It may have one of the longest prize names around, but it’s always exciting to follow The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, in association with Warwick University to see what exciting new writing talent is highlighted and celebrated. Past winners include great authors such as Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, Naomi Alderman, Adam Foulds, Sarah Howe, Sally Rooney and Max Porter (who won the main prize in 2016 when I was on the official shadow panel.) It’s quite unique how eligibility is open to authors whose first book is fiction, non-fiction or poetry so there’s always a diversity of disciplines included in the shortlist.

This year’s prize is particularly exciting since one of the judges is Kamila Shamsie (who has had a very busy year around book awards winning the Women’s Prize and also judging The Golden Man Booker Prize). The 2018 shortlist includes two novels and two books of non-fiction. Unsurprisingly (since I mostly read fiction) I’ve read the novels but not the other two. I was entranced by the rich, imaginative journey of Imogen Hermes Gowar’s “The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock” and captivated by the intimate familial and social struggles at the heart of Fiona Mozley’s “Elmet”. Both authors are very different in their choice of style and subject matter but equally talented and I hope they’ll have long careers as novelists. Having listened to the authors speak at a special event for the prize, I’m very intrigued to read Laura Freeman’s memoir about overcoming an eating disorder and Adam Weymouth’s book about an Alaskan river journey. 

The 2018 shortlisted authors & judge Andrew Holgate

The 2018 shortlisted authors & judge Andrew Holgate

The Shadow Panel this year has written really engaging reactions to all the books and it’s exciting to see their winner is Imogen Hermes Gowar. However, The Shadow Panel decision doesn’t always sync with the actual judges’ decision. When I participated in this we chose Jessie Greengrass’ story collection as our winner. Although I’d be delighted to see Gowar or Mozley win the prize, I wonder if one of the non-fiction books might take the prize this year since it’s been some time since a non-fiction book has won. The winner will be announced this evening, but whatever author the judges select as the winner I’m glad that this award continues to encourage some of our best modern writers.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson

As a final post about the Sunday Times/Peter Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year award, here is Naomi’s review of Porter’s book. It was so interesting to hear Naomi talk about this at our shadow judges' meeting and reading her review since she knows Ted Hughes’ Crow so well and I’ve never read it. Nevertheless, I think this is an extraordinarily book that I also loved and you can read my review about it here. It's been a pleasure featuring Naomi's reviews here. Read more of her writing at TheWritesofWomen!


I’m going to set my stall out from the first sentence: Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is an extraordinary piece of work. Porter creates a scenario in which a woman has died suddenly leaving her husband – a Ted Hughes scholar – and their two young boys behind. Into their grief-stricken word arrives Crow, the Crow from Hughes’ collection of the same name, who rings the doorbell of their London flat a few days after her death.

One shiny jet-black eye as big as my face, blinking slowly, in a leathery wrinkled socket, bulging out from a football-sized testicle.



And this is what he said:

I won’t leave you until you don’t need me any more.

The grief the characters go through is narrated by three voices: Dad who attempts to go to work, write a book on Hughes’ Crow and parent his children; Boys who speak as one voice and wonder what happened to the fire engines and the chaos that they feel should’ve been present at the death of their mother, and Crow who is slippery – is he the father’s therapist? A trickster? A myth? A bird feeding on grief?

There is no plot as such. Porter moves the characters forward as though they’re in fog or a timeless bubble. Things happen but grief colours almost all of their movements as they try to negotiate a world without a wife and mother. There are heart-breaking moments when Porter articulates how that grief feels without becoming mawkish.

Ill people, in their last day on Earth, do not leave notes stuck to bottles of red wine saying ‘OH NO YOU DON’T COCK-CHEEK’. She was busy not dying, and there is no detritus of care, she was simply busy living, and then she was gone.

She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus).

She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).

And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.

I will stop finding her hairs.

I will stop hearing her breath.

But there’s humour too. Crow is arrogant, obnoxious and sometimes cruel but he’s also very funny. The first time Dad brings a woman home and has sex with her, he finds Crow on the sofa ‘impersonating me pumping and groaning’. He also likes to show off in the bathroom, ‘performing some unbound crow stuff’ for Dad to believe he’s ‘hearing the bird spirit’

Gormin’ere, worrying horrid. Hello elair, krip krap krip krap who’s that lazurusting beans of my cut-out? Let me buck flap snutch clat tapa one tapa two, motherless children in my trap, in my apse, in separate stocks for boiling, Enunciate it, rolling and turning it, sadget lips and burning it. Ooh, pressure! Must rehearse, must cuss less. The nobility of nature, haha krah haha krap haha, better not.

Reviewers seem to have struggled with how to describe the form of the book; is it prose? Is it poetry? Is it a prose poem? I think that the form Porter’s chosen to take is one that suits the subject matter. Grief is impossible to define accurately. It ebbs and flows, visiting each of us differently. Porter’s words appear to be divided into phrases, sentences and paragraphs as he felt they should be as opposed to him attempting to force them into a standard or accepted format. That and the language he uses – which moves between Standard English and invented words – helps to portray a family out of sorts and an animal from literature which may be a figment of the father’s imagination.

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is extraordinary for several reasons: the form and language; the vivid imagery; the integration of Hughes’ Crow (although you don’t need to know Crow in order to appreciate this work); the depiction of grief. Max Porter’s a very exciting young writer indeed.

Here is Naomi’s next review of another outstanding book shortlisted for this year’s Sunday Times/Peter Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year award. When I first read this book of poetry last year I was so struck by its distinct direct voice and connected so strongly with McMillan’s original perspective that it became one of my favourite books of the year. If you want to read my review of ‘Physical’ click here.


Since the publication of his debut poetry collection Physical, Andrew McMillan has been hailed as the poet of masculinity. It was interesting to be aware of this approaching the collection as a feminist and – if I may be so bold – I’d dare to say that McMillan is also a feminist, at least to the extent that he understands that patriarchal ideas of masculinity are as damaging to men as they are to women.

The collection’s divided into three sections. In the first, also titled ‘physical’, McMillan explores what it means to be male in the 21st century, alongside experiences of loving relationships and one night stands. In ‘Strongman’ the narrator bench presses his nephew asking ‘what is masculinity if not taking the weight/of a boy and straining it from oneself?’ while conceding that his own attempt is one ‘not even a minor Greek would see as fit to sculpt’. While in ‘The Men Are Weeping in the Gym’, McMillan creates a picture of those who do sculpt themselves ‘and because they have built themselves/as statues this must mean that God/has entered them’ but juxtaposes this with the vulnerability that lies beneath, created with an image of the muscle tearing ‘itself/from itself’.

McMillan excels in moving from the general to the specific. In ‘Urination’ (the poem he tells us at the Young Writer of the Year Award bloggers’ event his mum has asked him never to read again), the narrator begins by describing the potential horror of bumping someone at the urinals, leading to thoughts of the times the bathroom is shared in intimate settings and the specific moment when he takes ‘the whole of him in your hand/and feel the water moving through him/and knowing that this is love…’. It’s these moments when he writes of love – whether of a one night stand in ‘Just Because I Do This, Doesn’t Mean’ where ‘the kisses that wanted to stay for longer than a night’; or a lover who’s with someone else in ‘If It Wasn’t for the Nights’: ‘if it wasn’t for the nights       Steffan       I’d come home’; or the rescued relationship in ‘Choke’ ‘we talked ourselves together’; or the break-up in ‘Today’

today    you will break the life of someone
or you’ll break yourself apart from them
and   having dressed themselves in you for months
they will be naked and half in shadow as you close the door

– where you find yourself catching your breath. McMillan captures the vulnerability that close relationships bring in many of their different forms.

The third section ‘degradation’ deals with death, whether literal or metaphorical, and again ties into ideas of masculinity and how men are expected to face death in a society that equates masculinity with bravery and stoicism.

For me, however, it was the second section ‘protest of the physical’ which really interested me. This interest was twofold: firstly, in terms of structure, this is the most ambitious section of the collection. Here nine untitled poems – five leading on to a second page; four very short and all beginning with the word ‘graffiti’ interweave moments in relationships, McMillan’s love for the poet Thom Gunn and snapshots of the northern town, Barnsley. The latter is the second thing that interests me, having grown up in Barnsley, like McMillan (although I was born eleven years prior to him). The poems that begin and end the section both start with a crane: ‘lame arm of the crane       circling/unstocked shelves of half built car park’, a nod to the town which still hasn’t recovered from the miner’s strike and Thatcherism (call centres and ASOS and Next warehouses aren’t enough to replace an industry). In the second of the longer pieces, McMillan juxtaposes a relationship – ‘love/is giving everything too easily/then staying to try and claw it back’ – with the decimation of the town – ‘town coughing something up/watching    breathless    as it rolls into a crack in the earth’ – using a structure and a rhythm that echoes the town’s industrial heritage – ‘people were shouldertoshoulder/as in a cage waiting to descend’. It’s no coincidence that the industry the town was built upon is one synonymous with masculinity and that part of the town’s challenge is also that of 21st century men: how to reconcile itself with having that stereotypical, patriarchal view of what a man should be stripped away.

