ESSAY False Dawns and Regressions

by Archie Cornish

All this tonal detachment can seem aloof, and these days people have plenty to say — often imprecisely — about the aloofness of novels narrated and written by women. It‘s true that much contemporary fiction adopts a distant, drifting first-person perspective, the kind of stance which has often suited the short story in various traditions, but now proliferates in the novel. Precarity makes young adults like Erin and Magee’s Sean into outsiders, but the drifting perspective might also have technological roots. We live most of the time in two places, in the world and on our phones; phones have shaped for us the default mode of knee-jerk, superficial interpretation of other people. [read full essay]

ESSAY Review 31's Books of the Year 2023

by Review 31

The books of the year list can only ever be a provisional stock-taking: lags in publication preclude a complete picture. This year’s selections are a case in point: a narrow majority first appeared before 2023. Three of these are new translations. Another, Michael Winkler’s outlandish cult favourite Grimmish, finally reached the UK after an extraordinary two-year trajectory: self-published in his native Australia after universal rejection, the book became an improbable award and word-of-mouth success. Among the 2023 bona fides, there is significant range — including Saskia Hamilton’s posthumous poetry collection, the (possibly) final instalment of Adam Mars-Jones’s John Cromer series and Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting, a sensation that attracted a considerable hive. [read full essay]

The Gift of Misgiving

Angela Leighton, Something, I Forget

reviewed by Jack Barron

Angela Leighton’s latest collection of poems — her sixth — comes to us under a sign that dissolves at its edges, inaugurating a finely-tuned vagueness, a structural ambiguity; it is a collection framed by those minor oblivions that dog us all: Something, I Forget. And indeed, within its pages, variations on the theme of memory (and its failures) abound: they are poems that, through their rich emphasis on sound and acoustic patterning, repeatedly describe the fringes of language as it... [read more]

Because They Wind Us Up

Daisy Lafarge, Lovebug

reviewed by Vittoria Fallanca

In an evocative passage based around John Donne’s famous poem The Flea, Daisy Lafarge discusses what she terms ‘the difficult meshwork of infection and intimacy’. The flea of Donne’s poem has sucked on the blood of the speaker and his beloved and acts as an opportunity for him to persuade her of a different kind of corporeal exchange. While feminist critiques of the poem note the silence or erasure of the female beloved, for Lafarge this interspecies interaction highlights how our... [read more]
 

Something Strange and Distressing

Matthew Bowman, The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America

reviewed by Alexis Forss

On June 25th 2023, at 13:37 BST, Matthew Bowman became probably the first author in the history of the Yale University Press to have their work plugged by the Daily Mail website. Before anyone starts wondering at the new slant of MailOnline’s TV & Showbiz coverage, here’s the headline: ‘We were abducted by aliens: The unbelievable story of suburban churchgoing couple Betty and Barney Hill, the first Americans to claim they'd been snatched by a UFO.’ This macabre story may endure as the... [read more]

The Power of Suggestion

Witold Gombrowicz, trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, The Possessed

reviewed by Gertrude Gibbons

Witold Gombrowicz, Polish novelist, essayist and playwright, observed, commented and critiqued contemporary society and the human condition. His writings are eccentric, unique, and though they are rooted in Poland they extend beyond these borders, held in high esteem by writers such as Susan Sontag, Jean-Paul Sartre and Milan Kundera. His first novel, Ferdydurke, published in Warsaw in 1937, caused a stir for its controversial depiction of Polish society. His international recognition grew in... [read more]
 

An Unadulterated Celebration

Joanna Biggs, A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again

reviewed by Jennifer Thomson

I used to have the Woolfian ideal — money, and a room of my own. Now I have expensive childcare bills to pay, and that room is a nursery. Similar predicaments face the female writers of Joanna Biggs’ A Life of One’s Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again. After Ted leaves, Sylvia is stuck trying to write what will become Ariel whilst caring for two tiny children; Toni sets up her desk in the middle of the house she makes with her two young sons, freshly divorced, so that ‘the writing could... [read more]

Squeezing the Day

Patrick McGuinness, Blood Feather

reviewed by Tim Murphy

There is an adage to the effect that one of the most difficult subjects for a writer is their own family. The idea is that blood ties serve to obfuscate and divert, and thus truthfulness or insight are unreasonable expectations in literary representations of a writer’s own kin. There is, however, a vast body of excellent literature that defies this logic, and this now includes Patrick McGuinness’s first poetry collection for thirteen years, Blood Feather. McGuinness has previously authored... [read more]
 

Well Made Austerities

Nathalie Olah, Bad Taste: Or the Politics of Uglines

reviewed by Alice Brewer

Much of what concerns Bad Taste, Olah’s second full-length book, is traceable to a chapter of her first. Exploring the cultural impoverishments of New Labour and the decade of austerity that followed, Olah’s Steal as Much as You Can (2019) argued that tastefulness should be understood as the uncodified aesthetic of the risk-averse. Her focus was arts programming: how unwilling our middle- and upper-class cadre of editors, commissioners and marketing executives are to take risks in times of... [read more]

Not All Allegories Are Equal

Adam Biles, Beasts of England

reviewed by Peter Adkins

I’ve always felt George Orwell was hard on sheep in Animal Farm. Presented as a mindless indistinguishable mass, ready to unremember the past and change their allegiances on the slightest of porcine instruction, Orwell drew on farmyard clichés that anyone who has spent five-minutes with a sheep will know to be wrong. Sheep are wilful, resourceful and clever animals, inquisitive and cautious, independent and companionable. Or perhaps, I am the one who is wrong. After all, the beastly... [read more]
 

Let Our Voices Mingle

Tom Conaghan (ed.), The Poet & The Echo

reviewed by Phoebe Tee

Birdsong caws and chirrups through the stories in Scratch Books’ new anthology, The Poet & The Echo, each of which was written in response to an existing poem as part of Radio 4’s programme of the same name. Harry Josephine Giles’s gothic tale, ‘The Grey Eagle’, whistles with ‘the wicked cries of innumerable gulls’. In Hannah Lavery’s ‘The Idler’, the narrator’s son listens ‘to the birds. Not for the credit, but because they’re singing'. But it’s not only birdsong... [read more]

Timely/Untimely

Stanley Corngold, Expeditions to Kafka: Selected Essays

reviewed by Meindert Peters

Be warned: you will not be able to escape Franz Kafka in 2024. After the centenary of Marcel Proust's death in 2022, with an exhibition in Paris and several new books, 2024 marks the centenary of Kafka's passing and this will not go unmarked either. The London Review of Books is publishing a special diary, filled with past Kafka criticism from their pages, by authors such as Elif Batuman, Anne Carson, and Colm Tóibín. Oxford scholar (and my colleague) Karolina Watroba will publish a new book... [read more]