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The Guardian Review - March 31, 2018

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Saturday 31 March 2018 – Issue № 11
Pick of the bunch
50 fresh voices in
fiction, poetry,
politics and more
Saturday 31 March 2018 – Issue № 11
‘If you’re a novelist, you end
up stirring that pot where
other people just get on with
their lives.’
– Colm Tóibín, page 24
The week in books ...............................................................................04
The books that made me by Madeleine Thien ........................................05
COV E R ST ORY Branching out: 50 writers to read now .........................06
Book of the week: Rebel Prince by Tom Bower...........................................14
Non-fiction reviews
The Making of the Wind in the Willows by Peter Hunt ................................ 16
Yes to Europe! by Robert Saunders...........................................................17
Civilisations by David Olusoga...................................................................18
The Wood by John Lewis-Stempel..........................................................19
Thomas Paine by JCD Clark ....................................................................20
Who We Are and How We Got Here by David Reich ..................................21
I N T E RV I E W Colm Tóibín .....................................................................22
Fiction reviews
From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan ................................................26
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin ....................................................... 27
Mothers by Chris Power ........................................................................ 28
The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal................................................................29
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas.........................................................................29
Books of the month: children and teenagers ......................................... 30
Paperbacks ............................................................................................ 32
Charts .......................................................................................................33
A RT S E S SAY Taryn Simon goes into mourning by Sean O’Hagan.........34
Made in Walberswick by Will Self ........................................................... 37
Further reading by Nick Chater, plus Tom Gauld....................................38
COVER ILLUSTRATION Jennifer Tapias Derch
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 3
¶ Forewords
The week in books
31 March
these stories, and we
also need the gift that
novelists and poets give
– Margaret Atwood, Ian
McEwan, Rose Tremain –
the ability to imagine
the world from someone
else’s point of view. There
has never been a time
when we were in such
urgent need of empathy,
and literature is the gift
of empathy. That’s what
we are going to celebrate
in May.
Peter Florence
Hay, let’s talk
We love experts at the
Hay festival. There’s a
craving for the knowledge that derives from
the deep study of a topic.
In the antisocial babble
of noise, we need to hear
the wisest voices, not
the loudest. This year at
Hay, you will be able to
hear Daniel Davis explain
the immune system and
make the link to what
Sarah Nouwen says about
peacekeeping; listen to
Edith Hall talk about
Aristotle and hear the
resonances of Marcus du
Sautoy’s mathematical
beauty. You can hear
Rose McGowan call out
misogyny and connect
to, well, the whole
history of patriarchy
in every field.
We are facing alarming
insecurities and crises –
technological, political,
climatic. We need to hear
toxic relationships and
sexual violence, according to the judges. These
include Carmen Maria
Machado’s Her Body &
Other Parties, Gwendoline Riley’s First Love
and Sally Rooney’s
Conversations with
Friends, which involves
“a complex ménage-àquatre”, and is also
shortlisted for the
Rathbones Folio prize.
Could Rooney achieve a
#MeTwo prize double?
Katy Guest
Band books
The value of a signed first edition of Harry
Potter and the Goblet of Fire that
was stolen from Hatchards in Piccadilly
An Italian bookseller was convicted of theft this week
The recent reissue of a
1980s electronic album
co-written by Ursula K
Le Guin has delighted
fans of her writing, and
now her music. But the
move from author to
musician is not unusual.
Few people know that
Angela Carter sang and
played concertina as
part of the English folk
revival. Nick Hornby
has collaborated with
the band Marah and the
singer Ben Folds; Amy
Tan, Barbara Kingsolver
and Stephen King are
among members of Rock
Bottom Remainders;
and Val McDermid’s biog
on the website of her
band, Fun Lovin’ Crime
Writers, states that she
“dreamed of being Joni
Mitchell or Leonard
Cohen but … settled for
writing books”. While
Bob Dylan won the 2016
Nobel prize in literature,
no famous novelist has
yet won a Grammy.
Though, given the
Crime Writers’ passion,
maybe it’s only a matter
of time. KG
4 The Guardian Saturday 31 March 2018
Ménage à deux?
The #MeToo movement
is making its mark on
the year’s literary prizes.
The Dylan Thomas prize
is for writers under the
age of 39 who use fiction
to explore society, so it
was almost inevitable
that 2018’s books would
carry a whiff of sexual
politics. Five of the six
shortlisted writers tackle
themes of sexuality,
By Steven Poole
Fitness crazes, like
much else, are born
of lexical innovation:
“spinning” for riding
stationary bicycles,
or HIIT (high-intensity
interval training) for
running fast then slow.
The latest happy innovation, from Scandinavia
by way of France and
Thailand, is “plogging”:
jogging while picking
up litter.
Oxford Dictionaries
explains plogging’s
Swedish derivation,
from “either plocka upp
(pick up) or plocka skräp
(pick up litter) and jogga
(jog)”. Jogging used to
mean walking or riding
a horse at a slow, jerky
pace, until in the 1960s
it was repurposed for
healthy exercise, but
these days it already
sounds rather oldfashioned. As part of
the general rhetorical
professionalisation of
leisure activity, people
have for years been
going “running”, like
Olympians, instead
of merely jogging.
Still, plogging, with
its environmentally
conscious public spirit,
should be welcomed by
governments hoping to
save money on official
street sweepers. In
future, teams of citizen
volunteers could surely
help in other areas by
cogging (caring for old
people while jogging) or
brogging (planning for
Brexit while jogging).
We have nothing to
lose but our aversion
to portmanteau words.
The books that made me ¶
‘I can read a book over years,
and not feel I have to finish it’
Madeleine Thien
The book I am currently reading
Fathers and Sons. Turgenev’s novel of generational
politics, violence and the desire for change was
published more than 150 years ago, but feels
inescapably of our time.
The book that changed my life
Red Dust, Ma Jian’s long walk across China to try to
know, forgive and yet confront this world.
The book I wish I’d written
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Philosophy, history,
story, aesthetics and language; beauty and warning.
The book that influenced my work
The works of Hannah Arendt and the poetry of
Bei Dao.
The book I think is most underrrated
Cees Nooteboom’s All Souls’ Day. Like Doris Lessing
and Alice Munro, he writes with passionate coldness
and desperate passion. The incompatibility can be
shattering, and it remakes you.
The book that changed my mind
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, feminism in all
its complexity. She shows so many things, including
that the novel as an art form – capable of astonishing
dialogic power, unafraid of conflicting ways of
thinking – is an art form we will always need.
The last book that made me cry
Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, which I read at
the bedside of my beloved father as he was dying.
There’s an image – a single, vast boulder “shaped
roughly like a throne or seat”, carried over centuries
to the hidden recesses of a cave and finally lifted by
storm waves above the water – that reminded me of
the dignity and loneliness, the beautiful light and
devastating sorrow, of my father’s life. He passed
away in December.
The book I give as a gift
Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah
Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975.
The book I couldn’t finish
I can read a book over years, without feeling
a pressure to finish. I like living with books for
a long time.
The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
The Classic of Mountains and Seas. A fourth-century
BCE Chinese text, a record of geography, hydrology,
animal life, plants, minerals and culture, and a book
of history, observation, mythology, fables and science.
The last book that made me laugh
Michael Wolff ’s Fire and Fury, though it was the
absurd laughter of the heartbroken.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
is published by Granta.
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 5
Cover story ¶
Which debut novel should you pick up
this spring? Who are the international
writers to seek out, and the digital
thinkers to make sense of our rapidly
changing information age? As a new
season begins, here is our guide to
the freshest voices in fiction, poetry,
science, politics and more
Branching out
ILLUSTRATION Jennifer Tapias Derch
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 7
¶ Cover story
Branching out
Sally Rooney (above)
The Irish writer was just 26 when her debut Conversations With Friends took the publishing world by storm
last year. It’s a barbed, witty page-turner about being
young and fragile in the new Ireland, set in a perilously
privileged milieu of performance poetry and small
magazines. Narrator Frances is out of her depth,
negotiating love, sex, friendship and ambition while
trying to maintain a brittle sense of self. Rooney has a
ruthlessly beady eye and an effortless comic style. Her
second novel, a love story across the class divide called
Normal People, will be published in September.
Eley Williams
Small presses are making a big noise at the moment,
and that’s down to such brilliant books as Attrib. and
Other Stories, which took the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses this month. Williams had
been publishing her playful stories in magazines for
years, and it’s no surprise to learn that her PhD was on
dictionaries: her stories focus on words and meanings,
riddling away at the gaps between thought and speech,
sound and silence, lovers and strangers. They are
tender, affectionate and utterly irresistible.
Guy Gunaratne
Gunaratne worked as a video journalist reporting on
post-conflict zones before writing his blazing polyphonic debut In Our Mad and Furious City, out next
month. Set over 48 hours in a north London estate,
8 The Guardian Saturday 31 March 2018
where the killing of a “soldier-boy” by a “homegrown
bredda” and the torching of a mosque spark a riot, it
reveals London as a conflict zone for its five narrators.
These include a would-be grime artist and a teenager
resisting Islamic radicalisation, as well as older
immigrants from Belfast and the West Indies.
David Chariandy
The Canadian writer’s masterly second novel, Brother,
was published in the UK this month. It interrogates
family, community and masculinity as it tells the story
of Michael and Francis, the sons of a Trinidadian single
mother, coming of age in the 1980s in a poor immigrant
neighbourhood. “We were the children of the help,
without futures.” In understated, classically beautiful
prose it moves towards disaster with the terrible
inevitability of a Greek tragedy.
Jessie Greengrass
Greengrass published her unusual and wide-ranging
short story collection An Account of the Decline of the
Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It last year; this
February she followed it with her first novel Sight,
now longlisted for the Women’s prize for fiction.
Her narrator is agonising over whether to commit to
parenthood, looking back on the trauma of her own
mother’s death and remembering childhood holidays
with her analyst grandmother. There are echoes of
WG Sebald and Rachel Cusk in this thoughtful,
digressive style that swirls together the historical and
the personal, but Greengrass’s questing intellect and
elegant prose are all her own.
Cover story ¶
Politics and ideas
Mark O’Connell
O’Connell’s captivating book about transhumanism
and “solving the problem of death”, To Be a Machine,
which saw him navigate some of the stranger
byways of Silicon Valley, was shortlisted for the
Baillie Gifford prize, the Royal Society science book
prize and recently the Wellcome prize. Having taken
on immortality, the Dublin-based writer is set to
tackle the end of the world, in what promises to be
a companionable and quick-witted exploration of
apocalyptic anxieties.
William Davies
One of the most interesting commentators on
political ideas, Davies teaches political economy
and sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London,
and is the author of two books, The Happiness
Industry and The Limits of Neoliberalism. He
is as lively discussing Brexit and the culture of
the Home Office as he is the current crisis in
capitalism. His next study, due later this year,
will be Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over
the World.
Suzy Hansen
The author of the elegant and persuasive Notes on
a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a PostAmerican World, Hansen is based in Istanbul,
where she moved from the US following 9/11.
Hisham Matar hailed her debut as “remarkably
revealing … a deeply honest and brave portrait
of an individual sensibility reckoning with her
country’s violent role in the world”.
Reni Eddo-Lodge
Eddo-Lodge’s debut book Why I’m No Longer
Talking to White People About Race, published last
year, has recently won
the Jhalak prize – it was
praised by the judges as
a “clarion call for action”,
which “not only holds
up a mirror to contemporary Britain but also
serves as a warning”.
Marlon James called
it “essential”.
James Bridle
Bridle is an increasingly
talked-about artist and
writer who considers
the relationship between
technology, culture and consciousness. Among
the subjects of his art are drones and self-driving
cars. His ambitious debut book, New Dark Age,
which argues that the digital era is radically
shifting the boundaries of human experience,
is out in July.
‘Holds up a mirror
to contemporary
Britain’ …
Reni Eddo-Lodge
Kayo Chingonyi (above)
Kumukanda, Zambian-born Chingonyi’s much feted
debut, presented a fresh take on contemporary urban
life shot through with an appreciation of traditional
modes of living and storytelling. He reflects on identity
and race, culture and masculinity with a lyrical elegance that conveys anger as well as a tender melancholy.
Ocean Vuong
Night Sky With Exit Wounds picked up a rare double
when it was awarded the TS Eliot prize and the Forward best first collection award. Vietnamese-American
Vuong’s work nods to both New York-school poets
such as Frank O’Hara – close observations of street
life, frankness about sex – and the historical mythmaking of Homer. The Eliot judges hailed “the
definitive arrival of a significant voice”.
Richard Osmond
Osmond’s job as a wild-food forager makes it unsurprising that his debut collection, Useful Verses, should
be such a treasure trove of information. But what gives
his poems energy is not just that they exhibit a deft
authority on plants and poisons, remedies and roadkill, but that they are equally attuned to human and
digital environments. The result is a work that reveals
much about the world, both ancient and modern.
Tara Bergin
This Irish poet’s 2015 collection, This Is Yarrow, is
a wryly unpredictable set of poems that challenges
our familiarity with the world around us. Last year’s
equally intense and funny The Tragic Death of
Eleanor Marx explores the life and eventual suicide
of Karl Marx’s daughter, the first translator of Madame Bovary. A rare originality of voice and vision.
Hannah Sullivan
The long poems that make up Sullivan’s debut, Three
Poems, are wise and witty, and spaciously unfold an
account of a young woman’s love, disappointment
and resilience in New York City, with Heraclitean
philosophical musings and autobiographical
reflections on birth and bereavement.
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 9
¶ Cover story
Branching out
Memoir and biography
Paul Ferris
Football memoirs rarely produce great literature but
Ferris’s The Boy on the Shed is a glistering exception,
which sets a short career with Newcastle United
against the background of a Catholic childhood in a
Protestant stronghold of Northern Ireland. He’s witty,
emotional and painfully self-revealing. If, as Alan
Shearer intimates in the foreword, a second book is on
the way, he may turn out to be the new Frank McCourt.
Edmund Gordon
How do you tell the life story of a woman who was,
by her own admission, “a born fabulist”? Debut
biographer Gordon disentangles myth from truth
in The Making of Angela Carter, an elegant and welljudged life of the author.