Physical is an interesting, often ambitious, sometimes breath-taking look at love and masculinity. If this is what Andrew McMillan is capable of in his debut collection then I can’t wait to witness the rest of his career.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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As I wrote in a previous post, I was invited to be a shadow judge for this year’s Sunday Times/Peter Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year award alongside some other fantastic bloggers including Naomi from TheWritesofWomen. Given that the self-defined mission of her blog is to only cover books by women, I’m very proud to host Naomi’s reviews of the three shortlisted male authors on my blog and it’s interesting what different views she has compared to my own thoughts about the books. If you want to read my review of The Ecliptic click here.


Elspeth ‘Knell’ Conway, celebrated artist, is holed up in Portmantle, a retreat on a Turkish island. Directed to this mystery location by her sponsor, she befriends playwright MacKinney, novelist Quickman and architect Pettifer. Into their world arrives seventeen-year-old, Fullerton.

From our very first glimpse of him, we understood that he was one of us. He had the rapid footfalls of a fugitive, the grave hurriedness of a soldier who had seen a grenade drop somewhere in the track behind. We could recognise the ghosts that haunted him because they were the same ghosts we had carried through the gates ourselves and were still trying to excise.

As the quartet keep watch over the troubled youngster, they also battle their own creative demons. Portmantle, Knell explains, exists out of time – as does art – as well as providing a sanctuary where artists can relocate their artistic desires. Each has a failed project which has driven them to the retreat. For Knell it’s a commission for which she was attempting to render The Ecliptic – ‘a great circle on the celestial sphere representing the sun’s apparent path among the stars during the year’ – on a mural for the Willard Observatory.

While the first and third sections of the novel take place at Portmantle, the second takes us back into Knell’s past documenting how she became an artist, her rise to prominence and her relationship with the artist Jim Culvers.

Elspeth’s from a Clydebank family and attends Glasgow School of Art on a scholarship – a detail far more plausible in the 1950s and ’60s of the novel than the present day. There she’s taught by Henry Holden who tells her to ‘Paint what you believe’. When the external assessor finds Elspeth’s blasphemous painting Deputation unworthy of a grade, the school denies her graduation and she goes off to London – thanks to Holden – to be Jim Culvers’ assistant. Holden says it’ll take a while for Culvers to realise she’s better than him. When that does happen, Culvers’ agent sets up Elspeth’s first show.

While at Portmantle, Knell comments on her name:

I always suspected my work was undermined by that label, Elspeth Conway. Did people exact their judgements upon me in galleries when they noticed my name? Did they see my gender on the wall, my nationality, my class, my type, and fail to connect with the truth of my paintings? It is impossible to know. I made my reputation as an artist with this label attached and it became the thing by which people defined and categorised me. I was a Scottish female painter, and thus I was recorded in the glossary of history.

While Knell sees an issue with her name and gender, Wood does something few male novelists do well in portraying her purely as an artist and a human. Knell reads precisely as a female painter because Wood never treats her as one. His focus is on the creative process and her relationships with fellow creatives.

The Ecliptic focuses on the creative process throughout the novel. At Portmantle, Knell and her friends worry that they have lost their abilities. They over analyse their work, attempting – and failing – to recreate past highs, or avoid artistic endeavour altogether. They work in secret, rarely discussing their progress, or lack of it. In the novel’s second – and strongest section – Elspeth learns her craft, encountering the disparity between the public’s, the critics’ and her own views of her work. Wood uses this section to consider the effect on an artist’s confidence and, therefore, their work when external forces begin to exert pressure on the creative process. It’s no surprise that Elspeth, still only twenty-six, struggles to cope.

In his attempt to explore how the creative process works, Wood pulls a sleight of hand on the reader which is revealed in the fourth and final section. At the Young Writer of the Year Award bloggers’ event, Wood said that he knew he was taking a risk with this. Whether or not he pulls it off will, I suspect, depend on the taste of each of the novel’s readers. For me, it was an ambitious – and an interesting – undertaking and I’d rather see a novelist challenge themselves to produce something unusual and difficult than play it safe. Whilst I wasn’t wholly convinced, the very end of the novel is inspired and very clever; it left me feeling that Benjamin Wood is one to watch, I suspect he’s going to produce something very special indeed. 

