Justin Cartwright

The last word

Nicola Barker is both prodigiously talented and admirably fearless. I have loved her books. But for some time I had little or no idea what the point of the story of Sri Ramakrishna was. In fact he was one of the outstanding men of 19th-century India. Characteristically of Barker, the narrative of her latest book

Fear, loneliness and nostalgia: a return to Johannesburg

Oddly enough, the cabin service people on the plane are constantly eating during the night, helping themselves to the first-class snacks. They are bulging out of their uniforms. They cannot pass each other in the aisles without difficulty. This is the sort of thing you notice during a long flight; at least the sort of

Lost in the telling

This is a thriller, a novel of betrayal and separation, and a reverie on death and grieving. The only key fact I can provide without giving away the plot is that Caroline, the film-making wife of Michael, the novel’s main protagonist, is killed in the badlands of Pakistan by a drone controlled from a facility

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride – review

James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird is set in the mid 19th century, and is based on the real life of John Brown, the one who lies a-mouldering in his grave. Recently it won a National Book Award in the USA. Brown, the Old Man, was a religious fanatic who believed that he had the

Decline in New York

A connection between poetry and blindness is a classical trope. Homer was thought to be blind — if indeed he was one person — and Milton of course suffered torture by going blind. Blindness is also associated with special powers of insight and intuition, very useful attributes for a poet. Blind poets had to develop

Justin Cartwright’s Diary

Too often, I go to South African theatre with a sense of foreboding: I anticipate something overwrought, tendentious, poorly acted and emotionally exploitative. So I arrived at the Hampstead Theatre last week without high expectations. The play, A Human Being Died That Night, was based on the book written by the psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who

The tragedy of a hamlet

Jim Crace’s novels have one thing in common, which is that each is set in an entirely original world. None of these worlds is of a specific time or place, but they seem to have some connection to our own lives. The subjects Crace tackles are varied, from a microscopic study of death (Being Dead)

Welcome to surreal Luton

Nicola Barker’s new novel is set in Luton. You could hardly find a place in Britain  more emblematic of non-being. It has an airport; it used to make something or other, it is not in London, not in the Midlands; its architecture is frightful, its pretentious but tatty hotels are full of middle management businessmen,

Putting the fun in fundamentalism

Turnaround Books, the publishers of Timothy Mo’s remarkable Pure, are revealed to operate from Unit 3, Olympia Trading Estate, Coburg Road, London N22. From this we may deduce that the publishing history of the three times Booker-shortlisted Anglo-Chinese novelist continues on its maverick way. Imagine if Mo had approached a conventional publisher with a proposition:

Road to ruins

This is a delightful book, nostalgic, slyly witty, perceptive and at times flirting — deliberately — with old fogeyism. Tom Fort, a BBC radio journalist, starts from the assumption that ‘many of us have a road that reaches back into our past’. For him, this is the 92 miles of the A303 — as he

Mumbai and Mammon

This is a state of the nation novel or more accurately a state of Mumbai novel. Behind the tale of a struggle by a developer to acquire, for flashy redevelopment,  the three towers of the lower-middle-class, crumbling Vishram Co-operative Housing Society, lies a colourful and ambitious novel about the changing standards and habits of the

When the best defence is no defence

This remarkable book is the account by their lawyer of the trial, imprisonment and sentencing to death in the late Eighties of a group of young men who came to be known as the Delmas Four. It is also a wonderfully vivid and at times alarming account of the inner workings both of ANC ‘operations

Positively Kafkaesque

This is a companion to a collection published earlier this year of Nadine Gordimer’s non-fiction, called Telling Times. This is a companion to a collection published earlier this year of Nadine Gordimer’s non-fiction, called Telling Times. Short stories are, of all her endeavours, the most successful. Their heyday was in the Seventies, when they perfectly

Taking on the turmoil

Nadine Gordimer is now in her mid-eighties. For as long as I have been alive, she has been the towering figure of South African literature, a fact recognised in l991 by the Nobel committee. This is a collection of her non-fiction over 60 years, running to nearly 800 pages. There is a belief, prevalent in

A canker on the rose

This is a very short book with large type. DeLillo has said that he no longer feels a compulsion to write long, compendious books. In his later years Saul Bellow said something similar. DeLillo, of course, has written very long in the past, notably with the 850-page Underworld (1997), and his story has been America.

The man who saved Oxford University

The Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford is an astonishing building, designed by Christopher Wren. Its painted ceiling has just been restored, so that the darkish miasma that was Robert Streeter’s original allegory of truth and light striking the university, is now bright with playful cherubs and lustrous clouds. Here, bookended by large chunks of Latin, a

To be mortal

I have read two outstanding books this summer. This is one of them; the other is Summertime by J.M. Coetzee (reviewed on page 42). As I read The Infinities, with its magical, playful richness, its sensuous delight in the power of language to convey the strangeness and beauty of being human, I wondered if J.M.Coetzee

Zuluboy is here

South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country since Apartheid, by R. W. Johnson After the Party: Corruption and the ANC, by Andrew Feinstein I am writing this in Cape Town on the very day that Jacob Zuma is exonerated of all charges of corruption, racketeering and money-laundering — not by a judge, but by