Refugee lives: The Singularity, by Balsam Karam, reviewed

One Friday evening in a half-ruined, half-rebuilt city, where smart tourists dine out in restaurants next to refugees in makeshift shelters, a woman walks the streets. In torn clothes and slippers ‘worn ragged’, she hands out leaflets. On every piece of paper the same words are written: ‘Has anyone seen my daughter?’ On the same evening, in the same coastal city, which is ‘half obscured by skyscrapers’, another woman walks the streets with a different purpose, seeking to spend time away from her co-workers on a business trip. As she cradles her pregnant stomach, she watches as a female figure climbs over a clifftop railing and jumps, leaving behind a

Robyn Davidson explores yet another foreign country – the past

Robyn Davidson never set out to become a writer. ‘It did not form my identity,’ she tells us early on in her memoir Unfinished Woman. ‘In my own mind I had simply pulled another rabbit out of a hat. As I had done all my life with everything.’ The rabbit, in this case, is the ability to capture an exciting and complex life with insight and humour. When she decided to leave the underworld, she was sexually assaulted at knifepoint Born in 1950 on a cattle station in Queensland, Australia, Davidson was the second daughter of a handsome war hero from a privileged background. Home was a place full of

Another tragic case involving medical incompetence and cover-up

It was only eight lines into O Brother that I realised I was in the hands of a good writer. John Niven’s landline phone has rung. His partner hands it to him. ‘I take the phone from her as she watches me in the intense, quizzical way we monitor people who are about to receive Very Bad News.’ I can’t recall a writer noticing that before (I presume a few have), but we have noticed it ourselves. And the narrative masterstroke is that now the reader is looking at the page in an intense, quizzical way, for we want to know what the Very Bad News is. The VBN is

Lorrie Moore’s latest novel is deeply troubling, but also consoling

Sometimes a novel’s means are so strange, however compelling its final effect on the reader, that a straightforward account of it will be most helpful. I’ve read, or part-read, this novel three times now. On the first reading I gave up, shaking my head. On the second I got to the end, but thought it absurdly wilful, self-absorbed and idiosyncratic to the point of whimsy. The third reading – something, after all, must have drawn me back – exerted an appalling power, and I emerged shaken, troubled, but also consoled. Take your pick. This is a book that is going to divide people, and one that can look very different

A magpie proves a troublesome pet

With his swashbuckling gait, ominous associations and garrulous demeanour, the magpie is the dandified razor boy of our avifauna and provokes ambivalent feelings (the ‘pie’ part signifies many a mixture). His pilfering reputation has inspired work from Rossini to the prog-rock band Marillion, and in lab tests he’s one of the few creatures brainy enough to recognise his own image in a mirror – even some Marillion fans can’t do that. But it’s hard to see how this corvid could be truly lovable. The artist and poet Frieda Hughes, however, fell for a little foundling Pica pica back in May 2007 when she was refurbishing her ramshackle new home. He

A lost brother: My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is, by Paul Stanbridge, reviewed

Grief leads us down some strange roads. Few, though, can be as peculiar as those charted by Paul Stanbridge in his auto-fictional My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is. This singular and striking book follows a narrator (the extent to which this figure overlaps with Stanbridge is kept teasingly obscure) mourning the suicide of his brother, an isolated, eccentric mathematician. Yet, while it contains passages of raw tribute, it is a self-consciously tricksy narrative. Stanbridge circles around his brother’s death via some of history’s more overgrown byways, such as ‘Clever Hans’, the mathematical horse, locked-in syndrome and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s enthusiastic onanism. There’s a suggestion of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights to

A gay journey of self-discovery

Seán Hewitt, born in 1990, realised that he was gay at a very early age. ‘A kind, large woman’ who was babysitting him told him that it was wrong. ‘I was perhaps only six or seven at the time, but she knew. I knew it too. It was as if she had peered into the deep, secret part of my soul and seen what I was hiding.’ Alongside the precocious knowledge came desperate attempts to conceal the truth. Hewitt adopted alien ways of being: ‘I regulated myself; I policed myself.’ As an adolescent, he spread rumours about his exploits with girls. He even watched heterosexual porn on the sitting room

Is Donald Trump postmodern?

