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What to read now: Helen Oyeyemi, Balla and Fernanda Eberstadt

We review Helen Oyeyemi's maximalist look at the relationships of three friends, the most recent novel from cult Slovakian author Balla, and Fernanda Eberstadt's memoir of a wealthy childhood in 70s New York.

Parasol Against the Axe

Helen Oyeyemi

The fifth girl on Sex and the City, my sources tell me, is NYC itself. In her latest novel, the maverick UK novelist Helen Oyeyemi goes one step further – here Prague is not just a character but also the narrator, the scene-stealer, the centre of gravity. Ostensibly, this book is about three old friends coming together on a bachelorette weekend. But Oyeyemi is a maximalist, a Borgesian, a freak. With genuine depth, she probes her characters’ relationship dynamics.

Then she takes these themes – rejection and revenge, the weight of shared history, the thrill of imagining alternative lives – and transforms them into a wild postmodern puppet show, cheekily adapted from Prague’s rich history and folklore. (Thankfully Oyeyemi, who has lived there for over a decade, offers far more than tourist clichés.) If Prague appears ungovernable, then the same is true of Oyeyemi’s protagonists, none of whom can quite pin down the story of themselves or anyone else. This book is charming, irreverent and very nearly brilliant. – Alexander Wells

Among the Ruins


Juraj Felešlegi is the only psychiatrist in a small Slovakian city, the doctor everyone in town will have to see “sooner or later”. He daydreams while his patients talk and spends his Sundays Oedipally avoiding lunch with his psychiatrist mother. In between his appointments and hallucinatory wanderings, he receives letters from his former patient Mrs Vargová, filled with Communist nostalgia, racist diatribes and agoraphobic anxieties.

Felešlegi and Vargová are the two titular “ruins” of Among the Ruins, the most recent novel by the cult Slovakian author to be translated into English (by David Short, with charming explanatory footnotes). Neither protagonist quite fits the modern world: Vargová is haunted by years of domestic abuse; Felešlegi by his brother’s suicide. This might sound a bit dark, but the writing is so playful and absurdist that it never quite gets gloomy. Indeed, Vargová’s complaints about the post-communist order are often funny; that “freedom is unemployment and homosexuality” depresses her, but we Berliners already knew that. – Mathilde Montpetit

Bite Your Friends

Fernanda Eberstadt

Bite Your Friends is a sprawling pastiche of a book focused (loosely) on the power of wounded or rejected bodies. Partly a memoir of her wild and wealthy childhood in 1970s New York, it also contemplates outcast figures as varied as the 2nd century martyr St Perpetua, the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic and Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. (Russian punk art group Pussy Riot also make repeated appearances.)

The book opens with Eberstadt’s mother, a mid-century socialite and writer well-connected in the New York art scene, and quickly shifts to Eberstadt’s teenage friendship with the performance artist Stephen Varble, which is among the most arresting essays in the collection. The book’s strength and weakness is Eberstadt’s daring, sometimes dizzying, prose, which romps across centuries, registers and tenses – sometimes stumbling into over-wrought excess (“a Nobody into a Yesbody”?!). The gems, however, shine through. – Bryn Stole