ‘two different coloured socks with sequins for eyes’ discussing ‘how vital class struggle was for a happy society’. Later, after the long-distance skating, came ‘a documentary about Latin American poets or Ukrainian beekeepers’. The granddad would meet his entrepreneurial mates