Rebecca Swirsky: Writer

London-based short story writer and critic

Category: Uncategorized

Freedom, flight, oxygen, breath, space: these themes whistle through Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance

First published in New Statesman

Tangled connections: the novelist Anne Tyler

My beloved grandmother introduced me to Anne Tyler. Today, on my shelves, Tyler remains my most trusted literary companion. Her haphazard Baltimorean families rarely acknowledge the contemporary world. Rather than modern events, it is the endurance of families, connection and community that pulse through her landscapes; the cyclical, quotidian nature of birth, marriage, death. After my own family fell apart when I was young, it was Tyler’s flawed constellations of people who sustained me – who offered visions of what could have been and, sometimes, recognition of what we had.

Clock Dance is Tyler’s 22nd novel; now 76, she had published her first by the age of 23. Her no-style, see-through prose has earned her a Pulitzer (Breathing Lessons) and a Man Booker shortlisting (A Spool of Blue Thread). The hair’s-breadth she treads between sensitivity and the saccharine is not without risk, yet her ability to unpick emotional nuance is key. She is also that rare entity in publishing; a doyenne of domestic realism who doesn’t frighten male readers. Her characters, failing to see beneath a seemingly arbitrary whirl of events, experience different versions of the same problems. She excels at situations where right and wrong are linked. Her lack of judgement is well judged.

Here we meet Willa Drake at 11, 21, 41 and, finally, when the bulk of the novel is set, at 61 years old. The dazzle of Willa’s tempestuous mother is offset by her father (“saintly Melvin” Willa’s mother calls him). Such maternal unpredictability sets a blueprint for Willa and her younger sister Elaine. At college, joyously probing the origins of language, Willa falls pregnant by her wealthy fiancé. Meekly she drops out to become, “the only woman she knew whose prime objective was to be taken for granted”. Sudden, sharp widowhood at 41 leaves Willa parenting two sons. By 2017, 61-year-old Willa has moved with her second husband, Peter, to a golfing community in Tucson, Arizona (despite having no interest in golf). Tyler writes about how people communicate with each other, so it makes sense that Willa, leaving behind a cherished ESL teaching job, has forsaken language once more.


Sealed off in privileged isolation, it is here that Willa’s life takes flight. On the tenuous grounds that her son’s ex-girlfriend Denise and nine-year-old daughter need looking after, Willa travels from Arizona with its air-con and manicured yards with artfully arranged succulents to “a bare-bones kind of house” on the other side of the country and, seductively for a woman whose sons won’t see her, a staid, old-ladyish child whose “bunchy-crotched shorts and… crop top… exposed the globe of her tummy”. Tyler’s sotto authorial thread weaves Willa into a community that needs her. In return, Willa is gifted with a sense of purpose – and finds the language to remain.

When Tyler was six, her Quaker parents moved her family to a community in the Appalachians, so her interest in family and community is understandable – and autobiographical. Willa’s progression into feeling connected, into finding her will, isn’t easy; patterns take courage to break, new language must be learnt.

Freedom, flight, oxygen, breath, space: these themes whistle through Clock Dance’s pages, as does enduring the bruising loss of a loved one – a common theme in Tyler novels (her own husband, the child psychologist Taghi Modarressi, died when she was in her mid-fifties). Ben, a doctor in Baltimore whose wife died 17 years ago, advises Willa, “Sometimes, when I’m feeling sorry for myself… I widen out my angle of vision till I’m only a speck on a globe.”

Authors can slip into handling characters as though operating puppets on a string. Tyler, though, takes care to understand hers implicitly. So impeccably does she know them, that by the middle of a novel, they begin to surprise her with their own humour. Therefore, the one-dimensionality of Willa’s truly awful second husband Peter hits the only tinny note. However, given Tyler’s commitment to character, one might assume he really is intended to be terrible.

So, on the Tyler continuum, where does Clock Dance rest? Not Tyler’s best novel yet certainly not her worst, it says less than the excellent Digging to America (2006), which mined expertly the faultlines between an American-Iranian family and an all-American family adopting Korean children. It is also less rich, less compressed, than some of her earlier novels, Ladder of Years (1995) or Earthly Possessions (1977). In both, the central women also take flight from their lives (although by different means). In the latter, the principal character Charlotte notes, “I saw that all of us lived in a sort of web, criss-crossed by strings of love and need and worry.” Tangled connections are prime Tyler territory.

Tolstoy famously observed that “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Through finely attuned, blink-and-you’d-miss-them moments, Willa finds the language for her own redemption, courageously forging her own, new family.

Clock Dance
Anne Tyler
Chatto & Windus, 304pp, £18.99

The Legacy Museum, Alabama

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Caroline’s Bikini: a modern-day mash-up of Dante, Milton and metafiction

Kirsty Gunn’s novel questions myth, reality and our projections of love.


Writing a book review about a novel that is about a book reviewer writing a novel, and that references the act of novel writing, often in footnotes, is the self-reflexive task of appraising Kirsty Gunn’s latest offering. A modern-day mash-up of Milton, metafiction and Dante, and of Renaissance swooning in Richmond, Caroline’s Bikini questions myth and reality through an exploration of the nature of fiction and the projection of love.

Courtly love is the fabric on which this modern story is sewn. The book includes sections of Il Canzoniere, a sonnet sequence written by Petrarch after having fallen in love with a 14-year-old girl exiting a church. The 14th-century poet wrote yearningly about her for a period of 40 years without ever meeting her.

In the 21st century of Gunn’s novel, financier Evan Gordonston, “outgoing but in a retiring kind of way”, returns from the US after 30 years. Evan and the book reviewer, Emily Stuart, once childhood neighbours and best friends, haven’t seen each other their entire adult life. Arriving in London, Evan contacts “Nin” (as he calls her) and takes lodgings, on her suggestion, with a woman in Richmond with whom he promptly falls in love. Enlisting Emily’s help to record the experience, which he initially considers fictionalising, he exuberantly declaims: “I want to be in, Nin – the entire story, with my full name and all my feelings on show.”

So begin multiple meetings in gin bars in west London, with Evan handing Emily portions of disconnected writings detailing his love for his landlady, Caroline Beresford. Emily, in her role as amanuensis, is encouraged to use these notes as she sees fit. Her reason for agreeing to this role is Milton. Once an ardent English  student, she loves the “image of Milton with his daughters; the scene by the bed: the poet and those steady scribes of his, waiting for them to come in after a night of composition with his chunks of iambic pentameter at the ready and them being there to write it all down”. A section entitled “Some Further Reading Material” informs us of the “coincidence” of Emily’s surname: Milton lived in the era of the Stuarts, and also in Hammersmith, and Emily lives in “an area on the borders of Hammersmith”.

In the main “novel” (Emily herself places it in quote marks, uncertain how exactly to term this narrative of experience) academic footnotes share space with Emily’s first-person colloquial voice; she frets whether what she is doing is “real writing”, whether it is “interesting” or “going” anywhere, nudging us to question the nature of fiction.

An array of references, among them Bob Dylan, Dante, Neil Diamond, Margaret Meade, Virginia Woolf and John Cheever, include a nod to Gunn’s award-winning book The Big Music – a novel also with footnotes – through the mention of piobaireachd (bagpipe music) in a pub. And alternative narratives abound (Evan suggests to Emily the possibility of “another book” running as a counter-point to this one).

What remains clear is Gunn’s cleverness. She is a writer who flicks language about, this way and that, inspecting its underbelly. Yet writing is more than the calibre of its conceit. If one is judging Caroline’s Bikini, a metafictional homage to Renaissance love, as an erudite work that erudite readers will “get”, it is seductively successful; if one is searching for something that, as the narrator puts it, “the reader might engage with, feel emotionally attached to, might care about, even…”, it cools on the page.

While self-reflexivity isn’t new in literature (Cervantes employed it more than 400 years ago in Don Quixote), it has never been more relevant; in the era of fake news, belief is no longer suspended. Perhaps, then, the issue in Caroline’s Bikini is one of length. Recent, slimmer novels (Cynan Jones’s The Dig, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, David Vann’s novellas) compress their complexity, allowing readers a pleasing turbulence over a short distance. Had Caroline’s Bikini been published solely as its back section – with its “Use of Flora and Fauna” or “Further Definitions of ‘Alternative Narrative’”, or its humorous forays into pubs visited, lists of gin consumed and references to Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio – it may have been equally as compelling.

For many readers, Caroline’s Bikini will resemble the process of discovering multiple rooms and delighting in how they are intricately linked. However, meta isn’t always better. Simple can be, and is, just as sweet.

Rebecca Swirsky’s fiction was included in “Best British Short Stories 2015“

Caroline’s Bikini
Kirsty Gunn
Faber & Faber, 352pp, £14.99

Property by Lionel Shriver

Published in The Economist 23rd April 2018

Lionel Shriver’s first collection of short stories explore the nature of generosity, the cost of money and the meaning of worth.

LIONEL SHRIVER’s literary currency is hard, topical fiction. Her 12 novels range—controversially—from school shootings and the Northern Irish Troubles to immigration, demography, terrorism, the American healthcare system, obesity and, most recently, finance. (She is also a former contributor to The Economist.) Thematically resonating with her novel “The Mandibles” (2016), “Property” is the author’s first short story collection. Ten stories flanked by two novellas posit that possessions may in turn possess their owners, while exploring definitions of generosity, the emotional cost of money and the subjectivity of worth.

Drawing on Ms Shriver’s personal interests, including her long-time love for tennis and her 12 years of experience as a journalist in Belfast, “Property” opens and closes with novellas. Each, in their way, negotiate threesomes of sorts. In “The Standing Chandelier”, a tennis-playing friendship in college-town Virginia disintegrates after one of the players becomes engaged and receives a unique wedding gift. In “The Subletter”, an American columnist and her unwanted flatmate, “conflict junkies” both, squabble over Northern Ireland—the third part of the threesome, a contested territory to which neither may lay claim. The shorter stories, set largely in America and Britain, range from the bordered confines of a London garden to the cloying luxury of an overseas paradisiacal resort, from the confiscation of a tube of ChapStick at an American airport to a haunted semi-detached house in London.

Ms Shriver has stated that her writing, like that of her literary heroine Edith Wharton, aims to bridge “the literary and the popular”. Appearing halfway through the collection, “Kilifi Creek”, which won a BBC National Short Story Award in 2014, achieves those aims amply, presenting a springily taut, swooping story of a young girl’s near-death experience on a gap-year in Kenya. “Vermin”, meanwhile, expertly explores the lines between hosting and being invaded, between ownership and being ousted. When a New York, newly-in-love couple manage to buy their rental property, the racoons that came with it swiftly turn from being endearing to being an “infestation”, as the couple experience the diminishing, rather than empowering, effects of responsibility. Gradually, the property is sanitised, and with that its unique freewheeling charm, like the raffish heart of their marriage, is stripped away. Here, the questions raised by E.M. Forster’s “My Wood”—used as Ms Shriver’s prologue—are acutely pertinent. ‘If you own things, what’s their effect on you? What’s the effect of me on my wood?’

Complex and clever, “Kilifi Creek” and “Vermin” testify to the author’s powers. Other inclusions in “Property” are puzzling; “The Self-Seeding Sycamore”, “The Royal Male” and “Negative Equity”, despite their sometimes eclectic lexicon, are neatly droll, erring-on-twee stories depriving the reader of breadth of vista or, indeed, Ms Shriver’s reassuring bite. In “Paradise to Perdition”, the heavy-handed presence of the narrator errs on pastiche, disrupting a story set in a resort in the Indian Ocean. In a story collection there is little room for error, and their presence mars this exploration of an otherwise fascinating, endlessly contemporary subject.


