Neglected Importance of the Clown’s Pedigree

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Noel Malcolm is a Cambridge scholar, but intelligent to a degree which is inevitably aggressive. I first encountered this remarkable and welcome quality in his furious book about Bosnia, and although at first I doubted his case, he was clearly unanswerable, and has been proved more or less right. But he has also edited two […]

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A Taxonomy of Collectors

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Each morning at around 8am, I stumble down the steps to the kitchen and pour myself a cup of hot coffee, slide into my favourite chair, take a sip from my mug and stare groggily into the middle distance. After a second sip, I generally reflect on my life’s greatest blunders, recall friends who are […]

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A Pocket Full of Arsenic

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong was a solicitor in sleepy Hay-on-Wye. He was a respected professional, churchwarden, family man and pillar of the community. Small and dapper, he lived in apparent contentment with his wife and three children in an imposing Edwardian villa with a large garden. And on 31 May 1922 he was hanged at […]

The Banana Spider’s Web

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Emergency is a spooling, intimate novel about slow violence and the permeability of all living things. The narrator, self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic, looks back on her childhood in a rural Yorkshire village in the 1990s. She recalls rambles through neighbours’ living rooms, fields and the local wood, and reflects on encounters with grazing cattle, […]

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Camp Connections

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Nick Holdstock’s Quarantine, set in the aftermath of a pandemic, is built around phrases that might once have summoned dystopian strangeness: ‘testing positive’, ‘mutation rate’. Lukas, one of two narrators, lives in a camp for infected people in an otherwise vaccinated world. The camp is an ecosystem of dirt, drugs and never-quite-convincing quantities of sex.

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Pass the Sodium Chloride

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Experimental research chemistry and the day-to-day chores of a mid-century American housewife – rather different fields, right? Not so, says Elizabeth Zott, the unflinching heroine of Bonnie Garmus’s debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry. After her life as a high-level scientist goes awry for reasons both mundane (the sexism of 1950s America) and less mundane (something […]

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School for Scandal

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Intergenerational romps, romances and relations have always been a staple of the campus novel. The opening sentence of Vladimir gets straight down to business. ‘When I was a child, I loved old men,’ the nameless protagonist tells us, ‘and I could tell that they also loved me.’ The narrator, an erstwhile novelist and ageing professor […]

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Earning His Spurs

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The narrative voice in Paddy Crewe’s bold and impressive debut belongs to Yip, who is mute, tiny and has no hair anywhere on his body. Yip was born in 1815 and lives in Heron’s Creek, a small town in Georgia. His father mysteriously disappeared on the night of his birth so he lives with his […]

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Kiss Me Through the Phone

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The overwhelming mood of this collection of stories is one of wintry alienation. Jem Calder’s interlinked cast is the economic precariat of twenty-something urbanites: underemployed graduates, office-job-to-office-job drifters and defeated singletons. They lead self-conscious, lonely lives, sliding past each other, their attempts at human connection never quite successful. We know little about them beyond their […]

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Distant Echoes of Glory

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Cressida Connolly’s third novel, Bad Relations, focuses on three generations of a family descended from a hero of the Battle of Alma. When it opens in 1855, the 29-year-old William Gale is cutting a lock of hair from the head of his dead brother, Algie, killed in the fighting at Sebastopol. He must write a […]

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4004 & All That

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

We begin with God’s creation of the universe, and things go downhill from there. Bishop James Ussher’s infamously precise dating of the event – 6pm on Saturday 22 October 4004 BC – was lauded by his contemporaries and is ridiculed by us. Georgi Gospodinov’s new novel, Time Shelter, opens with Ussher’s calculation. It soon becomes […]

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Baggy Dog Story

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Angus Mooney, the narrator of Here Goes Nothing, is dead. He regrets his time on earth: ‘How I often made life choices to avoid the disapproval of those who hadn’t even noticed me standing there; how I longed to be liked by the very people I disliked.’ He wonders why he didn’t make more of […]

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Life, University & Everything

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot (2017), ends in the summer of 1996 with its heroine reflecting that she ‘hadn’t learned anything at all’ during her first year at university. Either/Or opens a few weeks later, with the same heroine, Turkish-American Selin Karadağ, arriving back at Harvard for her second year. She changes her major […]

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Consume in Moderation

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It’s been twelve years since Jennifer Egan published A Visit from the Goon Squad, a polyphonic and unceasingly inventive sprawl of a text, which remains both her best-known creation and her most celebrated, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011. It’s as much a short story collection as it is a novel, the author […]

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It Started with a Kiss

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The title of Patrick McCabe’s ambitious and disturbing new novel is a compressed and smoothed-out rendering of the Gaelic words for ‘kiss’, ‘my’ and ‘arse’. Even readers of a non-Celtic persuasion are likely to recognise it, whether from Buck Mulligan’s attack on stage Irishry in Ulysses (‘Pogue mahone! Acushla machree! It’s destroyed we are from this day!’) or from the name of the rambunctious punk-folk band fronted by snaggle-toothed rhapsode Shane MacGowan, who may have imbibed the Joyce line with

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When Worlds Collide

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In ‘What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear’, a 2012 story by the young Chinese science fiction writer Bao Shu, the end of the world seems near. And yet, after a series of strange and dramatic flashes in the sky, the world keeps going, only now the arrow of time is reversed. Kicking off […]

The Poet and the Pike

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

What do poets do to refresh their spirits when they are not writing poetry or trying to earn a living in order to write it? Wordsworth and Coleridge tramped immense distances over moor and fell. Byron swam. Emily Dickinson sat in her bedroom. Ted Hughes went fishing. For Hughes fishing was much more than a […]

Are You for Real?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

About twenty years ago, Alice Sherwood discovered that one of her friends was an impostor. At first, the lies he told were the usual Walter Mitty fantasies favoured by sad, deluded men – that he was working for MI5, that he was an aristocrat, that his father had been murdered – but they soon developed […]

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Last Orders at the Dockers’ Inn

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

There is much to be said for John Davis’s enormous book about the time before yesterday. The two and a half decades between the end of the postwar restrictions and the arrival of Thatcherism were a time of great and irreversible social change, even though many aspects of this change were, in themselves, transitory. The […]

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