Stuart Kelly

Alternatives to God

K. Chesterton, in one of his wise and gracious apothegms, once wrote that ‘When Man ceases to worship God he does not worship nothing but worships everything.’ John Gray, one of the most pernickety and carnaptious of contemporary philosophers, presents here a kind of taxonomy of not atheism, per se, but of the vacuums and

It’s grim up north

Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney was one of the surprise stand-outs of last year, and a worthy winner of the Costa First Book Award. His new novel, Devil’s Day, is equally good, even though its similarities slightly muffle the surprises. Like his debut, it is a work of gooseflesh eeriness. The Loney artfully described the

A barren prospect

In many ways this is a very old-fashioned novel. Jerome is 53, and a lacklustre professor at Columbia; his wife, Sylvie, 35, is a former topless dancer and aspiring film-maker. Sylvie has a dog but wants a baby. Together they will cross the former Soviet bloc looking for a child of their own, despite Sylvie

Homer Simpson in a chasuble

This is one of the most remarkable, hilarious, jaw-droppingly candid and affecting memoirs I have read for some time — not since, perhaps, Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or Rupert Thomson’s This Party’s Got to Stop. Patricia Lockwood is a poet — dubbed ‘The Smutty-Metaphor Queen of Lawrence, Kansas’ — who, after

A surreal caprice

At the start of this novella the protagonist, Thibaut, is ambushed by Wehrmacht soldiers between the ninth and tenth arrondissements. That the year in 1950 is not the strangest aspect, as he is rescued by the appearance of the Vélo, a bicycle-like contraption with a queasily organic prow. It is, in fact, a living version

Everyday unhappiness

This is an extraordinarily compelling novel for one in which nothing really happens but everything changes. Sara Baume’s narrator is Frankie, a 26-year-old art school graduate, who has fled Dublin to live in her dead grandmother’s rural bungalow. What happened to her ‘started with the smelling of carpet’ in her bedsit; she feels such a

Weird and wonderful

The Un-Discovered Islands could not be more different in substance — though it is similar in style — to Malachy Tallack’s debut, Sixty Degrees North. In that he book he took a revealing pilgrimage around the places which lay, like his home of Shetland, on the 60th parallel, and found a range of concerns about

Rich in legend and song

There is an immediate problem for anyone producing a guide to places in Scotland with literary connections: as Walter Scott wrote in Marmion, ‘Nor hill, nor brook we paced along/ But had its legend or its song.’ Many years ago when the Scottish Borders was marketing itself as the ‘Land of Creativity’ I assembled a

Into a cloud-scratched sky

There have been a number of attempts to graft the style of the so-called new nature writing onto the novel: works such as Melissa Harrison’s Clay, for instance, or Amy Sackville’s Orkney. Tom Bullough’s Addlands is a very creditable contribution to this genre. The form does have an intrinsic problem: how does one dramatise seeing?

The elegiac and the exuberant

Discussions about the short story too often fall into a false dichotomy that can be characterised, in essence, by a quibble over a consonant. Carver or Carter? On the surface, it would be easy to present Philip Hensher as the Raymond Carver-like elegiac naturalist, giving glimpses of disappointed lives and misunderstood epiphanies, and Helen Oyeyemi

Get thee to a notary

Given this year’s 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, there was always going to be a slew of new publications; few, I suspect, will have as long-lasting an effect as John Kerrigan’s. His field of inquiry is both straightforward and complicated. It is almost retrospectively obvious that Shakespeare’s plays contain a great amount of vows, oaths,

Muses, nurses and punch-bags

The conceit of this book — the author’s third on Robert Lowell — is strong, although its execution is less successful. Lowell made his love life central to his aesthetic project, especially in For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin, and so it makes sense to read his work through his major emotional attachments. Not

Bard times

It is fair to say that Jeanette Winterson is not Shakespeare, though I cannot imagine why any authors would accept these commissions to retell the plays — Margaret Atwood is lined up for The Tempest, Howard Jacobson for The Merchant of Venice — since the only certainty is that the texts will not be as

Detroit’s new colonials

In the opening sentence of this subtle and finely poised novel, the narrator, Greg Marnier, known as ‘Marny’, admits that he ‘was never much good at telling stories’. By the end he is accused of having a ‘confessional streak, but no real desire to explain yourself’, while realising that ‘everything people do, everything they say,

Sex, violence and lettuces

There is something cruelly beautiful, delightfully frustrating and filthily gorgeous about a Scarlett Thomas novel. Two family trees open and close this book: one shows what the characters think they are and how they are related, the other what they are revealed to be. How the couplings shift is less important than the chains of