I snapped this pic of Sarah Howe looking very excited when it was announced she won the prize last year.

I snapped this pic of Sarah Howe looking very excited when it was announced she won the prize last year.

A book prize I love following is The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award. This is an award which came back with gusto last year after being on hiatus since 2009. Only writers who are 35 years or younger are eligible. It’s wonderful to see promising young writers encouraged and supported in this way. Not only does the winner receive an award of £5000 but the runners-up also receive £500 each – a nice addition which means it’s not all or nothing for the writers being recognized. The shortlist for the 2015 prize was so interesting and diverse with the winner being Sarah Howe who wrote the beautiful book of poetry “Loop of Jade”. This award straddles multiple genres considering fiction, non-fiction and poetry, but I think it’s particularly nice that a poet was recognized for such a prestigious prize. Past winners have included great literary stars including Adam Foulds, Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, Caryl Phillips and Helen Simpson.

So I'm delighted that I've been invited to join an official shadow panel for this year’s prize alongside great book bloggers Naomi from TheWritesofWomen, Kim from ReadingMatters, Simon from SavidgeReads and Charlie from TheWormHole. When the shortlist for this year’s prize is announced we’ll be reading all the books on it and meeting to discuss them to decide our own winner. This will be announced as a kind of fan favourite proceeding the announcement of the actual winner. I’ll be so excited to join in as having detailed discussions and debates about books is what I love most!

The shortlist will be announced on November 6th.

The winner will be announced on December 9th at a ceremony at the beautiful London Library – this is a library I particularly love. Back in May I wrote about a special publication “On Reading, Writing and Living with Books” which came out as part of the library's 175th anniversary.

Stay tuned to find out what authors are shortlisted for this year’s award and our discussions about the books. I hope you’ll join in reading them with us!

At just sixty pages, “Loop of Jade” is a strong slender book of poetry. I had an odd experience reading it over a number of days as I found myself occasionally flipping to the back to see how many more poems awaited and every time I checked it felt like there were more. It was as if they were continuing to multiply or that the book was growing a tail to extend out further and further. I think this is because poetry, and particularly Howe's evocative poetry, has the effect of levelling time. The past, present and future can be experienced together. Even though many of the poems in this book obviously come from a very specific personal place, the weighty themes of identity and particularly society's diminishment of women are universal. There is a feeling in the language used that what has come before is coming again, that our patterns of thought and that our memories too spin round and round, that we live and travel in ever widening and continuous circles. This is informed poetry with something important to say.

Some of this writing such as the devastating poem ‘Tame’ have a more narrative or fairy tale feel. Here the value of female life and freedom is superseded by their perceived economic value. The poem 'Islands' is in a similar style yet has a more coming of age structure and surprises with lines of brutal reality that hit like a hammer: “She said she saved me from the refuse heap, from being eaten by the dogs with other scraps.” In the extended title poem ‘Loop of Jade’ micro-poems seem embedded within the larger poem which is composed of the stories told by a mother. There is an intensely felt gap between the experience between the mother and narrator: “myself a waving spot, unseen, on the furthest shore.” Yet there is a sense of continuation and connection between generations in the inherited “loop” which serves as a talisman forming a physical connection to the past and possible future.

There are poems here about love affairs and the act of creativity as well as strong poetry about identity and the question of place. This repeated phrase in 'Crossing from Guangdong' takes on great profundity: “Something sets us looking for a place.” The inclusion of multiple languages in the excellent poem 'Others' pays tributes to the blend of cultures and skin itself through generations. One of the strongest themes of this collection is the treatment of women in a patriarchal society. This is particularly true in China, but in the west as well. The institutionalized way in which women are valued below men so that we become blind to the ways in which this occurs. It seems to me that the intention of many of these poems are to sharpen our focus on how this works. One poem gives a perfect metaphor for this shift in point of view: “like at a put-off optician’s trip, when you realise how long you’ve been seeing things wrongly.”

Howe intelligently reexamines attitudes about gender in classical figures. In ‘Sirens’ she traces the disfigurement of women through literature that makes them into strange creatures because of a fear of desire: “for lust brings with it many monsters.” Later the same scrutiny is put to the Sphinx and the dividing line between genders. She also takes on Shakespeare stating in one poem that “On the heath, Lear assumes all ragged madmen share ungrateful daughters.”

