Boyd Tonkin

C.J. Sansom’s Tudor England is a mirror of our divided world

Among the many appreciations of C.J. Sansom, the author of bestselling historical mysteries who died last week aged 71, one of the most eloquent came from Rear Admiral John Lippiett. A friend since Sansom first researched the sinking of Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose (Lippiett headed the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth after he

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,

Must we live in perpetual fear of being named and shamed?

You should feel thoroughly ashamed of reading this infamous rag. Or else you might decide to revel, shamelessly, in its critics’ prim disapproval. From political squalls to global wars, David Keen argues that a ‘spiral of shame’ and shamelessness now traps individuals and societies in arid cycles of pain, rage and revenge. Manipulative actors –

A tale of cruelty and imposture: The Fraud, by Zadie Smith, reviewed

‘Is this all that these modern ladies’ novels are to be about? People?’ So asks the bewildered author of Old St Paul’s, The Lancashire Witches, The Tower of London and three dozen other forgotten blockbusters stacked with costumed folderol. In Zadie Smith’s sixth novel, William Harrison Ainsworth disapproves, in 1871, of hiscousin-housekeeper, Eliza Touchet, reading

A visit from the devil: Russian Gothic, by Aleksandr Skorobogatov, reviewed

Like light from faraway stars, fiction from outside the Anglosphere may take decades to reach English-language readers. This sinister, indeed sulphurous, novella by a Belarus-born author was first published in Russian in 1991, and won major awards. Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse’s English translation, as creepily compelling as the book deserves, appears long after the contemporary hook

Find the lady: Tomás Nevinson, by Javier Marías, reviewed

The plot sounds like an airport thriller – or a Netflix mini-series pitch. In a proud and staid riverside town in north-west Spain, where ‘each individual played the role assigned to him’, live three women. One is a merciless terrorist killer: Magdalena Orúe, or Maddy O’Dea, half-Spanish, half-Northern Irish, a warrior on long-term loan from

An empire crumbles: Nights of Plague, by Orhan Pamuk, reviewed

Welcome to Mingheria, ‘pearl of the Levant’. On a spring day, as the 20th century dawns, you disembark at this ‘calm and charming island’ south of Rhodes from a comfortable steamer after sailing from Smyrna, Piraeus or Alexandria. A crew of Greek or Muslim boatmen will row you to the picturesque harbour of Arkaz, flanked

When did cheerfulness get so miserable?

We’ve all met the sort of facetious oaf who orders any non-giggling woman to ‘Cheer up, love, it might never happen’. As Timothy Hampton grasps, enforced cheeriness feels about as much fun as compulsory games. His invigorating book about the quest for true cheerfulness in literature and philosophy dismantles the various ‘prosthetic or counterfeit’ versions

Snafu at Slough House: Bad Actors, by Mick Herron, reviewed

Reviewers who make fancy claims for genre novels tend to sound like needy show-offs or hard-of-thinking dolts. So be it: here’s mine. Anyone who tries to understand modern Britain through its fiction but overlooks Mick Herron’s satirical thrillers merits a punishment posting to the critics’ version of Slough House. That noxious midden of a building

From Mrs Dalloway’s West End to Tolkien’s Middle-earth

Professor David Damrosch, the director of Harvard’s Institute for World Literature, fell in love with ‘a fictional realm that I’d never imagined’ in 1968. His English teacher, Miss Staats, gave him Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. This horizon-stretching Manhattan educator turns up again in another light towards the end of this book. A long-term girlfriend of

The power of the translator to break nations

No one ever raised a statue to a translator, disgruntled adepts of that art sometimes complain. I beg to differ, since I’ve seen one: the handsome monument to the 12th-century scholar-physician Judah ibn Tibbon, ‘patriarch of translators’, beneath the Alhambra in Granada. But if the brokers between languages and cultures still lack many bronze or

A Danubian Narnia: Nostalgia, by Mircea Cartarescu, reviewed

Mircea Cartarescu likens his native Romania to a Latin American country stranded in eastern Europe. Certainly, his writing delivers not the pared-down parables and ironies of his self-exiled compatriot (and Nobel laureate) Herta Müller, but a rainbow-hued riot of fantasy, imagination and invention. The gender-switching narrator of ‘The Twins’ — one of five linked tales

In search of Noëlle: Invisible Ink, by Patrick Modiano, reviewed

At some point in his twilit, enigmatic novels of vanished lives and buried memories, Patrick Modiano likes to jolt his reader with a glimpse of the all-too-real horrors that underpin his work. In Invisible Ink such a moment comes when the narrator recalls images from a postwar trial, where ‘behind the accused were about 30