Colin Barrett, Sigrid Nunez, Rebecca Gisler

You can’t judge a book by its cover

All novels should be like this: stripped of the necessary but boring connective tissue


This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Good novels have always been heavily buffeted in the marketplace of ideas. “Many books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered,” said W.H. Auden, who had clearly never heard of Wuthering Heights. So it’s natural — essential — for publishers to do their best for the titles they believe in, particularly for debut novels, to give them a leg up in a crowded ecosystem.

Increasingly this means getting pre-publication praise from other writers and the more the merrier. Fifty million Booker-shortlisted authors can’t be wrong, goes the logic. But these encomia surely have little effect on browsers and readers, not least because so many of them are generic to the point of anonymity. (To say nothing of the question of whether these writers really read the whole book they are praising in the first place or are just playing their part in the dance. Some reputable figures appear on so many back covers that reading new manuscripts must be a full-time job.)

It’s the billing that is wrong, not the novel.

Colin Barrett’s debut novel Wild Houses comes swagged in praise. Barrett is not an unknown quantity — he is the author of two highly-regarded story collections — but his publishers have taken no chances. The book is “very funny” (Kevin Barry). It is “strange, and beautiful” (Sally Rooney). It’s also “very moving” (Barry again), “deft, intricate, unique” (Nicole Flattery), “a gift of true storytelling” (Anne Enright), “funny and chilling” (Roddy Doyle) and “a book not just to read but to live inside” (Rooney again). And that’s just the praise from Irish writers.

The problem with these words is that they tell us almost nothing about the book or whether we might like it. Luckily, your humble reviewer is here to help. And the welcome news is that all those writers weren’t pulling our chain at least in the spirit of their praise — Wild Houses is a good novel. It’s recognisably from the same space as his earlier books, in both literary and geographical terms (again the setting is in and around the County Mayo town of Ballina).

But it also shows development. In his stories, the density of the prose and the heightened grotesquerie of many of the characters seemed ill-suited to the length of a novel — not without tiring the reader, anyway.

This time the characters are only mildly grotesque, and the plot is attenuated: it tells of a kidnapping. The kidnappee is Donal “Doll” English, brother of “reckless and complacent” drug dealer Cillian, and the kidnappers are the Ferdia brothers, Gabe and Sketch. Cillian owes them money, and the Ferdias reckon they’ll get what they want by threatening Doll rather than by shaking down Cillian himself.

Wild Houses, Colin Barrett (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

A plot like this comes with built-in tension — it looks after itself — and frees the author up to concentrate on other things, and there’s a good deal of virtuosity at work here at the prose level. Doll has “the scouring bang of aftershave crawling off him like a fog”. A pet dog “spent his days mooching from cushioned niche to niche and staring at the TV like an old woman”. Even when the lines don’t quite work — one character has “a face like a vandalised church” — you have to admire the chutzpah.

Barrett is both working in a tradition and striking out on his own. He seems to nod to the famous last lines of Frank O’Connor’s story “Guests of the Nation” when he ends a chapter with “Nothing now would be the same”, but he also switches deftly from Irish Grand Guignol to a subtler register, which is where the book finds its feet.

This is when he drops the larky dialogue and gets into the heads of two of his characters, who turn out to be the main event. Doll’s girlfriend Nicky, driven to distraction when he goes missing, feels like a real person, but the heart of the story turns out to be Dev Hennigan.

Dev is the Ferdias’ useful idiot, providing the house where they can hold Doll English. He’s a big lad with hands like “excavator buckets”, but who never stood up for himself and was bullied at school. “What you’re in, Dev, is a holding pattern,” his doctor tells him, “only you’re not holding out for anything.”

If the kidnapping plot doesn’t deliver many surprises, then in the portrayal of Dev’s relationships with the Ferdias, with Doll, with his absent father, Barrett has shown he can dig the depths and well as stroll the heights. Is this a good book? Yes. Does it live up to the ecstatic pre-publication quotes? No, but it’s the billing that is wrong, not the novel.