This powerful poetry affirms the need of books to widen our view of history to include points of view which have no voice. There is a striking statement about the dominant political forces which have seized the narrative of history, but are mindful of the alternative narratives they've suppressed: “In their dreams, our long-lost books nightly buckle & char.” There is also much playfulness and humour to be found in this book which mentions Michael Flatley in one poem and where folklore mixes with research on Wikipedia. Howe demonstrates how she is in dialogue with many other poets as well referencing authors as varied as Theodore Roethke, Homer, Horace, Ezra Pound and Peter Streckfus. The most startling and beautiful thing about Sarah Howe's poems are the way she uses colours and shading to form images in the mind so I felt like I'd spent a long time gazing at paintings rather than simply reading.

Sarah Howe is one of the writers shortlisted for The Sunday Times/Peter Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award. The winner will be announced this month. I'm so glad this excellent prize has introduced me to Howe's writing. 

Read an interview with Sarah Howe here.

What does looking at a family tree tell us? We see ourselves linked by blood lines to a group of names, but usually there is little else to connect us to lives from the distant past other than an assemblage of faded photographs, a few heirlooms and a smattering of oral history. Rather than treat a family tree as a certainty, Sara Taylor does something quite extraordinary in her novel “The Shore” whereby she presents a family’s history as if the outcome of a family line was not the inevitability we see so neatly graphed out at the beginning of this book. The author jumbles all the pieces of one sprawling family tree up together like a jigsaw puzzle and delivers two centuries worth of tales about individuals leaping backwards and forwards in time. This effect says something much more meaningful about the will of the individual and the meaning of family connections than a straightforward linear novel could ever say. This is a family saga like none other I’ve read before.

As much as this novel is about family it is also about the land and the way in which the environment is shaped and reborn with every succeeding generation. An isolated small group of islands off the coast of Virginia is the base from which the stories of each character branch out from and round back to. It’s fascinating to see how the perilous course of the family blood line also follows the near destitution of the island itself as the economic circumstances change over time. In one memorable scene a boy watches as the community’s church is floated across the river after it is sold off by the fading population. When first confronted with the family tree at the beginning of the novel you’re aware that there are two distinct branches of the tree stemming from a single fascinating matriarch named Medora. The conflicted identity of this fiercely independent woman reverberates down through the generations. One line lives under perilous and desperate circumstances while another is more firmly established and prosperous. This is a family that is comprised of con artists, rapists, murderers, drug sellers and witch doctors. It’s high drama. Their stories make for an enthralling and emotionally compelling read.

As well as giving the reader a fascinating variety of lively stories, the novel makes larger meaningful statements about the plight of women. There is a great deal of sexism and violence exhibited by the men in this novel especially among the economically disadvantaged members of the family. It’s noted that it seems to be a tragic inevitability of a male’s development that “something happens in the gap between boy and man to turn all that sweetness bitter. You wonder if it’s a necessary hardening, like a tree’s shedding of leaves as winter approaches.” Certainly not all the male characters in this novel are villains and there is a balanced, complex view of both sex and sexuality here. But many female characters’ suffering is perpetrated by men who seek to dominant them. 

One generation of the family ferments apples to produce brandy in defiance of Prohibition laws.

One generation of the family ferments apples to produce brandy in defiance of Prohibition laws.

One of the most troubled and tragic characters named Ellie soberly remarks of her dangerous partner at one point: “He hates me and he wants me and he hates that he wants me.” As beset by some of the female characters become by their circumstances and the men they are with there is a knowledge gained from the next generation of women who take dramatic measures to ensure they aren’t entrapped by the same sexism that their mothers experienced. This effect is mirrored in both the start and end of the family line in a way which says something quite tragic about the persistent state whereby men will always try to control women despite the progression of society. Yet it also says something hopeful about the resilience and ingenuity with which bloodlines survive through the willpower of women.

Most of the stories which comprise this novel are firmly fixed in the nitty-gritty of life concerning work, love and establishing a family. But some of the tales dip into the fantastic so one woman is haunted by the spectres of ghostly boys that both threaten and support her. In another tale we learn about a secret talent of the family line for controlling and altering the weather. Sometimes the style feels like Charlotte Bronte and other times it’s reminiscent of a more modern sensibility like what's found in David Mitchell's writing. The narrative voice varies more wildly as some chapters stay inside a character’s uniquely-voiced point of view while other chapters are narrated from a more even-handed impersonal distance. I didn’t feel this was always successful particularly in a chapter told in the second person which had some very effective passages but became quite confused. Part of me wishes Taylor maintained a constant narrative style throughout the novel as it would seem less chaotic and make it easier to follow. However, part of the fun of this book is trying to locate who you are following now based on the date given and names around the characters involved. A reader’s participation is required. The book ends with an entirely new style of narration and takes the story into a whole other kind of genre that adds a level of poignancy when looking back on that initial family tree.

