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

Thugs in drape jackets: when the Teddy Boys ruled the roost

In the wake of wars, youth cults spring up, those too young to have fought behaving in a way to scandalise those who did. The Bright Young People were the younger siblings of those who perished, battalion by battalion, on the Western Front. (Come to that, it was after the end of the Peloponnesian War that Socrates’s corruption of the youth became intolerable to Athens.) So when Max Décharné describes the Teddy Boys as Britain’s first youth counterculture, what he means is that they were Britain’s first working-class youth counterculture. The Notting Hill riots of 1958 were largely blamed on Teddy Boys, possibly incited by Oswald Mosley’s sons  Décharné sketches

Gang warfare in the west of Ireland: Wild Houses, by Colin Barrett, reviewed

Until now, Colin Barrett has made his name as an artist of the short story. Both his debut collection, Young Skins (2014) and Homesickness (2022) won him acclaim for their depiction of rural Ireland. But his tales stretch beyond the constraints of their size, and his dispossessed drinkers, small-time crooks and depressed teenagers seem too large and real to have their stories end in a matter of pages. Barrett’s first novel, Wild Houses, is, then, a delight, with a wider space for his talent to spread and for his acutely observed characters to linger. In the first few pages he gives us a man whose tattoos appear like ‘the pages

Mystery in everyday objects

‘The surest and quickest way for us to arouse the sense of wonder is to stare unafraid at a single object.’ Cesare Pavese wrote those words in Dialogues with Leucò, one of two quotations that preface Lara Pawson’s deceptively slim third book, Spent Light. When her dog starts killing squirrels, Pawson cooks them, acquiringa Whitby Wild Cat skinning knife Pawson takes the Italian writer at his word, turning to a toaster for inspiration. The electrical appliance, which appears two pages in, is a gift from a neighbour, Reg, after his wife dies. Pawson uses it to launch a deeply empathetic piece of writing exploring the brutality of the world in

A multicultural microcosm: Brooklyn Crime Novel, by Jonathan Lethem, reviewed

Would readers approaching this novel (although novel might not be precisely the right word) without any indication as to the authorship recognise it as the work of Jonathan Lethem? It doesn’t have kangaroo gangsters packing heat, or sentient miniature black holes, or marine drills converted into nuclear-powered limos. It is not set on an alien planet, or in a parallel universe, or inside a simulated game. There are a few hints. It is set in Brooklyn and has a vaguely geeky feel to it; but tonally it seems very different to Motherless Brooklyn or The Fortress of Solitude. Instead of vernal exuberance there is autumnal wistfulness, but certainly not sentimentality.

A horrifying glimpse of Syria’s torture cells

A young Syrian man is walking down a street in Damascus. He is a computer geek who likes rock music and basketball, and he’s enjoying his summer break from university. A car draws up beside him. He’s shoved inside and blindfolded. Shortly after, he finds himself strung up by his wrists in a dungeon. A thick power cable slices through the air and lands on his back. He screams. ‘You want freedom, right?’ yells the torturer. The lash descends again. ‘Here’s your freedom.’ The victim – the authors of Syrian Gulag protect him with the alias ‘Akram’ – had ‘liked’ a social media post criticising the Assad regime. Akram was

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

Nostalgia for old, rundown coastal Sussex

Sally Bayley’s The Green Lady is a beguiling, experimental mixture of biography, fiction and family history. In her excellent memoir Girl with Dove (2018), she wrote about her neglected childhood in the coastal Sussex town of Littlehampton. Here she returns to the same locality, but considers her forebears, embroidering episodes from her own rackety childhood into the lives of her ancestors and local people. The title refers to a hostel on the corner of the lane where Bayley grew up. Its owner, Mary Neal, opened it up to factory girls from London. This is the central image of the book, encapsulating themes of wealth and poverty, town and country, the

In seven years, Lenin changed the course of history

The upheavals convulsing the Russian empire in 1917, Victor Sebestyen argues convincingly, were the seminal happenings of the past century. From them directly stemmed the second world war, the Cold War, the collapse of European imperialism and the dangerous world we inhabit today. There are many weighty modern accounts of these epochal events by historians such as Richard Pipes, Robert Service and Orlando Figes, and it is these that Sebestyen chiefly relies on in this brisk, well-informed and chilling account. He makes no pretence of original research. How did Trotsky’s childlike vision become a nightmare system, dependent on evil, oppression and violence?  ‘The Russian Revolution’ is something of a misnomer

