Book news

  • Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout review – a moving return to the midwest
    Sam Jordison

    Going back to the small Illinois town of her previous book, the stories in this novel can feel a little overfamiliar, but they are beautifully told

    Elizabeth Strout once told a friend: “Kathy, if I ever return to a small town, I want you to kill me.” She wrote about this conversation here in the Guardian; alas, she didn’t give us Kathy’s response. I for one am very keen to know if Kathy still feels any obligation to her friend’s request – because, if she does, Strout’s days are numbered.

    Not only has Strout bought a house in rural Maine, she also keeps coming back to small-town life in her fiction. The same places, too. In Anything Is Possible, she returns to Amgash, Illinois, the rural hometown of the narrator of her novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. With this new collection of intertwining stories, she also revisits many of the same characters, and even scenes from last year’s excellent Booker-longlisted novel. Now we get full dramatic treatment of incidents that received passing mention as Lucy’s mother gossiped away the hours beside her daughter’s hospital bed. Some of the questions raised in the earlier novel are answered; in My Name Is Lucy Barton, her mother asks: “Now how does that feel, I’ve always wondered. To be known as a Pretty Nicely Girl?” Here, we actually get to sit with the Nicely sisters as they muse over that very same thing. (One says “horrible”, the other not.) Such elucidation has its satisfactions. But it can also be like reading the extended footnotes to a more complete novel.

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  • South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion review – back to the future of the US
    Peter Conrad

    These prescient essays from 1970 record the California writer’s reflections as she travelled through America’s ‘gothic’ deep south

    In 1970 Joan Didion – a good novelist but one of America’s great essayists – sentenced herself to a hardship posting. She volunteered to spend a month aimlessly on the road in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, thinking that her trip “might be a piece”. She never wrote the article; now, luckily, her notes have been unearthed, along with some later musings about California, where she then lived. The result is a little book with a chilling power of prediction. In the intervening decades, the isolated, somnolent rednecks Didion encounters – people who even back then before cable news fed on information that was “fifth-hand, and mythicised in the handing down” – acquired an inordinate political power because of demographic shifts; last year they had their revenge when, in collusion with rust-begrimed losers from the midwest, they elected a president.

    Coming from California, Didion sees the south as a metaphorical landscape, America’s heart of darkness. In the west, the frontier ethic erased history and equalised people, but the south remains colonial, obsessed with disparities of “race, class, heritage”. Wilderness on the western plains and in the mountains is redemptive; in the south it is rank, malevolent, encroaching everywhere.

    Related: Joan Didion: life after death

    Imagine if your address was Basic City, Mississippi, a town so baseless that it’s not on the map

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  • The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst – the work of a master
    Alex Preston

    Spanning two generations of gay life, Hollinghurst’s tale of dreaming spires and secrets is his finest novel yet

    Alan Hollinghurst’s sixth novel, The Sparsholt Affair, opens in Oxford during the second world war and ends in London in 2012. As with its predecessor, The Stranger’s Child (2011), much of the action takes place offstage, in the interstices between chapters. The chapters themselves are spent watching as these events make their repercussions felt in the lives of Hollinghurst’s rich cast of characters. This is a book about gay life, about art, about family, but most of all it’s about the remorseless passage of time.

    The 1940 section of the book is narrated by a bright but not quite brilliant undergraduate called Freddie Green. He has a circle of luminous friends at Oxford, among them the artist Peter Goyle and the louche Evert Dax, the son of a prominent novelist. If the opening section of The Stranger’s Child doffed its cap to EM Forster and Henry James, the line between tribute and pastiche never quite resolved, this is Hollinghurst showing that he can do an Oxford novel as well as Waugh. He’s wonderful on the “beautiful delay” of university life, on the cloisters and the quadrangles, tentative intimacies building between friends and lovers.

    Related: Alan Hollinghurst: 'The Booker can drive people mad'

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