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Reviews round-up | 2 September

The critics’ verdicts on David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Will Self’s Shark, and a new biography of Philip Larkin by James Booth.

Poet Philip Larkin with Monica Jones.
A new, more positive, biography of poet Philip Larkin has been published Photograph: Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks, a book David Mitchell has described as his “mid-life crisis novel,” is the story of a 1980s teenager who gets entagled in a conspiracy threatening the structure of time. The New Statesman’s Olivia Laing admires Mitchell’s ability to recreate the past: “Mitchell has a flair for period furniture, for the loving accumulation of details that make the near as well as distant past luminous,” she writes. However, she is less convinced by the overall structure of the book. “It has its emotional charge defused by the author’s decision to wrestle it into an increasingly irritating edifice of plot.”

The Times’ Melissa Katsoulis is more enthusiastic, writing, “In the wrong hands, magical storytelling like this would make you cringe. But in Mitchell’s it thrills. He is funny, hip and full of life.” She even goes so far as to start making predictions about literary prizes: “This beautiful explosion of adventurous ideas may well take him, finally, beyond the Booker shortlist.”

Louise Jury in the Independent suggests that not every aspect of Mitchell’s novel will be found universally appealing: “for sci-fi fantasists, the imaginary world Mitchell creates might be a thing of wonder, a Dungeons and Dragons for literate grown-ups. For others, I suspect the flesh and blood anguish of a long life lived well against the odds will prove the greater pleasure.” Overall, however, she is positive about the book, calling Mitchell a “consummate craftsman” for his ability to weave together different stories.

Shark by Will Self

Will Self’s eleventh novel is a prequel in narrative, though sequel in publication date, to Umbrella, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012. The New Statesman’s Mark Lawson praises Self for “saving the life of the hard reward that rewards the attention demanded,” even if he is a little hesitant about the density of the prose: “the ideal reader of Shark might be someone who doesn’t have a job but does have insomnia and a catheter. Even the most diligent Self fan, when confronted with such density of typography and exposition, must sometimes think: give us a break.”

The Daily Telegraph’s Jon Day is similarly full of admiration for Shark: “not only is this a truly wonderful novel, it also makes you want to revisit his previous work and read it with a keener eye.” He also suggests that Self has improved on what he began in Umbrella: “where Umbrella’s tricksiness sometimes made it feel like a work of historical fiction, in Shark the language feels urgent and necessary. What Self aired in Umbrella has hardened into a style.”

The highest praise comes from the Guardian, in which Stuart Kelly writes, “Shark confirms that Self is the most daring and delightful novelist of his generation . . . I have every expectation that when this trilogy does conclude, it will be recognised as the most remorseless vivisection and plangent evocation of our sad, silly, solemn and strange last century.”

Philip Larkin: Life, Art, and Love by James Booth

James Booth's new biography of Philip Larkin gives a more positive version of the famous poet than is customary. The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon points out that “although Booth has carried out his own interviews and draws on previously unpublished letters, his biography contains no game-changing revelations,” and as such Booth’s positive presentation of Larkin relies on reinterpreting the existing evidence. “Sometimes, it works,” Deacon writes. Other attempts, however, are “not very convincing.”

The Observer’s Rachel Cooke is similarly mixed in her praise. Booth is said to be “unfair to Larkin’s lovers, women he apparently regards as the poet’s ‘creation’.” He also “overstate[s] the Larkin-haters’ case, the better that he might ride to the rescue.” All the same, “there is compensation in the form of his lengthy readings of the poems, which are close and thoughtful if not exactly exhilarating, and in his use of Larkin’s letters, which remind the reader again and again what a fantastic writer the poet was, even in casual mode.”

In the Spectator, on the other hand, Peter J. Conradi is much more positive, calling Booth’s biography “superb.” Conradi also suggests the book is superior to Motion’s: “Booth’s psychology is subtler than Motion’s and more convincing. His achievement is to paint a satisfying and believably complex picture . . . As for Larkin the misogynist, it is mysterious how the character painted by Motion could have had any love life at all, let alone a highly complex and fulfilling one.”