Gruesome British folk sports – from cheese-rolling to Hare Pie Scramble

‘Two mobs of men fighting over possession of a ball in a freezing, muddy river in Derbyshire,’ writes Harry Pearson, ‘is the British equivalent of the Rio Carnival.’ He’s not wrong. Brazil may have the sun, but we’ve got the capacity for mindless violence. It’s a trait expressed in many of the folk sports covered in this highly entertaining book. The mass football games (such as the one in Ashbourne), which take place over pitches several miles long, aren’t quite as vicious as they once were. In a Georgian contest between the Men of Suffolk and the Men of Norfolk, nine players died. In Jedburgh, they used an Englishman’s severed

The dark side of racing: Kick the Latch, by Kathryn Scanlan, reviewed

Kathryn Scanlan’s second novel Kick the Latch is adapted from the transcript of an interview with a family friend in her native Iowa. Its narrator, Sonia, looks back on her years as a racetrack hand in a series of vignettes. She recounts run-ins with violent men, a freak accident that put her in a coma, and interactions with assorted rural eccentrics, such as Bicycle Jenny, a notoriously pongy gardener who owns 70 chihuahuas, and Johnny Block, who keeps a pet crow and ‘some ferrets’. Animals ran amok on the trailer parks where she lived: ‘As soon as you stepped out your door the goose would come and – bam! –

When violence was the norm: Britain in the 1980s

In middle age you’re supposed to feel nostalgia for your youth, but I finished this book marvelling at how dreadful the 1980s were. The decade hit rock bottom in May 1985 when, within 18 days, 56 football fans died in a fire at Bradford City and 39 in crushes before the Liverpool-Juventus match at the Heysel Stadium. All through, though, the 1980s lived up to one of Roger Domeneghetti’s chapter titles, named for The Barracudas’ song of 1981: ‘We’re living in violent times.’  The author, a journalist and academic, has an ambitious premise: sport is the key to understanding what really happened to Britain in the 1980s. The book doesn’t

From she-devil to heroine – Winnie Mandela’s surprising metamorphosis

Apartheid South Africa created many heroes and villains, and in the heat of battle for the soul of that country it was sometimes difficult to tell which was which. For decades, Nelson Mandela represented righteous liberation for a society enchained by the grim political philosophy of apartheid. Throughout most of this time, his wife Winnie embodied fearless defiance and radical resistance to the system, a charismatic beauty who howled with rage: according to Lord Hain, ‘a quasi-revolutionary to Mandela’s reformism’. A complex Shakespearian tale unfolds of two charismatic figures thrown together by apartheid Today, as South Africa lurches from one crisis to the next, the legacy of the Mandelas is

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

Putin’s mistake was to discard the velvet glove

To study international politics since the turn of the century has been, in large part, to study the changing nature of autocracy – and the West’s relationship to it. We kicked things off by trying to realise the Trotskyite dream of ushering in global democracy through the barrel of a gun. We wanted to bring an end to the world’s tyrants – or the ones of relevance to us at any rate. We got Iraq. But if we failed to end tyrants, we played our part in helping to mould them. As Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman observe in their intelligent, important book Spin Dictators, throughout this time something far

Poor parenting is at the root of our failing schools

When it comes to education, I’m in two minds, maybe three. I was sent to private schools, including, for my ‘Oxbridge’ term, Eton, where the teaching was life-changing. But when it came to my children, no amount of cheeseparing was going to make private fees possible. From the age of three to 18, they went to our local state schools. They flourished academically, made lots of friends and enjoyed two advantages I never had: they walked to school, and mixed comfortably with children from every background. Why pay fees? I wondered. State schools were best. Alison Colwell makes me think again. In 2014, she was appointed head teacher at Ebbsfleet

Sweden’s gun crime epidemic is spiralling out of control

The shots were fired at 1pm on a Sunday, in spite of a heavy police presence at the scene. A 44-year-old shop owner was killed by a bullet to the head. The murder victim was a hard-working man who was trying to make a better life for his family. Now he is dead: another victim of Sweden’s gun-violence epidemic. On 28 May, two days before the shooting, riots had broken out in the same neighbourhood, the immigrant area of Hjällbo (pronounced ‘Yel-boo’) in Gothenburg, as a local criminal gang clashed with shop owners and their relatives. On the surface, the events were sparked when a 14-year-old boy was pushed off

Homage to Lyra McKee — the journalist I miss most

In the two generations since Watergate, the image of the journalist has gone from that of plucky truth-seeker to sensationalist and partisan hack. Somewhere along the way the fresh-faced idealists of All the President’s Men gave way to the dissociative anti-hero of Nightcrawler. Corporate-driven news values? Probably. Phone hacking? Definitely. But what grates more is the suspicion that journalism is a clique that protects its own, disdains its audience and passes off its attitudes and preferences as the neutral norm. The perception isn’t entirely wide of the mark. Lyra McKee was a one-woman union for the reputation of journalism. To her it was more than blue-tick-on-blue-tick gossip-shopping and SEO-chasing junk