A haunting mystery: Enlightenment, by Sarah Perry, reviewed

As ghosts go, Maria Vaduva, who haunts Enlightenment, is not a patch on the wild, tormented figure who stalks the pages of Sarah Perry’s previous novel, Melmoth. Where Melmoth, in rage and despair, haunts everyone complicit in history’s horrors, Maria is crossly plaintive. The disappearance of this unrecognised 19th-century Romanian astronomer from Lowlands House, a manor in the fictional small Essex town of Aldleigh (where marriage has brought her), becomes the obsession of Thomas Hart. He is an unlikely columnist of the Essex Chronicle, and Enlightenment’s central character. It could be said that he is at odds with life and that achieving harmony (on Earth and in heaven) is the

A middle-aged man in crisis: How to Make a Bomb, by Rupert Thomson, reviewed

Philip Notman is going through what looks like a midlife crisis. Travelling home from an academic conference, he feels sick and disoriented to the point where he is barely able to function. Back in London, he can’t quite explain to his wife Anya, or indeed to himself, what’s ailing him. Is it just me, he wonders, or is everything unbearably toxic? Instead of working on his next book during a sabbatical, he sets off on a journey in search of a remedy. Rupert Thomson’s new novel has no full stops. In their place are paragraph breaks, with sentences abandoned on the page, increasing the sense of dislocation: Everything sick, he

Women on a wind-swept island: Hagstone, by Sinéad Gleeson, reviewed

This absorbing and wild debut feels at once muzzily folkloric and sharply contemporary. It follows Nell, an artist who lives on a wind-whipped island without ties or commitments – until, that is, a group of women living an even quieter life commission her to make an artwork that will tell their story. The Inions, as they’re known, have come from all over the world to Rathglas, a crumbling old convent overlooking the sea. Naturally, rumours abound about them being a cult or a coven, but really they’re ‘ordinary women wanting a different kind of life’, who have rejected hatred and inequality in favour of seclusion and simplicity. Gleeson, who in

Fools rush in: Mania, by Lionel Shriver, reviewed

Pearson Converse teaches literature at Verlaine University, Pennsylvania. She exists in an alternative universe to our own in which the Mental Parity Movement holds sway.  There is intellectual levelling, and no ‘cognitive discrimination’. This is high satire, exaggerated, crude, inviting ridicule of the social system portrayed, close to the great satirists of the 18th century in tone if not in style.   Yet Lionel Shriver’s Mania is more than just a satire. It is a study of Pearson’s family life and her ‘unbalanced’ relationship with her best friend from childhood, Emory. Pearson has three children: an intellectually gifted girl and boy by a high-IQ sperm donor, and an averagely intelligent

Home to mother: Long Island, by Colm Toibín, reviewed

Colm Toibin’s new novel starts with a bang – or rather, the results of one. It is only on the second page that an Irishman arrives at Eilis Fiorello’s house and threatens to leave his wife’s love child on her doorstep, it being also the doorstep of the father, Tony. ‘If anyone thinks I am keeping an Italian plumber’s brat in my house and have my own children believe that it came into the world as decently as they did, they can have another think.’ As a sequel to Brooklyn, it makes sense that Long Island is quick out of the blocks. Which is exactly what Eilis and Tony are

It’s hard work having fun: Wives Like Us, by Plum Sykes, reviewed

Just when you thought the Cotswolds must have peaked as a fictional setting, a new rom-com from the author of Bergdorf Blondes floats like cherry blossom onto a chalk stream. Plum Sykes has chosen a rich (as in minted) target, and she is well-equipped to take aim. As a former contributing editor of American Vogue, she might be considered part of the trans-atlantic glossy posse, but at heart she’s still an Oxford-educated Sykes – with a certain diplomatic heritage. The family seat is the magnificent Sledmere in Yorkshire, which has its own blue-tiled Turkish Room. So Plum is not your common-or-garden mag hag. But she now lives in the ’wolds,

Kindness backfires: Sufferance, by Charles Palliser, reviewed

Charles Palliser’s Sufferance tells us what happens to one family in an occupied country during wartime. What sets it apart is that all the characters are unnamed. The country, region and historical period also remain unspecified. This indeterminacy lends the novel enormous power. The father of the family decides to take in a young girl from a minority ethnic group who has become separated from her own family. ‘I felt for her as if she was my own child,’ he says. Yet his motives are not entirely altruistic, since he believes he will be financially rewarded for looking after the girl. He is a lowly accountant working in the public