Apr 27th 2018


Ben Okri’s The Magic Lamp first published in New Statesman March 2018

The Magic Lamp is a collection of morally ambiguous tales for our trying times

Pairing 25 original paintings with 25 original stories, the collaboration with his partner, the painter Rosemary Clunie, took five years to write and 10 years to paint.

Ben Okri has been lauded (and sometimes derided) for his oeuvre of dream-logic fabulism. Translated into 27 languages, his poetry, novels, short fiction and essays mesh Western European and African influences, always rooted in a belief in the spiritual truth of our subjectivity – that there are as many realities as people to experience them.

Okri’s 1991 novel The Famished Road, which won the Booker Prize, foregrounded the story of spirit child Azaro (short for Lazarus) in an unknown city in Africa. More recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in Okri’s work following his poem on Grenfell Tower, a stark cri de coeur for the tragedy, including lines such as, “You saw it in the tears of those who survived./You saw it through the rage of those who survived.” (The poem inspired a Shoreditch street mural by graffiti artist Ben Eine and will be republished in Alt-Write, a crowdfunded collection also including Carol Ann Duffy, among others, which aims to “debunk xenophobic myths and… help [readers] discover the natural human quality of empathy”.) An excerpt from a longer poem was published in this magazine in December, tackling Brexit and a world in which it is “Easier to fall apart/Than to stay together.”

Personal experience taught Okri to feel division acutely. Born in 1959 in Minna, northern Nigeria, he travelled to England aged 18 months, so that his father, Silver, could study law. At seven years old, Okri returned to Nigeria – as civil war broke out. Okri’s mother Grace was half Igbo, while his father was Urhobo. Much of the war was spent hiding her. Okri’s memories include the violence of “people shot, kids lying dead in the river, relations… killed”.

A storyteller who builds on Romantic and Renaissance traditions, Okri presents himself – the artist – as a troubled soothsayer, drawing from a lineage that included his father’s library of Aesop’s Fables, Arabian Nights, Dickens, Homer, Tolstoy, Maupassant, the Greek philosophers and African mythology – but also his beloved mother’s multitude of indirect, ambiguous tales, some of which would take Okri 20 years to understand. Speaking at the Word Factory Citizen Festival in London last year, Okri recalled her tale of the frog in the frying pan, which, as a child, fascinated and “freaked him out” equally. As the water beneath the frog heats, it is imperceptibly boiled to death. For Okri, the tale is analogous to how a nation may sleepwalk itself towards catastrophe, or one day discover itself in the middle of civil war (the sleepwalking metaphor is also of interest to the author, having run through 20th-century literature via Kafka and Camus).

Okri has previously published a collection of linked essays entitled A Time for New Dreams; his latest work The Magic Lamp – a collaboration with his partner, the painter Rosemary Clunie – is subtitled “Dreams of Our Age”. Pairing 25 original paintings with 25 original stories, the book took five years to write and 10 years to paint. Dreams appear in Okri’s introduction, which notes, in  typically enigmatic style: “Time is a riddle which the writer and artist interpret in their dreams. And their dreams are coded versions of all our dreams, given the tinge and temper of our mood and spirit.”

Clunie’s use of colour is billowing, rich and dreamlike – complementary to the rhythm of the prose – although, as Okri clarifies, the artworks came first. Snatches of white page, which gleam underneath loosely inscribed birds, buildings and trees bearing stars, resonate with the quality of space in Okri’s compact tales. There are leitmotifs of not noticing value, not acknowledging worth, not seeing clearly (“It is as if everything is here, if we know how to see”) woven through pristine paragraphs. Okri’s writing has a light-as-air elegance, yet its seriousness keeps the stories gravity-bound:

The house that our forefathers and foremothers built on the hill was built with stones from the river… Then we forgot the house that the sun had been building, forgot it in the times that came… Only now when we had long lost it, long forgotten that the river rose from the rising sun, do we see the picture that time has made.

Tales such as this one, titled “City of Enigmas”, are diffuse, morally ambiguous. Might the “house” be welfare? Democracy? The NHS?