David Shields is an American author who has decided to collate many of the questions he’s been asked in interviews and reprint them – without any of his answers – under themes of Childhood, Art, Envy, Capitalism etc. The idea is that the questions put to him are just as revealing as his responses. This is a gimmick, but not merely that. To map how others interrogate us is an original idea. It follows that the best way of testing whether this works for the length of a book, even one as short as this, would be for the book to be reviewed by someone who had no prior knowledge

Murder, suicide and apocalypse: Here Goes Nothing, by Steve Toltz, reviewed

Angus Mooney is dead. Freshly murdered, he’s appalled to find himself in an Afterworld, having always rejected the possibility of life after death. Moreover, he can observe his murderer getting on increasingly well with his innocent widow. Mooney’s Afterworld is a deeply unsatisfactory mixture of computerised bureaucracy and urban chaos. In a landscape undreamed of by Dante, his guide is no cicerone but a woman with a welcoming bed and good contacts in Management, who knows her way around the local drinking spots. The Australian novelist Steve Toltz specialises in the blackest of comedy. His first novel, A Fraction of the Whole, was shortlisted for the Booker in 2008. Here

Has gambling become the great British addiction?

When I was 14 my father took me to a bookmaker’s and encouraged me to place a bet. He wanted to show me the futility of gambling, I think. Big mistake. I picked a horse called Maroof at 66/1 in the Queen Elizabeth II stakes at Ascot. My father put on 50p each way. Maroof romped to victory, no problem. ‘I think I’ve just ruined your character,’ said my father, not entirely joking, as he handed over the winnings. He had. I’ll forever associate betting with that triumph – the rush of joy I felt jumping up and down on the cruddy red carpet surrounded by Irish drunks and cigarette

How does David Sedaris get away with saying the unsayable?

These aren’t diaries in the sense that Chips Channon kept diaries, or Samuel Pepys. They aren’t diaries at all, beyond the fact that each entry records an event and has a date and place attached. If a diary is a conversation with yourself, A Carnival of Snackery is a conversation with a crowd, because the observations it contains were written as material for David Sedaris’s shows. The entries, which begin in 2003 and continue to Christmas 2020, are therefore, as Sedaris admits, over-polished, and what we hear on the page is a spoken rather than a written voice. There are many other voices besides, because the book is a record

Gay abandon: Filthy Animals, by Brandon Taylor, reviewed

What does it mean to be a body in this world? It’s the question animating Brandon Taylor’s Filthy Animals. Our fleshy bodies and fragile minds complicate our experience of other people and isolate us from one another. As with Real Life, Taylor’s first novel, this short story collection displays his talent for rendering the precise inflection of a relationship while exploring the drama of the body. In ‘Potluck’, Lionel, a gay, black graduate student who has recently tried to commit suicide, meets Sophie and her partner Charles. Always ‘arriving at the moment just as it was ending and everyone was moving on’, Lionel connects with Charles and they sleep together.

A matter of life or death: Should We Stay or Should We Go, by Lionel Shriver, reviewed

Leave or remain? That’s the question hanging like a cartoon sledgehammer over Lionel Shriver’s 17th novel. Although she makes merry with the parallels, her subject isn’t Brexit. It’s how long a person should choose to live. Should we allow ourselves to shamble, with gentle optimism, into decades when mental and physical decay are statistical probabilities? Or should we Take Back Control, and off ourselves before revolted strangers are required to wash our private parts at great cost to our struggling NHS? The characters Shriver charges with assessing the options are Cyril and Kay Wilkinson. We meet them in their early fifties as they return home after Kay’s father’s funeral. Slugging

Does the British government care about veterans’ suicides?