A timely morality tale: The Spoiled Heart, by Sunjeev Sahota, reviewed

Who would have thought that the battle between champions of old-school socialism and contemporary identity politics for the post of General Secretary of Unify, a fictitious British trade union, would make for such riveting reading? Nayan Olak and Megha Sharma have little in common save their skin colour. He is the son of corner shopkeepers, who started work on the factory floor at 16 and is now the union’s Head of Workplace Disciplinary Actions. She is the daughter of a non-dom property magnate and recently appointed Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.  Their political priorities are neatly encapsulated in their job titles. While never explicitly favouring either candidate, Sunjeev Sahota

The slave’s story: James, by Percival Everett, reviewed

Rereading The Adventures of Huckle-berry Finn can be a saddening experience. It’s not just the oft-repeated n-word that jolts, then pains, then twinges; it’s the ‘no sah’, ‘I’s agwyne to’ locutions of Huck’s companion, the runaway slave Jim. In retelling the celebrated adventure story in Jim’s own voice, Percival Everett upends the convention. James and his fellow slaves can speak perfectly good English between themselves. It’s only when white folks are around that they perform blackness. Whether two slaves out of the earshot of whites would discuss if a situation represents ‘an example of proleptic irony or dramatic irony’ is another matter. Huck Finn is one of the great voices

Hero and villain: The Two Loves of Sophie Strom, by Sam Taylor, reviewed

Counterfactual thinking can be compelling. We imagine love affairs missed out on, tragedies averted. What if I hadn’t boarded that bus or woken from that sleep? Sam Taylor throws this thinking into a vital moment in a young boy’s life that has massive, world- historical resonance. Vienna, 1933. Nazi sympathisers burn down the flat of a Jewish family. Max Spiegelman, aged 13, escapes, but his parents burn to death. Or do they? In a parallel narrative, Max awakes from this dream into the very fire he’s just dreamed about, early enough to rescue his parents. Taylor alternates the stories of the Max whose parents survive and who remains on the

The awkwardness of love in middle age: You Are Here, by David Nicholls, reviewed

Zip up Heathcliff in Gore-Tex, give Cathy laugh-out-loud lines, fold in the poignancy of E.M. Forster, embed quaint maps, blisters, a dash of existential terror and heaps of heartache and you have David Nicholls’s latest novel. If Nicholls’s One Day (recently adapted for Netflix) is a bildungsroman, then You Are Here explores learning to love again later on in life. In One Day we had Emma and Dexter, and here we have Marnie and Michael. Michael is a 42-year-old geography teacher living in York, and Marnie is a 38-year-old proofreader from London. Both have endured the casual cruelty of broken marriages and have withdrawn into themselves to avoid future hurt.

Grotesque vignettes: The Body in the Mobile Library and Other Stories, by Peter Bradshaw, reviewed

There’s a face I found myself making again and again when reading Peter Bradshaw’s short stories, and it was not pretty: top half screwed up in incredulity; lower half slack with bovine confusion. What, my expression said, just happened? What indeed? Bradshaw is best known as the Guardian’s chief cinema critic, but this isn’t his first foray into fiction. The collection comes in the wake of three novels; but he’s admitted that ‘the short story form has always obsessed me’. That fascination with the form has given him the confidence to play with it, and us, and my confusion was deftly engineered from the start. In the opening story ‘The

Mediterranean Gothic: The Sleepwalkers, by Scarlett Thomas, reviewed

Scarlett Thomas likes islands: either literal sea-girt territories or closed enclaves where this wickedly inventive novelist practises her richly enjoyable experiments in plot and form. If her recent Oligarchy found its sour-sweet spot in a grisly girls’ boarding school, The Sleepwalkers creates another insular possession: the Greek island of ‘Kathos’, which almost resembles Samos. Here, within sight of the Turkish coast, the newlyweds Evelyn and Richard arrive as late-September storms brew to undergo their honeymoon from hell. Ever since novels such as Bright Young Things (also island-set) and PopCo, Thomas has known how to fuse an acidly satirical streak of observation with storytelling artifice that keeps her readers pleasurably unsettled