Kapka Kassabova
The Bulgarian-born writer takes a journey through
the mysterious region where her home country,
Greece and Turkey meet. Border is a hybrid work that
mixes memoir with travelogue as she putters across
the land in an old Renault, recording the oral histories
of the people she meets and crunching them with
what she knows of the deeper past in an attempt
to exorcise her own ghosts.
Maggie Nelson (below)
The compelling topicality and novelty of her subject
matter earns Nelson her place. The Argonauts is an
uncategorisable book, that animates queer theory
through the no-holds-barred story of her own love
match with a trans man. Here are pregnancy, birth and
family-making as you have never seen them before.
Graphic novels
Kirsten Radtke
Imagine Wanting Only This begins with the death
of Radtke’s uncle Dan – from a hereditary heart
condition that could kill her – and moves through her
young life, taking in love, backpacking, loneliness
and visits to ruin after ruin. Her memoir is stuffed
with fascinating anecdotes and great drawings that
show everything from bus-borne squabbles to tight
herds of sheep and abandoned cities. It ends in New
York, where the 30-year-old illustrator and editor
now lives, and this intelligent and passionate work
makes you wonder where she’ll go next.
Hamish Steele
Steele works as an animator as well as a comic book
artist, and humour and energy bubble through his
work. His debut, Pantheon, a savage take on Egyptian
myth, was self-published after a Kickstarter
campaign before being picked up by NoBrow. His
new book, DeadEndia: The Watcher’s Test, revolves
around three amusement park workers and a
genuinely haunted house.
Nick Drnaso
The Illinois native picked up an LA Times book prize
for his excellent 2016 debut, Beverly, a series of sad
and lyrical interconnected stories. It sets dysfunctional young Americans against an eerie backdrop of
highways, motels and couches, lust and despair
10 The Guardian Saturday 31 March 2018
Patricia Lockwood
Already beloved for her silly, often filthy verse, Lockwood burst into the almost mainstream with her
memoir Priestdaddy, centring on her father: a Catholic priest with five children and a penchant for guns,
prog rock and cream liqueur. While her poetry is
brilliantly bizarre, Priestdaddy revealed a dazzling
new voice that flourishes in a longer form.
Cover story ¶
Crime and thrillers
Jane Harper
Winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger,
Harper’s bestselling first novel, The Dry, is both a
riveting detective story and a powerful portrait of
a small Australian town in the drought-stricken middle
of nowhere, riven by poverty and alcoholism. Her
second book, Force of Nature, which features the same
investigator and concerns an elemental battle for
survival in the unforgiving Australian wilderness,
lives up to the promise of her stunning debut.
Joseph Knox
Sirens, Knox’s debut, is a pungent slice of urban noir
featuring disgraced Manchester detective Aidan Waits.
Having blotted his copybook by stealing drugs from the
evidence room, Waits is forced to go undercover and
finds himself deep in a world of ruthless drug barons
and corrupt politicians. The start of what promises to
be a classic series – as proved by the equally vivid and
uncompromising follow-up, The Smiling Man.
pushing up against the clean lines and pastel colours
of his artwork. Drnaso’s latest, Sabrina, follows a US
airman’s investigation of a missing woman.
Emil Ferris
My Favourite Thing Is Monsters emerged to wild
applause last year. A brick of a book with something to
treasure on every page, it takes the form of the journal
of Karen Reyes, a 10-year-old obsessed with drawing,
monsters and the fate of a woman who dies in her
apartment block. Karen fills the diary with vibrant
beasts and the details of her detective work. Ferris
makes her humans and monsters leap off the page,
and Book 2 (due in August) should be another cracker.
Riad Sattouf
Sattouf spent a decade writing for Charlie Hebdo,
but only came to the attention of English-speaking
readers in 2015, thanks to The Arab of the Future
(above), which follows his childhood as he moves
between France (where his
mother was born), Syria
(where his father was born)
and Libya. The whims of
Sattouf’s increasingly
authoritarian father drive
volumes one and two,
which mix darkness,
dry humour and sharp
Darkness and
observation. Volume 3
dry humour …
is out in August.
Riad Sattouf
Joe Ide
Set in Long Beach, California, Ide’s novel, IQ, is the
start of a projected series featuring Isaiah Quintabe,
a modern day African
American incarnation of
Sherlock Holmes. We learn
his back story – derailed
in high school when his
brother was killed, and
turning to crime before
realising his true calling –
as he finds out who is trying
Sharp observation …
to murder a famous rapper.
Joe Ide
A second outing, Righteous,
was published in February; both books are sharply
observed and crackling with energy.
Sabri Louatah
A bestseller in the author’s native France, Savages: The
Wedding is the first novel in the Saint-Etienne Quartet.
It’s the eve of the presidential election, and it looks as
if Idder Chaouch is about to become the first Algerian
premier. To some, the “French Obama” holds the
promise of a post-racial society based on liberty, equality and fraternity, but not everyone agrees. Exhilarating, sharp-edged, and complex, this is a compelling
hybrid of family saga and socio-political thriller.
CJ Tudor
In The Chalk Man, 12-year-old narrator Eddie Adams
enjoys communicating with his friends using a secret
code of chalk figures – until a series of anonymous
drawings leads to the discovery of a dismembered
girl in the woods. Fast-forward 30 years and Eddie
receives a visit from an old friend – and a drawing of
a noosed stick-man arrives in the post. This assured
debut is very much in the Stephen King vein – creepy
with plenty of menace. Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 11
¶ Cover story
Branching out
Children and young adult
Bethan Woollvin
Little Red, a feminist retelling of Little Red Riding
Hood with a grisly, child-empowering edge, won
Woollvin the Macmillan Illustration prize in 2014.
Her second picture book, a prince-free Rapunzel,
features the same mixture of stark black and white
and a single colour. Her words share this lack of
obfuscatory prettiness, a deadpan, terse narrative
voice complementing her sharp illustrative style.
Look out for her forthcoming Hansel and Gretel.
Joseph Coelho
Overheard in a Tower Block, Coelho’s newest poetry
collection, was longlisted for the 2018 Carnegie Medal.
Arguing parents become electrical forces or duelling
knights; the bin-chute mouth of a block is fed the stuff
of its residents’ lives. Rich with metaphor and secret
meaning, his poetry is deeply welcoming, and his
sensibility is both mythic and urban; his freed Prometheus, unearthed from “eons of eagle droppings”,
hears “the god-whisper of a city, the electric thrum
of buildings, the digital hiss of a new world.”
Literature in translation
David Solomons
The Scottish screenwriter represents the best in contemporary comic writing for children – splendidly
zany, full of irresistible trivia, but never scrimping on
the emotional undertow that ensures longevity and
heart. His first book for children, My Brother Is a
Superhero, is subtitled “I could have been one too,
except I needed a wee”; the
story of comic geek Luke
and his older brother Zack,
unfairly given superpowers
by a visiting alien, it won
the Waterstones prize for
children’s fiction in 2016, and
its two sequels have since
been flying off the shelves.
A deadpan, terse
Lucy Strange
narrative voice …
The Secret of Nightingale
Bethan Woollvin’s
Wood, Strange’s debut novel
for age 8-12, is set just after
the first world war, and features Henry, a determined
heroine grieving her brother’s death, protecting her
younger sister Piglet, and contending with sinister
doctors who conspire to commit her mother to an
asylum. Strange elegantly blends a sense of period
with compelling emotion and excitement. Her new
novel, Our Castle by the Sea, is due in November.
Samanta Schweblin
Argentinian Schweblin’s brilliant and terrifying
debut, Fever Dream, unfolds like a hallucination.
A sick woman is confronted with a revenant child in
a dialogue that combines the superstitions of a rural
society with fears about agricultural abuse by big
business, in a novel that was shortlisted for last year’s
Man Booker International prize.
Tomi Adeyemi
The Nigerian American author’s debut, Children of
Blood and Bone, has generated considerable excitement, with film rights already sold. The first in a trilogy,
this ambitious book is told from three perspectives;
central is that of Zélie Adebola, who takes on the monarchy in a bid to restore magic to the world of Orisha.
12 The Guardian Saturday 31 March 2018
Maylis de Kerangal (above)
Winning last year’s Wellcome prize for Mend the
Living, her brilliant evocation of a day in the life of a
heart as it is rushed from one body to another, should
raise the French author’s profile, but as yet only two
of her novels have made it into English. In both she
makes character subservient to scenario, whether
dealing with coronary transplant staff or workers on
a six-lane suspension bridge in a fictional US town.
Olga Tokarczuk
This time last year, the Polish novelist was the biggest
star you’d never heard of, but Flights put her on the
map. This dazzling novel of fragments makes a passionate plea for connectedness through stories that
somersault through time and space. Her back catalogue is now being published, with the Blakean Drive
Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead due this year,
followed by her historical epic, The Books of Jacob,
one of the biggest literary bestsellers in Polish history.
Andrés Barba
After surviving the car accident that killed her parents,
a wounded and traumatised seven-year-old girl is
sent to an orphanage with her only surviving “friend”,
a doll apparently brought to life by her distress. In
Such Small Hands, Barba plays with the conventions
of the ghost story to create a powerful fable of the
malice and the erotic power play of children too young
to put their fears into words.
Ahmed Saadawi
Absurdist morality fable meets horror fantasy in
Frankenstein in Baghdad, as a victim of sectarian
violence is brought back to life in the aftermath of the
US invasion of Iraq. Saadawi unspools an apparently
endless causal chain of folly, corruption and tribalism.
Cover story ¶
Science and nature
Science fiction and fantasy
Eugenia Cheng
The mathematician remembers the day her mother
first told her about graphs – she felt as if her brain was
contorting, and it’s a feeling she still gets when doing
research. It’s one her readers can share. Beyond
Infinity begins with an energetic exposition of endlessness, before exploring the mathematical territory
the concept opens up with the help of iPods,
snorkelling and Winnie-the-Pooh. The Art of Logic is
due in September.
Nnedi Okorafor
The US author has many awards under her belt, but is
only now coming to prominence in the UK. Rooted in
her Nigerian heritage, her work melds traditional
future narratives with lyrical folkloric fables, African
locales with far-future planetary settings. Through
strong female characters she explores inequality,
gender politics and environmental degradation. Her
multi award-winning Binti trilogy is a good place to
engage with her diverse, complex, character-based
science fiction and fantasy.
David George Haskell
On a cold January hike in 2004, Haskell, a biologist,
found himself confronted with a choice. He could
carry on writing scientific papers, following his
enthusiasm for poetry and meditation on the side,
or he could bring these interests together. The result
was The Forest Unseen, a lyrical account of the year he
spent returning to that very spot. His 2017 book The
Songs of Trees explores the interconnectedness of
nature through portraits of 12 individual trees.
Lindsey Fitzharris
Fitzharris’s hugely entertaining debut The Butchering
Art told the story of Victorian medicine through the
life of Quaker surgeon Joseph Lister. A quiet man
who stood out from his showy contemporaries, Lister
pioneered antisepsis. Fitzharris’s second book is
already in the making: a history of plastic surgery in
the aftermath of the first world war.
Amy Liptrot
After a childhood in Orkney, Amy Liptrot launched
herself into the London clubbing scene with perilous
consequences. The Outrun is a gorgeously evocative
account of the role her home island played in helping
to restore her to health.
Cordelia Fine (below)
A psychologist, Fine puts her interest in the neuroscience of gender down to being a typical academic
parent. Delusions of Gender is a witty and elegant
account of the dodgy science and persistent biases
behind the notion of the gendered brain. Her most
recent book, Testosterone Rex, won the Royal Society
science book of the year prize in 2017.
Stefan Mohamed
Mohamed won the unpublished writer’s category of
the Dylan Thomas prize with
Bitter Sixteen in 2015. It was
the first volume of a trilogy
featuring superheroes,
talking dogs, monsters and
the apocalypse, refreshingly
expressed in a flip, deadpan
style. Following the fortunes
of Stanly Bird, who finds
A refreshingly
himself in possession of
deadpan style …
superpowers – telekinesis
Stefan Mohamed
and the ability to fly – it
wittily delineates youth and pop culture. Mohamed’s
fourth novel, Falling Leaves, is out now.
Naomi Booth
Bradford-born Booth comes to writing from academia:
her PhD research on the literary history of swooning
fed into the quirky The Lost Art of Sinking, winner of
the 2016 Saboteur award for best novella. Booth hit
her stride with 2017’s Sealed, which explored themes
of paranoia, motherhood and alienation set in an
Australian outback gripped by a terrifying plague.
She’s known for searing personal narratives written
from the perspective of women on the brink of
psychological breakdown.
Nina Allan
Allan’s 2014 debut, The Race, assembled from four
linked novellas, featured fractured, vulnerable
characters in a near-future England. The Rift (2017),
explored themes of loss, alienation and guilt in a
narrative shifting between contemporary Britain and
the alien world of Tristane. Her literary sensibility
fuses the fantastic and the mundane to great effect.
Tristan Palmgren
The US writer burst on to the SF scene this year with
a stunning novel about an extraterrestrial who has
arrived in 14th-century Italy to study the black death.
The juxtaposition of alien and human cultures at the
heart of Quietus allows Palmgren to ask a host of
knotty philosophical questions, as well as to tell an
emotionally affecting story. The sequel, Terminus,
is due out later this year •
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 13
Book of
the week
{ Biography } Prince Charles
emerges as vain, cold and
out of touch in this partial and
damning account of his life
Bee Wilson
“On the eve of his sixtieth
birthday,” Tom Bower writes
in his unauthorised biography of the Prince of Wales,
“Charles overtook his greatgreat-grandfather Edward
VII as the longest-waiting
heir to the British throne.”
Rebel Prince:
That was nine years ago and
The Power, Passion
Charles is still waiting to start
and Defiance of
the job he was supposedly
Prince Charles
born to do. He was widely
by Tom Bower,
mocked for saying, in 2004,
William Collins, £20
that “Nobody knows what
utter hell it is to be the Prince of Wales” – a remark that,
like so many of his utterances lacks any sense of perspective about the struggles of ordinary people. Millions
would happily suffer the “hell” of living in multiple
palaces and going on skiing holidays to Klosters.
Yet it remains true that none of us can imagine
how psychologically weird his situation must feel.
The more years that elapse before he becomes King
Charles, the more implausible the whole proposition
of Charles as monarch has come to seem – perhaps
even to Charles himself. “Who are you?” he was once
asked by a child, in an encounter captured on film for
a documentary about his life presented by Jonathan
Dimbleby. “I wish I knew,” was his reply.
Still, official preparations have been made for
Charles’s accession and coronation, including plans
by the Royal Mint for new coins with his face on them.
According to Bower, Charles complicated the task with
difficult requests. He was unhappy with the initial portrait the Mint came up with, thinking it made him look
too bald and too old. “He demanded,” Bower writes,
“that he should be shown with a full head of hair, and
considerably younger.” Another demand, according
to this book, was that Charles made it known that he
preferred the look of the left profile of his face for the
coin “rather than the conventional right-hand side”.
This story about the coin comes on the last page of
Bower’s biography, after a sea of similar anecdotes
about Charles’s petulance and vanity, many of which
have already been widely reported. He allegedly
14 The Guardian Saturday 31 March 2018
changes his clothes five times a day, travels with his
own toilet seat and employs retired servicemen to
hand-pick slugs from the plants at night in his organic
garden at Highgrove. The heir apparent has led a life,
as Bower repeatedly describes it, cosseted “by valets,
butlers, cooks, secretaries, gardeners and chauffeurs”.
Through a prolific campaign of behind-the-scenes
“black spider memos” written to ministers, he has
secured millions of pounds of public money for his personal hobby horses, notably homeopathic medicine.
In contrast to his wise and frugal mother, Charles
is known for Marie Antoinette-ish demands such as
bringing his own crockery, whiskey and supply of
organic food when invited somewhere as a guest. In
Bower’s pen portrait, the prince is profligate and shorttempered, autocratic and selfish; he was cruel and
contemptuous towards his former wife, Diana; he is
emotionally cold to his siblings and sons, quick to
take offence and slow to notice when he is causing it.
But then I looked up the conventions for British
coinage. It turns out that since the reign of James II,
the tradition is that each monarch faces the opposite
way from his or her predecessor. Our current queen
faces right. Charles therefore should face left according
to tradition, regardless of whether he happens to
believe that is also his more handsome side. This might
be a tiny point, but it made me query how many of
Bower’s other disclosures I could fully trust. His book,
which seems prodigiously thorough in its research, is
largely based on 120 interviews with people involved
with the royal family, most of whom did not want to
speak on the record. There is thus no way a reader can
follow up most of his sources, or know whether the
anonymous voices cited ever said anything more
positive about Charles along with all the criticism.
It’s not that I doubt that most of the entertaining
stories about his shortcomings are true. Take the
clingfilm anecdote, which
It’s a gripping
has already done the
biography, but why rounds. Bower reveals that
has Bower decided Charles once “shrieked”
to write a book that at the sight of some salads
offers so few crumbs and cold meat left on the
sideboard at Clarence
of sympathy or
House. “What’s this?”
he asked his wife Camilla.
to its subject?
“It’s clingfilm, darling,” she
replied. This story has the
ring of truth to me, because
I met Charles once, on a
trip arranged for a group of food writers to experience
the organic wonders at Home Farm in Highgrove, a few
years ago. When it was my turn to talk to the prince in a
small group, he confided affably how “ghastly” it was
that so many people in Britain bought food in plastic
wrapping. I muttered something about the fact that
each pack of the prince’s own Duchy Originals shortbreads actually contained two separate plastic enclosures. Why wasn’t this ghastly too? He looked utterly
incredulous – whether at the thought of the plastic
sullying his biscuits or at my insolence I can’t say.
Book of the week ¶
This is a gripping biography,
but why has Bower decided to
write a book that offers so few
crumbs of sympathy or understanding to its subject? If you
look up “CHARLES character”
in the index, it lists only negative traits such as “sense
of superiority”, “disloyalty” and “resentment of
Diana”. Even his extensive charitable work for the
Prince’s Trust is presented negatively, as above all a way
“to improve his profile and buttress his self-belief”.
Bower is the master of the investigative hatchet job,
an expert in marshalling what must amount to screeds
of original and detailed research as ammo for his character assassinations. He has already taken the axe to
businessmen including Geoffrey Robinson, Mohamed
Al Fayed and Robert Maxwell and the politicians Tony
Blair and Gordon Brown. He explains that what fascinates him about Charles is the way he “manipulated”
the “levers of power” to secure his and Camilla’s
survival when their relationship was under attack
from the media and from his own family. Charles’s
conduct, Bower insists, “has created a substantial
number of victims, many of whom are saddened over
how he acted, both in general and towards them”.
He depicts Charles as someone who can’t bear
criticism and who is mean-spirited to many of his
employees while favouring his former valet Michael
Fawcett – who was supposedly once the squeezer
of the royal toothpaste and was said by Charles to be
the one person he couldn’t do without. After Fawcett
was forced to leave Charles’s service for bullying
other members of staff, Camilla successfully pleaded
Unasked-for fame
The Queen and
Prince of Wales
at the House of
Lords last year
for him to be reinstated, and some of the staff who
had complained about the bullying were fired.
Perhaps Charles is as thoroughly malign a person
as Bower depicts him. Perhaps not. Either way, it
would be useful to have more context about the influences that forged his complex personality. Unlike the
subjects of most of Bower’s earlier biographies, who
clawed their way up the ladder, Charles was born in
the glare of unasked-for fame. “The happy couple are
now in the winner’s enclosure,” the Queen remarked
in her speech marking the long-delayed wedding of
Charles and Camilla. But he cannot “win” his final
prize until her death. Such a predicament might make
anyone a bit crazy. By choosing to focus his biography
only on the most recent 20 years of Charles’s life, Bower
leaves little room for his unhappy early experiences
when sent to board at the spartan Gordonstoun against
his will, as dramatised in series two of the Netflix
drama The Crown. He also devotes scant room to
considering the wider culture of the British royal
family and the extent to which some of Charles’s dysfunctions might be symptomatic of the anachronistic
morals of court life in general.
By the time you have read through the whole sorry
exposé, the obvious thought is that one option for
dealing with the prince’s inadequacies would be a
British republic after the Queen’s death. Yet Bower
insists in his introduction that he is a “committed
monarchist”, who still wants Charles to become king
and to “bequeath the throne in a healthy state to his
son”. If true, this is a very odd book to have written.
To buy Rebel Prince for £17 go to
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 15
{ Literature } Who are the
real scoundrels in the Wild
Wood? An elegant account
of the genesis of a classic
Kathryn Hughes
It turns out that being a
juvenile muse is no guarantee of a happy ending. Peter
Llewelyn Davies, JM Barrie’s
inspiration for Peter Pan,
grew up only to kill himself.
Christopher Milne was
estranged from his mother.
The Making of the
Alice Liddell of Wonderland
Wind in the Willows
fame seems to have been
by Peter Hunt,
permanently cross. And
Bodleian, £12.99
then there was Alastair
Grahame, for whom The Wind in the Willows was
written in 1908. Twelve years later, and still in his
teens, he stumbled out of his Oxford college, lay
down on the railway line and waited for a train.
There’s one difference, though, between Grahame
and the others. While Peter, Alice and Christopher
appeared in “their” books, he doesn’t. The Wind in
the Willows grew out of bedtime stories that Kenneth
Grahame, his father, told him about a quartet of
anthropomorphised animals who lived by the rural
Thames. Yet this absence of a child protagonist
should come as no surprise, since the world of
Grahame’s riverbank is hardly a place for kids. It is,
rather, an Edwardian gentlemen’s club, or perhaps
a club for Edwardian gentlemen who have failed to
get into the institution of their choice and are obliged
to improvise. The adventures of Toad, Mole, Ratty
and Badger are those of grown men sufficiently rich
and leisured to spend their days messing about
in boats and their evenings muttering about the
scoundrels in the Wild Wood.
Scholars have long speculated about the identity
of those scoundrels. The literal answer is that they’re
the weasels and stoats who swarm out of their dank,
rooty realm, break into Toad Hall and trash the place.
Reading biographically, it’s impossible to overlook
the fact that in 1903 Grahame was ambushed in his
office at the Bank of England and shot at by a madman with a gun. The fact that the would-be assassin
identified himself as a socialist placed him firmly on
the side of chaos, along with the anarchists, suffragettes and the increasingly belligerent Kaiser. For a
16 The Guardian Saturday 31 March 2018
mid-Victorian like Grahame, it must have felt as if the
world was coming undone.
Yet Grahame’s life had always been more precarious
than you might think. Following his mother’s early
death in 1864 and with a father lost to drink, five-yearold Kenneth was taken from his native Edinburgh and
deposited at his grandmother’s house near Marlow. It
was during that stay on the banks of the Thames that
the boy gathered the materials with which he would
later build his happy place. Still, insists Hunt, it’s
crucial that we should see the narrative of The Wind
in the Willows for what it is – not so much gently
recuperative as anxiously stagnant. For what has
actually changed by the end? Toad Hall has been
returned to its bombastic owner, the defeated stoats
and weasels slink back to the Wild Wood and the four
heroes are free to continue planning their picnics.
This isn’t growth, merely a return to stasis.
Lacking funds to go to Oxford, Grahame was placed
as a “gentleman clerk” at the Bank, where he rose to
the top. Oxford, however, remained Grahame’s personal riverbank, which is why when he died in 1932 he
left all his copyrights to the Bodleian. His widow, an
enthusiastic booster of the book’s origin myths, gave
the library many other documents concerned with the
making of the masterpiece. It is from these rich holdings that Hunt has extracted some fascinating images
to accompany his short text, all beautifully produced
by the Bodleian’s publishing arm. Here are original
story letters to Alastair, in which the tales are fleshed
out. There’s also the spine of the first edition showing
Toad in his dandyish motoring gear, and some
wonderful plates to remind us of EH Shepard’s genius
for getting Grahame’s oddly proportioned world into
a coherent and charming visual form.
There remains, though, one puzzle about Hunt’s
book. In interviews he has trenchantly suggested that
Grahame was homosexual,
that young Alastair had
been profoundly emotionally damaged from birth,
and that The Wind in the
Willows is a coded manifesto
for communal gay living. Yet
none of these possibilities is
Toad in tweed
developed here. Instead, we
A 1931 illustration
are left with odd little hints –
by EH Shepard
the fact that Grahame’s earliest literary work appeared in the “decadent” Yellow
Book, whose first art editor was Aubrey Beardsley, or,
again, that Grahame left the bank suddenly in 1908
under a cloud. Hunt has suggested he was sacked
because he had been outed, but here his sudden
departure remains a mystery. Over a century since its
publication, is it possible that the notion that The Wind
in the Willows emerged from painful adult ambivalence
– rather than the charming ways of toads in trousers – is
still considered too touchy for general consumption?
To buy The Making of the Wind in the Willows
go to
Non-fiction ¶
{ Politics } A myth-busting
study of an earlier European
referendum – when
Britain voted ‘remain’
Andy Beckett
In 1975, supposedly one of
the worst years of supposedly the worst decade in
recent British history, voters
chose to remain in the European Economic Community,
now the European Union,
by 67.2% to 32.8%. Britain
Yes to Europe!:
The 1975 Referendum was more insular, more
racist, less cosmopolitan,
and Seventies Britain
and less confident than it
by Robert Saunders,
was when the next referenCambridge, £24.99
dum on Europe was held, 41
years later. But even in Essex and Lincolnshire, the
Brexit heartlands of the future, support for Europe
was overwhelming. Neil Kinnock, who like many on
the left campaigned for leave in 1975, told the Western
Mail: “Only an idiot would ignore or resent a majority
like this. We’re in for ever.”
Britons preoccupied with the EU, whether for or
against, often prefer to invoke history in the abstract
rather than actual historical facts, and making sense
of the apparent contradictions of the 1975 referendum
is a task few authors have attempted. Before this thick
book, the standard texts were volumes published in
the 70s. Robert Saunders’ aim is to look at the contest
afresh, and to use the 1975 campaign “as a window into
the political and social history of the 1970s”.
Any fears that this might be a slightly dutiful project
– a purely academic raking over of a brief Europhile
moment – are quickly dispelled. Saunders writes with
swagger rather than dryness. He describes the prominent leaver Tony Benn and equally prominent remainer
Roy Jenkins debating on television in 1975: “the baroque courtesy of two men with murder in their eyes”.
With an efficiency that feels almost gleeful, he demolishes many of the myths about Britain’s relationship
with the rest of Europe on which Brexiters and remainers have long depended. Far from being free and independent, or parochial and isolated, before joining the
EEC in 1973, Britain was already “more closely involved
with the continent than at any previous point in its
modern history”, through membership of bodies such
as Nato and the Council of Europe. Similarly, once the
1975 referendum campaign got under way, the consequences for British sovereignty of further integration
into Europe were not covered up, as Brexiters often
insist. “Slogans like ‘the right to rule ourselves’ were
blazoned across anti-Europe literature,” Saunders
records. “Sovereignty was … the theme of almost every
speech by Tony Benn and Enoch Powell,” the other
divisive figure at the head of the leave campaign.
Refreshingly, Saunders manages not to take sides.
But touchy Brexiters may sense a patronising undertone in some of his urbane descriptions. The leave
campaign “operated out of two rooms near the Strand
and employed just three full-time staff ”, he writes.
To call it “a skeleton operation would overstate its
solidity and coherence”.
The remain campaign had no such difficulties.
“Cars, aeroplanes, helicopters, film units, stage
equipment, photocopiers ... simply appeared at a flick
of [the] fingers,” recalls David Steel, one of remain’s
immense array of centrist politicians, celebrities and
business leaders. Unlike in 2016, the pro-European
establishment used its resources shrewdly, combining
a negative campaign – warning that a leave vote would
be economically catastrophic; attacking Benn and
Powell as extremists – with carefully targeted advertising about the concrete benefits of EEC membership.
The remainers had other advantages, some of
them startling from today’s perspective. Every
national paper except the Morning Star supported
them. For many journalists, EEC membership was
still an intriguing novelty. Margaret Thatcher, then
the new Tory leader, supported it. The EEC was seen
as strongly pro-capitalist: significantly, Britons called
it the Common Market. This was precisely why
some leftwingers wanted Britain to leave. Saunders
includes enthusiastic quotes from the Tory tabloids
about the referendum result – “louder, clearer and
more unanimous than any decision in peacetime
history”, roared the Express – that ought to
embarrass their proudly anti-EU editors now.
