Archive for the 'Book reviews' Category

Wedlock by Wendy Moore

September 20, 2009


It is the late 18th century and Mary Eleanor Bowes, great-great-great grandmother of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, future wife of George VI, is about to embark on her second marriage. But like a modern-day celebrity millionaire, Bowes is hostage to her vast fortune. Tricked by some elaborate play acting, she finds herself married into a relentless eight-year sentence of violence and mental torture. Wedlock is meticulously researched and Moore, mistress of suspense, writes in the gripping language of a thriller so the pages flash past. This book has it all – the blackest of villains, the strongest friendship, kidnap, abortions, riches and all completely true. Ripe for film adaptation.

This piece first appeared in Observer Review

Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun

March 22, 2009



When she died at the age of 77 in 1982, Irmgard Keun left behind no memoirs. What she did leave, alongside a clutch of brilliant novels, was this delightful, harrowing account of her life between 1936 and 1940, in exile as an “immoral, anti-German” writer.

Keun’s masterstroke is to tell her story from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl. A headstrong, defiant child, Kully might not attend school, but she knows all about visas and passports and has an ever-expanding repertoire of languages.

While her father, the alcoholic and unreliable writer Peter (widely regarded as a portrait of Keun’s sometimes lover, the Austrian-Jewish novelist Joseph Roth) bluffs advances from publishers, pawns their belongings and begs from the rich, Kully and her sad, put-upon mother Annie camp out in hotel rooms, running up bills and hiding from the staff.

The trio are on an enforced grand tour of Europe rendered nightmarish by near-starvation, constantly expiring visas and the shadow of war. But in order to keep the credit coming, they must perpetuate the illusion of wealth by staying in the best hotels, eating in the finest restaurants and only ever travelling first class.

Keun captures Kully with such clarity that her words skip off the page. “It annoys me when people don’t hand over their money when we need it”, she says. “Money isn’t something that becomes unhappy or starts crying if you leave it.”

Written during Keun’s own exile, this is at once a historical record of prewar Europe and a glimpse into the chaotic life of an alcoholic. But the novel’s real power comes in capturing the freefalling anxiety of the displaced person, who cannot be homesick because home no longer exists.

This piece first appeared in the Observer Review

Mary Shelley: The Pilgrims

February 8, 2009



Aiming to revive “unjustly neglected and little known works” of great authors, Hesperus has gathered for the first time five of Mary Shelley’s short stories published between 1829 and 1837. As Kamila Shamsie notes in her affectionate foreword, the tragic details of Shelley’s life are never far from her work, and this collection is held together with the theme of loss.

Mary Shelley suffered the death of her two eldest children, followed by the loss of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. From anyone else, such descriptions of grief and pain as: “My brain and heart seemed on fire, whilst my blood froze in my veins” would seem melodramatic. Here, they are weighted by experience.

But it is to the father-daughter relationship that Shelley returns time and again. She described her attachment to her father William Godwin as “excessive and romantic”, a bond fired by the death of her mother Mary Wollstonecraft days after her birth. All but one of these stories centre on a woman torn between father and lover, a position Shelley found herself in when Godwin was outraged at her attachment to his protege. This terrible choice is most dramatically played out in The Dream, in which Constance de Villeneuve seeks St Catherine’s counsel on whether to embrace the lover who fought against her dead father.

Shelley might be best known for her visionary Frankenstein, but this collection is no less powerful, marrying thought-provoking storytelling with a fascinating glimpses into the mind of a woman whose life was uncommonly marked by grief.

This piece first appeared in The Observer Review.

Daphne by Justine Picardie

April 27, 2008

Trust Me (I’m A Junior Doctor) – Max Pemberton

February 17, 2008

Risky Business – Al Alvarez

January 27, 2008

Fire In The Blood – Irene Nemirovsky

November 18, 2007

What You Will – Katherine Bucknell

March 4, 2007

Nightwatch – Sarah Waters book review

January 28, 2007

Ollie – Stephen Venables

December 24, 2006