Posts tagged ‘novel’

November 19, 2017

Autumn by Ali Smith

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Penguin Random House, £8.99, out now

 

AutumnMuch has been made of the fact that this is Ali Smith’s “Brexit novel”, which in some ways is to do it a disservice. Because if, like me, the term “Brexit novel” makes you shudder internally and want to reach for the new Lee Childs instead, you’d be missing out on a fascinating entry which manages to look at our newly-divided Britain with a fresh eye.

The plot concerns the curious relationship between Elisabeth Demand, a precariously-employed “casual contract junior lecturer” visiting the town in which she grew up, and Daniel Gluck, her centenarian former neighbour who now lies dying in a hospice. But this is just the springboard from which Smith leads us through a whirlwind of dreams and memories, in tandem with her always-enjoyable day-to-day interactions deftly delivered with the usual eye for eccentricity.

And all this is of course set very much in the present, against the backdrop of the country’s historic decision to leave the EU. Working as she is in a medium where we’re used to clever allusions, parodies, fables and metaphors instead of approaching things head-on, there’s something almost illicitly exciting in the way she occasionally allows her asides about Brexit to be so on-the-nose, never shying away from directly addressing the matter at hand. This feels every inch a book written in the direct aftermath of the referendum, simultaneously angry, confused, ruminative, wounded and playful – which must be a very hard concoction to pull off as successfully as it is here.

At times it feels like Smith is examining this disorienting time in the same way that Gunter Grass so brilliantly tackled the incremental rise of Nazi Germany in The Tin Drum; by focusing alternately on scenes of domesticity, surreality and hard, painful truth.

And as in many of Smith’s novels, it’s somehow dreamlike yet relatable, like a glimpse inside a brain at once the same and totally different to your own. Written in the distinctly idiosyncratic prose – peppered with elastic quips, digressions through language and the occasional startling image – which has won her such a loyal fan-base, it’s no surprise that such a talented writer, wrestling with so seismic a period in our history, has turned out a piece of work as singular as this. Get it down you.

Review by Tom

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November 13, 2017

The Alarming Palsy of James Orr by Tom Lee

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Granta, £12.99, out now

Alarming PalsyAnother week, another deeply unsettling novella. Tom Lee’s dream-like tale of suburban living gone awry would make a good companion piece to Matthew Weiner’s Heather, the Totality; but where that short novel felt very American in its evocation of a divided, gentrified New York, Lee’s is distinctly, queasily English, exploiting the tensions behind middle-class social mores.

Unremarkable family man James Orr wakes up one morning to discover he has contracted Bell’s Palsy, which has caused the left side of his face to droop unresponsively. In the hands of Lee, dealing with this plausible (if unlikely) malady becomes a Kafkaesque nightmare, as Orr – like the haplessly metamorphosed Gregor Samsa – tries his best to navigate his life and responsibilities in a world where he has been indelibly transformed.

Suddenly unable to work at his client-facing company, he is forced to confront the grim reality of days unmoored from any sort of routine. Meanwhile his unblemished cul-de-sac community of identical homes is under siege, as youths are using its quiet streets for sexual encounters in their cars. As head of the neighbourhood residents’ committee, James may have to do something – but his predicament is a doubly unfortunate one, as he finds that his face is sufficiently disabled that he often can’t speak or make himself understood.

Tough stuff for anyone to deal with; but like in any bad dream, an inexplicable edge begins to creep into our hero’s behaviour. As his visage is obscured so too are the motives behind his actions, and the unpredictability of the narrative as he becomes increasingly erratic makes for compelling reading.

This is a novel which utilizes its idyllic setting perfectly in a way that recalls Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby or The Stepford Wives, and the slow and innocuous way that an atmosphere of dread is built is remarkable.  A quick, punchy read that stays with you long after the final page.

Review by Tom

August 27, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Bloomsbury, £18.99, out now

Lincoln in Bardo.jpgIf you turn over George Saunders’ first full-length novel, you’ll be bombarded by so many quotes on the back cover from writing titans that it might lead you to believe that he’s the literary equivalent of the second coming of Christ. Jonathan Franzen says we’re lucky to have him, Zadie Smith asserts that we’ll read him “long after these times have passed”, Thomas Pynchon, Khaled Hosseini, Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, Lorrie Moore and more besides all sing his praises.

