Category: fiction


THE CHILDREN ACT by Ian McEwan (Vintage Books, 2014)

With this novella’s strong focus on the burden of mortality and the melancholy reflections on ‘what-ifs’ from the past, it seems to me that, not for the first time, Ian McEwan takes a lot of inspiration from James Joyce’s Dubliners and ‘from The Dead’ in particular.

The delicate line that divides life and death centres on the fictional case of a 17-year-old boy, Adam Henry, who will almost certainly die unless he receives a blood transfusion. Since he has not quite reached the age of consent, the decision over his treatment rests with his parents who are both Jehovah’s Witnesses.

McEwan is an Atheist but he is interested in the nature of belief so is not about to score cheap points criticising the rigid application of religious principles. The opposition to transfusions is therefore presented as a serious moral dilemma rather than merely the result of blinkered thinking.

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VIRGINIA WOOLF biography by Hermione Lee (Vintage Books, 1996)

leeVirginia Woolf’s life story is one that is continually being re-evaluated. After all, it was fully  two decades after her suicide in 1941 before she began to be more widely acknowledged as a literary great and a feminist icon.

Even so, there are still far too many (mostly male) detractors who will routinely belittle the achievements of Woolf. Hermione Lee recalls that as a student she was taught to regard her as a “minor modernist”, not fit to be ranked alongside Joyce, T.S. Eliot or D.H. Lawrence.

She also recounts a revealing (and humorous) story of a St Ives bookseller who decided to take advantage of Woolf’s association with one of her former homes but only had a vague idea of who she was. He put up a sign which read : ‘Talland House. Home of Virginia Woolf, wife of the famous novelist”. Continue reading

THE SECRET HISTORY by Donna Tartt (First published 1992)

 Donna Tartt’s remarkable debut novel begins boldly with a chilling description of the murder of Edmund ‘Bunny’ Corcoran.

We immediately how this young man dies and who kills him. What we don’t know is why he was murdered and what the consequences of this act will be, Book I takes us through the events leading to the crime while Book II deals with the fall out from the killing.

Despite Tartt’s dramatic prologue, I confess there were times initially when I found her claustrophobic narrative style hard going. However, she more than rewards perseverance and once the story kicks in at the beginning of Book II, I was well and truly hooked. Continue reading

THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown, 2013)

After her two previous bestsellers, Donna Tartt is in the enviable position of being able to call all the shots with any publisher.

She is like an esteemed movie director who knows her work is never going to be subjected to unwanted cuts.

Moreover, she has established herself a writer who works slowly and meticulously, preferring quality to quantity.

A book every decade is her current rate of production and she expresses no desire to change this. She says she’ll be content if her life work consists of five big novels.

Constant rewriting and self editing are among the reasons why she is not more prolific. In a recent BBC interview, Tartt describes how she decided to scrub 8 months work after realising she had taken the plot down a wrong track.

You can well imagine why, after labouring for so long, she would resist any further editing suggestions. However, I can’t help feeling that this degree of total control is a double-edged sword. The Goldfinch is a novel that cries out for some bold editing and in my view it is at least 200 pages too long. Continue reading

STILL ALICE  directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (USA, 2014)

This moving and sobering film is based on a bestseller by Lisa Genova. Her novel was initially self published after being rejected by numerous publishers who believed that readers would not be interested in such a depressing subject. Just goes to show what they know!

The movie vindicates Genova’s decision to choose a woman with an early onset of Alzheimer’s as a means showing the devastating effect of dementia on an active, otherwise healthy, individual’s life. This is a film about living with the disease rather than dying from it.

Catherine Shoard, writing in The Guardian, gets it spectacularly wrong when she says that the film “perpetuates the notion that dementia is more tragic when it affects the intellectual”. It does nothing of the kind.

The fact that Alice is a respected university professor of linguistics in no way suggests that the loss of communication would be any less devastating in a less prestigious job, as a film critic for example! Continue reading

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