Lucy Popescu

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Film Review – Death of a Gentleman

Posted by lucypopescu on August 24, 2015


Death of a GentlemanIn 2011, two journalists, Brit Sam Collins and Aussie Jarrod Kimber, united by a love of cricket, set out to make a film about the future of Test cricket. Death of a Gentleman, directed by Collins, Kimber and Johnny Blank is a record of their journey.

Largely due to its popularity in the Indian sub-continent, cricket is now the second most popular sport in the world. Death of a Gentleman opens with references to the Gentleman’s game and the spirit of cricket. The purest form of the game, two innings Test cricket is a legacy of imperialism and is scheduled to last five days. Collins and Kimber believe Test cricket is threatened by the rise in popularity of three-hour Twenty 20 cricket.

Death of a Gentleman begins by following the fortunes of Ed Cowan, an Australian batsman, who made his debut at the Melbourne cricket ground in the first test of Australia’s home series against India in 2011. The Boxing Day Test drew upwards of 70,000 spectators indicating that the game was in good health in Australia at least.

Collins and Kimber then switch focus to the governance of the game, in particular the role of India and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). On the back of their surprise triumph in the inaugural World Twenty 20 in 2007, the BCCI set up the Indian Premier League (IPL), described as combining Bollywood and cricket. The best players in the world were signed up for huge fees and the money generated was staggering. Chief among the beneficiaries were the BCCI and the IPL franchise owners.

Death of a Gentleman reveals how the BCCI financially dominates the International Cricket Council (ICC), the governing body of world cricket now located in Dubai. Although the ten eligible Test nations initially shared ICC’s revenue equally, the BCCI wanted more. The ICC’s revenues are now worth over one billion US dollars in TV rights for upcoming world competitions. The main share of this comes from the sale of TV rights in India.

The Woolf report, written by an eminent British judge and commissioned by the ICC under its then chief executive, South African Haroon Lorgat, attempted to make the ICC more transparent and accountable but was opposed by the BBCI who joined forces with its English and Australian counterparts. Collins and Kimber secured interviews with Giles Clarke, pompous chairman of the English Cricket Board, Lalit Modi, the former IPL commissioner pushed out by the BCCI and N. Srinivasan, the evasive president of the BCCI. His company, Indian Cements, own Chennai Super Kings, one of the dominant IPL franchises. In 2014, the filmmakers travelled to Dubai where a new financial arrangement, giving India over a third of ICC revenues, was agreed and Srinivasan was elected as ICC Chair and head of its anti-corruption unit.

This would have been a good place for Death of a Gentleman to end, but it continues for a further twenty minutes focusing on the 2013 Ashes series and the end of Cowan’s career. The closing credits feature an appeal to ‘change cricket’. It’s a complex account, dominated by talking heads, and Collins and Kimber cover too many strands making it difficult to unpick. Death of a Gentleman is for diehard cricket fans only.

Originally published by



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Theatre review – Carmen

Posted by lucypopescu on August 22, 2015

CarmenOperaUpClose is renowned for its bold staging of opera in intimate spaces, paring down the cast and reworking the music for a trio or quartet. Their imaginative adaptation of Georges Bizet’s Carmen at Soho Theatre features some of the best singing I’ve heard from the troupe.

Don José (Anthony Flaum), a young soldier, falls for Carmen (Flora McIntosh), a popular and relentless flirt. José rejects his loyal childhood friend Micaela (Louisa Tee), and then loses his job after attacking his captain (Julian Debreuil). While José is away visiting his sick mother, Carmen moves on to her next conquest, the macho toreador Escamillo (Richard Immergluck). On his return, José kills Carmen in a fit of jealous rage.

Robin Norton-Hale’s production resets Carmen in a South American tobacco factory and composer Harry Blake has skilfully orchestrated Bizet’s melodies for a quartet of strings, woodwind and piano.

While the musical standards are superb, the costumes are cumbersome. McIntosh plays Carmen’s final scenes in black leggings, which diminishes her erotic appeal. Furthermore, there is nothing to indicate Carmen’s carefree, Gypsy background.

