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At the National Gallery

Clare Bucknell: Nicolaes Maes, 18 June 2020

... How​ would a child know that Jesus was a special kind of adult? In early modern depictions of Christ blessing little children, it’s conventional for even the smallest babies to be aware that there’s something different about this man, their faces turned trustfully towards his as they clutch apples or dolls or their parents’ hands. Nicolaes Maes’s version of the theme in Christ Blessing the Children (1652-53), one of the earliest pieces in the National Gallery’s retrospective (currently closed, but to be extended), displaces Jesus from his traditional spot at the centre of the composition to foreground the little girl he blesses ...


Clare Bucknell, 19 November 2020

... In​ 1660, a Commonwealth warship called HMS Naseby sailed to the Dutch Republic to bring the new king-in-waiting home to England. During its journey the ship was renamed the Royal Charles in honour of the Restoration, but her figurehead – a vast carving of Cromwell on horseback, wearing laurels and ‘trampling six nations under foot’, as John Evelyn put it – remained in place ...

At the National Gallery

Clare Bucknell: Artemisia, 4 March 2021

... Light​ falls on the side of a woman’s upturned face, travels over her right shoulder and forearm and then down to her thigh and knee. The limbs are dense and opaque, the solid curve of the upper arm mirroring the heavy bent leg with its bluish shadows of muscle. The flesh is massive but yielding: the woman’s left breast bulges and puckers like real tissue as she grasps it between the fingers of one hand ...


Clare Bucknell, 21 May 2020

... An​ Instagram post is a small square picture, roughly seven centimetres by seven on an average phone screen. If covered in text it has space for about 25 lines of poetry in a font size you can read without squinting. This is an Instagram poem by Rupi Kaur:if you are not enough for yourselfyou will never be enoughfor someone elseKaur is so famous that parodies of her verse trend on Twitter: ‘i understand/why guacamole is/extra/it is because/you/were never/enough – rupi kaur ...

Joint by Joint

Clare Bucknell: Gu Byeong-mo, 1 December 2022

The Old Woman with the Knife 
by Gu Byeong-mo, translated by Chi-Young Kim.
Canongate, 281 pp., £14.99, March 2022, 978 1 83885 643 4
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... If you were​ to make a film of Gu Byeong-mo’s The Old Woman with the Knife, you’d need a lot of extras. In the novel’s public spaces, no one does anything remotely out of the ordinary without bystanders gathering, staring or pretending not to stare. An old man tips over a rubbish cart in the middle of the road and is given a ‘pointed look’ by one onlooker, while another ‘chews gum loudly’, waiting for the pavement to be cleared; groups of pedestrians ‘frown as they stomp over flattened boxes ...

The Heart of a Prickle Bush

Clare Bucknell: What if she’s a witch?, 29 July 2021

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch 
by Rivka Galchen.
Fourth Estate, 275 pp., £14.99, July 2021, 978 0 00 754873 6
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... In​ Rivka Galchen’s new novel, a man who might be a pedlar tells a story of a land where people have everything they could possibly want to eat, ‘brandy, bread, dumplings, cream, honey, almonds, chicken, radishes’, but no salt. ‘When mealtime came,’ the maybe-pedlar explains, ‘the parents would abuse one another, or sometimes hit the children, until someone provided the tears ...

A Plucked Quince

Clare Bucknell: Maggie O’Farrell, 6 October 2022

The Marriage Portrait 
by Maggie O’Farrell.
Tinder, 438 pp., £25, August, 978 1 4722 2384 5
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... Bronzino’s portrait of Lucrezia, Duchess of Ferrara (c.1560), shows a teenage girl you can read in two ways. In one light, the jewels encircling her head and neck look weighty, unpleasant; her hair is coiffed in tight, tiny curls that seem to pull at her skin; the high ruff she wears must scratch and rub; she looks unsure, out of place, a small pale face swallowed up by a dark background, the shadow of a vein pulsing at her temple ...

Aitch or haitch

Clare Bucknell: Louise Kennedy’s ‘Trespasses’, 23 June 2022

by Louise Kennedy.
Bloomsbury, 311 pp., £14.99, April, 978 1 5266 2332 4
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... Every morning​ , between reciting the Hail Mary and beginning their lessons, the children at St Dallan’s Catholic primary school near Belfast do ‘The News’. News, in this community, might mean many things: that someone’s father, perennially out of work for ‘kicking with the wrong foot’, has managed to find a job; that the pop group Mud has gone to number one with ‘Oh Boy’; or, more likely, that there’s been a murder, a beating, a car bomb, a riot, a high-profile trial ...

Fusion Fiction

Clare Bucknell: ‘Girl, Woman, Other’, 24 October 2019

Girl, Woman, Other 
by Bernardine Evaristo.
Hamish Hamilton, 452 pp., £16.99, May 2019, 978 0 241 36490 1
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... It’s opening night​ at the National Theatre. The radical writer and director Amma Bonsu, snubbed for decades by the cultural establishment for her uncompromising work (FGM: The Musical; Cunning Stunts), is about to astonish audiences with a new play. The Last Amazon of Dahomey has sold out before the run begins; it features 18th-century lesbian West African warriors, ‘thunderous armies of charging Amazons brandishing muskets and machetes/hollering and swelling towards the audience ...

Bring me the good scrub

Clare Bucknell: ‘Birnam Wood’, 4 May 2023

Birnam Wood 
by Eleanor Catton.
Granta, 423 pp., £20, March, 978 1 78378 425 7
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... Eleanor Catton’s​ characters enjoy playing other people. Mira Bunting, the twenty-something founder of Birnam Wood, an activist gardening collective, maintains a ‘rotation’ of aliases for undercover purposes. To glean information about a property listing in the small town of Thorndike in New Zealand, she transforms – via a fake email account – into Mrs June Crowther, a plausible-sounding boomer, ‘68, retired, and profoundly deaf’, who hopes to invest her ‘modest nest egg’ in a low-maintenance holiday home ...

Tell me if it is too much

Clare Bucknell: ‘You People’, 30 July 2020

You People 
by Nikita Lalwani.
Viking, 231 pp., £12.99, April, 978 0 241 40953 4
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... At  Pizzeria  Vesuvio, somewhere in South London in 2003, the difference between being a chef and being a waitress isn’t just professional. Nia and Ava, who work front of house, are British and European, white or – in Nia’s case – white-looking; Shan, Guna and Rajan in the kitchen are Sri Lankan Tamils, refugees from the civil war working illegally while they wait for their asylum applications to be processed ...

Throw them a bone

Clare Bucknell: Megan Nolan, 21 September 2023

Ordinary Human Failings 
by Megan Nolan.
Cape, 218 pp., £16.99, July, 978 1 78733 250 8
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... Tom Hargreaves​ , the anti-hero of Megan Nolan’s second novel, is young, bland-faced and good at ingratiating himself in places he doesn’t belong. A journalist for the Daily Herald, he reflexively imagines tabloid headlines: ‘NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL’; ‘DISCO INFERNO!’; ‘Uncle of Kid Killer was Peeping Tom As a Teen – To His Own Stepmum!’ Tom is a complicated hack: at times he has to play-act the sophistication his colleagues seem to possess naturally, and some mornings he has blaring intrusive thoughts in editorial meetings ...

I am his leavings

Clare Bucknell: On Anne Enright, 7 March 2024

The Wren, The Wren 
by Anne Enright.
Cape, 288 pp., £18.99, August 2023, 978 1 78733 460 1
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... Nell,​ the narrator of Anne Enright’s The Wren, The Wren, can’t imagine real words coming out of her boyfriend’s mouth. ‘When I think about him talking, all he says is: Bloke, bloke bloke bloke. Blokey bloking bloke, bloke-bloke bloking.’ The boyfriend in question, Felim, a tall, taciturn farmer’s son, built like ‘a plastic model of what-goes-where’, turns out to have an interest in choking and taking non-consensual photographs of women ...

Wanting Legs & Arms & Eyes

Clare Bucknell: Surplus Sons, 5 March 2020

Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune: How Younger Sons Made Their Way in Jane Austen’s England 
by Rory Muir.
Yale, 384 pp., £25, August 2019, 978 0 300 24431 1
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... The​ professions open to younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry at the beginning of the 19th century could be counted on the fingers of one hand. In Sense and Sensibility Edward Ferrars, who has chosen to do nothing for a living and regrets it, reels off four possibilities:I always preferred the church, as I still do. But that was not smart enough for my family ...

On Every Side a Jabbering

Clare Bucknell: Thomas Hammond’s Travels, 5 April 2018

Memoirs on the Life and Travels of Thomas Hammond, 1748-75 
edited by George E. Boulukos.
Virginia, 303 pp., £47.95, June 2017, 978 0 8139 3967 4
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... cows, hawking bread in the streets, scaring birds, bookkeeping for the parish overseer. Like John Clare, who escaped to the woods to read ‘Sixpenny Romances’ as a child, he loved books and hid them from stern elders who equated reading with laziness. Unlike Clare, he got money for books from stealing and used to ...

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