I’ll describe my insanity through a sudden insight

Dear Christine, Do you know that feeling we have when we know where a book was going, and we know it could have worked – but it simply didn’t? I feel that about your novel Incest (2017) translated by Tess Lewis (L’Incest, 1999). Trying to be experimental while never giving up control over what the experiment…

To show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business

Dear Sylvia, Lolly Willowes (1926) is a satirical comedy of manners centred on an unmarried woman who suddenly decides to escape the claustrophobic domestic role her family tries to force on her. Funnily enough, the means she will use to fight against her family are no less morally equivocal than the life they were trying to…

Virtue can sometimes be a little depressing

Dear Barbara, Excellent Women (1952) is a comedy of manners about a spinster surrounded by people who cannot see why she shouldn’t suffer for being single. She is perfectly fine, though – if anything, the married people in the book are the ones really struggling, or in pain. The narrator, Mildred Lathbury, is an unmarried…

Hope is a wound

Dear Marianne, The Weight of Things (2015), translated by Adrian Nathan West (Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse, 1978) is this odd thing: something in-between a horror story, a domestic satire and an allegory of the insanity of war – a tale where the only character who does not lack in accountability and personal responsability is the…

A woman with a mission

Dear Margaret, In your novel Miss Marjoribanks (1866), your protagonist seems to have set herself the difficult task of trying to overcome the confines of Victorian views on women. However, at the same time, she does so by remaining dutifully bound to these very narrow confines. Much like your protagonist, you seem to write from…

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.