Britain’s erratic mid-70s economy meant that EEC
immigration was minimal and largely uncontroversial.
There were fewer arrivals in the whole of 1975 than in
an average week in 2016. Saunders describes anxiety
about the country’s prospects hanging over the referendum. He quotes an anonymous young man from
Altrincham: “We’ve got to stay in. This country will
sink without trace if we don’t.”
As a portrait of Britain in the 1970s, this book is disappointingly traditional. There is the usual emphasis
on national crises, tackiness, sexism – “Europe or Bust”
on women’s T-shirts. There is little on the huge counterculture, the era’s unprecedented economic equality or
the rising radical left. Jeremy Corbyn, by 1975 a wellknown socialist, does not feature (he voted leave).
Others outside the political mainstream were not
interested in the referendum. Voter turnout was
64.5% – much lower than for 70s general elections.
As a measure of the state of the nation, the referendum was limited, like its 2016 successor – as the 2017
election revealed. But as a study of a rare and seminal
event, this book bursts with valuable details. One of
the best comes at the end. “Within days” of the
referendum result, Saunders writes, the leavers
began their long campaign to overturn it.
To buy Yes to Europe! for £21.24 go to
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 17
¶ Non-fiction
{ History } This idiosyncratic
and inventive book unpicks
Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation
and charts European greed
Faramerz Dabhoiwala
In the summer of 1520,
towards the end of his life,
the great German artist
Albrecht Dürer travelled
from his home in Nuremberg
to the Low Countries, to
meet his new patron, the
Holy Roman emperor
Civilisations: First
Charles V. At the same time,
Contact/The Cult
halfway across the world in
of Progress
the middle of the Americas,
by David Olusoga,
the Spanish adventurer
Profile, £15
Hernán Cortés was carrying
out his merciless siege of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán. By the time it fell, on 13 August 1521, much
of the city lay in ruins, and as many as 100,000 of
its inhabitants had already died. Many more were
massacred as the victors set about plundering whatever they could lay their hands on. When the first
shipment of spoils arrived in Brussels, Dürer was
one of those who flocked to examine it. He was blown
away. “All the days of my life,” he wrote in his diary,
“I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much
as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful
works of art, and I marvelled at the subtle ingenuity
of men in foreign lands. Indeed I cannot express all
that I thought there.”
This vignette of cross-global inspiration is one of
the highlights of David Olusoga’s new book, a richly
illustrated companion volume to the two episodes he
is presenting in the BBC’s new Civilisations. In outline,
its format is fairly Eurocentric and conventional.
Despite all the fuss that has been made about the
TV project’s updating of Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series
Civilisation, Olusoga’s own approach is framed in
terms that would hardly have shocked audiences
50 years ago: the first half of the book considers
contact between civilisations in “the European Age
of Discovery” (from the 15th to the 18th centuries),
while the second looks at the impact of industrialisation on the art and artists of the 19th century.
Non-European cultures make an appearance only
when they come into contact with Europeans. The
book’s artistic focus is likewise entirely traditional.
We are shown a bit of sculpture, some architecture,
a few photographs, and above all lots of paintings –
the industrialisation and commercialisation of the
artistic world itself, and the growing importance
during these centuries of cheap, mass-market printed
images remain invisible. It’s also perhaps odd to find
Clark faulted for his lack of attention to female artists
18 The Guardian Saturday 31 March 2018
by an author who includes only one (the late 17th,
early 18th-century German botanist Maria Sibylla
Merian), refers unselfconsciously to “mankind”,
and persists in describing all geographical entities
as female (Rome has “her” legions, Christian Europe
suffers from “her” isolation).
But Olusoga is a smart and inventive narrator,
with a keen historical curiosity and effortless style.
No matter the conventional format, he fills it with
unconventional, subversive storylines. He’s keen to
overturn 19th- and 20th-century prejudices about the
relative merits of different civilisations. For Clark,
western culture was obviously the best, nobler than
what he dismissively termed “the Negro imagination”.
Olusoga doesn’t mention this offensive slight until
the end of his afterword, but his own work is a magnificent riposte to it. For if there is an argumentative
thread that connects all the parts of this book, it’s his
portrayal of European civilisation as a slow but inexorable historical plague, which destroys everything it
comes into contact with: other cultures, the natural
world, and millions upon millions of its own people.
Whenever they come up against a superior power,
Europeans look weak and ridiculous. They were
“a harmless sort of people” who lacked all the
rudiments of civility, noted
a surprised Chinese mariner
Bracing retread
in 1543: they ate with their
David Olusoga in
fingers rather than chopGiza, Egypt, for the
sticks, had no system of
BBC’s parallel series
ceremonial etiquette,
Non-fiction ¶
couldn’t understand “written characters”, and
displayed “their feelings without any self-control”. Yet
given the chance, they invariably wreaked havoc. From
the brutal Castilian invasion of the Canary Islands in
the 15th century, to the 19th-century destruction of
the native peoples and habitats of North America,
Australasia and the Pacific, through to the great
mechanised slaughter of the first world war, this is a
grim story of human suffering. As often as not, the
artistic objects it holds up for our inspection are but
fragmentary relics and reflections of entire civilisations
obliterated by European greed, hubris and disease.
In the same bracingly revisionist vein, Olusoga sees
slavery everywhere he looks: African, European,
Islamic, Malay, Japanese. We cannot truly appreciate
the inanimate artefacts of the past, he implies, or
interpret them as markers of civilisation, without
understanding that they were produced by cultures
that simultaneously traded in flesh and blood.
All this means that he has little time for individual
genius, inspiration or exaltation. The book is at its
most interesting and original when deconstructing the
very notion of civilisation, most bland when discussing
groundbreaking artists such as El Greco, Rembrandt
or Picasso. Rather than being an art-based history,
which takes its cue from specific works, this is the
opposite, and helpfully so – a history, illustrated with
a selection of beautiful objects.
As a result, the best chapters are those that
successfully juxtapose different cultures, and show
the interactions between them. It’s illuminating, for
example, to learn of the connections between Dürer,
the artistic virtuoso of Renaissance Europe, and his
nameless, highly skilled African contemporaries,
the ivory carvers of Sierra Leone. Another engaging
section sets George Catlin’s prolific mid-19th century
portrayals of Native American men and women side
by side with the fascinating portraits of New Zealand
Maori that were painted a few decades later by the
Czech immigrant Gottfried Lindauer. And the book
starts with a thrilling tale of racism, plunder and
centuries of artistic hybridity: the story of the brass
sculptures of the ancient African kingdom of Benin,
and how they ended up in the British Museum.
Olusoga’s relaxed, fluent prose is a pleasure to read,
and the many pictures (all in colour) are a treat. So
many different themes and examples are packed into
this brief book that its second half, especially, sometimes feels like an enjoyable, helter-skelter romp
through the history of art: here’s the invention of the
camera, now quick, on to the impressionists, and look –
we’ve arrived in Tahiti! Still, it’s hard not to cheer an
author who chooses to illustrate the modern afterlife of
Aztec culture by using a still from a James Bond movie.
Like Clark’s treatment nearly 50 years ago, this is a
personal, idiosyncratic vision, and all the better for it.
Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s The Origins of Sex: A History
of the First Sexual Revolution is published by Penguin.
To buy Civilisations: First Contact/The Cult of Progress
for £12.75 go to
{ Nature } Pheasants, pigs,
sparrowhawks and holly share
a handful of acres in this poetic
diary of a Herefordshire wood
PD Smith
“A wood should not be a
museum,” says John LewisStempel. For four years he
managed Cockshutt Wood in
Herefordshire, three and
a half acres “with a secluded
pool where the winter moon
lives”. This is his diary of
The Wood: The
his final year there.
Life and Times of
Such small woods play
Cockshutt Wood
by John Lewis-Stempel, a vital role in the life of our
countryside: they are the last
Doubleday, £14.99
refuge of many flora and
fauna. Grassland sustains 70 pairs of birds per 100
acres but a wood is home to 400. Woods are “fortresses
of nature against the tide of people and agribusiness”.
For this reason, Cockshutt is a working wood, an
example of “agroforestry”. Lewis-Stempel kept pigs,
cows and sheep to control what would be a “sea of
briars”, allowing wild flowers to grow and attracting
wildlife. In the summer he harvested leaf fodder
from ash, oak and elm, storing it as winter feed to
which he added vitamin-rich upper branches of holly.
The wood also supplied him with logs, wild plants,
mushrooms and the occasional pheasant: “I farm for
wildlife. Cannot wildlife provide me with a meal?”
His family come from “farm stock” dating back to
the 13th century. He considers himself to be a “countryside writer”, not a nature writer: “I give the view of
the countryside from someone who works there.”
There’s a powerful sense in his books of the land as
something to be worked and managed.
The diary form is perfect for conveying the shifting
moods of the seasons and allows Lewis-Stempel to
delve into the history, lore, poetry and even the language of woods. But it’s his observation of the natural
world – the sight, the sound, the smell of it – that is so
memorable. He has a distinctively brisk, muscular style
of writing that has a poetic intensity and concision. In
October, “the leaves of the service trees flicker, flame,
in pseudo fire”; and in March he discovers “primroses
leaking spots of sun out of the earth”. Above, the
sparrowhawk is “a twisting blade of badness”.
This heartfelt, evocative book shows that woods
such as Cockshutt, which has stood since before “the
Romans trod their road to Hereford”, occupy a special
place in both the countryside and our psyches. As
Lewis-Stempel says, “Woods: they inhabit the mind.”
To buy The Wood for £12.74 go to
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 19
¶ Non-fiction
{ History } An enfant terrible
of historical writing seeks
to debunk Thomas Paine’s
reputation as a radical
Colin Kidd
JCD Clark is the veteran
enfant terrible of English
historical writing; now in
his mid-60s, but still all
petted lip, provocation and
attention-seeking. A High
Tory, Anglo-Catholic Little
Englander, he has spent his
Thomas Paine:
career assaulting the central
Britain, America and
categories of the WhigFrance in the Age
Liberal and Marxist versions
of Enlightenment
of the English past. Clark
and Revolution
identifies several moments
by JCD Clark,
of putrefaction in English
Oxford, £30
history, such as EEC membership in 1973 and the Great Reform Act of 1832.
His Tory traditionalism reaches back further
even than that of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the so-called
“Honourable Member for the 18th Century”; for Clark
thinks the rot set in earlier still, during the late 17th
century, at the not-so-Glorious Revolution of 1688,
when the country unforgivably abandoned the divine
right of kings for the curdled compromises of parliamentary monarchy.
Clark is based at the University of Kansas, but he
addresses the reader, in the preface to his new book on
the celebrated radical Thomas Paine, from his summer
residence at Callaly Castle, Northumberland. The
incongruity is almost certainly deliberate. Clark insists
we view Paine the right way round, as an 18th-century
deist critic of superstition and hereditary privilege.
Indeed, he presents him as a semi-detached revolutionary who never quite got to grips with America in
the 1770s or France in the 1790s, and whose ideas
derived largely from the England of his youth,
decades before the age of the Atlantic revolutions.
Paine was born in Norfolk in 1737, the son of a
Quaker father and Anglican mother. Clark dismisses
the notion that Paine’s oppositional outlook owed
much, if anything, to Quakerism, or to Protestant
dissent more generally. Rather, he insists, Paine was a
deist of an Anglican type, a free-thinking Anglican
who came to rebel against revealed biblical Christianity, but continued to endorse the existence of God.
Such figures were a prominent feature of English
culture between the 1690s and 1730s. Denuded of the
anachronistic foliage with which he comes garlanded,
Clark’s Paine is “a retro-deist, not a proto-socialist”.
Nor was he ever an atheist or a secularist, though
his religion veered from the tactical use of scripture in
Common Sense (1776) to scoffing at the Bible in The
20 The Guardian Saturday 31 March 2018
Age of Reason (1794). As Clark notes, Paine’s political
theory presupposed the existence of a creator. He
argued for equality on theological grounds and conceived natural rights as “divine gifts”. Deism, argues
Clark, underpinned Paine’s critique of the hereditary
principle. He favoured a “moral corrective”, but was
no prophet of wholesale “social transformation”.
The first third or so of Clark’s book is ingenious and
enthralling. He is at his best when he sets Paine’s
politics in the peculiar context of the mid-18th
century, when the central determinant of English
political alignments was whether one took a Whiggish
or Tory-Jacobite line on the events of 1688, when
James II had been forced to abdicate. Paine, Clark
contends, belongs to a culture of partisan dealignment,
an age when Tories and dissident Whigs coalesced
under the aegis of Bolingbroke’s ideas of “patriot
kingship”. Clark traces various “pathways” by which
figures from high church Tory-Jacobite backgrounds –
including the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham
and the sceptic Edward Gibbon – alighted on new
idioms with which to express their estrangement from
conventional Whiggish norms. Paine was, of course,
not a Jacobite, but came under the influence of a
disciple of Bolingbroke’s deistical Toryism, and his
dislike of kingship took on anti-Hanoverian hues.
Paine’s contribution to the American revolution comes
into focus less as a creative contribution to republican
ideas than as a brand of anti-monarchical negativity.
Clark’s mission – mischievously paraphrasing the
socialist historian EP Thompson – is to rescue Paine
“from the enormous
approbation of posterity”.
Clark delivers a
Clark asks us to distinguish
series of penalty
the “usable Paines” so
kicks against
freely appropriated by
the supposed
later radical movements
from the very different
of radical
“historic Paine”, whose
ideas are more often
often shooting
celebrated than carefully
parsed. Much of this is
at an open goal
sensible. It is sometimes
difficult, however, for
readers to distinguish
between new insights and stale truisms repackaged
as clarifications of points never seriously at issue.
He treats history polemically, delivering an
unvarying sequence of penalty kicks against the
supposed assumptions of radical historiography.
But he is often shooting at an open, undefended goal.
Which serious historian thinks Paine was a socialist,
a cosmopolitan champion of the Enlightenment,
a proponent of women’s emancipation or opponent
of slavery? Clark’s is a sawdust revisionism: so
many of his targets are straw men and Aunt Sallies.
Eventually, something that had the makings of a
sprightly and provocative essay becomes in extended
form a ponderously executed demolition job.
To buy Thomas Paine go to
Non-fiction ¶
{ Science } Using advances in
DNA sequencing, a leading
geneticist presents a truer
history of the last 5,000 years
Peter Forbes
“Arrival of Beaker folk
changed Britain for ever,
ancient DNA study shows”,
ran a Guardian headline in
February, concerning the
people whose ancestry lay in
central Europe and further
east to the steppes. Now
Who We Are and
comes the author of that
How We Got Here:
study, Harvard geneticist
Ancient DNA and
David Reich, with his book
the New Science
that gives us, at last, the
of the Human Past
first draft of a true history
by David Reich,
of the last 5,000 years.
Oxford, £20
Genetics first started to
complement the work of archaeologists and linguists
in the 1990s in the work of Reich’s mentor, the population geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza. But genetics
was the poor relation at the time because its data was
so thin. Not any more. The genome is a palimpsest
that retains strong traces of the past, so current
populations can reveal something of previous population movements. What has changed everything
has been the ability, beginning as recently as 2010, to
sequence DNA directly from ancient human remains.
Reich revisits recent breakthroughs in charting
the early history of humans, but his most dramatic
discoveries have been made in the more recent past.
Most significant developments in human history
have happened in the last 10,000 years since the
retreat of the great ice sheet, and for Europe the
past 5,000 years are crucial. Although studies in
ancient DNA have now leapfrogged archaeology and
linguistics to become the best source of knowledge
on prehistoric human populations and migrations,
they dovetail with those disciplines in a three-way
corroborative process.
Reich’s work can finally answer the tantalising
question first posed by an British civil servant,
Sir William Jones. In 1786,
he discovered the kinship
of Sanskrit and ancient
Greek. This led to the
recognition of the vast
Indo-European language
family – which includes
the Germanic, Celtic, Italic,
Dramatic discoveries
near eastern (Iranian) and
Geneticist David
north Indian languages
Reich’s findings have
(Hindi, Urdu, Bengali,
important medical
Punjabi, Marathi, etc) –
but not to any consensus on how this might have
occurred. Reich has now shown that the IndoEuropean languages and the largest single component
of the genetic makeup of Europe and north India
today stem from migrations around 5,000 years ago
from the vast Steppe, the grass plains bordering the
Black and Caspian seas.
These people were pastoral nomads who drove
wheeled vehicles, rode domesticated horses and
began to use dairy products – a package that was
to guarantee their dominance wherever they went.
Their migrations were the engine that powered the
bronze age. Homer described a society in which
warlords gained prestige and wealth through plunder
and rape. It is not pretty, but is highly congruent
with what we now know of the Yamnaya (the Beaker
people represented the far western wave of Yamnaya
migrations). Of theirs and other such male-dominant
migrations, Reich drily comments: “Males from
populations with more power tend to pair with
females from populations with less.”
He deals commendably with the abuses that have
been made of stories of origins – notably Nazi ideology
– and recognises that some ideologues will want to
exploit and contest his findings, too. It’s intriguing to
know that most people of European descent have close
genetic and linguistic ties with near eastern and north
Indian peoples, but what is the global picture and what
are the implications of these new findings?
The overriding lesson ancient DNA teaches is that
the population in any one place has changed dramatically many times since the great human post-ice age
expansion, and that recognition of the essentially
mongrel nature of humanity should override any
notion of some mystical, longstanding connection
between people and place. We are all, to use Theresa
May’s derisive label, “citizens of nowhere”. The
Beaker people replaced 90% of the population of
Britain around 4,500 years ago. Related to this is the
knowledge that all life, from its beginnings, has been
an essentially improvisatory, impure process. As
Reich puts it: “Ideologies that seek a return to a
mythical purity are flying in the face of hard science.”
His findings have important medical implications,
too. For instance, his research in India has shown the
profound consequences of caste-system inbreeding.
There is an abundance of recessive diseases – both
partners in some couples carry mutant genes from way
back in the lineage. In fact, such populations make
gene hunting easier because genes causing recessive
conditions come with characteristic markers.
Reich’s overall picture will, in time, acquire much
greater detail – just as Darwin’s great study was a
beginning not an end – but we should be grateful to
him and his large team of co-workers (including his
wife, science writer Eugenie Reich, who had a big role
in the book’s creation) for putting the essential story
before us now. It is thrilling in its clarity and its scope.
To buy Who We Are and How We Got Here for £17
go to
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 21
¶ Interview
Colm Tóibín
The author talks to Emma Brockes about his
Enniscorthy childhood, the inspiration for
his enigmatic heroine in Brooklyn – and why
Boris Johnson is right about the Irish border
‘There is a certain
amount of glee
at the sheer,
sheer foolishness
of Brexit’
he last thing Colm Tóibín does every
night in New York before turning in is
read the Irish Times: “There’s really
nothing I don’t know about what’s
going on in Ireland,” he says. The
62-year-old is in his overstuffed
office at Columbia University, and
although he has been coming to the city for years, he
has only recently started writing about it: “What the
sunset looks like on the Hudson. In the winter, you
get this really extraordinary red, and if there’s ice on
the river, it looks like the American sublime.” But
every night, in his head, he returns home to Ireland.
Home is one of Tóibín’s great themes. It’s an
interest most explicitly explored in Brooklyn, his
breakout novel of 2009, and to which he returns PHOTOGRAPHY Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian
‘I’m interested in the
amount of silence
around things. Things
you couldn’t talk about:
loss, absence’ …
Colm Tóibín
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 23
¶ Interview
Colm Tóibín
in House of Names, a retelling of The Oresteia by
Aeschylus. As told by Tóibín, after witnessing his
sister’s murder, the young Orestes is banished both
literally and in the sense of becoming estranged from
himself; “a sad boy”, says Tóibín, “who doesn’t know
who he is or what he is”, and who reminded the
author simultaneously of Hamlet and himself.
If this sounds grand, it is in keeping with Tóibín’s
range as both highbrow – at Columbia, he teaches
a seminar that takes in Swift, Beckett, Joyce, Eliot
and Wharton among others, as well as focusing this
semester on Sophocles – and as a documentarian of
the quotidian. It is hard to read a novel such as Nora
Webster, a fictionalised account of the days after the
death of Tóibín’s father in 1968, published in 2014,
without wondering just how he does it: that is,
maintain the surface tension of a story with so little
formal action and in a novel “that is so calm”, says
Tóibín, “it just moves chronologically through a
small number of years in a small house”.
Nothing much happens in Nora Webster; a woman
gets her hair done and stands alone by the shore; two
grieving boys put themselves to bed while their
mother attends to her own grief downstairs; some
people join a union. And yet the book is full of
suspense and profoundly affecting.
Superficially, there is much more going on in House
of Names, in which the bodies pile up from the start.
Much of the shock value of the violence, in which wife
murders husband, father kills daughter, and son,
ultimately, murders mother, is purposefully diminished by Tóibín through the flatness of the language, so
that while it is as painstakingly constructed as anything
he has written – inching forward, as he says, “sentence
by sentence” – it has a curiously static quality.
If this strips the book of more immediate pleasures,
it is designed to mirror the traumatised state of
Orestes. “I thought, I’m going to have to make
Orestes’ murder of his
mother, Clytemnestra,
‘Teachers told
psychologically possible
my parents I was
rather than just spring it
stupid.’ When
on the reader,” says Tóibín.
he came 31st in
“And to do that I had to go
a class test ‘they
right back to the damage
just couldn’t
that was done to Orestes.
believe it; and it
I have to have him witness
was mentioned
the killing of his sister
Iphigenia. That is the
regularly; 31st’
beginning of the trauma;
he’s been holding all
this in.”
Silence, for Tóibín – “the amount of silence around
things” – is a frequent starting point in his work and
“these are things I’ve been writing in other books in
other ways that are personal to me: things that happen
you couldn’t talk about; loss; absence. And then the
fact that Orestes was kidnapped, and of course what
I start to use immediately was being sent to boarding
school and the whole sense of trying to fit in.”
Tóibín went to boarding school in his mid-teens
24 The Guardian Saturday 31 March 2018
after his father died from a brain aneurysm, and
although the school would prove a fruitful experience,
it is bound up in his mind with the blank space of grief,
a perilous state of lost coordination. Tóibín quotes
something Thomas Mann’s daughter Elisabeth said –
“that by 30, you had a duty not to blame anyone for
anything” – and laughs. “But unfortunately if you’re
a novelist, you end up stirring that pot where other
people just get on with their lives.” He thinks for
a moment. “I mean, if someone told me that Philip
Roth had a book coming out next month that was set
back in Newark, I’d say, yeah, sure, of course he’s
back in Newark. So it’s not just an Irish thing.”
For a large part of his boyhood, Tóibín’s parents – his
father a teacher, his mother a bookkeeper – thought
he was stupid. He didn’t read until he was almost 10
and “teachers told them I was stupid. ‘Colm’s no
good’ would be the thing. The others were academically so good, and my father, and I was just no good.”
He remembers vividly returning home to report to his
parents that he had come 31st in a test out of a class of
40. “And they just couldn’t believe that; how could you
come 31st? And it was mentioned quite regularly; 31st.”
Home was Enniscorthy, a small town in County
Wexford that would come to form the backdrop to
many of Tóibín’s novels, among them Nora Webster
and Brooklyn. The latter, which was made into a film
in 2015, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby and Saoirse
Ronan as the lead, is Tóibín’s most commercially
successful novel, but it is, in its way, as uncompromising as his others, inverting the traditional adventure
story of the Irish immigrant who goes west with
something more akin to reality: the wretched
displacement and homesickness of a young woman
who isn’t sure she has made the right decision.
Tóibín left Enniscorthy to go to Trinity College
Dublin, and never lived there full time again (although
he did build a fancy house on the town’s periphery,
which he uses occasionally to write in). Something
had happened in his teens; he stopped being “stupid”.
Part of the reason for going to boarding school was to
escape the fact that, at the local high school, he had
found himself in the same classrooms where his
father had taught – and at the new school, he flourished. “I had the same English teacher, who’s still
alive, as John Banville. Father Larkin, as soon as
I wrote my first essay, said to me, ‘You know, you can
write!’ And what I began to do then with Father Larkin
and the Latin teacher, was I began to give them the
poems I was writing. Things were fine then.”
After graduating, Tóibín went to live in Barcelona
for six years and has divided his time between Dublin
and the US since then. His partner, about whom he is
reluctant to give details, lives in LA and, says Tóibín
wryly, has a great deal to put up with. When he was
finishing House of Names, “I was working in my
boyfriend’s house in Los Angeles and he says that
I came in and said: ‘Jesus Christ, can you make me
Interview ¶
tea or something, he’s just
A simple heart
murdered Clytemnestra!’
Saoirse Ronan in the
And he said: ‘Are you all
2015 film adaptation
right?’ And I said: ‘No I’m
of Brooklyn
not! God no!’ He got fed up –
I couldn’t do it all the time, coming in saying, ‘Do you
know what I’ve just done now?!’”
It was the writer John McGahern who reassured
Tóibín he could write about the same things over and
over. In Brooklyn, Eilis is a strange, blank creature at
the centre of the story whom, Tóibín says, “I had to
make both determined and innocent, so that there
were many things going on in her. And what exile
had done was to make her almost incapable of true
feeling; but I couldn’t name that, I could just show it.”
He looked for guidance to a Gustave Flaubert short
story, “A Simple Heart”, and George Moore’s novel
Esther Waters, as well as Henry James’s Washington
Square and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: “bringing
Fanny Price out of her comfort zone into the other
house where she doesn’t belong”. Part of the joy of
teaching, says Tóibín, “is that you’re constantly finding
precedents. If you’re creating a really intelligent,
earnest young woman you’ve got Dorothea to work
with; if you’ve got a spirited woman who doesn’t care
about anyone else, you’ve got Gwendolen from
Daniel Deronda.”
For Eilis, Tóibín looked closely at what Austen did
with Fanny Price: “I was working on an undercurrent
in her, filled with noticing. Everyone wants her and
likes her, and she does nothing to cause this, which
causes havoc because she doesn’t know what she
feels.” What’s so startling about the end of the novel
is its terribly sad and unresolved conclusion; Eilis
returns to a life she doesn’t feel to be hers, held to the
horror of an unwanted marriage and instantly recognisable to “anyone who’s ever had a romance on
holiday and thought what a dreadful mistake”. In the
movie, this ending was replaced by a happier one.
“I’m interested in what Nick [Hornby] did with the
structure of it,” says Tóibín, “which is so brilliant;
how much he left out, how he moved the drama on.
But I tear up for the very last section, that I didn’t
write.” He doesn’t mind that it changed the novel?
“It’s gorgeous. And what were they meant to do, have
an ending with her sitting on the train feeling smug:
look what I’ve just done to everybody?”
Brooklyn is as much a story of denial as Nora
Webster and Tóibín’s 2012 novel, The Testament of
Mary, in which he elucidates the interior life of the
Virgin Mary; a great deal of it is based on his political
observations of Ireland during and after the peace
process. To write about denial as astutely as he does
is a hard exercise, a question of evoking stasis
without paralysing the reader, although denial can be
the source of extraordinary drama. During the peace
negotiations, he says, “it’s really interesting that, for
example, relatives in Enniskillen didn’t say, ‘Could
we find out who planted the bomb in Enniskillen on
Remembrance Day? Could you tell us who did it? Just
a small piece of reconciliation in Enniskillen, because
we don’t know who did it. And it would really help
us, if when we’re passing them on the street, we
would know. Or even more, if we’re sitting with them
in the town council, we would know.’ And they just
didn’t. All of that was there, too.”
I mention Boris Johnson’s recent remark that the
Irish border might be regarded, post-Brexit, as no more
cumbersome than the border inn London between
Camden and Westminster. To my surprise, he broadly
agrees with the foreign secretary’s statement. “He’s
right to say we have managed this with the congestion
charge in London, by using technology to show who’s
crossing and how; so surely we can do this with a
truck? Let’s give him credit for this.”
More broadly, he is critical of Johnson, whom he
considers more dangerous than other Tory politicians
because he is “closer to Trump in that way that he
could walk across a building site and everyone would
stop to shout at him”. As for the view on Brexit in
Ireland, he says, “there is a certain amount of glee – if
you don’t own an export company – at the sheer, sheer
foolishness of it.” He also says that as a citizen of a
country accustomed to holding – and restaging – referendums when the result was “ludicrous”, he thinks the
British government should have had the courage to ask
the populace “to vote again”. This is what happened
in Ireland after the people voted down ratifying the
treaties of Lisbon and Nice. “And the government just
said, ‘Ah, look; your voting against it makes no sense;
could you please vote again?’” In both cases, the vote
changed in the second referendum.