Okri’s quirks and quiddities aren’t to everyone’s taste – they never have been. But as economic disparity and climate change escalate, perhaps portention, rather than cynical pretension, is what’s required. Authors are fighting from the page to awaken us. Winter, the recent novel by Ali Smith, was wrought with similar urgency, paralleling Greenham Common with Grenfell Tower (Smith has called Okri a literary and social visionary).

Yet the question of how to recognise the heat in the pan remains challenging. As Okri explained, “If the frog is being boiled slow enough, it’s hard to say, ‘hey, we’re being boiled to death’, because the frog will say, ‘what’s the matter, it’s only summer’ or ‘it’s only room temperature’.”

Rebecca Swirsky’s fiction was included in “Best British Short Stories 2015”

The Magic Lamp: Dreams of Our Age
Ben Okri and Rosemary Clunie
Apollo, 128pp, £16.99


The varied and decorated career of author Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Published in New Statesman 3 February 2018

The 17 stories in At The End of the Century, drawn from past collections, chronicle Jhabvala’s concern with cultural encounters, dislocation and the immigrant experience.

Few fiction writers can boast a Booker prize, two Oscars, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and a CBE. Yet the German-Jewish author Ruth Prawer Jhabvala achieved just that, with her novel Heat and Dust (1975) and Merchant-Ivory adaptations of EM Forster’s A Room with a View (1985) and Howards End (1992) – despite casually listing writing film scripts as a “recreation” in Who’s Who.

Raised in Nazi Germany, Jhabvala spent her adolescence in London, her middle years in Delhi (bringing up three daughters with her architect husband, Cyrus Jhabvala) and her final decades in New York. By the end of her life, aged 85 in 2013, she had completed 12 novels, eight collections of short stories and 23 screenplays with Merchant Ivory Productions. A natty ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for social nuance earned her comparisons with Austen, Forster and Chekhov. She depicted the West’s infatuation with India (mainly by pairing affluent older women with charismatic gurus) as well as a middle- and lower-middle-class India seen by few foreigners. Later stories would explore the experiences of immigrant Europeans in New York; for Jhabvala, Europe would forever smell “of blood”.

Born into a comfortable middle-class family in Cologne in 1927, Jhabvala’s apartment overlooked the city’s main avenue and her grandfather was cantor to the biggest synagogue. She fled Germany with her brother and parents in 1939. A few years after the war her father committed suicide, having learned of his entire family’s death (more than 40 in number) in concentration camps. In London in 1949, she met her lifelong love, Cyrus Jhabvala (“Jhab”), a Parsee architect from New Delhi. They married and moved to India in 1951. Jhabvala was smitten by her new country, claiming: “It was like childhood, what childhood should be.”

The 17 stories in At The End of the Century, drawn from past collections, chronicle Jhabvala’s concern with cultural encounters, dislocation and the immigrant experience. Misogyny – and sensuality – bubble up through impeccably constructed prose. In “The Widow”, Durga fails to seduce a teenager – whom she describes as “a young animal full of sap and sperm” – renting one of her rooms with his family. Shamed into spirituality, urged to pray to Krishna “as a son and as a lover”, Durga duly renounces her widow’s fortune and her relatives move in, happily reaping the benefits.

In “An Experience of India”, the narrator, the wife of an unnamed journalist, is questioned by her Indian lovers about how many men she has slept with and if she is ashamed. Whether an adored spiritual guru or somebody else’s husband, at the moment of climax the men are united in shouting “Bitch!” In “Desecration”, the womanising Hindu superintendent of police, Bakhtawar Singh, has an affair with Sofia, a married Muslim woman initially described as “the sort of person who exudes happiness”. In a cheap hotel room, Sofia is told to chant Muslim prayers in time with an unseen guest while being taken from behind. At the affair’s end, Sofia commits suicide and Singh smoothly transfers to a new district.

