Jonathan Cape

The ‘land of smiles’ was what they called Prague under German occupation during World War II – at least the Germans did. Few locals. Fresh vegetables and meat were available (to Germans) in quantities unknown back in Germany. Until close to the end, there were more than a hundred cinemas operating in the city, as well as theatres, concert halls, and numerous other places of entertainment. After all, Goebbels was not only passionate about culture in general, but keen, he said, to initiate a ‘lively cultural exchange’ with Czechoslovakia in particular.

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Declan Fry reviews 'Inside Story' by Martin Amis

Declan Fry
Thursday, 22 October 2020

During a 1995 television interview on Charlie Rose soon after the publication of Martin Amis’s The Information, another long novel, there is a moment when, as Rose begins to read the opening passage, Amis’s mouth visibly slackens. Silently he intones the first lines. His hand (often tentatively raised toward his chin in interviews) searches out his forehead. There is a spectral waver in his gaze, a registering (as if accommodating, or incorporating, new information). He looks adrift, unmoored. Free-floating. One has the sense of a man assimilating his own self as it is spoken back to him. For a moment, he seems precarious.

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Scanning my bookshelves, I see a dozen or more of the distinctive green spines of Virago Press. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the Virago imprint was a guarantee of good reading by women writers whose works were rediscovered and sent out to find a new public. I had read Margaret Atwood, Rosamond Lehmann, and Elizabeth Taylor for the first time in hardcovers; Virago made them new. Kate O’ Brien’s The Land of Spices, banned in Ireland, had been hard to get. Here it was in Virago green, with a perceptive introduction to put it in context.

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The world evoked by British nature writer and historian Helen Macdonald in her new collection of essays is haunted by no end of unsettling and shrouded presences. The sight of a flock of starlings gives her a shiver of fear. Why? Because in her imagination the flock connects with a mass of refugees. The sight of falcon eggs in an incubator makes her unaccountably upset. Then she remembers that she, too, as a very premature baby, was once kept alive in just such a box. And on it goes.

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Peter Thompson reviews 'A Secret Country' by John Pilger

Peter Thompson
Friday, 12 June 2020

The morning ABC radio program AM is not a book program. But occasionally we’re pleased to take the opportunity to broadcast the story of a new book, particularly when it comments on Australian public affairs. When John Pilger’s A Secret Country was published, AM ran an interview with the author which was unusually long for us, some five or six minutes. The response was remarkable. In my two years as presenter of the program, I can’t recall as much listener interest in any item, judging by the number of telephone enquiries about the book we received in subsequent days.

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Alice Nelson reviews 'Actress' by Anne Enright

Alice Nelson
Friday, 21 February 2020

Anne Enright has never been able to resist the tidal pull of mothers; her novels are animated by complex, ambivalent maternal presences, women rendered on the page with duelling measures of hatred and hunger, empathy and censure. There is the mercurial tyrant Rosaleen Madigan of The Green Road (2015), ‘a woman who did nothing and expected everything’. There is the hapless, hazy Maureen Hegarty of the Booker Prize-winning The Gathering (2007), erased by her endless pregnancies and too many children; ‘a piece of benign human meat, sitting in a room’.

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James Ley reviews 'The Ghost Writer' by John Harwood

James Ley
Friday, 07 February 2020

There is a species of Victorian mystery story that is as pure an expression of nineteenth-century rationalism as you are likely to find. A strange event occurs which, at first glance, appears to admit no rational explanation; by the end of the story, it is revealed to have a logical explanation after all. Thus foolish superstition is banished by the pure light of reason. But there is another side to late-Victorian fiction of the unexpected, represented by Henry James’s ghost tale The Turn of the Screw (1898): a darker, slipperier, and far more unsettling narrative in which the supernatural elements are never satisfactorily explained and are charged with menacing psychological overtones.

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Laurie Clancy reviews 'Brilliant Creatures' by Clive James

Laurie Clancy
Friday, 06 December 2019

Brilliant Creatures is not so much a novel – a first novel, as the title page coyly points out – as it is a presentation pack. The text itself is bookended by an introduction at the front, and a set of extensive, very boring notes and index at the back. A set of notes and an index for a novel, a first novel? Yep. Clive James has heard of Nabokov and Pale Fire. He has also, as the four-page introduction makes clear, heard of his ‘illustrious ancestor Henry’: of Gide, Montaigne, Sterne, Peacock, Firbank, Trollope, Joyce, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche.

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John McLaren reviews 'The Twyborn Affair' by Patrick White

John McLaren
Monday, 28 October 2019

Like every one of his previous novels, Patrick White’s latest work is both utterly characteristic and completely unpredictable. With the third line, we know we are in for another of White’s dissections of human behavior. ‘“Bit rough, isn’t it?” her chauffeur ventured.’ The verb almost parodies White’s careful placing of human acts any other writer would – perhaps rightly – consider insignificant. It is also characteristic of his more recent novels that the first people we meet are peripheral, people who serve both to comment on the action and to offer a commentary just by their presence. They are the reverse of the chorus of a Greek tragedy in that they are the problem to which the central characters address themselves rather than the passive victims of this address.

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Richard Holbrooke was a United States diplomat whose career began during the Vietnam War and ended during the one in Afghanistan, and whose life, according to George Packer, spanned the ‘American century’. He was an Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter and Clinton administrations, and President Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan until his sudden death in 2010. For his role in brokering the Dayton Accords in 1995, he was thought by some (not least himself) to have earned the Nobel Peace Prize. He wasn’t awarded it, nor did he achieve his aim of becoming Secretary of State; his was a life that his biographer describes as ‘almost great’.

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the end of the American century is told through a distinctive narrative voice, not Packer exactly, but a witness to Holbrooke’s story who editorialises freely in the first person. Alternately confiding and grandiloquent, Packer speaks in arresting sentences of a kind one doesn’t usually encounter in biographies of statesmen and diplomats. I happened to read this one on the Fourth of July: ‘We prefer our wars quick and decisive, concluding with a surrender ceremony, and we like firepower more than we want to admit.’ As the Afghanistan War lurched towards its eighteenth year and tanks took up their positions in Washington, D.C., for President Trump’s military parade, I thought, have Americans ever been shy about liking firepower?

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