A mother-daughter love story

In Splinters, the American novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison leaves behind the issue of her addiction and recovery – the subject of her previous memoir, The Recovering (2018) – and takes us through her pregnancy, experience of childbirth, marriage, divorce and post-separation dating life. Each stage of her journey is related with the author’s trademark love of the telling detail: On the postpartum ward my window ledge filled up with snacks from friends: graham crackers, cashews, cheddar cheese, coconut water, oranges with tiny green leaves. Someone hands her a form to fill out. ‘Did I want bone broth?’ We can assume she does, as bone broth appears later on. Much

No one could match Tess, to Thomas Hardy’s dismay

In her disillusioned later years Thomas Hardy’s first wife, Emma, bitterly reflected: ‘He understands only the women he invents – the others not at all.’ In Hardy Women, Paula Byrne sets out to recover the stories of the women in his life ‘who did not have a voice and who were often deliberately omitted from Hardy’s self-ghosted autobiography’, in order to reveal that ‘the magnificent fictional women he invented would not have been possible without the hardship and hardiness of the real ones who shaped his passions and his imagination’. She has not come up with anything that radically changes what we already know of Hardy’s background and what he

A strong whiff of goodbyes: The Pole and Other Stories, by J.M. Coetzee, reviewed

New books by, articles about or Sasquatch-like sightings of J.M. Coetzee routinely send me back to that infamous YouTube clip of Geoff Dyer face-planting while being introduced by Coetzee at the Adelaide Book Festival – an episode often cited as evidence that the Nobel Laureate has no sense of humour. The garlanded ex-South African’s work is famously as dry as the Karoo, and Coetzee himself has been accused of having only ever laughed once. But a smile is visible in ‘The Pole’, the longest story in this collection. Beatriz, in her late forties, is an educated Spanish woman, ‘a good person’ in a ‘civilised’ (read dormant) marriage, involved in organising

How to date a widower

When is it acceptable to consider dating a widower? How do you know if they are still grieving and not ready to move on? According to statistics, men die earlier than women, so I was surprised this year to meet several whose wives had died before them. Divorced since the early 1990s, I had no intention of remarrying, but thought of striking up some sort of liaison with a widower. I had heard of women behaving in a desperate and undignified way, charging round with casseroles I had rejected two non-widowers, whom my grandmother would have described as ‘cast-offs’, meaning exes one mustn’t go back to. I knew I would

I’m living in my very own hell’s kitchen

According to a friend who sold a successful consulting business a few years ago, the problem with employing middle-class Britons, unlike Americans, is that there’s a summit to their ambitions. Once they’ve earned enough money to trade in their BMW for a Porsche, install a new kitchen and create an attic room with a dormer window, they start taking it easy. ‘Those are the only three things they really want,’ he says. As a freelance journalist, I’ve abandoned all hope of owning a Porsche or getting the attic done. But after living in the same house in Acton for 15 years, I’m finally remodelling the kitchen. Or rather Caroline is.

‘We are stuck like chicken feathers to tar’: Elizabeth Taylor’s description of the fabled romance

‘To begin at the beginning,’ intones Richard Burton with a voice like warm treacle at the start of the 1971 film Under Milk Wood. It’s hard to imagine an actor more obviously influenced by his own beginnings. The epigraph to this double biography is ‘The damp, dark prison of eternal love’, a line borrowed from Quentin Crisp. And if that’s an accurate assessment of Burton’s on-off-on-again relationship with the actress Elizabeth Taylor, it’s an even better summary of his childhood in Wales. Born Richard Walter Jenkins to a barmaid mother and a coal miner father (a ‘12-pints-a-day man’ who sometimes disappeared for weeks on end to drink and gamble), as

Never the doctor, always the nurse: the fate of women in post-war Britain

For fans of Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s unique blend of high comedy and shrewd social observation, a new book is cause to leap on to the nearest chair and emit several loud shrieks. Jobs for the Girls is the third in the author’s trilogy on ‘lost worlds of Britain’. These are recent, touchable lost worlds, she stresses in her introduction, ‘still in living memory’, as recalled vividly – and often hilariously – by people who were there in her earlier books, Terms and Conditions, about life in girls’ boarding schools, and British Summertime Begins, on what children from all walks of life got up to in the school holidays. Jobs for

Tales of the unexpected: The Complete Short Stories, by Patrick O’Brian, reviewed

The publishers of this handsome volume hint at high adventure – and period adventure at that. In the blot left by an antique quill pen swirls a breaking wave. Ah, the high seas! And here we are again with Aubrey and Maturin picking weevils out of ship’s biscuits and foiling Napoleon’s naval plans. So I had better warn readers that this isn’t really representative. The first story in the collection, ‘The Return’, is about a man returning to childhood haunts and fishing for trout. The second, ‘The Last Pool’, is different in that this time the fish are salmon (although the protagonist starts out looking for trout). Internal evidence suggests

Picture study: Second Self, by Chloë Ashby, reviewed

Having established a name for herself as a talented art critic for the national press, Chloë Ashby employs her expertise with illuminating effect in her fiction. In her first novel, Wet Paint, she used the uncomfortable gaze of the barmaid in Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ to explore how her protagonist sees and is seen. In her new novel, Second Self, the central painting is ‘View of Scheveningen Sands’ by Hendrick van Anthonissen, which again becomes an insightful parallel to the protagonist’s life. Cathy, 35, an art conservationist, is happily married to Noah, 11 years her senior, an academic and authority on international relations. Home is a flat in