“The strangest part is that if anyone has a theory of
history as a predetermined thing,’’ he says, “this was a
set of errors of astonishing size. It may be that as they
blundered into it, they may blunder out, by fudging,
fudging, fudging.” Either way, there is perhaps one
guarantee, adds Tóibín, which is that at some point
the credibility of the deal may be further undermined
when people come to their senses sufficiently to “start
laughing at Jacob Rees-Mogg. His glasses! And his hair.
You knew people at school like this. If he came in to
teach your Greek lesson, would you learn Greek? No.
You’d throw things at him.”
Tóibín, whose life’s work has entailed anchoring
the sweep of history to small moments of anguish,
mortification or denial, laughs with the force of
someone who knows what he’s talking about •
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 25
¶ Label
The lives of a Syrian refugee,
a heartbroken carer and
a crooked moneyman
cross with poignant results
John Boyne
There comes a moment in
every novelist’s career where
they must decide whether
to plough the same furrow
that has brought them great
success or make their way
cautiously into another
field, uncertain whether the
From a Low
soil on neighbouring land is
and Quiet Sea
as rich. In his fourth novel,
by Donal Ryan,
Donal Ryan has not only
Doubleday, £12.99
bounded over a wall into
new territory, but built himself a castle there.
It’s astonishing to realise that Ryan’s first novel,
The Spinning Heart, was published only six years ago.
Since then, across three novels and a story collection,
he has displayed a sympathy for the voices of the
dispossessed that few writers ever develop. His debut
was narrated by 21 victims of Ireland’s economic crash;
he introduced readers to Johnsey Cunliffe, the isolated and troubled young man at the centre of The
Thing About December. Then, along came Melody
Shee in All We Shall Know, who found solace with a
younger man, Martin Toppy, a Traveller: a character
often seen and persecuted in Irish life, but still underrepresented in Irish fiction. And so, when the opening section of From a Low and Quiet Sea introduces its
first protagonist, and he is not named Seánie, Mick or
Peadar, but Farouk, readers will recognise that Ryan
has decided to try something a little different.
The novel is divided into four sections, the first
three of which feature characters whose stories
initially appear to have no relationship to each other.
Farouk is a Syrian refugee, escaping his homeland
with his wife and daughter for what he hopes will be
a brighter future in western Europe. Ryan keeps the
pace deliberately slow, with long, dense paragraphs
that are as absorbing as they are convincing. An
educated man and a doctor, Farouk’s story develops
in a manner that I suspect is painfully familiar to
anyone who has been forced to flee the country of
their birth under cover of night.
The next two sections find Ryan on more recognisable terrain. A young man, Lampy, recovering from
26 The Guardian Saturday 31 March 2018
his first broken heart, lives with his mother and
grandfather while working in a care home, driving
old people to and from hospital on a private bus. The
tone switches dramatically here but the reader quickly
warms to Lampy’s brutally honest, moving and often
hilarious narrative.
Finally, there is the elderly John, an accountant
and lobbyist filled with remorse over a failed relationship with a much younger woman. A money-wielding
shyster, the sort whose illicit actions precipitated the
dramas of The Spinning Heart, he is thrown off balance
by an unexpected crush that quickly turns to obsession and violence.
The three stories are equally involving but it is only
when the final section arrives that they are drawn
together in the most heartbreaking manner. There
are revelations to be found in the closing pages, and
connections between characters that took me by surprise – making me utter an expletive aloud in Dublin
airport while reading, causing a woman sitting next
to me to declare furiously, “May God forgive you!”,
before picking up her carry-on luggage and moving
somewhere less profane.
I struggle to think of a writer who has been so
prolific and consistent in quality as Ryan, the best
of the new wave of Irish authors to have emerged
over the last decade. His ability to understand the
minds of young men stuck in small towns, longing
for escape but unsure
There are
how to achieve it, is
revelations in
second to none. But he is
the closing pages,
also able to write about
and connections
older people reliving the
between characters mistakes of their lives
with compassion and
that took me by
surprise – making me a total lack of sentimentality. And throughout all
utter an expletive
his work runs a careful
in Dublin airport
study of Ireland’s historical prejudices, combined
with clear insights into
what makes it such a
peculiar, complicated and contradictory country.
Lampy and John figure alongside Johnsey as Ryan’s
most vivid creations to date, but it’s Farouk who is the
beating heart of this novel. He disappears after 50
pages, only to return at the end, but his presence
hovers over every paragraph and we can almost sense
him making his way slowly towards Ireland as we
busy ourselves with the other two narratives.
This is a superb novel, from a writer building a
body of work the equal of any today. His books are
filled with love and righteous anger, most of which
lurks darkly beneath the surface ready to explode like
an ill-judged comment at a family gathering. Until
now, The Spinning Heart was my favourite of Ryan’s
novels. From a Low and Quiet Sea is better.
John Boyne’s latest novel is The Heart’s Invisible
Furies (Doubleday). To buy From a Low and Quiet
Sea for £9.69 go to
Fiction ¶
Debauchery and wild times
turn to frustration and fear after
four siblings are told the exact
dates on which they will die
Clare Clark
If you knew the day you were
going to die, how would you
choose to live? This is the
question at the heart – and
on the cover – of American
author Chloe Benjamin’s
second novel, The Immortalists (her first, The Anatomy of
The Immortalists
Dreams, was not published
by Chloe Benjamin,
in the UK). Given the catchy
Tinder, £16.99
Hollywood-style pitch, it is
little surprise that the book has been snapped up by
publishers across the globe and a TV adaptation is
already in the works. Less predictable is just how
engaging this bittersweet novel turns out to be.
Benjamin’s story starts in a sweltering New York
apartment during the summer of 1969. The four
Gold siblings are restless. Something, it seems, “is
happening to everyone but them”. The oldest, Varya,
is 13, the youngest, Simon, only seven, but it is 11-yearold Daniel who hears about the woman on Hester
Street who can predict the exact date you will die, and
nine-year-old Klara who summons up the courage to
knock on her door. The experience unnerves them all.
None of them wants to talk about it. Not until nine years
later, shaken by the unexpected death of their father,
do they finally share their dates with one another.
The novel unfolds over four parts, one for each of
the siblings in order of their predicted deaths. Simon,
who will die shortly after his 20th birthday, is determined not to risk wasting a moment: “What if the woman
on Hester Street is right and the next few years are his
last? The mere thought turns his
life a different colour; it makes
Las Vegas magic
everything feel urgent, glittering, precious.” Abandoning their widowed mother, he and Klara escape
New York for San Francisco, where Simon comes out
and throws himself into the sexual free-for-all of the
pre-Aids gay scene. Mercurial Klara, who will die in
her 30s, pursues her lifelong fascination with magic,
developing an act that will take her to Las Vegas. The
two elder siblings stay in New York to take care of
their mother. Daniel becomes a military doctor, Varya
a scientist whose academic research with primates
investigates the prolonging of life.
In an interview Benjamin has described her novel
as “a book that explores how to live with uncertainty
… It is an unbelievable, absurd paradox that we have
to put one step in front of the other every day without
knowing which one will be our last.” Taking each of
her four characters in turn, she asks, is the knowledge
a curse or a blessing? Does it liberate you to live life to
the full or does it hobble you, stripping you of agency?
What is it that you choose to believe in? By leaving
open the question of whether the clairvoyant is a seer
or a fraud, Benjamin allows each of the quartet to react
in their own way, in accordance with their nature.
It is the clairvoyant herself who quotes Heraclitus’s
epigram: character is fate. “You wanna know the
future?” she asks Varya. “Look in the mirror.”
Benjamin is trying to do a lot in this novel and it
doesn’t always work. Sometimes she shows her workings too clearly: musing on her siblings, Varya wonders how they could “diverge so dramatically in their
temperaments, their fatal flaws”. The investigation
Varya is conducting into human longevity is too
heavy-handedly metaphorical for its own good.
Benjamin has researched her material meticulously
and too much information makes its way undigested
on to the page; there are also several moments where
the plot veers towards the preposterous.
But despite these cavils The Immortalists worms
its way under your skin. Benjamin writes with verve
and charm and her four protagonists are resolutely
real. She is particularly good at the sibling bond,
the unbreakable ties that bind brothers and sisters
together even as they drive each other to distraction.
The novel begins in Technicolor, with all the eager
vitality of youth, and gradually slows and darkens as
the weight of loss accumulates, casting a long shadow
over the siblings who remain. It is a testament to
Benjamin’s skill that, as her story pulls focus from
the wild nightclubs of the Castro and the glitter of Las
Vegas to life in the suburbs, as youthful exhilaration
and recklessness give way to grief and anger and
frustration and fear, the novel itself does not narrow
but instead grows deeper and more absorbing. As for
the question posed on the book’s cover, Benjamin
offers no easy answers. I am willing to predict that
The Immortalists will have book groups across the
UK vigorously debating the issue.
Clare Clark’s latest novel is We That Are Left
(Vintage). To buy The Immortalists for £14.44
go to
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 27
¶ Fiction
{ Short stories } A daring
debut collection explores
alienation, absurdity and
the things that are left unsaid
Melissa Harrison
Chris Power’s insightful and
intellectually nimble column
A Brief Survey of the Short
Story has appeared on the
Guardian website since
2007. To produce one’s own
short story collection, after
a decade spent in critical
engagement with writers
by Chris Power,
such as Vladimir Nabokov,
Faber, £10
Angela Carter, John Cheever
and Elizabeth Taylor is a brave and potentially
exposing move. Having examined in forensic detail
the strengths and weaknesses, the foibles and failures and moments of genius of so many practitioners
of the short form, what happens when you turn your
hand to it yourself?
The 10 stories that make up Mothers resist superficial analysis in a way that is interesting in itself.
Power is an extraordinarily unshowy craftsman, so
that discussing the writing itself feels like trying to
focus on the glass of a window, rather than the view
beyond. This is partly a function of the transparency
of the prose, which so lacks ornament as to almost
feel bald in places, and partly to do with the disposition of his narrators, all of whom share a kind of
emotional reserve that is close to affectlessness. The
risk in this kind of writing is that it leaves the reader
unmoved; the reward is that it can more closely mirror
daily life, which plays out without a string section
or a set of filters to indicate or intensify the mood.
The title of the collection comes from the three
stories that open, close
and form the heart of the
book: “Summer 1976”,
“Innsbruck” and “Eva”.
All concern the same
woman, Eva, glimpsed
at different stages of a
life deeply marked by her
relationship with her own
Long and short of it
mother. When, in the final
Vladimir Nabokov,
story, she becomes a
Angela Carter,
mother herself, we are
John Cheever and
left to speculate about
Elizabeth Taylor are
the subsequent effects on
among the authors
her own daughter, and the
whose short stories
manner in which loss and
Chris Power has
damage are often handed
studied and written
down the generations. This
about over the
is by no means new material last decade
28 The Guardian Saturday 31 March 2018
for writers of fiction, but what Power does with it is
subtly different, for so much is left unsaid that the
result is a deliberately frustrating gap in interpretation. Deliberate because again, this is like life,
in which our knowledge of other people – even our
mothers – is only ever partial. Power’s insistence
that the reader occupies a position of discomfiting
uncertainty about cause and effect in Eva’s life is
risky, but is absolutely true to the lived experience
he is trying to recreate.
Mothers is internationalist in outlook, with stories
set in Sweden, Greece, France, the US, Mexico and
Spain and a cast of characters who for the most part
move with interest and openness through the world
in search of work, or love, or something they can’t
define. This gives the collection a flavour that might
have been less noticeable five years ago, but in today’s
political climate feels eloquent.
The stories’ philosophical tenor frequently recalls
Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’s The Outsider: alienation,
absurdity, freedom and the search for meaning run
through many of the narratives here. Another theme
is the way in which people
The risk in this kind often fail to connect, hamof unshowy writing pered by the gulf between
is that it leaves the the inner worlds they
reader unmoved; the inhabit. In “The Crossing”
reward is that it can a new couple, Ann and
more closely mirror Jim, go walking on
Exmoor, where enfordaily life, which
ced closeness combined
plays out without
with revealing moments
a string section
of physical vulnerability
cause the early impressions they have formed
of one another to disintegrate. The way Ann tries to stifle her irritation and
her complex ambivalence about sleeping with Jim is
beautifully captured. In both “Above the Wedding”
and “Innsbruck” a sexual encounter is embarked on
but then halted by one partner, the physical reality
of bodies meeting utterly out of step with the kind
of connection they had had in mind. In “Run” it
is Englishman David’s obsession with the second
world war that ruins a holiday in Sweden, his
girlfriend Gunilla, as enigmatic a character as Eva,
not just withdrawing from the reality he wants her
to share in, but staging an escape.
In an essay for the Guardian on James Salter,
Power wrote that the short story “prioritises the
extraordinary moment above the changes over time
found in novels”. Each story in Mothers does that
brilliantly; but across the Eva triptych Power is
undeniably concerned with the passage of time.
Mothers is a uniquely unsettling and subtle debut
collection; one wonders if a longer work might also
be on the cards.
Melissa Harrison’s third novel, All Among the Barley,
will be published by Bloomsbury in August. To buy
Mothers for £8.50 go to
Fiction ¶
An exile looks back on her Irish
childhood and lost love in a
skilful study of a life lived on
the fringes of sweeping change
Suzi Feay
Unforgettable characters drive
this electrifying, dystopian
vision of an America in which
abortion has been outlawed
Katharine Coldiron
Kit de Waal’s 2016 debut, My
Name Is Leon, about the differing fates of two fostered
half-brothers, was a critical
and commercial hit. Her
second novel, longlisted this
month for the Women’s prize
for fiction, also draws on her
The Trick to Time
Irish heritage for the protagby Kit de Waal,
onist Mona, who is almost
Viking, £12.99
60, living alone, an exile in
an England that has never quite felt like home. Flashbacks gradually fill in the gaps to reveal both the tragic
and the mundane events that have brought her there.
