Group portrait of the Du Maurier sisters with their dog Brutus by Frederic Whiting (1918). From left to right: Daphne, Jeanne and Angela

Family favourites

Because Deborah Devonshire’s journalism has nearly always made me laugh, and because she seems like one of the jollier aunts in P. G. Wodehouse — an Aunt Dahlia, not an Aunt Agatha — I had expected her memoirs to provide chuckles on every page.


Beating his demons

Some of us are still startled that Wallace Stevens was 44 when he published Harmonium.


Kin, but less than kind

About 100 years ago two brothers settled in the same small English town and raised 12 children.


Why, oh why?

In my many years as a judge for the J. R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography, I have been constantly surprised by the high proportion of books that deal with the subject of adoption.


Mother issues

The Norwegian, Per Petterson, was not well known until his 2003 novel, Out Stealing Horses, became a surprise international bestseller.


Secrets and silences

Charlotte Moore’s family have lived at Hancox on the Sussex Weald for well over a century.


Small but perfectly formed

Some years ago, Edmund de Waal inherited a remarkable collection of 264 netsuke from his great-uncle Iggie, whom he had got to know 20 years previously while studying pottery and Japanese in Tokyo.


The pride of the Sackvilles

Knole is a country house the size of a small village in the Kent countryside.


The loss of innocents

Here are two novels about that most harrowing and haunting of subjects — children who go missing.


The loneliness of the long distance salesman

If only E. M. Forster hadn’t beaten him to it by exactly a century, Jonathan Coe could have coined the enigmatic phrase ‘only connect’ in this novel.


Lurking beneath the surface

One’s past life is, usually, comfortably past.


The woman behind the god

The emperor Augustus was the original god/father.


The ultimate price

Lesley Downer is one of the most unusual authors writing in English.


Low dishonest dealings

The strange, unsettled decades between the wars form the backdrop of much of D. J. Taylor’s recent work, including his novel, Ask Alice, and his social history, Bright Young Things. At the Chime of a City Clock is set in 1931, with a financial crisis rumbling in the background.


To strive, to seek, to find . . .

In 1931, a 23-year-old Englishman called Henry ‘Gino’ Watkins returned from an expedition to the white depths of the Greenlandic ice cap.


Dogged by misfortune

Unusually for a work of fiction, Tim Pears’ new novel opens with a spread of black-and-white photographs, part of an ‘investigator’s report’ into a fatal collision said to have taken place on a Birmingham dual carriageway in the summer of 1996.


The stuff of legend

This book could have been a classic.


The greatest rogue in Europe

On 11 November 1743, the most sensational trial of the 18th century opened in the Four Courts in Dublin.


Throw it in a stream

I know a British couple with a Chinese daugh- ter, pretty and fluent in English.


Unhelpful issues

It would not have been so easy to describe what Joanna Trollope’s early novels were ‘about’ in a few words, but recently she has been writing what the Americans call ‘issue books’, and they can be more readily encapsulated.


The Knights of Glin

In this splendid, monumental slab of a book, Desmond Fitzgerald, the 29th Knight of Glin, has made the chronicle of his family epitomise the whole turbulent history of Ireland since the arrival of the Normans.

The last man to know everything

Joscelyn Godwin, the author of this vast and beautiful book, admits at the outset that while Athanasius Kircher was held in awe during his lifetime in the 17th century as ‘some rugged headland jutting out to sea’, when he died this had been eroded to the point of collapse: ‘the seas wash over it as if it had never been.’ Kircher’s triumph and tragedy was that his work was the final complete expression of magic, arcana and dogma, and when he died the world was moving into the Age of Reason.

Skeletons in the cupboard

Freudian analysis, Soviet communism and the garment industry: what do all of these things have in common? If your answer has something to do with central and east European Jews born at the end of the 19th century, you wouldn’t be far off.

His island story

‘If you don’t come to terms with the ghost of your father, it will never let you be your own man.’ Here Christopher Ondaatje (brother of novelist Michael) combines his voyage of filial discovery with another quest: to pursue his obsession with a story he heard at his father’s knee, of a man-eating leopard.