Short Life in a Strange World
The advent of Toby Ferris’s 42nd birthday sparked him off on a quest to visit each one of the 42 surviving paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The project had little to do with either Bruegel or painting, and everything to do with Ferris’s own listlessness, exacerbated by the recent death of his father. So packed with life are those 16th-century images that Ferris mined them for insights into the human condition: “birth to death in 42 panels”, as the subtitle has it, but with less weighty digressions, too, on everything from children’s games to mastodons.
Fourth Estate, 336pp, £20
Such a Fun Age
The relationships at the heart of this debut novel interrogate what it is to exist among people to whom you feel unequal. Following Emira, a 25-year-old babysitter, and her employer, Alix, Such a Fun Age takes a shrewd look at race relations, social class and power dynamics. References to Instagram and Childish Gambino make it modern without being try-hard; instead, it weaves an empathetic narrative from the perspectives of two seemingly wildly different women, exploring the layers of privilege involved in contemporary US feminism.
Bloomsbury Circus, 320pp, £12.99
The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979
Edited by Saskia Hamilton
“Letters are above all useful as a means of expressing the ideal self,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick in 1953. This fascinating new collection gathers together correspondence between the writer and her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, from the last seven years of Lowell’s life, the period in which he wrote The Dolphin and she Seduction and Betrayal and Sleepless Nights. The book offers a glimpse into the intimate thoughts of two of the last century’s greatest literary thinkers, and asks: what licence does a writer have to use the lives of others as artistic material?
Faber & Faber, 560pp, £35
This article appears in the 05 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit