Claire Lowdon

Woman of mystery: Biography of X, by Catherine Lacey, reviewed

Catherine Lacey’s new book is the second literary novel I’ve read recently to radically rewrite American history. In last year’s To Paradise, Hanya Yanagihara imagined a different outcome for the Civil War: the Confederate states secede to become the thoroughly racist ‘United Colonies’. Up north are several political unions, such as the ‘Free States’ (including

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

Variations on a theme: To Paradise, by Hanya Yanagihara, reviewed

My daunting brief: to tell you about Hanya Yanagihara and her new, uncategorisable 720-page novel in 550 words. It’s the book-reviewing equivalent of a heated round of Articulate. Bums on the edge of the sofa, team. Flip that egg-timer. Here goes! American, born 1974, childhood spent largely in Hawaii. Debuted with The People in the

Aunt Munca’s murky past

Kiss Myself Goodbye. It sounds a bit like a William Boyd novel. It looks likea William Boyd novel, too: the cover shows an old hand-coloured photograph of a fur-stoled woman, determinedly leading a man in morning dress towards the camera. And, indeed, the raw material would likely make a very good William Boyd novel —

Ranting and raving

Q: What’s worse than listening to someone ranting hysterically about Donald Trump? A: Listening to Bret Easton Ellis ranting hysterically about people ranting about Trump. I gave him a fair hearing, I really did. Some of what Ellis has to say in White, his first work of non-fiction, is not stupid. It’s true that teeth-gnashing

How to be good

Suffering, wrote Auden, takes place ‘while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’. His poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ emphasises the mundanity of pain (‘even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course/ Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot’) and how irrelevant it is to all but the sufferer:

The fearful forties

In an early chapter of All Grown Up, the narrator Andrea says to her therapist: ‘Why is being single the only thing people think of when they think of me? I’m other things, too.’ ‘Tell me who you are, then,’ says the therapist. And so Andrea tells her that she’s a woman, a New Yorker,

Spectator Books of the Year: Fairy tales about sex

Does size matter? This year my go-to stocking filler will be the pocket-sized Grow a Pair by Joanna Walsh, from Readux Books: 64 pages of unadulterated pleasure ($4.99). Walsh’s collection of hilarious, nimbly interlinked ‘fairy tales about sex’ (‘The Three Big Dicks’, ‘The Princess and the Penis’) is a comic gem to set beside Nicholson

The curse of Mr Kurtz

Marie Darrieussecq shot to literary fame in France when her bestselling debut, Pig Tales (1996), was a finalist for the Prix Goncourt. Featuring a woman who turns into a pig, the novel earned Darrieussecq a reputation as a surrealist writer in the tradition of Kafka, and many of her subsequent works have involved fantastical elements

The folly of youth

Let’s start with arithmetic. Edmund White’s 11th novel is a book about age and ageing. The young man of the title is a French model called Guy. Like Dorian Gray, Guy never seems to grow old. By the middle of the novel he is nearly 40, but he can still convince people — crucially, a

Stop calling me ‘Goat’

The title of Tim Parks’s 17th novel is false advertising, because Thomas and Mary: A Love Story is barely a love story, and it’s certainly not about Mary. The intended effect is irony: the dust jacket promises ‘a love story in reverse’, and the opening chapter describes Thomas Paige losing his wedding ring on Blackpool

Too much gush

The cover of Edna O’Brien’s 17th novel sports a handsome quote from Philip Roth: ‘The great Edna O’Brien has written her masterpiece.’ Late Roth and late O’Brien have something in common. In The Plot Against America (2004), Roth provided an alternative history of the 20th century: what if Roosevelt had been defeated by the anti-Semitic

A karaoke version of Kafka

The Blue Guitar is John Banville’s 16th novel. Our narrator-protagonist is a painter called Oliver Orme. We are in Ireland, but it’s hard to say exactly where, or exactly when. There are telephones and cars, but the dress code is antiquated: hats, canes, pocket watches. This is ‘the new-old world that Godley’s Theorem wrought’: people

In the name of the father

‘People talk about their childhood and it’s so mundane. I don’t remember much about it, if I’m honest. I can’t even tell you what my father’s voice sounded like.’ In Stuart Evers’s story ‘Frequencies’, in this collection, a besotted new father hears this pronouncement coming from the baby monitor. The monitor is picking up a