Friday, 21 September 2018

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham


"The Mistake is coming to stay for a while"

By Nightfall was first published in 2010 after the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Hours. In this novel, Cunningham’s protagonist is successful 40 something New York art dealer Peter who lives a middle class metropolitan life with his wife Rebecca in an upmarket part of town. Peter’s life revolves around gallery openings and visits to wealthy clients who might just buy another piece for their ostentatious collections. But for Peter something is missing. Enter Rebecca’s younger, drug addict and Yale drop-out brother, Mizzie, "The Mistake is coming to stay for a while".


By Nightfall is, in many ways, a contemporary retelling of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice but to Michael Cunningham’s credit there is more to this novel than meets the eye. Cunningham builds on the trope of the uninvited guest to create a novel about ageing, about success and about letting go.

Just as von Aschenbach is captivated by the young Tadzio in the Lido of Venice, Peter is inexplicably drawn to Mizzie in a way that leads him to question everything in life around him. Is Peter’s affection paternalistic, an intense form of comradeship or is it something else? 

By Nightfall includes countless narrative and stylistic references to Mann’s work but Cunningham updates the idea with more grit and post millennial modernity. The novel is brilliantly structured and his New York society, more Rodin at The Met than pretzels on Broadway, is beautifully crafted. By Nightfall is a great read about the diversions that occur in life.

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham published by Fourth Estate, 256 pages

Monday, 17 September 2018



A bit less taming and a lot less shrew

Vinegar Girl is part of a project curated by Hogarth Press which sees modern writers retell and re-imagine some of Shakespeare's most popular work. In this case The Taming of the Shrew (1590) gets the Anne Tyler treatment in this novel which relocates the story from Padua to modern day Baltimore. 

Anne Tyler knows that audiences are more than familiar with the source material whether via Shakespeare's play itself or through myriad adaptations from Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate to the Hollywood romcom 10 Things I Hate About You. So, rather than retell the story Tyler deconstructs the elements and rebuilds the narrative for a contemporary audience with a more developed view of gender politics. 

The eponymous Vinegar Girl is  Kate Battista daughter of a scientist at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University. When Dr Battista needs to find a way to extend the visa for his star student research assistant, Pyotr, he conceives of a plan to have him marry his daughter. This re-imagining of the courtship into a green card  marriage is believable, credible and Tyler-esque but results in a bit less taming and a lot less shrew  

Kate is headstrong, working as a teaching assistant she is frequently in trouble for speaking too honestly to the children in her care, but her demands are for the most part accepted by Pyotr which limits the humour and tension that Shakespeare creates between Petruchio and Katerina. Gone are the polarised gender roles that so defines The Taming of the Shrew. 

Though Kate's sister Bunny does appear in the story she plays a much reduced role to Shakespeare's Bianca which is an oversight as the novel could have retold the story with much greater depth. Vinegar Girl is an enjoyable read but best considered in its own right rather than as a retelling of The Taming of The Shrew for which it falls short. 

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler published by Hogarth, 272 pages

Friday, 14 September 2018

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh


A brave and ambitious novel

Sophie Mackintosh holds no punches in her debut novel The Water Cure. Having won both The White Review's short story prize and the Virago/Stylist short story competition in 2016 for her first full length novel Mackintosh tackles the theme of patriarchy head on. 

The novel takes place on a fortified though dilapidated island where a father, know as King, raises his daughters safe from the toxic masculinity of the world outside. The girls are raised with the profound belief that any contact with men could kill them.

The dystopia of the world beyond the island is highlighted by the frequent arrivals of women who wash up on the coast of the island seeking help and salvation from the water cure itself. King and his wife, the girl's mother, maintain the safe haven of the island through an extreme form of ideological protectionism that is threatened only with the arrival of three shipwrecked men.

The narrative is told through the eyes of the three girls with each taking a chapter either individually or in pairs. Mackintosh writes with a macabre tone reminiscent of Angela Carter's short stories, indeed The Water Cure itself is a short novel punctuated by chapters from different perspectives.

Though the set up is original and highly compelling, detail around how the family found themselves on the island is scarce. At times the brevity of the prose creates chasms that leave you left to fill in the gaps yourself. Whether a deliberate attempt to emphasise the lack of answers that the girls find themselves in or the result of over editing is unclear.

The Water Cure is a brave and ambitious novel that is cements Sophie Mackintosh as a major new voice in British literature.  Possibly a Man Booker winner.

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh published by Hamish Hamilton, 256 pages

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

So Much Life Left Over by Louis de Bernieres



The awkward middle child

Louis de Bernieres has reached a particular point in his career that many writers simply never reach. Not only can he pour over enthusiastic reviews of his bestselling novels or meet spirited fans at literature festivals the world over but he can leverage his success self-referentially by including characters from his earlier work in new novels. This is both a crowd pleasing device that takes readers back to works such as Captain Corelli's Mandolin (1994) and Notwithstanding: Stories from an English Village (2009) but also works to feed the narrative with a richness that can only come from a seasoned storyteller.

De Bernieres's new novel So Much Life Left Over is the second part of a trilogy that began with The Dust that Falls from Dreams (2015) and explores the years following the First World War from the perspective of one particular family. The novel begins with the death of a baby which sets off a chain of events between Ceylon and at home in England. 

At its best So Much Life Left Over is Dickensian in scale with its multi-generational narrative and attention to period detail. But at times the story is annoyingly plodding and too aware of its own de Bernieresness. Rambling letters only serve to unnecessarily slow the pace which is otherwise full of compelling and likeable characters, some of which we know very well. But here's the rub, can a novel that deliberately refers to previous works really stand on its own? 

Have we reached peak de Bernieres? So Much Life Left Over may end up being the awkward middle child of a triumvirate bookended by better works.

So Much Life Left Over by Louis de Bernieres published by Vintage, 288 pages