I always lacked common sense when taken by surprise

Dear Anne, Agnes Grey (1847) had for me the strange quality of a double-pointed sword: we must read it carefully, or else it may kill precisely what it had promised to protect. Agnes, the eponymous protagonist and narrator of the story, is the youngest daughter of Richard Grey, a clergyman of modest means. Her mother…

Look at the colour of it

Dear Ali, It takes us only a few paragraphs of Autumn (2016) to recognize your characteristic marks: experimental writing; a collage of literary references; a narrative propelled through voice and voice alone; a narrative that mingles past and present, as if they were one thing, happening at once; and, finally, the creative reframing of contemporary…

I’d forgotten it was summer outside

Dear Barbara, In your novel The Vet’s Daughter (1959), I felt I was being lured into a strange place, tender and cruel. I was being lured by a voice, tenuous but powerful, pushing me through the door into a confined domestic horror. It was lonely, dangerous and grotesque, but it was a voice I very…

She sensed a scream beneath the silence,

Review: The Beautiful Bureaucrat, by Helen Phillips

Dear Helen,

It is difficult to pin down your novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat (2015): a dystopia that reads like a thriller with brief incursions into horror, literary modernism and satire? It’s hard to say. But, by trying too much, and rushing to the tidy end, it might have fallen short of being great in any of these categories.

We don’t have the more refined illnesses here

Dear Sofia, Reading your novel City Folk and Country Folk, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov (Городские и деревенские, 1863), feels like following a deceptively simple pattern with the tip of our fingers: we can cherish it for its softness to the touch; or we can look further into its intricacy, and admire the way the…

We are more porous than we know

Dear Emily, Although centred around a murder, your debut novel Idaho (2017) does not revolve around the questions of who might have done it or why; yours is much more a book about atmosphere; a collection of first impressions and lost tracks, crossed through by the motif of loss. In the middle of summer, on…

Trespassing on one’s own ground

Dear Monica, The atmosphere in your novel Mariana (1940) feels like a bright surface tinted by an added layer of nostalgia, and a pervading sense of loss. Like a moss-covered surface, damp to the touch, but, for that very reason, very much alive. When the book opens, Mary Shannon is spending a weekend alone with…

It has a fascination of its own, that bend

Dear Lucy, At first, I felt skeptical about your novel Anne of Green Gables (1908). Anne seemed too chatty, too imaginative, too eager to please – too good to be true. Or perhaps I simply should have met her earlier, as a child of eleven, and on her own terms. But, gradually, so as it happened…