How do ordinary people survive in their native city after losing a war? The familiar civilization they've known all their lives has crumbled and must slowly be rebuilt brick by brick. People either give into despair or use their ingenuity to adapt and survive. In the aftermath of WWII, Berlin was jointly occupied by the Allied powers. American, British, French and Soviet forces patrol the city. Food is scarce, many buildings are partially-demolished and a thriving black market arises where cigarettes take the place of currency. Kasper Meier is a man in his early 50s. His age is somewhat immaterial as the effects of war have prematurely aged everyone: “In Berlin, a face full of lines carved out by dirt, fear and exhaustion didn’t tell you anything about someone’s age anymore.” Kasper has learned to navigate this devastated city landscape by bartering to obtain tins of ham or whatever foodstuff he can obtain in order to feed himself and his elderly father. He tries to keep a low profile and he has a good reason for doing so because he’s gay. Homosexuality was still criminalized after the fall of the Nazis and even those who were “gay Holocaust” survivors faced being re-imprisoned if they continued to engage in homosexual activity and their names were kept on a list of sex offenders. But Kasper has obtained a reputation for being well-connected and able to obtain information. This is when he’s approached by a mysterious woman named Eva who needs his help to find a British pilot. From this encounter Kasper is unwittingly drawn into a complex and suspenseful plot of revenge and murder.

1945 Berlin is a city rife with suspicion and paranoia. It’s haunted by the devastating consequences that war has brought to it and the people left behind (both German citizens and soldiers in the Allied forces) painfully mourn the loss of their loved ones and the life they led before. The end of winter doesn’t bring with it the hope of renewal. Rather it’s a city where “the warmth of spring had begun, in places, to bring back the smell of buried death that had plagued the city the previous summer – a sweet rotten fragrance carried on the searching gusts of April wind.” This season which traditionally brings with it the promise of new birth instead awakens the spectre of all that was lost. A group of skilfully written characters are plagued by difficult painful memories and the bleak reality of a ruined city. The most powerful character is Kasper himself who forges ahead despite images of his lost lover Phillip reverberating in his mind. He shies from talking about the past or the reason why he was scarred during the war (losing one of his eyes). Whenever he is asked about his eye he deflects the question by producing a comic answer such as: “Hindenburg did it with his Pickelhaube when I pulled his moustache.” He carefully continues to hide his sexuality from his elderly father and fears being exposed if he doesn’t assist Eva and her enigmatic employer. As the story progresses, Eva’s tale takes on a greater degree of complexity and the full terror of her difficult past comes out in a highly dramatic scene. Here “her hatred overwhelmed her and she let it come and she enjoyed it like biting down on an aching tooth.” The intensity with which this scene is composed is made all the more powerful from the outflow of bitter feelings which have been carefully concealed by her character for so long.

  “As the sky darkened, the rough castellations at the tops of the buildings became silhouettes and, if the destruction below them wasn’t so total, they might have appeared like melancholy ruins in the haze of a Casper David Friedrich painting.”  
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“As the sky darkened, the rough castellations at the tops of the buildings became silhouettes and, if the destruction below them wasn’t so total, they might have appeared like melancholy ruins in the haze of a Casper David Friedrich painting.”

Before the war, Kaspar used to run a bar which from small descriptions I gather was a sort of low-key version of Christopher Isherwood’s famous cabaret portrayed in “Goodbye to Berlin.” The story in this novel follows a similarly colourful cast of characters who have been trodden down, but still retain their flair. It’s interesting coming to this novel after having read Audrey Magee’s novel “The Undertaking” earlier this year. Before reading either of these books I can’t remember having encountered any stories of post-war German life (Magee’s book partly follows a woman’s story throughout the war and after). Something both novels deal with is the rape of women in the city following the occupation from Allied forces. In his novel, Fergusson explores how rape isn’t a side-effect of war, but an active instrument used in the systematic way a nation is defeated. But for all the misery, betrayal and horror that comes with war, “The Spring of Kasper Meier” shows the surprising resilience of individuals as well as their ability to believe in the good of humanity and rely on each other for support after achieving a hard-won trust. Ben Fergusson has produced a really impressive debut novel that deserves to be read.