However, Norton-Hale’s focus on domestic abuse is a powerful one, underlining that Carmen is an opinionated, sexually confident woman who becomes the victim of José’s controlling nature.

Mcintosh’s Carmen is memorable and her voice is sublime. Flaum conveys just the right measure of naivety, shyness and a thuggish desire to dominate his beloved. The final act between Carmen and José is truly electrifying.

Soho Theatre until September 19,
Box office: 020 7478 0100

Originally published by Camden Review

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Summer reading – literary fiction in translation

Posted by lucypopescu on August 7, 2015


If you love literary fiction in translation, travelling to different times and other worlds, three must reads for late summer include One Night, Markovitch by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck and The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud. All three embrace big themes – existentialism, identity, love, loss and grief – cover huge swathes of 20th century history and interweave the personal and political to great effect.
the end of daysIn Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (deftly translated by Susan Bernofsky) we follow the fortunes of a Jewish family, in particular one woman who manages to keep escaping death. We travel with Erpenbeck’s character from her birth in a small Galician town in the early 1900s, through Vienna and Moscow to East Berlin and finally a reunified Germany. As a baby she is rescued from a cot death by a handful of snow; as a young woman she is saved from suicide by taking a different route home; later she is spared Stalin’s gulags by a propitious act of fate. She survives various horrors of the last century and becomes a successful writer. Her numerous possible deaths reflect the transitory nature of life and the fragility of the human condition. At the end of the novel, her weeping son wonders ‘whether these strange sounds and spasms are really all that humankind has been given to mourn with.’ This slim novel, winner of this year’s Independent’s Foreign Fiction Prize, packs a mighty punch and richly deserves its numerous accolades.

TheMeursaultInvestigationAnother prizewinner, Kamel Daoud’s debut The Meursault Investigation (in a limber translation by John Cullen) re-examines Albert Camus’s The Outsider from an Arab perspective. Harun resides in Oran and drinks every night in his local bar. He regales a literature student with his version of Meursault’s murder of a nameless Arab on a hot summer’s day in Algiers in 1942. The victim was Harun’s older brother, who he names Musa.  Harun describes the impact Musa’s death had on his family and just as Meursault struggles with feelings of indifference after his random act of violence, Harun confronts his own lack of faith: ‘As far as I am concerned, religion is public transportation I never use.’ During his trial, Meursault is effectively condemned for not mourning his mother’s death. By contrast, Harun’s murder of a Frenchman, twenty years later, is deplored by the Algerian authorities because it happens after Independence and had not been a deliberate act of resistance. Daoud has created his own memorable fiction in which he brilliantly exposes the rise of Islamism in Algeria and his nation’s failures post-independence. At the end of the novel Harun describes an overwhelming desire to climb up his local ‘prayer tower’ in order ‘to cry out that I’m free, and that God is a question, not an answer and that I wanted to meet him alone, at my death as at my birth.’ Chillingly, Daoud’s indictment of religious authoritarianism has led one cleric to call for his death.

One Night MarkovitchAyelet Gundar-Goshen’s accomplished debut, One Night, Markovitch, opens in the British mandate of Palestine on the eve of the Second World War, and spans many years in the lives of two friends Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg. They could not be more dissimilar. Zeev is a fearless fighter and womaniser whose mustache ‘was famous in the entire area and, some said in the entire country’. Yaacov is immediately forgettable – the sort of man who is ‘gloriously average’, his face ‘remarkably free of distinguishing features.’ They forge an unlikely alliance after Yaacov saves Zeev’s life. The pair join a group of men en route to Europe to rescue Jewish women. They marry them so that they will be allowed into Palestine, on the understanding that once there they will divorce. But Yaacov’s partner is Bella, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and he refuses to give her up on their return. Their loveless marriage, Yaacov’s obsession, Bella’s cold distain, is in sharp contrast to the devotion and passion enjoyed by Zeev and his one love, Sonya, a lioness of a women who smells of oranges. Yaacov and Zeev’s friendship endures through war and peacetime. They bring up children, suffer pain and loss, and grow old together. Expertly translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston this is an unforgettable tale of love, hope, desire and friendship.

Originally published in

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Film Review – Clouds of Sils Maria

Posted by lucypopescu on August 7, 2015



clouds of sils mariaYouth, beauty and mortality are potent themes in Olivier Assayas’s latest feature Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), starring Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. Binoche plays Maria Enders, a middle-aged actress who remains at the top of her game but is assailed by doubts about her career and which direction to take. The film opens on a train. Valentine (Stewart), Maria’s assistant, is taking numerous calls on behalf of her boss. These include calls about Maria’s impending divorce as well as offers of new projects in both film and theatre. It’s soon obvious that Val fulfils a number of roles for Maria including secretary, protector and confidante. They are on the way to a prize giving in Zurich for Wilhelm Melchior, the director who helped make Maria’s name. En route, they learn that Wilhelm has died. Maria’s acceptance speech on behalf of Wilhelm becomes a tribute.

Once in Zurich, still mourning the loss of her friend and mentor, Maria finds herself accepting a part in a revival of Wilhelm’s play Majola Snake. Previously she had played an ingénue, Sigrid, the part that launched her career. The problem is the role now on offer is that of the older, sadder character, Helena, a lesbian in love with her tear away protégé. Maria has considerable problems coming to terms with this shift in focus (from beloved to lover). Much of Assayas’s film hinges on her reluctance to play an older character, to relinquish the part of Sigrid, and the power she holds over Helena, to a younger American actress, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz).

Jo-Ann is young, impulsive and used to being the centre of attention in the celebrity media circus. She is also undeniably talented and has her fans, Val among them, who respect her integrity and intensity as an actress, even if her most major role to date has been in sci-fi, a genre Maria looks down on. At first, Maria is scornful of Jo-Ann’s lack of depth and choice of roles. However, following their first meeting, where Jo-Ann remorselessly flatters her, Maria decides to reserve her judgment until rehearsals are underway. Val, meanwhile, is re-examining her relationship with her boss and finds herself rapidly tiring of Maria’s outspokenness and her own opinions being brushed aside.

When they move into Wilhelm’s home in Sils Maria, a remote part of the Alps, so that Maria can learn her lines, the various tensions between them reach crisis point. It is the intensity of their relationship that comes closest to life imitating art. Assayas further underlines this meta-textuality by casting world-renowned Binoche, still gorgeous but lacking the bloom and carefreeness of youth, and two younger stars, Stewart and Moretz , who are yet to establish themselves as serious actresses. Clouds of Sils Maria goes some way towards reflecting and addressing this imbalance.

Originally published by


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Book Review – Haifa Fragments

Posted by lucypopescu on July 26, 2015

Mais, a jewellery designer, discovers further conflict when she begins to work for Amalia, a Jewish boutique owner, and becomes increasingly convinced she is betraying her heritage by working with Amalia. She also has to navigate tensions with her father, Majid, who resents her relationship with Ziyad. Then she discovers letters and poems written by Majid that reveal fragments of his past, a passion for writing, political engagement and Asmahan, his first love.

Khamis skilfully evokes a vivid sense of time and place, in particular the Wadi Nisnas souk in which Mais lives. She describes the laundry on the balkons, the regular market traders, how in the morning the “strong bitter smell of kahwa with cardamom would soon permeate the souk, penetrating the thin, uneven cracks between the stones”, while “the night air smells of rotten vegetables mingling with the odour of fish.”

However, the fragmentary nature of the narrative is also its weakness – Khamis offers various perspectives but her male protagonists are sketchily drawn. The introduction of bisexuality, implied in the relationship between Mais and Shahd and later a third character, Christina, a blonde backpacker who makes a move on Mais, is never fully explored and consequently feels superfluous. I longed for Khamis to delve more deeply into Mais’s complexities.

Haifa Fragments is written in English and Khamis repeatedly uses Arabic or Hebrew words when they are unnecessary. A glossary is provided at the back and while it makes perfect sense to include words such as sumud (steadfastness or resilience; the non-violent resistance of Palestinians who remain on their land) and finjan (a small Arabic coffee cup) it is distracting for the reader to have to look up kahwa (coffee) daktora (doctor) and shai with na’ana (mint tea).

Despite their fragmented lives, Khamis’s Palestinian characters find themselves ‘united by tradition, history, language, heritage. Divided by occupation.’ Piecing together and understanding her family history, Mais realises ‘she belonged here, in Haifa.’ Khamis offers no easy answers but her focus on the shared humanity of Christians, Jews and Muslims in the region, is compelling.

A shortened version was published in the Independent on Sunday

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Theatre Review – Positive

Posted by lucypopescu on July 26, 2015

PositivePark 90
Box office 020 7870 6876

THIS is the third incarnation of Shaun Kitchener’s engaging comedy, which played Edinburgh in 2013 and London’s Waterloo East Theatre in 2014. Kitchener conceived Positive in order to confront the prejudices and misinformation surrounding people living with HIV in the UK today.

Since being diagnosed as HIV positive, 26-year-old Benji (Timothy George) has avoided starting a relationship. After a drinking spree, Benji ends up with Olly (Ryan J Brown), a brash student who rejects him upon discovering that he is positive. Benji’s flat mate Nikki (Nathalie Barclay) persuades him to go on a blind date with Matt (Kitchener). The play’s finest moments come during a delightful central scene where the pair flirt and spar over dinner.

Running parallel to Benji’s story is that of Nikki, who caught HIV while working in Uganda. She’s desperate to return to Africa with her supportive boyfriend Greg (Paul Heelis) but is anxious that her health is not yet stable.

Kitchener’s deft dialogue and Harry Burton’s well-paced direction ensures that Positive remains upbeat.

It is refreshing to see a relatively large cast playing on the London fringe, although the acting is a little uneven. The star turn comes from Kitchener himself, who gives a beautifully understated performance and generates most of the laughs.

Originally published by Camden Review


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Book Review – Tiny Pieces of Skull

Posted by lucypopescu on July 26, 2015

tiny pieces  of skullRoz Kaveney had to wait over twenty-five years for her debut novel to be published. One editorial director at the time rejected Kaveney’s manuscript, describing it as ‘cold, heartless and amoral.’ In more recent years mainstream films such as Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Transamerica (2005), the media focus on transgender celebrities such as Kellie Maloney and Caitlyn Jenner, as well as the critical success of trans writers such as Jan Morris and Kaveney herself, have helped to increase the visibility and acceptance of trans people. Loosely based on Kaveney’s experiences of living with trans sex workers in Chicago in the late 1970s, Tiny Pieces of Skull deserves to be recognised as a seminal fictional work on transgender identity and transphobia.

Kaveney’s central character, the literary journalist Annabelle Jones, meets Natasha, an American trans socialite in London.  Natasha beguiles Annabelle with stories of her life in Chicago including one about Mexica, a trans who has gained mythic status among Natasha’s American ‘sisters’ for having undergone an operation to change the shape of her skull.

The effect of body image on ego and desire is a recurrent theme – after a breast operation, courtesy of a Harley Street surgeon, Annabelle’s confidence is boosted and she decides to join her cooler, slimmer ‘sister’ in Chicago. Travelling by train, Annabelle blithely trusts her friend will be there to meet her at the station.  However, Natasha’s latest beau, Carlos has moved in and she tells Annabelle that she is no longer welcome: ‘there are lots of good cheap hotels in this city where they don’t mind, you know. And the privacy will be good for your self-discipline – you won’t have your feminist friends telling you it doesn’t matter about being fat.’

Annabelle rents a room in the shady Chesterfield Hotel, where she is befriended by fellow trans Alexandra, notorious for her dance act with a pet python. Socially excluded and regularly hounded by the police, the sisters’ ability to earn a buck is severely limited. Inevitably they turn to prostitution with both hilarious and chilling consequences.  When Natasha eventually falls out with the unscrupulous Carlos, Annabelle is invited to move in with her fair-weather friend.

Kaveney’s characters constantly strive for bodily perfection. Fortunately, Annabelle’s literary background gives her some perspective. Learning the S & M trade and developing an occasional taste for cocaine, she prefers to remain ‘sinisterly uninvolved’ during Natasha’s ‘hog-tying’ sessions. Instead, Annabelle reads Proust, ‘marking her place in the book with a piece of discarded thong’, and concedes that too much coke ‘causes odd glitches in her understanding of, and tolerance for, his longer sentences.’

Endlessly talked about by her fellow sisters, Mexica only makes an appearance at the end of Tiny Pieces of Skull, where we learn that the silicone injected into her backside and hips has drifted down her legs and she can no longer walk unaided. Kaveney’s conversational tone and her vivid descriptions give us the sense that we are eavesdropping on her characters and their colourful, sometimes tragic, lives.

Originally published by the TLS


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Book Review – México20

Posted by lucypopescu on July 4, 2015

Mexico20Despite  Mexico  being  the  market  focus at  this  year’s  London  Book  Fair, the  response  of  British  publishers  has  been relatively muted – novels by Yuri Herrera and Valeria  Luiselli,  published  by  And  Other Stories and Granta respectively, were notable exceptions.  So  Pushkin Press’s  excellent anthology, México20, is particularly welcome. Published in collaboration with Hay Festival, the British Council and the Mexican National Council for Culture and Arts (CONACULTA), the anthology celebrates the work of twenty Mexican  writers  under  the  age  of  forty  and includes twenty original translations.

Violence in its various forms is a recurrent theme in the collection. Eduardo Ruiz Sosa’s short  story,  “Madame  Jazmine,  or  News of the Decapitation” (translated by Margaret Jull  Costa),  featuring  a  bar  full  of  dolls’ heads,  probes  the  gang  violence  that  has become endemic in Mexico. In a memorable passage recalling Octavio Paz’s meditations on  death,  one  of  Ruiz  Sosa’s  characters describes how, to generate fear, decapitation is favoured over “disappearance”:  absence is no longer enough . . . the gnawing anxiety of doubt is no longer a useful wound because it leads to anger, and anger is a vital engine, a driving force: and what violence seeks now  is  stasis  through  image,  paralysis  of  the will by offering consequence rather than uncertainty, a  definitive  ending  rather  than  the possibility of some future return.

In  “History”  (translated  by  Lucy  Greaves), Antonio Ortuno explores Mexico’s repeated cycles of invasion, conquest and violation as a series of numbered references. Perhaps the most chilling imagery is in Emiliano Monge’s description  of  an  old  man  forced  to  hack up and burn corpses in a rag­ and ­bone yard (translated by Frank Wynne). Dislocation  and alienation  also  predominate, but the flavour is generally more surreal than magic ­realist, as in Carlos Velázquez’s “The Black Piglet of Love Stories” (translated by Nick  Caistor),  a  bizarre  exploration  of writing and creativity, Nicolas Cabral’s “The Birdcage” (translated by Ollie Brock), about a naked man held in a birdcage, and Veronica Gerber Bicecci’s meditation on love, loss and absence relayed through words and drawings (translated by Lorenza Garcia).  It  is  not  all  murder  and  violence.  There is  humour  in  Antonio  Ramos  Revillas’s “Singing for the Dead” (translated by Amanda Hopkinson)  about  a  boy’s  aversion  to  his father’s career as a Mariachi singer, as well as in Eduardo  Montagner’s  depiction of one man’s obsessive desire to wear his beloved’s work attire (translated by Juana Adcock).

Originally published by the TLS

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Film Review – That Sugar Film

Posted by lucypopescu on July 4, 2015

That Sugar FilmDamon Gameau’s documentary feature film about the detrimental effects of refined sugar and excess fructose on our health is both educative and entertaining. The central message of That Sugar Film (2015) is that the calories from sugar behave differently from other foods. Recalling Morgan Spurlock’s McDonald’s overdose in Super-Size Me (2004), Gameau set himself the task of eating the equivalent of 40 teaspoons of sugar a day for sixty days and filmed the experiment. However, he did not eat junk food and confectionary or drink fizzy drinks, but consumed only those foods and juices perceived as healthy. Gameau’s body was a clean slate as he had not eaten refined sugar for three years. As he amply demonstrates many low fat yoghurts, muesli bars, cereals and fruit smoothies are laden with sugar. Even juicing fresh fruit creates excess fructose that can be damaging to our teeth and waistlines.