And the wonderful thing is, they ain’t wrong. Saunders is a singular voice, a writer whose celebrated short stories have combined Pythonesque whimsy, incomprehensible corporate/new age jargon, deep existential ennui and a strong ethical conscience to create a style that is instantly recognisable and wonderfully original. His works are uniquely his own, as funny as they are often heart-breaking – you will laugh, you will cry – and his debut novel is thankfully no different.

A bizarre story – Abraham Lincoln’s deceased eleven-year-old son Willie tries to navigate a transitional stage of the afterlife known as the Bardo over one night of ghostly weirdness – is complemented by an equally bizarre form; when Saunders isn’t leading the plot through playscript-like dialogues narrated from within the Bardo he’s employing an even more remarkable narrative convention, that of telling the tale of the surviving Abraham Lincoln by amalgamating passages from (fictional) history books. This creates a procession of voices mostly many-times removed from the events they clamour to describe. It sounds odd, is odd, but is as wrong-footing and unexpectedly affecting as anything he has written.

It’s not often you read a book that feels as deliciously, daringly new as this. And the fact that, like Saunders’ short stories, it somehow feels casual, unpretentious and effortless just shows the extent of this fascinating author’s talent.

Review by Tom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

August 21, 2017

Transit by Rachel Cusk

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Jonathan Cape, £16.99, out now

Transit CuskRachel Cusk returns with Transit, the paperback of which will be arriving next month. As a taster, here’s our review of this distinctive and multifaceted novel.

Centred around a series of domestic vignettes, Cusk’s latest follows a narrator who goes not just unnamed for the majority of the novel but unremarked upon, an incisive and mysterious ghost whose duties around a London she has returned to in the wake of a divorce lead her to encounter a cast of old flames and new neighbours. Coldly, detachedly, she questions and interrogates those she meets, leading them into confessions that hold a mirror up to her own apprehensions.

The narrator (and very possibly Cusk’s alter ego) is an intriguing proposition – the kind of peculiar operator who sees fit to ask her hairdresser whether he thinks freeing oneself causes someone else to become imprisoned. She speaks almost entirely in the kind of searching philosophical inquiries that seem at odds with the workaday scenarios she inhabits, putting existentialist queries to friends and acquaintances, handymen and (of course) hairdressers; but it’s through the prism of her idiosyncrasy that these encounters are ultimately lent powerful meaning.

Whether it’s the builder whose failing health may jeopardise his career and livelihood or the ex-partner who appears so unchanged in the decades since their breakup that he may even be wearing the same shirt, much human frailty, eccentricity and beauty is on display here, dug up from beneath the surface mundanity by our guide’s relentless examinations. And, of course, there is the narrator herself; whose chilly, once-removed demeanour may well be reflecting how alone the newly-divorced mother feels in a world of couples, cliques and happy families. It’s a really interesting work, with a great deal to say about the human condition and much in it that readers will recognise about themselves.

Review by Tom

 

 

 

July 29, 2017

Phone by Will Self

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Penguin Viking, £18.99, out now

The final part of Will Self’s modernist trilogy famous for its lack of paragraphs and preponderance of big words, Phone is more of the same; frequently frustrating, stubbornly literary and ultimately brilliant. Written again without paragraphs in his trademark run-on style, this is fiction that accePhone Will Selflerates off the page as you read, in a torrent of euphemisms, witticisms and aphorisms.

It’s heady stuff. We’re constantly being uprooted, pulled from thought to thought, place to place, character to character and time to time without warning (and always mid-sentence). We spend spells in the brains of (among others) Zach Busner, an aging psychiatrist who’s equal parts OIiver Sacks and King Lear; a spy called the Butcher, who applies the tricks of his trade to night-time homosexual conquests; and Gawain, the closeted military man he seduces.

We’re completely submerged in each character’s psyche, hearing the songs they can’t get out of their heads, the reminiscences from forty years or four seconds ago, and even, in the case of the Butcher, the private mental conversations they have with their genitalia. Which means that as occasionally arduous as the act of following this cluttered and restless prose can be, it’s as near an analogue to actually being inside a person’s consciousness as I’ve ever read. To accurately depict the life of the mind is an astonishing feat, and Self nails it in laudable style.

Our author is really pushing the envelope here, and like similarly impenetrable works like Ulysses or Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy, Phone is incredibly rewarding once you’re knee-deep in it. Plus it’s really funny, which always helps.

