Alex Preston

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 –

Sowing seeds of comfort

If you had asked me a year ago how a pandemic-panicked world of stockpiles, curfews and social isolation would influence my life in the garden, I might have drawn you a picture of myself as a kind of prepper homesteader, proudly feeding my family from the veg beds, trading spuds for loo rolls in the

Bright and beautiful: Double Blind, by Edward St Aubyn, reviewed

Edward St Aubyn’s ‘Patrick Melrose’ novels were loosely autobiographical renderings of the author’s harrowing, rarefied, drug-sozzled existence. Despite their subject matter, they managed to be uplifting through the beauty in which they expressed their melancholy sentiments. After At Last, the final novel of the pentalogy, St Aubyn published Lost for Words, a prickly satire on

Finding his voice

The Parade, Dave Eggers’s eighth novel, is a slim, strange book, another unpredictable chapter in the career of this hard-to-pin-down author. Like his friend and sometime collaborator Jonathan Safran Foer, there’s the sense with Eggers that, after launching himself so spectacularly onto the literary scene with his debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, this

The dawn of Romanticism

Several years ago, I was interviewing the garden writer and designer Sarah Raven at her home in Sussex when a tall, tanned figure bounded up from the woods towards us. It was Adam Nicolson, her husband, and he carried an axe over his shoulder. A few months later, an email arrived from Nicolson, inviting me

Echoes of The Tempest…

‘I should not have gone back to the island but I did it all the same.’ So begins the Swedish author Steve Sem-Sandberg’s brief, dark and wonderfully atmospheric 12th novel, The Tempest. Islands play a special role in our literary imagination. They are crucibles, havens, prisons and escapes, places of magic and mysterious transformation, worlds

You couldn’t make it up

Orhan Pamuk, writing about Vladimir Nabokov’s masterful memoir Speak, Memory, noted that there was a particular ‘thrill’ for the writer who calls ‘something wholly autobiographical fiction, something wholly fictional autobiography’. When Nabokov did this, Pamuk said, it changed ‘the secret centre of the story’. The fertile interplay of fact and fiction animates a pair of

Pithy and profound

It’s not surprising, perhaps, that Emil Cioran isn’t much read in England. Born in Romania, but winning a scholarship to the University of Berlin in 1933, Cioran was an avid supporter of both the Nazis and the Romanian far right group, the Iron Guard. His writing is bleakly nihilistic, his titles a hint to what

Pay back time

‘We lived in a country that rewarded its worst people. We lived in a society where the villains were favoured to win.’ So says Seema, the 29-year-old wife of hedge-fund manager Barry Cohen in Gary Shteyngart’s fourth novel, Lake Success. The relationship between fiction and the world of high finance has a complicated history. Having