How China’s mail-order brides are taking back control

36 min listen

The mail-order bride industry is booming – but today’s international dating doesn’t look as it used to. It turns out that it’s not so much young and uneducated Chinese women looking to marry out of the country anymore, and more middle aged and financially well off divorcees, looking for something different. The mail order bride industry is changing as the women involved are becoming more empowered with their growing wealth – and more demanding. On this episode, I speak to sociologist Monica Liu, whose new book, Seeking Western Men, is all about these changing dynamics of race, class, gender and, ultimately, power. She writes about the book in an article for Sixth

The lonely passions of Emily Hale and Mary Trevelyan

This year marks the centenary of the publication of The Waste Land, the poem that made T.S. Eliot famous. His story is familiar and yet still surprising. What is well known: Ezra Pound whipped The Waste Land into shape, it was published in The Dial and then The Criterion, and it was quickly recognised as a poem of great importance. Eliot emerged as the poet of his age and his views on the ‘impersonality’ of poetry would dominate the next several decades of poetry and criticism. What is less well known is how Eliot’s work was shaped and influenced by a few key women. This dynamic is what Lyndall Gordon’s

Richard E. Grant’s tribute to his wife leaves us shattered for his loss

Richard E. Grant pulls off a feat here. The title is twee but the content isn’t. With unselfpitying dash the actor-writer recounts caring for his wife, the dialect coach Joan Washington, through lung cancer last year (‘Living grief. Raw. Savage.’). He thoughtfully interleaves the heartbreak with glitzy showbiz recollections which help keep our peckers up, so we ricochet through time, from the Golden Globes to the Royal Marsden, from sedative injections to Star Wars. It’s an unusual structure, but it works – so, to use one of the author’s expressions, ‘Why bloody notsky?’ Grant’s daily diary-keeping is what makes the book. The quotes are verbatim, the chronology precise and studded

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

The funny truth about life as a diplomat’s wife

In the early 2000s my husband, a diplomat for the EU, was posted to Kazakhstan, a vast empty steppeland next to Siberia. It was winter and the place was covered with thick snow. My family were in England, my husband was mostly in the office; I was 61 and I didn’t know a soul. Our previous posting had been to Damascus and I had occupied myself by writing a book about the old palaces there, but here there were no old buildings as the Kazakhs had been nomads. I had nothing to do. Everyone spoke Russian – I didn’t. As my husband was a senior diplomat we qualified for a

Momentous decisions: Ruth & Pen, by Emilie Pine, reviewed

Emilie Pine writes about the big things and the little things: friendship, love, fertility, grief; waking, showering, catching the bus. She did so in her startling collection of essays Notes to Self, and she does it again in this, her equally startling debut novel Ruth & Pen. As Ruth (‘Counsellor. Patient. Wife. Wife?’) tells herself in the morning: ‘Swing the wardrobe door open, make a choice. To run. Or to stay. Or just which jacket to wear…’ This short novel takes place in Dublin on Monday 7 October 2019. It’s a significant day for our protagonists, two strangers who briefly cross paths. Ruth, 43, is deciding whether to end her

Anxiety is killing parenthood

Britain is on a slow descent to oblivion. Scotland is even closer to the abyss, with a birth rate of just 1.29, well below the UK’s sub-replacement level of 1.65. It turns out the answer to the West Lothian question is that West Lothian will disappear. Doomsday demography should matter, but Whitehall is in no way prepared to deal with it. New research published this week found that mental illness in early adulthood could account for up to 60 per cent of future childlessness. A generation too worried to have children spells disaster for countries that need to support ageing societies. Researchers looking at the populations of Sweden and Finland

Howard Jacobson superbly captures the terrible cost of becoming a writer

Howard Jacobson, who turns 80 this year, published his first novel aged 40. Since then he has produced roughly a book every two years, including The Finkler Question, which won the Man Booker in 2010. Given that he was put on Earth to write, why the wait? This is the subject of Mother’s Boy, a tale of self-persecution in the form of a monologue which includes interjections from the ghosts of his parents and one chapter, recording a period in his twenties that he drifted through in a dream state, printed in a font resembling handwriting. ‘How’s the novel coming along?’ his father would routinely ask after Jacobson graduated from

Reassess every relationship you’ve ever had before it’s too late

‘Reading is a celebration of the mystery of ourselves,’ according to Elizabeth Strout, who writes to help readers understand themselves and other people. In Oh William!, Strout resurrects Lucy Barton, the enigmatic heroine of a previous novel, setting her on a mission to get to know William, her first husband. This is Strout’s third outing for Lucy, who also reappeared in Anything is Possible, a collection of interlinked stories about the residents of Amgash, Illinois, Lucy’s hometown. Now in her early sixties and newly widowed, Lucy is good friends with William, who is on wife number three — Estelle, a woman 22 years younger than him. ‘And that was no

The life of an ambassador’s wife

‘One day,’ she writes, ‘we had the Minister for Northern Ireland for the night. He arrived wearing a kilt, which must have made the evening memorable for our German guests.’ Writing here (I should explain) is the widow of Sir Julian Bullard, then ambassador in Bonn, the West German capital. ‘Harry [the butler] beckoned to me and whispered “Come and see his bed”… so I followed Harry upstairs. The bed was neatly turned down. Tucked in, with only their heads showing, was a line of stuffed animals.’ The pair are surprised by the minister himself, nipping back to fetch papers. ‘He introduced each animal to me in turn. “Never travel

They weren’t all that pious in the good old days

You need to be wary of being too flattering about English churches. As John Betjeman said: ‘Be careful before you call Weymouth the Naples of Dorset. How many Italians call Naples the Weymouth of Campania?’ Even so, the rise of the English medieval church was extraordinary. As early as 1200 there were 9,500 churches in England — all built since 597, when St Augustine started his mission to the English at Canterbury. And lots of them are still there. Our Anglo-Saxon, Norman and Gothic churches must be the highlight of our architectural history, just ahead of our country houses. But how did the English use their churches? Step forward Nicholas