Review by Tom

 

 

May 28, 2017

The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Harvill Secker, £16.99, Out now. 

This is the second novel by the great French novelist, Laurent Binet. Those who read his first, critically acclaimed novel, HHhH (previously reviewed by Stuart for this blog in 2012 https://theriversideway.wordpress.com/2013/01/01/hhhh-laurent-binet/), will instantly recognise his signature style of narrative intrusion that makes him one of the most exciting and inventive authors about today. Binet has again chosen to use a factual historical event as the starting point to his novel. HHhH was based on the plan to assassinate high-ranking Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich, the new novel, The 7th Function of Language, starts with the death of French critic and semiotician,

Laurent Binet 7TH FUNCTION OF LANGUAGE

Roland Barthes. Binet blurs the lines between history and fiction in a really clever and often funny way, from the very first line he is questioning the nature of the novel as a form and how it relates to reality,“Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so.”

Roland Barthes was knocked down by a laundry van on his walk home on the 25th February 1980 and died from his injuries a month later, that bit is true. However, the death appears a bit more mysterious, as Barthes was on his way home from visiting the Socialist candidate for the French Presidency, Francois Mitterrand. But what if Barthes death wasn’t an accident? What if it was in fact an assassination? This is where the story turns into fiction, or at least speculation. In his hand he was holding a top-secret document that was stolen from him as he lay on the road. What did the document contain? Who Killed Roland Barthes? Superintendent Jacques Bayard is assigned the task of solving the mystery. He meets numerous French intellectuals who live rock-star-like existences in the clubs, bars and cafes of Paris. The story is fast paced and exciting and Binet’s style is a magical balance of being both really, really clever and super funny.

Review by Charlie

 

January 31, 2017

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

by Team Riverside

Hardback, £12.99 – Out Nowgwedoline-riley-first-love

The fifth novel from the woefully underappreciated young British genius Gwendoline Riley might be her best one yet. First Love is narrated by Neve, a thirty-something writer who lives in London with her older husband Edwyn. As she combs over her past – friendships, courtships, hateships, love – and the choices that have borne her here, Neve paints a sentence-perfect picture of a testing literary life and a relationship that lurches queasily from cloying tenderness to wince-inducing cruelty. It’s a short but perfectly measured book in which every line pops and buzzes and sings. “Considering one’s life requires a horribly delicate determination, doesn’t it?” begins the novel’s blistering third and final act; “To get to the truth, the heart of the trouble.” This is urgent, gorgeously stylish, devastating new fiction that does just that: gets to the truth, and cuts to the heart. It’s a masterpiece.

Review by Stuart

October 18, 2016

Serious Sweet, by A L Kennedy

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Jonathan Cape, £17.99, out nowa-l-kennedy-serious-sweet

Funny, angsty, unconventionally romantic…  A L Kennedy’s Booker-longlisted novel is very readable.  Meg is a bankrupt accountant, living in Lewisham, trying to stay sober and working for an animal sanctuary (there is an excellent dog in this book).  Jon is a senior civil servant who hates his Government job and most of his colleagues.  He is troubled by things he is asked to do but appears stuck.  Both characters are trying to do their best in current day London, a city which can feel dangerous and uncaring.  But will their separate stories collide during the 24 hours covered by the book, and if so how?

Serious Sweet feels completely current, and the frequent stabs of humour reflect Kennedy’s stand-up experience.  There is enough bitterness to make the sweetness stand out.  This is just what you’d expect from this thoughtful writer, who always engages fearlessly with contemporary concerns.  I recommend reading the book at a gallop, to get the most out of the single day structure.

For collectors of London novels, this is a must-have.  Wholly convincing instances of kindness to strangers, often on London’s public transport, are recounted.  The unexpected village nook, Shepherd Market in Mayfair, is clearly inspirational for novelists at the moment, as it also stars in Francesca Kay’s excellent The Long Room (https://www.faber.co.uk/9780571322527-the-long-room.html).   Kennedy also gives us the best description of the new London skyscrapers anywhere.  It is possibly worth reading the whole book just for this.

I’ll always take a chance on reading A L Kennedy, author of the funniest short story I’ve ever read (The Mouseboks Family Dictionary, in her collection Now That You’re Back – http://www.a-l-kennedy.co.uk/book/now-that-youre-back/).  It still makes my cry with laughter.

Life is not perfect, or sometimes even tolerable, but there can be more chances.

Review by Bethan