Philip Womack

Back from the beyond: The Book of Love, by Kelly Link, reviewed

Kelly Link’s short-story collections bewilder and delight with their sideways takes on fantasy tropes. People might turn into cats, but they do it while texting emojis (dancing lady, unicorn, happy face). In The Book of Love, Link’s debut novel, she revels in upholding and upturning the genre’s conventions. Mainlining Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and with

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

No happy ever afters: White Cat, Black Dog, by Kelly Link, reviewed

Kelly Link’s latest collection of short stories riffs wildly on traditional fairy tales, filleting out their morphological structures and transposing them. She ranges from a space-set ‘Hansel and Gretel’ to a same-sex version of ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’, and much more besides. Like Angela Carter, Link understands the psychological (and

A dangerous gift: The Weather Woman, by Sally Gardner, reviewed

The Weather Woman is the children’s writer Sally Gardner’s first novel for adults under her own name (previously, she used the pseudonym Wray Delaney). Spanning the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, the story describes an England trembling at the French Revolution and haunted by the threat of Napoleon while

The torment of mentoring spoilt rich kids

For 20 years of my adult life, I moonlighted as a private tutor. After a full day in the office (at a literary job which paid me the price of a Mars Bar p.c.m.), I would traipse the streets, from Notting Hill mansion to cramped suburban flat and everywhere in between, leaving a trail of

Back in the magic land of Narnia

C. S. Lewis’s enchanting Chronicles of Narnia series has, in recent years, come under critical fire. It’s racist, sexist, colonialist; blatant propaganda for Christianity, hoodwinking children into a life of religious submission. These barbs seem to me to miss the point. As a geeky nine-year-old, I had a dim sense that Aslan had something to

Mothers meeting

Niven Govinden’s This Brutal House is set in the demi-monde of the New York vogue ball. This is an organised, charged battle of display, a peacocking, glitter-fuelled extravaganza, in which transvestites and transsexuals compete against each other for kudos and cash prizes. Eyelashes lengthen, hair is piled up for hours, dresses shimmer and heels clack,

Daughters of Troy

In the past few years there has been a flourishing of literary responses to the Trojan war. To mention a few: Barry Unsworth’s elegant The Songs of the Kings enhanced the narrative with psychological flair; Alice Oswald’s beautifully distilled Memorial brought a disquieting focus on to the deaths of lesser heroes, as well as the

Be careful what you wish for

Adam Foulds’s fourth novel, Dream Sequence, is an exquisitely concocted, riveting account of artistic ambition and unrequited love verging on obsession. In previous novels he has been interested in exploring the limits of perception and knowledge. Here he examines, with beautiful, forensic attention, the minds of a young, thrusting English actor, Henry Banks (a mix

Passionate pursuits

André Aciman’s 2007 debut novel, Call Me By Your Name, was a sensuous, captivating account of the passionate love a cosmopolitan teenage boy bore for an older American man, which has since been made into an elegant and successful film, directed by Luca Guadagnino. For readers of all sexual persuasions, there was universality in young

Stories we tell ourselves

Sofka Zinovieff’s new novel, Putney, is an involving, beautifully written, and subtle account of an affair in the 1970s between Ralph, a composer in his thirties, and Daphne, a young girl, who is nine when she is first encountered: ‘Flitting, animal movements; narrowed, knowing eyes; dark, tangled hair; dirty bare feet.’ Enchanted by this creature,

A love letter to France

When John Julius Norwich was a boy, his father was British ambassador in Paris.School holidays were spent in the exceptionally beautiful embassy which had been purchased by the Duke of Wellington from Pauline Borghese. He would mix dry martinis for Jean Cocteau, and sing songs to the dinner guests which he had been taught by

Paris mismatch

There has been much debate recently about what exactly constitutes ‘literary’ fiction. If the term means beguiling, gorgeously crafted novels that are assured of their place alongside other writers, reacting to, and taking pleasure in discussing them; that are aware of the world’s events and their impact on humanity; that have delicately drawn characters; and

Another gone girl

Adam Thorpe’s latest novel, Missing Fay, examines the lives of a disparate group of people in Lincolnshire, all touched in some way by the disappearance of the titular Fay, a sparky, gobby 14-year-old girl from a council estate. This is an England of motorways, dull campsites, immigrants and nursing homes: where transience is the norm,

Defeat by tweet and blog

The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth’s Booker-longlisted debut novel, was set just after the Norman Conquest, and was told in an odd hybrid of pseudo-Anglo-Saxon and modern English. Its narrator, Buccmaster of Holland, being displaced by the incoming Frenchies, gathered a group of fighters to resist, holding them together by the strength of his personality. But something

Escaping the Inferno

I read this, Meg Rosoff’s first novel for adults (though her previous fiction, aimed at teenagers, is widely enjoyed by older readers), curled up with my beautiful lurcher, Una, twitching her ears beside me. Appropriately so, as the novel concerns the relationship between a young man and two dogs, super-intelligent collie Dante and devoted spaniel

Odi et amo

Reading Daisy Dunn’s ambitious first book, a biography of the salty (in more ways than one) Roman poet Catullus, it struck me how lucky we are: only one copy of his collection of poems survived the ages, hidden under a bushel in Verona. Catullus might have gone the way of his contemporaries, such as Cinna,

A break from sabre-thrusting

Allan Mallinson’s historical series concerning Matthew Hervey, the well-bred, thoughtful soldier, details a world where men are practical and not too clever; where the only sensible vote is Tory; where Moors make ‘uncommonly good cymbalists’. Everything gleams, buffed up to a shining surface: it is a fantasy of empire and glory. Two thirds of the