Stretto by David Wheatley; The Stasi Poetry Circle by Philip Oltermann; The Herd by Emily Edwards

Reviews of a poet’s debut novel; a Red Poets Society; and a novel exploring children’s vaccination

Stretto by David Wheatley (CB Editions, £10)

A notable poet, David Wheatley has filled his first novel, Stretto, with music and light. It opens with the speaker contemplating a Harry Clarke stained glass Virgin Mary, whose body “gives way to . . . jewels”. Stretto itself is a kaleidoscope of Ciaran Carsonesque intellectual gems, fascinating in themselves but also reflecting on his whole project. Stretto divides into page-and-a-half “bars” rather than chapters: its many interlacing motifs include migrant experience such as Wheatley’s own in these islands, encountering their quirky histories. Time shifts, moving “now fast, now slowly, sometimes both at once” he observes regarding Bach’s stretto technique. Similar patterning replaces conventional narrative in the novel. Wheatley’s autism theme, though, proves vital to a text illuminated by “the flare of neurodivergence burning through my own thought processes”. A brilliant debut. Ian Duhig

The Stasi Poetry Circle by Philip Oltermann (Faber, £14.99)

Oltermann has caught a curious thread of the Cold War culture war in this tiny page-turner, with a dive into the “Working Group of Writing Chekists”, a creative writing class organised in East Germany by the Stasi (the GDR’s secret police). A Red Poets Society, if you will. He does a good job fitting pieces together for an engaging narrative, tracking down most of the group (I enjoyed the delicious irony of his using social media to form a person’s identity). It’s a diverting footnote in Cold War history; a book feels a stretch, though. I did hope for some unintentional, absurdist hilarity from such a subject. But typical totalitarian bastards, dry to the end. One Communist love poem is a treasure, however: “I hope you never be nationalised”. NJ McGarrigle


The Herd by Emily Edwards (Bantam Press, £14.99)

When the history of the pandemic we’re living through is written the truest moments will be revealed in the smallest of stories. Emily Edwards’s new novel is not set during the pandemic but it brings the questions the past few years have raised about individual choice, collective responsibility and social solidarity to the fore by placing them at the core of a small story. Elizabeth and Bryony are the best of friends, despite their differences. But their divergence on the issue of vaccinating their children results in consequences neither could have imagined. Edwards has, perhaps bravely, chosen to set her challenging and thought-provoking novel in the most intimate of domestic spaces – a relationship between two mothers who each see the world in a fundamentally different way. Luckily, for the reader the emotional depth of her writing withstands the intensity of the story she deftly tells. Becky Long