Guardian Review | The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy

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Some opening lines are so good, you worry that what comes after will disappoint. This is how The Possessions starts: “The first time I meet Patrick Braddock, I’m wearing his wife’s lipstick.” It’s a perfect mystery in miniature. Who is Patrick? Who is speaking? Why is she wearing another woman’s lipstick? Is it all as sleazy as it sounds? The answer to that last question is yes, but not in the way you’d expect, as Sara Flannery Murphy unspools a creepingly clever ghost story that encompasses thriller, horror and literary fiction with seductive swagger.

Our narrator is Edie, short for Eurydice. She is an employee of the Elysian Society, which is a kind of bordello for mediums. The Possessions’ universe is, fundamentally, our universe, with one tweak: the spirits of the dead persist and can be channelled, with the help of a pill called “lotus”. The class of professionals who do this work are referred to as “bodies”, and all of them seem to be on the run from their own identities, lending their physical selves to roaming souls at least in part for the temporary relief of vacancy.

Read the full review at the Guardian

New Statesman | A Line Made By Walking by Sara Baume

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A Line Made By Walking is a sophomore novel that feels in one (but only one) way like a debut. Where 2015’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither was remarkable for the quality of Sara Baume’s sympathy with characters unlike herself – a damaged man, a wounded dog, both of them old-ish – the protagonist of Line is closer to the autofictional kind that many writers start with.

Frankie is Baume-like in age, sex and background: mid-twenties, female, and returned to the Irish countryside where she grew up after a student hiatus in Dublin. She is also, like Baume, an artist and struggling with it. In one scene that is a close parallel of a story Baume has told about herself, she has lunch with some old schoolfriends; the friends discuss their starter salaries and the lifestyles they expect to purchase, as Frankie stares into her “bowlful of unusual lettuces” and realises how little she has in common with them. For Frankie, the idea of a salary has never occurred. She is, simply, devoted to art.

Read the full review at the New Statesman

First published New Statesman, 24 February-2 March 2017, under the headline “The art of suffering”

Guardian Review | History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

The coming-of-age novel can be almost as painful as actually coming of age. It’s a genre that demands a tricky combination of narrative knowingness and character naivety, while recruiting the reader’s sympathies for one of God’s least sympathetic creations: the teenager. Even so, many novelists choose it for their debut, and last year offered two examples that exemplified both the successes and frustrations of the form. Emma Cline’s The Girls was a woozy hormonal fug that found the horror in the thrill of growing up; Tiffany McDaniels’ The Summer that Melted Everything smothered its story’s gothic potential in stentorian hindsight.

Emily Fridlund’s debut falls between the two. Teenage narrator Linda gets called “commie” and “freak” by her schoolmates, and it’s small wonder that she doesn’t fit in when her background has precision-tooled her for oddness. Raised by parents who are the last vestiges of a failed cult, she lives a semi-wilderness life in a cabin at the edge of a lake, on the fringe of a northern Minnesota forest. Uncomfortable in the world, she spreads discomfort about her: “I was flat-chested, plain as a bannister. I made people feel judged.”

Read the full review at the Guardian

New Statesman | Black Wave by Michelle Tea

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Michelle Tea’s memoir Valencia, published in 2000, won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction. Reading Black Wave, you can understand the confusion: Tea’s work sits on a raw fault line between the real and the made-up. This new novel is about a San Franciscan lesbian (like Tea) who is an incomer from Chelsea, Massachusetts (like Tea). Called Michelle (like Tea), she is a writer of autobiographical volumes who worries about the ethics of autobiography (like Tea) and works dead-end jobs between getting laid and getting high in the scuzzy Mission District (like Tea).

In her introduction to the reprint of Valencia, Tea called that book “a bug trapped in emotional amber”. Is Black Wave just gummed up in the same moment? No, it isn’t. For one thing, that time and place are due for revisiting. San Francisco in the late 1990s was once a backdrop to Tea’s personal life. Now, it’s a synecdoche for the economic, social and cultural transformation of most of the world. The future hangs over Black Wave like exactly that – a black wave.

Read the full review at the New Statesman

First published New Statesman, 10-16 February 2017, p. 53, under the headline “Goddess of the underworld”

New Statesman | Why I find the prospect of an apocalypse comforting

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“Cosy catastrophe” is the nickname the sci-fi writer and historian Brian Aldiss applied to the works of John Wyndham, author of The Midwich Cuckoos and The Day of the Triffids. Aldiss did not mean for it to be flattering: “The essence of cosy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.”

In other words, the cosy catastrophe is a cop-out. It’s safe. Bad things happen, but they don’t happen to people like us. Whether it’s a fair way to describe Wyndham doesn’t really matter, because while the name caught on, the pejorative intent didn’t. Aldiss had reached for sick burn and accidentally struck deep truth: there is something comforting about the apocalypse.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Spectator | Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta

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Brilliance is intoxicating, and from the first chapter, Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others goes straight to the head. Things start like this: with an article on a website called ‘Women and Film’, by someone called Meadow Mori. Meadow reveals that when she was fresh from her LA high school, she had an affair with a mountain-sized filmmaker, who ‘sounds like the voice of America’, and whose career was marked by genius and frustration. It is, of course, Orson Welles; but there’s more here than scrupulous cinematic referentiality.

Is Meadow’s relationship with the F is for Fake filmmaker a truth or an untruth? And if it’s an untruth, does that make it a lie? A lie of invention, a lie about yourself, should not be called a lie, she says in the essay. Perhaps it is a kind of wish-story. This is a serious matter for Meadow, who has made her name as a documentary- maker — a kind of female Errol Morris, blending recreations with interviews in ways that fracture truth-telling but also establish irrevocable narratives about her subjects.

Read the full review at the Spectator

Guardian Review | Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine

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Cordelia Fine is an optimistic writer. In her two earlier books of popular neuroscience (A Mind of Its Own and Delusions of Gender), the psychologist established a reputation for exemplary clarity on complex topics, pleasing wit, feminist principle – and beneath it all, the animating faith that people can be improved through knowledge. Testosterone Rex starts with a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists that establishes the Fine approach perfectly: “But in addition to being angry, I am also hopeful, because I believe deeply in the ability of humans to make and remake themselves for the better.”

Read the full review at the Guardian