London’s dark underbelly: Caledonian Road, by Andrew O’Hagan, reviewed

‘The Cally’s named after an orphanage for kids from Scotland or some shit. Didn’t we learn that in school?’ So says Big Pharma (real name Devan Swaby), drill rapper from the Cally Active gang – one of the many characters populating Andrew O’Hagan’s vast and riveting Caledonian Road. The novel opens with a 59-strong cast list, representative of contemporary London society. At the heart of this web, spanning aristocracy, gangs and trafficked migrants via an oligarch and the middle-classes, are the celebrity art historian Campbell Flynn and his student and hacker protégé Milo Mangasha. As with the Cally and its links far beyond the capital, so O’Hagan demonstrates that his

Adrift on the Canadian frontier: The Voyageur, by Paul Carlucci, reviewed

At the core of Paul Carlucci’s debut novel is a protracted medical experiment conducted by one human on another. Set on the Canadian frontier of the 1830s and inspired by historical record, the book takes the strange case of Dr William Beaumont’s tests on Alexis St Martin’s digestive system and spins a marvellously dark yarn around them, exploring the uses and abuses of an innocent. Alex is the innocent in question – the voyageur of the title. Our journey with him starts in raw boyhood, finding him living at the back of a Quebec harbour storehouse. His mother is dead, his beloved petit frère also. His grief-stricken father has sailed

The desperate desire to belong: England is Mine, by Nicolas Padamsee, reviewed

As Nicolas Padamsee’s thrilling debut novel England is Mine hurtles towards its climax, its principal character, David, readies himself for an important mission. A teenage victim of bullying, he has been slowly drawn into a world of online extremism. After making a purchase through the dark web, he is determined to become a hero in the underground network in which he is now enmeshed. In the same borough of East London, David’s one-time tormentor Hassan is about to leave the house. Having drifted away from his pot-smoking childhood friends, Hassan volunteers at his local mosque and is on the brink of signing an Esports contract that will turn his passion

Turf wars in Las Vegas: City in Ruins, by Don Winslow, reviewed

So you’d like to borrow half-a-billion dollars? It’s a tribute to the epic ambitions of this novel that the reader swallows questions like this without blinking. In a sense that’s fair enough because City in Ruins is the third book of a trilogy loosely modelled on the great poems of the classical world, particularly the Iliad and the Aeneid. Don Winslow is probably best known in this country as the author of the widely praised Cartel trilogy, about the US Drug Enforcement Agency’s ‘War of Drugs’. The Danny Ryan trilogy, by contrast, deals with the life and times of a Rhode Island longshoreman who evolves first into a gangster-with-a-heart and

Caught in a Venus flytrap: Red Pyramid, by Vladimir Sorokin, reviewed

Interest in Vladimir Sorokin’s works in translation tends to focus on their extremism and dystopia – trademarks of his fantastically-rendered observations of the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia under an infinite bureaucracy. Less emphasis is placed on the empathy that elevates the stories from violence and a pre-occupation with bodily fluids to a discomforting sense of familiarity. In his introduction to Red Pyramid, Will Self writesthat Sorokin’s detractors accuse him of peddling pornography. But its relevance is without question. If reality is said to be stranger than fiction, Sorokin’s fiction goes further, to make the point that the pornographic, as he writes it, is a way of bearing witness to

A voyage of literary discovery: Clara Reads Proust, by Stéphane Carlier, reviewed

Should Alain de Botton ever require fictional evidence of ‘How Proust Can Change Your Life’, he could do worse than to turn to Clara, the protagonist of Stéphane Carlier’s latest delightful novel. Clara is a hairdresser in a rather rundown provincial salon in France. She has a good relationship with her boss, Madame Habib, her colleagues, Nolwenn and Patrick, and her loyal clientele, and a more vexed one with JB, her boyfriend of three years, a muscular firefighter who resembles Flynn Ryder in the Disney cartoon.  One day, a mysterious stranger comes to the salon. He barely speaks while Clara is cutting his hair and leaves her no tip, but

Boxing clever: Headshot, by Rita Bullwinkel, reviewed

Rita Bullwinkel’s knockout debut novel adopts the structure of the boxing tournament it vividly describes. Eight teenage girls are competing in the ‘Daughters of America Cup’ at Bob’s Boxing Palace, Reno. We encounter them in the ring as they progress through four opening rounds and two semis to the final. The author details the exhilarating, pummelling progress of the fights – ‘the hit is quick, like a jump rope whipping forward’ – and the physicality of the girls’ bodies, ‘so close to each other that, from far away they look like two parts of the same animal’. She also nimbly delves beneath the protective headgear into the girls’ interior worlds