Ex-veterans minister Johnny Mercer appears to have launched a one-man frontal assault on the UK government. Rarely a day goes by when he isn’t voraciously criticising their shoddy treatment of veterans. Speaking as a veteran and ex-British Army officer like Mercer, I can’t say I blame him. One tour of Afghanistan was enough to break me. Mercer did three. Mercer’s most recent broadside came after the news that the eleventh person from 2 Rifles, an infantry regiment that served in Iraq and Afghanistan, had killed himself. ‘That veterans who served in the bloodiest conflict this country has seen for 50 years are still taking their lives in 2021 because they

A study in vulnerability: The Coming Bad Days, by Sarah Bernstein, reviewed

When the unnamed narrator of Sarah Bernstein’s The Coming Bad Days leaves the man with whom she has been living because she can’t bear the sight of the tidy line of his shirt collars hanging in the wardrobe, she triggers an existential crisis that dominates this debut novel: ‘The notion that I was free in theory but also in practice to do whatever I liked with my life was terrifying: it was nothing short of a nightmare.’ She moves to a cottage, where she lives alone, worrying variously about the plight of women and the state of a world that is on fire or under water depending on the season.

Aintree is doing Rose Paterson proud

On Grand National Day at Aintree this Saturday, the Rose Paterson Trust will be launched. This time last year, Rose was the chairman of Aintree, and had to cancel the meeting because of Covid. In June, she took her own life. The purpose of the trust is to help prevent such events. Owen, her widower, is very frank. He believes that: ‘If Rose had been aware of the utter catastrophe she has wrought — the first victim being herself — she would not have done it.’ The worst is that it cannot be undone. It is a wound that time can do frighteningly little to heal. He says it is

A Romeo and Juliet-like tragedy in Uttar Pradesh

In the early hours of 28 May 2014 the bodies of two young girls were found hanging from the branches of a mango tree in the small village of Katra in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Their deaths caused outrage locally and attracted attention worldwide, as domestic and foreign media descended on Katra, the case gaining international notoriety less than two years after the gang rape of a young woman, Jyoti Singh, on a bus in Delhi in 2012. The Good Girls is a tragic tale, both in terms of what it reveals about village life and also about what women in India can expect in a society hidebound

Suicide was always a spectre for John Berryman

‘A matter that hurts me is that I have made many hundreds of people laugh, in various cities, during the last year or so, but not you — and your father is thought to be a wit.’ This was the poet John Berryman to his nearly-estranged son Paul in 1964. The hurt, off-kilter tone and the humble-brag speak to the Berryman one encounters in this capacious Selected Letters. One of the great extremists of a brilliant generation, which included Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and Elizabeth Bishop, Berryman’s entanglement of art and risk, his view of poetry as a ‘terminal activity’ and the artist’s life as one of self-annihilating labour, is

Private tragedies: Must I Go, by Yiyun Li, reviewed

I can think of few novels as bleak or dispiriting as Yiyun Li’s 2009 debut, The Vagrants. Set in a Chinese industrial town in 1979, it opens with one woman’s death and closes with another. The pages in between are jammed with misery meted out by scalpel: treacherous friends, underfed children, craven officials, all have their turn upon the stage, while school choirs sing unfalteringly in praise of the communist party. Her latest book, Must I Go, is more cheerful, if only by a whisker. It’s the first time Li has set a novel squarely in her adopted America, with a faded Californian babe as its heroine. Lilia Liska is

What is the relationship between truth and accuracy? The Lifespan of a Fact reviewed

At the time, I’m sure it all seemed absolutely hilarious. It was in 2012 that W.W. Norton first published The Lifespan of a Fact, co-written by the essayist John D’Agata and his one-time fact-checker Jim Fingal. The book consists of an essay by D’Agata, ‘What Happens There’ — which tells the story of the death of a 16-year-old, Levi Presley, who killed himself by jumping from the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas — plus Fingal’s meticulous marginal notes and comments. (The essay was apparently written for Harper’s magazine in 2003, which rejected it because of factual inaccuracies: it was eventually published in the magazine The Believer, fact-checked by Fingal, in