Mona is an appealing heroine, rich in skills and
experience and not obviously lonely, though definitely intrigued by the elegant man living opposite
whom she occasionally glimpses at his window. She
sells dolls, unique collector’s items, painstakingly
dressed and posed in the elaborate window of her
shop. A gifted woodcarver crafts the bodies, which
Mona then paints, sewing bespoke outfits for each
tiny individual. Always on the lookout for items to
repurpose – a broken earring she can deconstruct
into a fancy button, a cut-up vinyl pencil case to
turn into a pair of shiny boots – Mona has similarly
constructed a miniaturised life from scraps. As her
birthday approaches, she questions whether it is
too late to live on a larger scale.
The picture is gradually revealed of a childhood in
Ireland with the adorable father she has in some sense
abandoned, and gorgeous William, who sweeps her
away to a new life in England. The gushing strapline
appears to promise romantic fluff: “If you lost the
love of your life, what would you do to live again?”
William and Karl, the gentlemanly neighbour, at first
seem idealised male portraits and somewhat thinly
drawn, but in scenes of real power De Waal fleshes
them out with flaws, insecurities and secrets.
Considering its setting in Birmingham in the early
1970s, and the couple’s nationality, it’s not too hard
to guess one dramatic plot turn. But as in My Name Is
Leon, De Waal excels at bringing out the humanity of
characters leading small lives on the fringe of huge
social and political forces. The “trick to time” is that
it can expand or contract at will, and in creating a
mature heroine with decades of history, De Waal
has herself performed a feat of skilful compression.
In Leni Zumas’s intense,
beautifully crafted novel,
abortion has been outlawed
across the US. Further
draconian policies follow:
laws against the disposal of
fertilised embryos and the
Every Child Needs Two act,
Red Clocks
which forbids adoption by
by Leni Zumas,
single parents. These are
Borough, £16.99
intended to imprison
women in outgrown roles, but they are hardly
impossible to imagine in the America of 2018. The
new laws affect the four women who narrate Red
Clocks in different ways, but all of them feel the pinch.
Risky, to try to out-Atwood Atwood, but the book
on which this models itself is The Robber Bride. Like
that novel, Red Clocks is far more driven by characterisation, and its exploration of the bonds between
women, than by its plot, which comes down to relatively predictable binary choices. Roberta is a single
woman trying to conceive, and many clocks are
ticking against her; Mattie, her teenage student, has
an unwanted baby in her womb; Gin, an unabashed
witch, finds herself on trial for a crime she did not
commit; and Susan, a former lawyer, feels trapped
in her marriage and lost in motherhood. They are
weird, passionate, unforgettable characters.
To buy The Trick to Time for £9.69 go to
To buy Red Clocks for £14.44 go to
In a place that is neither mind nor heart, or both at
once, she wants an ashy line down the center of a
round belly; she wants nausea [...] does the desire
come from some creaturely place, pre-civilised,
some biological throb that floods her bloodways
with the message Make more of yourself! To repeat,
not to improve.
The dialogue is so quick and multilayered as to take
one’s breath away. The rank uselessness of the men
who appear in this novel crystallises in their words,
in the way they contradict their words with their
actions. The powerlessness and fury of women find
an outlet in their spoken protests, their pleas to be
heard by idiotic doctors, husbands who cannot see
their marriages unravelling. Zumas elucidates, in
virtuosic prose, the struggle to be valued running like
a power line under every incarnation of feminism.
Her talent is electric. Get ready for a shock.
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 29
Books of
the month
{ Children and teenagers }
Griffins and gooriallas,
knights and spies – and
all the fun of a feast
Imogen Russell Williams
This Easter, picture-book fans have plenty to choose
from, including Juniper Jupiter (Frances Lincoln),
a delightfully down-to-earth superhero story from
Waterstones award-winner Lizzy Stewart. Juniper
has formidable powers, including super-strength,
flight and modesty (her great deeds are “no big deal”).
But who could possibly be strong, courageous and
funny enough to be her perfect sidekick? Crammed
with the warm, enticing detail of the everyday, this
is a vivid and absorbing book.
Meanwhile, Sarah McIntyre’s The New Neighbours
(David Fickling) features a tower block full of animal
tenants. When a pigeon brings news to the top-floor
bunnies that rats are moving into the building, they are
thrilled; but as the news makes its way downwards,
attitudes harden, and pigs, polar bears and yaks in
turn declare rats to be smelly, thieving undesirables.
What will happen when the residents finally meet
the newcomers? McIntyre finds energy and humour
without being preachy in this comic, layered warning
against misinformation and prejudice.
For the very smallest, Jörg Mühle’s beloved bunny
returns in another perfectly judged interactive board
book, Poor Little Rabbit! (Gecko). When Little Rabbit
hurts his arm – and there’s blood! – it falls to the reader
to console him with bandages, rhymes and ear-strokes,
allowing toddlers to revel in their own kindness.
Readers from five to eight should be inspired by
Jamia Wilson’s Young, Gifted and Black: Meet 52
Black Heroes from Past and Present (Wide Eyed),
with celebratory illustrations by Andrea Pippins.
Although there is a strong slant towards the US –
Wilson is based in New York – the breadth of
talent and ambition showcased offers something
for everyone, ranging from heads of state to
singers, sporting heroes to award-winning authors.
Myth Match: A Fantastical Flipbook of Imaginary
Beasts by creative partnership Good Wives and
Warriors (Laurence King) elegantly combines two winning ideas: the flipbook and the mythological bestiary.
Richly illustrated in brilliant, fiery colours, it allows
the reader first to learn about legendary creatures from
the griffin to goorialla, and then to create still more
extraordinary hybrids.
30 The Guardian Saturday 31 March 2018
Fiction ¶
Clockwise from
main: Myth Match;
Juniper Jupiter;
Teacup House; the
covers of The New
Neighbours and Tin
There are more domesticated magical creatures
in Teacup House – Meet the Twitches (Usborne),
the first in a new series by Hayley Scott, with
bewitching pictures from Pippa Curnick. Stevie
doesn’t want to leave her old home – but when her
grandmother gives her the tiny Twitch rabbit family,
in their teacup house, she is fascinated by the way
they seem to move by themselves … Completely
charming and immersive, it’s the sort of book that
turns a child’s first independent reading into
a lifelong addiction to books.
For eight to 12, Irish author Dave Rudden concludes
his Knights of the Borrowed Dark trilogy in high style
with The Endless King (Puffin), crammed with the
morally complex, evocative writing that marked out
the first two books. Denizen Hardwick and his fellow
young knights have travelled to Daybreak, the remote
ancestral home of their order, to continue their
training. But when the Endless King falls, they find
themselves, instead, facing a full-scale Tenebrous
invasion – and if their stronghold falls, so does the
world. The swift-paced, emotion-laden, apocalyptic
action won’t disappoint fans who have been eagerly
awaiting the last instalment.
There are more dark forces at play in Tin (Chicken
House), a superlative debut from another Irish writer,
Pádraig Kenny. Christopher is “proper” – a real boy,
with a soul – but his best friends are the mechanical
children who share the junkyard where he lives.
When their owner/employer, the unscrupulous
Mr Absalom, falls foul of two sinister visitors,
Christopher and his friends are forced to undertake
a dangerous journey, and meet some shattering
truths head-on. Full of empathy, anger, sorrow and
love, this is a robot story squarely focused on what
it means to be human.
Across the pond, the Pulitzer-winning Jane Smiley
combines laconic charm, a gutsy heroine pitched
somewhere between Ramona Quimby and Harriet
the Spy, and a loving sense of human-equine communication in Riding Lessons (Scholastic), a quiet
little book in which both nothing and everything
seem to happen. Ellen is bright, impatient of restraint, and desperate to ride; her parents are adopting
a new baby. Is the new horse at the stables really speaking to her? Will she ever have a horse of her own?
For young adult readers, performance poet Laura
Dockrill’s fierce appetite for life has never blazed
brighter than in the glorious Big Bones (Hot Key).
Sixteen-year-old Bluebelle – BB – is very overweight,
but chooses to love her body as much as she loves food
and cooking. When her mum agrees to BB’s leaving
school before A-levels, it’s on condition that she gets
fitter, while the nurse insists she keep a food diary.
This novel is, ostensibly, the result: a paean to feasting,
family and good care of the self, and a penetrating
insight into how teenage girls are taught to fear
either food or fitness. Irresistibly hilarious and original, it shows Dockrill’s enormous rhapsodic charm.
There is more funny, thought-provoking feminism
in Laura Stevens’s debut The Exact Opposite of Okay
(Electric Monkey), which skewers double standards
and entitled “Nice Guys” with surreal, sparkling
humour. When would-be screenwriter and comic Izzy
O’Neill is snapped in flagrante delicto at a party with a
senator’s son, a website springs up condemning her
as a “world-class whore”. As her body, morality and
personality become the targets of vicious online
debate, Izzy attempts to navigate budding romance
and friendship troubles while tracking down the
website’s originator.
Finally, another spectacular debut, Matt Killeen’s
Orphan Monster Spy (Usborne), is a pulse-pounding,
pitch-black Nazi espionage thriller told from the
perspective of a teenage Jewish girl. Traumatised
by her mother’s murder, saved by a British spy, the
magnificently adaptive Sarah is sent undercover
into an elite German boarding school for the future
mothers of the Reich. While giving trauma and
sorrow their full, deserved weight, Killeen sets a
cracking pace – and pulls off the risks he takes with
breathtaking panache.
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 31
Out in
To buy all these
titles at a discount
visit our bookshop
or call 0330 3333 6846.
Free UK p&p over £10
online orders only. Phone
orders min p&p of £1.99.
{ Business & finance }
{ History }
{ Fiction }
Move Fast and Break
Things: How Facebook,
Google, and Amazon
Have Cornered Culture
and Undermined
by Jonathan Taplin,
Pan, £8.99
St Petersburg:
Three Centuries of
Murderous Desire
by Jonathan Miles,
Windmill, £10.99
The Girl Who Takes
an Eye for an Eye
by David Lagercrantz,
translated by George
Goulding, Quercus, £7.99
Miles’s cinematic telling
of the 300-year history
of Russia’s former capital
chronicles its establishment as a singular act
of sovereign will. Peter
the Great mobilised the
resources of an empire
to lay the foundations
of a city on the banks of
the unruly Neva. Within
a century, it had become
one of the great cities of
the world.
The early chapters are
too dominated by the
history of the court, but
when Miles turns to the
workers who thronged
the muddy roads and
filthy workshops, he
writes evocatively and
The book shows how
the drama, absurdity,
splendour and squalor of
the imperial capital all
found their way into
Russia’s finest novels,
operas and paintings.
Imperial grandeur was
usurped in 1917 by revolutionary zeal; the privations of Stalinism and the
terror of the secret police
gave way to the unspeakable horrors of the siege.
The collapse of the
Soviet Union cast St
Petersburg into impoverished chaos and for a time
it became the criminal
centre of Russia. Miles
peels back its layers of
myth, while never losing
sight of its haunting
grace. Daniel Beer
Swedish journalist Stieg
Larsson planned 10
instalments in his Millennium series before his
untimely death. The
three novels he wrote
had energy, spectacular
violence and superb plotting. His clunky prose
was forgiven because
there was real chemistry
between his stars, computer hacker Lisbeth
Salander and journalist
Mikael Blomkvist. The
series made a fortune
and, as no good deed goes
unpunished, it has been
turned into a franchise.
The second instalment
written by David Lagercrantz is billed as the revelation of the appalling
things done to Salander
when she was a child, but
the narrative meanders
between a bewildering
array of storylines that
never come together. The
author commits the cardinal sin of telling rather
than showing: there are
long, mansplaining sections about genetics and
social research; he has
turned Larsson’s eccentric and feral feminism
into a simple inversion.
This time there are two
female arch-villains after
Salander. One is an ageing
Mad Scientist, the other a
cartoonish gang boss. He
has all the elements of
the series at his disposal,
but the adrenaline is
missing. Margie Orford
The victims of the titans
of the digital age include
many of the artists who
create things of real value
and who can no longer
earn a living from doing
so. Taplin’s sense of outrage is palpable and his
case is often compelling,
but the evidence he marshals is mainly secondhand. The more personal
and original sections concern his own experiences
in the music and film
industries (he was once
manager of the Band).
Any era will value its
own products, especially
those people who helped
make them. The real
story is what’s happening
at the top. This is now a
winner-takes-all market,
and extends far beyond
the culture industries. It
isn’t about art – it’s about
money and power, as the
Cambridge Analytica
scandal has made clear.
Taplin recognises this
and devotes a lot of time
to exploring the business
models through which
Mark Zuckerberg et al
have gobbled up the
world. In the face of that
kind of influence and
reach, firing back with
tales of rock stars in their
glory days is like taking
a peashooter into battle
with a hurricane.
David Runciman
32 The Guardian Saturday 31 March 2018
{ Fiction }
{ Fiction }
Peculiar Ground
by Lucy Hughes-Hallett,
4th Estate, £8.99
The Fall Guy
by James Lasdun,
Vintage, £8.99
1. Let Me Lie
by Clare Mackintosh
1. Eleanor Oliphant
Is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman
SALES 4,531 | PRICE £12.99
Cultural historian Lucy
Hughes-Hallett’s extraordinarily accomplished
first novel opens in 1663,
12 years after the civil
war, at an old Oxfordshire
estate, Wychwood. Then
we shift forwards 300
years, to the walled
Wychwood of the early
1960s and another
pivotal moment of social
upheaval: the erection
of the Berlin Wall. Later
we move on to 1989, and
its demolition. Yet the
world is no safer: a fatwa
has been issued, and
an Indian publisher
caught in the crossfire
has sought sanctuary.
Aids has drawn terrifyingly near, and storm
clouds bear down on
the great trees and
ancient buildings.
This is a big novel: it is
long, rich, dense, capacious and complicated;
it has timeshifts and
doubling-back and a
sprawling cast. It is absolutely involving, thanks
to beautiful description
and a fine understanding
of human emotion. Its
preoccupations – with
class, loyalty, morality,
long marriage and the
nature of love – are
not thrust at us at the
expense of character,
but allowed to develop
organically. Humane,
thoughtful, compelling
and packed with magic,
this is a remarkable
Christobel Kent
Summer, 2012: banker
Charlie and his cousin
Matthew set out one
evening in Charlie’s
Lexus to join his wife,
Chloe, at their summer
home in the Catskills. It’s
a complex relationship.