Sigrid Nunez wasn’t even published in the UK until her seventh novel The Friend came out six years ago, and now a new book by her is an event. You can see why: The Friend and its follow-up What Are You Going Through felt genuinely fresh and new. They had an artful intimacy in the narrative which sounded artless, as though the carefully constructed story was just our friend Sigrid talking to us, yet which brought in high literary quotes and references to enrich the story.

The Vulnerables, Sigrid Nunez (Virago, £16.99)

Her new novel The Vulnerables is more of the same. It is also that most warily-approached of genres, the Covid novel — or rather the post-Covid novel, because like late examples, including Deborah Levy’s August Blue, it is less about Covid itself than the conditions which Covid enabled. In this case, the condition is a flat-sitting which brings the Nunez-like narrator into close community with a talkative parrot and an untalkative Generation Z-er.

At first our narrator believes Vetch, the young college drop-out, to be “a misanthrope. A mansplainer. Possibly a budding eco-terrorist”. But inevitably there is a thawing — if that gentle word is sufficient to carry the transition which ends in the two of them smoking joints together.

Like much late work, The Vulnerables (the title refers to the category into which people Nunez’s age were placed when Covid descended) is a book of memory: “Life is not what one lived,” she writes, quoting Gabriel Garcia Márquez, “but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” But it is also an older woman’s book of mystery: how to explain the modern world?

This element is delivered in long sequences of dialogue with the narrator’s friends, reminiscent of Lore Segal’s recent Ladies’ Lunch. One topic is how, in modern fiction, “the one thing you’re never prepared to hear is that men will do the right thing”. As a corollary, observes one friend, “no man today would ever attempt to create an Emma Bovary or an Anna Karenina,” those most complex and flawed of literary heroines.

The Vulnerables’ direct, talky mode left me with two main impressions. The first — reluctantly dismissed — is that on some level all novels should be like this: stripped of the necessary but boring connective tissue that bogs down most traditional fiction. The second is that, nonetheless, there’s a sense of diminishing returns in Nunez’s late style: this one doesn’t hold the reader quite so tight as The Friend or What Are You Going Through. Perhaps she should have deemed them a trilogy, where a droop in the final volume is practically part of the deal.

About Uncle, Rebecca Gisler, translated by Jordan Stump (Peirene Press, £12.99)

Rebecca Gisler’s About Uncle (translated by Jordan Stump) is simultaneously sui generis and of a type: the type being the European novel which successfully blends a quirky comedy with an undertow of sadness. It won the Swiss Literature Prize in 2022 and appears in English only due to the efforts of the tiny Peirene Press, which specialises in novellas in translation.

The Uncle of the title is living with his niece — who narrates the story — and his nephew, who are “what I would call involuntary housemates or a commune of idlers”. Uncle is eccentric, and everything about him has an air of absurdity, from the way he seems to disappear into the toilet plumbing at night (but it’s only a dream — or is it?) to his practice of restuffing old armchairs with newspaper and dusting his omelettes with a layer of pepper.

The niece and nephew, who in their own absurd way are employed as translators of instructions for animal food, need to ensure he doesn’t get into mischief and that he doesn’t suffer as a result of the horrible living conditions of his room.

As health problems mount, they take him to see “the specialist in uncles”, where his niece imagines the scan will reveal Uncle’s bowels to be “dark, undoubtedly boggy, with a stream flowing between his coal-black lungs amidst a grey, cracked-up landscape”.

About Uncle delivers emotional weight with a smile, its dual registers perfectly exemplified by one scene where the useless trinkets in the bargain aisle of the local supermarket — Uncle is, inevitably, obsessed by them — are likened to Kafka’s Odradek, a creature which appears in a family home and evades any explanation for its purpose. It perfectly represents the blend of high and low in this novel, which — like any good book — isn’t for anything. It just is.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover