Frances Wilson

(Faber, £10.99)

It’s impossible to disentangle the life of William Wordsworth from that of his sister, Dorothy. Separated as children when their father died, William and Dorothy were reunited in their 20s and lived together until the latter’s death, even after William had got married; and later, through Dorothy’s struggles with mental illness and addiction to opium and laudanum. Frances Wilson’s illuminating biography concentrates mainly on 1800-03, when the siblings lived in the Lake District, Wilson closely studying Dorothy’s Grasmere Journals, in which she wrote obsessively about the landscape. Wilson gives Dorothy her due as a complex literary figure, highlighting her own writings as well as her influence on her brother’s poetry. So, while curious readers may initially be drawn in by the perennial speculation that William and Dorothy had an incestuous relationship, they will be left considering instead what kind of a poet she might have made in her own right.


Brenda Navarro

(Daunt, £8.99)

Set in Mexico City, Empty Houses concerns two women: the one who lost her child and the one who stole him. Neither is named. But the child, the autistic three-year-old Daniel, is. Central to Navarro’s story is that both women’s lives were miserable even before the kidnapping and have only got more wretched since. Daniel’s abductor lives with a petty criminal who beats her and is sleeping with his young sister-in-law. He doesn’t approve of the abduction and gives her no help in looking after him. The boy’s mother, meanwhile, crushed by the guilt of losing him in a playground, has to look after her husband’s niece because, chillingly, the girl’s father murdered her mother. Reading Empty Houses is a bleak and disturbing experience. But there’s compassion in Navarro’s telling of it. She cares for her characters and is deeply committed to them, which is the solitary ray of light the book can’t do without.


Jennifer Rosner

(Picador, £8.99)

Poland, 1941. A Jewish mother, Roza, and her five-year-old daughter, Shira, hide silently in a barn from German soldiers. With Roza’s husband dead, they rely on the kindness of a farmer for food and shelter. Shira is prodigiously musical, compulsively making up entire symphonies in her head. So, to keep her quiet, and couch the horrors taking place outside in a comforting metaphor, Roza tells Shira a story about a yellow bird in a garden occupied by dangerous giants, which can only sing if there are no giants nearby. Eventually, they slip out of this unbearably tense situation only for Roza to be faced with the choice of risking her daughter’s life by keeping Shira with her or giving her a chance of survival by letting her go. Highly impactful and deeply moving, it’s a novel in which even the weakest and most vulnerable are sustained by the power of music, stories and love in a time of terror and tyranny.