Charlie, you sense, usually gets what he wants.
Matthew is more the
junior partner, biddable.
You’re soon wondering
which of them might be
the fall guy of the title.
Billed as a psychological thriller, and with its
deftly constructed narratives of guilt and buried
resentment, this is more
accessible than Lasdun’s
previous novels, and
filmic to the point where
it can seem like a cleverly
fleshed-out screenplay.
Watching the three lure
one another into a trap
not quite of their own
making has a shivery fascination. The jig danced
with the audience’s
expectations risks a loss
of sympathy for everyone, including Lasdun.
Nevertheless his real
intention remains clear
and distinctively his own
– the subtle construction
of a central character to
whom our only access as
readers is through imposture. Matthew shifts with
the light, and in the end
we’re left with the sense
of a psyche swinging
between anxiety, aggression and mourning for a
life that never quite got
going. M John Harrison
SALES 22,860 | PRICE £8.99
2. The Rising Sea
by Clive Cussler &
Graham Brown
2. Good Friday
by Lynda La Plante
SALES 3,259 | PRICE £18.99
SALES 11,805 | PRICE £7.99
3. NYPD Red 5
by James Patterson
3. Fifty Fifty
by James Patterson
SALES 2,830 | PRICE £20
SALES 8,328 | PRICE £7.99
4. Still Me
by Jojo Moyes
4. Love Like Blood
by Mark Billingham
SALES 2,587 | PRICE £20
SALES 8,192 | PRICE £7.99
5. Why Mummy Drinks
by Gill Sims
5. Insidious Intent
by Val McDermid
SALES 2,472 | PRICE £12.99
SALES 8,000 | PRICE £7.99
1. Classic
by Mary Berry
1. A Brief
History of Time
by Stephen Hawking
SALES 11,359 | PRICE £26
SALES 14,197 | PRICE £9.99
2. Lose Weight for Good:
Full-Flavour Cooking
for a Low-Calorie Diet
by Tom Kerridge
2. Why We Sleep
by Matthew Walker
SALES 13,788 | PRICE £9.99
SALES 7,703 | PRICE £22
3. Good Night Stories
for Rebel Girls
by Elena Favilli &
Francesca Cavallo
SALES 5,118 | PRICE £20
4. Rebel Prince
by Tom Bower
SALES 4,673 | PRICE £20
3. Sapiens: A Brief
History of Humankind
by Yuval Noah Harari
SALES 5,930 | PRICE £9.99
4. Other Minds:
The Octopus and
the Evolution of
Intelligent Life
by Peter Godfrey-Smith
SALES 4,102 | PRICE £9.99
5. Good Night Stories
for Rebel Girls 2
by Elena Favilli &
Francesca Cavallo
5. The Fat-Loss Plan
by Joe Wicks
SALES 3,639 | PRICE £16.99
SALES 4,395 | PRICE £25
Data supplied by Nielsen Bookscan taken from
the total consumer market to 24 March.
Printed at York Mailing Ltd, Brinkworth Rush, Airfield Business Park, Elvington, York, YO41 4AU
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 33
¶ Arts essay
Back to black
Sean O’Hagan
It took US artist
Taryn Simon seven
years to create her
latest installation,
which brings together
professional mourners
from 15 different
countries. She explains
why the work is as
risky as it is moving
34 The Guardian Saturday 31 March 2018
n September 2016, as final preparations were
being made for a carefully choreographed
ceremony of remembrance at the 9/11 memorial site in downtown Manhattan, another
kind of mourning ritual was being orchestrated at the Armory arts centre by artist
Taryn Simon. The vast venue occupies an
entire block of the island’s Upper East Side, and
entering it via a fire escape, visitors found themselves
on a balcony overlooking a cavernous space in which
11 tall concrete towers stood in a semicircle. Far
below, figures emerged from the semi-darkness and
went into the towers, one by one. As the audience
proceeded downstairs, the first of several shrill, guttural voices broke the silence in wild-sounding lamentation. Over the next 15 minutes, the space filled
with a cacophony of loss: wailing, singing, chanting
and keening. The combined force of the outpourings
reached a sustained climax then fell away again to
a single voice and, eventually, a deep silence worthy
of Samuel Beckett.
For An Occupation of Loss, Simon gathered professional mourners from 15 different countries, including Ghana, Greece, Azerbaijan, Cambodia and Burkina
Faso. Many came from families in which the art of
mourning has been passed through generations. The
Greek lamentations have been traced back to ancient
times, to the formation of democracy and the state.
Yazidi laments are expressions of collective exile, displacement and homesickness. In Borneo, female mourners are said to undertake a
perilous journey to the other
Visions of grief
side and back alongside the
Taryn Simon, left;
soul of the deceased.
and clockwise from
“I have heard this kind
top right, mourners
of mourning referred to as
Nota Kaltsouni,
melodicised speech and also
Aníbal González,
as tuneful weeping,” Simon
Haji Rahila Jafarova
said after the performance.
and Aziz Tamoyan
“It can sound like music, but
it is not music. It is a heightened expression of loss that
comes from a place beyond words, beyond language,
a purely sonic experience.”
The installation was scheduled to come to the
UK the following year in collaboration with commissioning body ArtAngel, whose previous projects have
included Rachel Whiteread’s inside-out house (1993)
and Ryoji Ikeda’s light sculpture Spectra (2014). But
that plan fell through due to the difficulty of finding
a suitable site and the complexity and cost of transporting the towers. (Their combined weight was
675,000lb.) Instead, Simon and ArtAngel will stage a
radically altered version of An Occupation of Loss next
month at a secret underground location in London.
“The act of walking is now a bigger part of the experience,” Simon says, “as there is quite a long journey
to reach the space, a passageway to remove you
from the world of life and light above ground.”
In New York, audience members were free to engage
with the mourners up close, by entering the towers,
or sitting on the floor listening to the mounting Arts essay ¶
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 35
¶ Arts essay
wall of sound. Most people did both, but only
after a long, slightly awkward interlude when no one
knew quite how to react to the overwhelming, slightly
threatening noise. There was reticence, even embarrassment, at engaging with something so visceral,
and the sense that what we were witnessing was
a performance: a mourning without a corpse.
A Ghanaian woman wept profusely as she sang,
but stopped abruptly, looking suddenly composed.
In another tower, a blind Ecuadorian mourner played
the accordion and sang with disturbing intensity.
Simon tells me later that he performs at four to five
funerals a day, and has done so for the last 40 years.
There is a tension, she agrees, between the potency of the experience and the fact that at a funeral
the mourners are paid to articulate the grief of those
present. “For the audience to think about how something that seems so pure and private is being shaped
and performed scrambles everything.”
But even as an art installation, she argues, their work
retains its participatory nature. “Their performance
activates tears in the mourners – and sometimes in
those who enter the heightened atmosphere of
the towers.”
Simon, who is nothing if not obsessive, was present
at every performance in New York. “It’s been painful
for me to watch, because some performances feel so
right and others just don’t,” she told me in the Armory,
as the mourners took a break, gathering with their
translators for a meal of rice and chicken. “Things
have happened that are essentially uncontrollable.
A security guard just walked into the middle of one
performance with his keys jangling.”
The work casts light on the ways in which western
rituals of collective mourning have increasingly been
stage-managed by governments and organised religion
to exclude any visceral or disruptive expressions of
Wild at heart
Simon’s photography
combines deep
research and a detached
documentary approach.
In White Tiger she
captures the physical
and psychological
effects of selective
36 The Guardian Saturday 31 March 2018
grief. Following the recent Parkland school shooting
in Florida, says Simon, “there was not a unified voice
of loss so the children had to step into that space”.
Even by Simon’s standards, An Occupation of Loss
is a vaultingly ambitious project, and one that marks
a departure from the photographic work for which
she is best known. In 2007, she published An American
Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, a book that defined
her distinctive conceptual terrain. Combining deep
research and a detached documentary approach,
it comprised photographs of the interiors of organisations known for their secrecy, including the Church
of Scientology, the Prisoner of War Interrogation
Resistance Program operated by Team Delta – a private
body run by former US military personnel – as well
as a cryopreservation unit where bodies are frozen
after death.
In 2011, she showed A Living Man Declared Dead at
Tate Modern, in which she traced the bloodlines of 18
families across the globe. It took her four years to complete with only two months given over to the actual
photographing of the subjects.
An Occupation of Loss has been seven years in the
making, four of which were spent on gathering affidavits and references from anthropologists and academics to support her repeated applications for visas for
each of the performers. By the time the installation
opened, she had amassed a stack of official papers a
foot high. “So many of the visas came through at the
last moment,” she says, “and there was this almost
overwhelming sense that anything could have gone
badly wrong. It was so fraught. At every point, I felt
there was a possibility it might not happen. It is not,”
she says quietly, “a good way to make art” •
An Occuption of Loss takes place in London N1 from
17-28 April.
Made In ¶
Made in
Will Self
My father was friends
with a remarkable
woman called Francesca
Wilson, who, besides
being one of the first
women to graduate from
Cambridge University,
worked at the United
Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.
Francesca had a ramshackle cottage in
Walberswick, a village on
the Suffolk coast where
we went for holidays
when I was a child and
which had a reputation
for being mildly raffish
and bohemian. Other
early adopters included
members of the extended
Freud family, and Eric
Blair’s parents settled for
retirement in adjoining
Southwold, which is
why the writer took his
nom de plume from the
nearby River Orwell.
Along the shingly
shore from Walberswick
you reach the remains of
Dunwich, a large port in
the medieval period, that
long since slid beneath
the erosive waves. And
beyond, the great greige
concrete block of the
Sizewell nuclear power
station. When my first
marriage broke up in the
early 1990s, I went back
to live near Sizewell,
looking for the bucolical
and the peace to write,
but also in search of lost
times when I had come
to a certain kind of consciousness in these
weird environs.
I say weird, because
Creek Cottage came
complete with its own
hermit: an architect
who’d had a nervous
breakdown and read
me passages from the
Diamond Sutra over
green tea. Weird, also,
because if you walked
along the creek from the
cottage, you might well
sight a coypu or two –
strange giant South
American rodents that
had escaped from captivity and found a home
in the marshes. And
weird because the social
ecology of Walberswick
seems redolent of those
permissive times, when
boundaries of all sorts
were being broken.
The inconceivably
long and sunny days I
spent running wild with
other holidaying kids
merged, subtly, with the
days I spent dropping
acid with hippies on
permanent vacation. At
some point, I stopped
going to Walberswick
with my parents –
instead, I hitchhiked up
Reedy marshland
in Walberswick, Suffolk
the A12 from London,
and camped on the beach
by myself. Here I met
Bob, an ex-RAF man who
taught me how to shoot a
rabbit with a .22 airgun.
After we’d eaten rabbit
stew, we’d snaffle down
acid blotters and look up
at the crystal of the
darkening empyrean.
Returning 25 years
later, Walberswick’s air
of raffish bohemianism
had given way to Bodencatalogue embourgeoisification. WG Sebald’s
anonymous alter ego
passes this way in The
Rings of Saturn, and,
confronted with the
monstrous solecism of a
new gastro pub, I felt just
as disembodied. If only
Bob had still been there,
to talk me down.
Will Self’s Phone is
available in paperback
from Penguin.
Saturday 31 March 2018 The Guardian 37
¶ Further reading
Books to understand
the mysteries
of the mind
Nick Chater
Since Plato, philosophers
have had doubts about
how our senses provide
knowledge of the external world. But surely we
are the ultimate arbiters
of the contents of the
“inner world” of our
minds? More than a
century of psychological
and neuroscience suggests quite the opposite.
Our sense that we can
inspect our own thoughts
and feelings is an illusion;
and almost everything
we think we know about
our minds is false.
Daniel Dennett’s
classic Consciousness
Explained takes apart
our intuitions about our
minds, and finds them
riddled with confusion.
The mind is, Dennett
suggests, a spectacular
confabulator, generating
a stream of partial and
contradictory representations of the world.
It is a storyteller that
presents us with a series
of sketchy and incompatible drafts, and has us
believe they are a unified
and detailed narrative.
Christopher Chabris
and Daniel Simons have
pioneered experiments
exploring one of Dennett’s themes: the gap
between our sense that
we experience a rich,
multicoloured world and
the stark reality: that we
see the world through
a remarkably narrow
“window” of attention.
Their book The Invisible
Gorilla outlines their
most famous experiment:
counting the number of
times a group of people
completely miss a person, dressed as a gorilla,
right before their eyes.
The phenomenon of
“inattentional blindness”
is the starting point for a
catalogue of astonishing
J Kevin O’Regan
helped discover an
equally astonishing
Tom Gauld
38 The Guardian Saturday 31 March 2018
phenomenon. Presented
with rapidly alternating
frames of a photograph,
even with huge changes,
we often see nothing
amiss. The sense that
we “take in” the photo
turns out to be an illusion. What, then, does it
mean to be conscious of
any aspect of the perceptual world? In Why Red
Doesn’t Sound Like a
Bell, O’Regan puts forward a fascinating theory
of the nature of conscious
experience – as depending on the “loop” between our actions and our
senses – that turns our
intuitions upside down.
Like our perceptual
experiences, our feelings
turn out to be flimsy
constructions, created in
the moment rather than
welling up from mysterious mental depths.
In How Emotions Are
Made, Lisa Feldman
Barrett reveals how
the very idea of “raw”
emotion is an illusion.
Instead, our emotions
are interpretations of our
physiological state – and
the world around us. By
changing how we understand the world and our
body state, we alter how
we feel: our emotions are
our own creations.
Finally, Donald Hoffman’s Visual Intelligence
is a dazzling tour of the
cleverness lurking unnoticed within each of us.
The process of constructing a visual world from
the tickling of our retinal
cells turns out to be
spectacularly complex,
requiring inferences to
be made within a few
hundred milliseconds.
Hoffman’s catalogue
of illusions, including
objects that we “see”
but, on closer inspection, turn out to be
entirely fictitious,
is amazing. As is the
cleverness he reveals
our visual brain to
embody, in contrast
to our lumbering train
of conscious thought.
About half of our brain
is devoted to perception;
read Hoffman’s book
and we begin to understand why.
Nick Chater’s The Mind
Is Flat: The Illusion of
Mental Depth and the
Improvised Mind is
published by Allen Lane.
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