Jhabvala’s relationship with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory began in 1961 when they suggested she write a screenplay of her 1960 novel The Householder (which she did, in eight days). They continued to work together and in 1976, no longer charmed by her host country but overwhelmed by it, Jhabvala left Delhi to lease a studio above their New York apartment. Their alliance lasted more than 40 years, with Merchant commenting on their confluence of identities: “It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory… I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American.”

Of screenwriting and fiction, Jhabvala always held the latter in higher regard. On the page, she could forensically explore the hair’s breadth between pleasure and pain, loss and hope. This collection does not offer happy tales – rather, stories in which the acquisition or abandonment of happiness dominate. Characters falsely believe themselves to be happy, are miserable at the cost of being happy, or are unable to account for the happiness of others.

Jhabvala never wrote directly about her past (although she once referred to it in a speech called “Disinheritance”, while accepting a 1979 Neil Gunn Fellowship for literature). Instead, her personal history is told obliquely through the violence, shattered dreams and fatalism within her fiction. The writer JM Coetzee’s words resonate: “All autobiography is storytelling; all writing is autobiography.”

At the End of the Century
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Little, Brown, 448pp, £20

Basquiat: Boom for Real

Barbican, London

This preview was first published in World of Interiors’ September IssueIMG_9542 IMG_9516


“The only thing that has ever interested me,” Jean-Michel Basquiat said to lover Suzanne Mallouk, “is a blank page.” Add letters, refrigerators, televisions, clothes, vases, spare pieces of wood, postcards, doors, windows, exterior and interior walls, and Basquiat was painting the urban canvas of New York city itself. A brilliant self-taught colourist and draughtsman, plurilingual Basquiat was the Brooklyn-born son of middle-class Haitian and Puerto Rican parents. As a child, Basquiat told his father, “Papa, I will be very famous one day”; as an adult, he altered art history, collaging eclectic influences– which included Beat poetry, Bebop jazz, Dadaist mythology, history, Afrocentricism, philosophy, hip hop, anatomy, cartoons, television and everyday conversation – like multiple open browsers on the internet. That Basquiat achieved titan status with a career that barely spanned the years 1978 and 1988 – when his life was cut short by heroin – is astonishing.

The first show in 20 years and on this scale, Boom for Real presents Basquiat as the ultimate multi-hyphenate meshing ambition with intellectual acuity. Words, he said he used, ‘like brushstrokes’; they formed complex vessels of meaning and startling pictorial shapes on his canvases. The exhibition will include a partial reconstruction of Basquiat’s first body of work created for the landmark group show New York/New Wave at P.S.1 in 1981, an exploration of Basquiat’s acerbic statements through his graffiti moniker SAMO (including a precociously witty story he penned for his school newspaper, from where the acronym ‘same old shit’ originated), and a section on the artist’s relationship with Warhol.

While associated most closely with 1980s Neo-expressionism, Basquiat was influenced by artists from Leonardo da Vinci to Picasso, Joseph Beuys and Cy Twombly. Untitled, 1980, made with spray paint and oil stick, presents a large canary-yellow work of enamelled metal made for the P.S. 1 show. In the top left-hand corner is spray-painted the words ‘New York New Wave’. Further down, the letter ‘A’ repeatedly descends from a plane to a car. Typical of Basquiat, the work offers simultaneous meanings, visually alluding to the city’s fractured, percussive rhythm, Twombly’s interest in ancient Greek graffiti – specifically shown in his painting Apollo and the Artist (1975) – and the A-bomb of Hiroshima the concept of which had very much impacted Basquiat.

Three years before he died, Basquiat told a Channel 4 interviewer that, ‘my mind affects my work more now than it used to, I used to work more heart to hand.’ It is poignant – and pointless – to reflect on what further changes would have taken place in his practice had he not passed away so young, yet Basquiat’s critiques on racism, black masculinity and police brutality have become more resonant, not less so. Beyond splashing paint in Armani suits, being Warhol’s confidante and Madonna’s beau, Basquiat made art that impacts immediately and lingers permanently. Boom for Real will remind us of the talent behind the supernova status that routinely fetches millions at the auction house.