By the end of the experiment Gameau had developed fatty liver disease and dramatically increased his risk of Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease as well as adding 11cm to his girth. Along the way Gameau consulted various specialists, who measured his waistline and mood swings. He also travelled across America to talk to some leading experts and food scientists.  In one chilling interview, a scientist claimed that sugar wasn’t a problem and then it emerged he worked for Coca Cola. In Kentucky, Gameau met children suffering from ‘Mountain Dew Mouth’ (caused by overindulging in Pepsi’s Mountain Dew). One teenager had to have all his teeth removed. In Amata, Australia, an Aboriginal community believes sugar is killing them through obesity – in a town of 350 people, 40,000 litres of soft drinks are consumed every year.

Gameau, originally an actor (Underbelly, The Tracker, Balibo), is an entertaining and likeable presenter. Realising the need to win over the next generation, he’s squarely aimed That Sugar Film at both adults and children. Gameau and his DP, Judd Overton, employ bright palettes, invigorating music clips and clever animation techniques, which include Gameau climbing up a rope through his nose into his brain to explore the effects of sugar. Talking heads become part of the food packaging, with specialists framed by the label on a cereal box, for example. There are also some star turns from various Australian actors and Brit Stephen Fry. Although the science could have been a little more rigorous, and Gameau’s interactions with his wholesome, pregnant girlfriend are occasionally rather nauseating, That Sugar Film is to be applauded for boldly and effectively confronting the worrying rise in obesity in sugar-rich countries.

Originally published by 

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Book Review – The Reader on the 6.27

Posted by lucypopescu on June 23, 2015

The readerEvery day, Guylain Vignolles catches the 6.27am train to a job he detests. Guylain works at a book pulping factory, destroying what he loves the most. At the end of the day, he rescues pages of books from the murderous pulping machine that he refers to as “The Thing”. He dries them out and the following morning, on his daily commute, reads aloud from random sheets. He loathes his supercilious boss, “old Fatso”, and bigoted workmate Brunner. His one comrade is Yvon the factory’s security guard, who loves declaiming poetry and speaking in alexandrines.

Outside work, Guylain’s life revolves around feeding his goldfish, Rouget de Lisle, and visiting his solitary friend Giuseppe, formerly chief operator at the factory. Giuseppe lost both his legs in a horrific accident when “The Thing had devoured his lower limbs, right up to his mid-thighs”. An obsession with collecting copies of a particular book, Gardens and Kitchen Gardens of Bygone Days, made from the recycled paper pulped the day he lost his legs, offers Giuseppe some comfort. One morning, Guylain discovers a memory stick. He opens it to find “72 text files called only by their respective numbers”. From this unpromising start comes the diary of a young woman, Julie, who works as a lavatory attendant in a shopping mall. Every day, she counts the tiles in her miniature kingdom, describes the regulars and their habits, and dreams of finding Mr Right. Guylain finds himself unexpectedly smitten and begins to share pages of her diary with his fellow commuters. Meanwhile, Giuseppe decides to help locate Julie for his friend.

The Reader on the 6.27 is a delightful tale about the kinship of reading. Jean-Paul Didierlaurent explores the redemptive power of books, and plays with the notion that everyone can spar, find poetry in, tempt or seduce with words, whatever one’s station in life. For Giuseppe, books become the legs he lost. Guylain beguiles his fellow travellers and is then begged by members of the local old people’s home to read for them.

It’s also a love story. Much of the book’s charm resides in the simplicity of Didierlaurent’s prose and his vivid characterisation. Ros Schwartz’s translation perfectly conveys the warmth and eccentricities of his memorable cast. Already a bestseller in France, The Reader on the 6.27 looks set to woo British readers and become a book club favourite.

Originally published by The Independent on Sunday

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