William Brett

Loved and lost

Iain Sinclair is as dark as London scribes come. Engaged in a lifelong literary project, he records his own psychic and physical travels around the city, identifying what he calls ‘disappear- ances’ — people, buildings, spaces that no longer exist, but that haunt the present. While Peter Ackroyd is in thrall to London, revelling in

Giving the boy a bad review

William Brett reviews Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s new novel Do we carry the sins of our fathers? This sentiment may seem archaic — reminiscent, for instance, of the revenge cycles that play out in Greek tragedy. But in the Colombia of Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Informers, the notion of generational retribution is all too contemporary. In

What we lost last summer

It’s startling to read about extremely recent news events in a book presented as a novel. In Born Yesterday, Gordon Burn uses the McCanns, the floods, the foiled terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, Blair’s farewell and Brown’s hello as the meat of his narrative. Although this isn’t a conventional novel, in that the narrator

Lessons from the father of lies

Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died in January this year, was a literary-minded reporter. As the Polish Press Agency’s only foreign correspondent for most of the 1960s and 1970s, he would prepare for his journeys to Africa, Asia and the Americas by reading extensively. Later, he used his exotic experiences as material for what might best be

Children of the night

‘Time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night,’ a bartender says in Haruki Murakami’s eerie new novel. And it’s not just time that can seem out of joint during the witching hours, Murakami suggests. After Dark explores the ways in which the night can heighten our sense of isolation, and

At the feast

In 2003, two days after his now infamous interview with Phil Spector was published in the Daily Telegraph, Mick Brown heard that a woman had been shot and killed in the legendary pop producer’s mansion. Most journalists in his position would be exhilarated by their good fortune — the interview was the first that Spector

More Angry Young Men

Clinton Heylin is a celebrated Bob Dylan expert, which makes his subsequent concentration on punk rock something of a surprise. But there’s a connection — Dylan shares with the best punk bands a devastating originality and a refusal to toe the established line. It is this free-spirited mentality that clearly attracts Heylin to his subjects,

The peacock and the belly-dancer

Although Barry Unsworth’s latest novel might in some sense be about the relationship between Islam and Christianity, other less trendy themes are much more effectively addressed. Besides, The Ruby in Her Navel is told by a fictional character so convincing in his strengths and weaknesses that all considerations of politics, religion, history and morality are

Spies in Oxford

Spy fiction, or ‘spy-fi’, has its specialist practitioners, but big literary names have also turned to the genre for their own varied purposes. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American springs to mind, as does Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost, a fictionalised study of the CIA. But where these two literary spy thrillers struggle to shed the suspicion

The diary maid

With her poetry collection The World’s Wife (1999), Carol Ann Duffy provided a voice for the women that have been silenced in the course of history. Jane Harris has done something similar with The Observations, a bawdy tale narrated by Bessy Buckley, a (too) young Irish prostitute turned serving maid. Set somewhere dank and dour

Nailing the zeitgeist

When Microserfs was published in 1995, it sealed Douglas Coupland’s reputation as a nonpareil, the foremost recorder of American popular culture and the digital revolution. Tracing the lives of a group of computer coders who abandon Bill Gates’ campus-like corporation to start up their own company, the novel became famous as the definitive account of

Trapped in a shaming role

Racial shame looms large in this ‘imaginative reconstruction’ of the life of Bert Williams, the black American entertainer. Williams only began to achieve notable success after deciding, in 1895, to smear his face with burnt cork and widen his lips with make-up, in order to ‘play the coon’. He would shuffle his feet and boggle

That old Southern charm

Lee Cotton is born to a black mother in a little Delta town in the 1950s, but has white skin. He grows up amid violent confrontation between white supremacists and the civil rights movement. Aged 16, he is beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan. At this stage in the book, 50 pages in,

The battle of Babel

Apparently, this book is a work of ‘diachronic sociolinguistics’. Sensibly, the author doesn’t mention this disconcerting fact until the last chapter, by which time it is clear that diachronic sociolinguistics is not as terrifyingly obscure as it sounds. Empires of the Word bills itself as ‘A Language History of the World’, and charts the careers

Neither fish, flesh nor fowl

According to a Yale professor, Eric Jager has invented a new genre with this book. I can see what he means. It’s not a novel, because the story is based entirely on the historical record; it is, however, told as a continuous narrative, with very occasional invention to fill in the gaps where the sources