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Going Goth
by Clémence Michallon February 08, 2019
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Once Upon a River continues to demonstrate Diane Setterfield’s mastery of the Gothic genre in a way that will appeal to modern readers.

It all begins at an inn, the Swan at Radcot, on the evening of a winter’s solstice in the 19th century. A man comes in, bearing horrific injuries, interrupting the regulars’ chatter. He’s carrying “a large puppet, with waxen face and limbs and sickly painted hair” Except it’s not a puppet, it’s a little girl and she’s dead, clearly dead — until she’s not.

This mysterious creature, certain to fuel the Radcot rumour mill, is also a child who must now be returned to her family. Three lay claim to her. The girl is the kidnapped daughter of a local couple. She’s a farmer’s illegitimate grandchild. No, she’s the dead sister of a bereft housekeeper. One thing seems certain — the girl came from the river.

Running through the centre of the story is the Thames. It controls the atmosphere of this Gothic novel as it does the climate of Radcot. Setterfield likes to address the reader directly. She’s a performative storyteller who will occasionally remind you of your place as a spectator.

As villagers wonder who the little girl belongs to, Setterfield asks: does it really matter, since in a few years, she will be the property of her husband anyway?

Once Upon a River is a story of loss, and how the missing keep living inside of us. Setterfield describes grief at times with dazzling beauty, such as when she writes of a man finally coming to terms with his daughter’s kidnapping.

There is plenty of room in Gothic literature for supernatural events, but Setterfield leaves no storyline unresolved and ultimately offers rational ways to explain the unexplainable. This is a long novel, at times slightly hard to follow, and readers might have to flip back through earlier chapters in order to understand every detail. But Setterfield knows how to make the words sing. It is worth taking a journey down the Thames with her.

The Independent

by Tony Perrottet

Sixty years after the Cuban Revolution deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista and installed revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, it’s still hard to believe that the audacious rebellion worked. There’s no reason it should have — the rebels were outmanned, outmatched and outgunned, going up against a strong army backed by the United States. The story of the years-long guerrilla war would beggar belief had it been the product of an author’s imagination. So it’s no surprise that Tony Perrottet’s new chronicle of the rebellion, Cuba Libre! reads like a novel — it’s a fascinating page-turner that captures “history’s most unlikely revolution” in all its wild absurdity. Perrottet does an excellent job capturing the absurdities that came with the revolution. Interesting times require interesting authors to do them justice, and Perrottet proves himself more than up to the job. Cuba Libre! brings history to life with thorough research and wildly addictive writing.

by Suzanne O’Sullivan

This mesmerising book by London neurologist Suzanne O’Sullivan is a true gift to readers who may have brain injuries or disorders, and well beyond that population, to anyone interested in the brain and how its wounding shapes behaviour. In the spirit of Oliver Sacks, O’Sullivan tells the stories of several of her patients whose cases begin as mysteries, most of whom were eventually diagnosed with epilepsy or other brain diseases or injuries. These are not easy cases to crack, but O’Sullivan and her colleagues do, over time. The doctor comes across as compassionate and humble; she describes misdiagnoses and failures, as well as breakthroughs and near-cures. Her patients emerge as complex and strong people whose resilience she celebrates. But the book’s most powerful presence is the human brain, which, as O’Sullivan stresses over and over again, remains, despite all the medical advancements of the past two centuries, a mystery deeper than the ocean.

by Sam Lipsyt

In his latest novel, Hark, Sam Lipsyte pivots to the dubious world of motivational speakers. Hark Morner — his real name — morphs from being a not-ready-for-prime time stand-up comic to the inspirational big time via a technique he calls Mental Archery. The gimmick? He urges people to focus, using archers’ yoga-like poses: Persian Rain, Priapic Centaur, Cantering Hun and so on. What are they focusing on? It’s up to them. Clear or not, that mantra, spread by Hark’s speeches, videos and podcasts, eventually gains millions of followers. In Lipsyte’s rendering, the messenger himself remains amorphous and murky while his promotional team takes centre stage. We don’t need to like fictional characters to find them fascinating. Nor do characters in comic novels need to attain the rounded features of those in other novels. But I did hope to care as much about Lipsyte’s people as I admired his deft satire.

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