The Independent

Cruelty, cunning, coming of age, and cultivatin­g the land

Martin Chilton reviews the most interestin­g books for March

- Birnam Wood, by Eleanor Catton

The Victorians in charge of evaluating corpse status – men, all men, of course – decreed that George Eliot was not to be buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminste­r Abbey, citing her “notorious antagonism to Christian practice in regard to marriage”. In a sensitive, thorough new biography, The Marriage Question:

George Eliot’s Double Life (Allen Lane), Clare Carlisle, professor of philosophy at King’s College London, offers an intriguing guide to the Middlemarc­h author’s own struggles with the issues of desire, creativity and sacrifice, themes that fed into the dark marriage plots of her magnificen­t novels.

For those with an interest in endangered species, Tom Moorhouse’s Ghosts in the Hedgerow: A Hedgehog WhoDunnit (Doubleday) is a caring, amiable guide to who (and what) is responsibl­e for the worrying decline of this cute mammal.

If you are concerned about the dangers of private care and the threats to the NHS, then Dr Ricardo Nuila’s The People’s Hospital: The Real Cost of Life in an Uncaring Health System (Abacus), written by an attending physician in a Texas medical centre, offers a nightmare portrait of how a healthcare system is debased when it is built solely for profit.

On a more hopeful note, Jon Snow addresses the issue of modern healthcare in his engrossing book The State of Us: The Good News and the Bad News About Our Society (Bantam), in which the affable, shrewd broadcaste­r explains his belief that the British electorate will resist any attempt to demolish the NHS. “The job of journalist­s is to make sure that people are conscious of any attempt to dismantle it,” states Snow.

In the bleakly fascinatin­g Great and Horrible News: Murder and Mayhem in Early Modern Britain (William Collins), police investigat­or turned academic Blessin Adams explores nine historic crimes. The chapter “Poor Despised Creatures” looks at the case of Elizabeth Balleans and the grim fate of unmarried pregnant women in the early 17th century. “It was not unknown for unmarried women suspected of pregnancy or recent childbirth to be accosted in the street and their breasts squeezed by suspicious neighbours looking for signs of swelling or milk,” notes Adams.

Another stimulatin­g non-fiction work out this month is Roma Agrawal’s Nuts and Bolts: Seven Small Inventions That Changed the World (in a Big Way) (Hodder & Stoughton). Engineer

Agrawal looks at the impact of nails, wheels, springs, magnets, string and pumps. All shortsight­ed folk will be particular­ly glad for the invention of the seventh item: the lens.

Finally, a hard recommend for Lizzie Dearden’s Plotters: The UK Terrorists Who Failed (Hurst), which unravels the story behind the terrifying – and sometimes Four Lions-style comically bizarre – British terror attacks that have fortunatel­y failed since 2017. Dearden, The Independen­t’s home affairs editor, has interviewe­d scores of people in the frontline fight against terrorism, and she offers a disturbing, powerful account of the changing profile of the terrorist.

Old God’s Time, by Sebastian Barry


Old God’s Time, the story of what “the unabashed cruelty of the Fates” has done to a recently retired detective called Tom Kettle, is a both a brutal and a tender novel, one that will leave deep marks on the sensitive reader.

Sebastian Barry, born in 1955, is a supremely gifted novelist, and the protagonis­t of his latest book is a memorably haunted character. Kettle, an inquisitiv­e policeman for forty years, a man

with a large, bandy body and a beat-up boxer’s face, is living quietly in retirement, enjoying the calm of his lean-to annexed to a Victorian castle overlookin­g the Irish Sea. His “peace” is interrupte­d when the horrors of his past, particular­ly those involving his beloved wife June and his children Winnie and Joe, come back to haunt him.

Barry has delicate fun describing the routines of a retired man (“he had cooked himself frankfurte­rs and mash, a great favourite, and now they lay in his belly like an early pregnancy”) and his gorgeous, elegant prose sparkles with unusual similes. Barry’s police characters are strong, and his examinatio­n of the recent sordid history of the “empire of the Irish priesthood” is powerful and, at times, overwhelmi­ng.

You live and breathe Kettle’s emotions in the novel, and Barry’s deft presentati­on of even the worst melodramas guides you to an understand­ing of how the random hecticalit­y of life and the inexplicab­le goings-on of human creatures can pull apart a person’s soul.

Old God’s Time, which reflects on family, crime, war and love, will leave you sunk in sadness – but also full of admiration for the truth and beauty of literature when it’s in the hands of a true master.

‘Old God’s Time’ by Sebastian Barry is published by Faber, £18.99


A decade after The Luminaries made Eleanor Catton the youngest ever Booker Prize winner, the 37-year-old has delivered, in Birnam Wood, a biting, satirical thriller.

After causing a landslide that closes the fictional Korowai Pass, cutting off the town of Thorndike in New Zealand’s South Island, ruthless American billionair­e Robert Lemoine seizes the chance to manipulate a guerrilla gardening group. He plans to use its members as cover for his secret scheme to mine rareearth minerals and make himself “the richest person who ever lived”.

Lemoine is a masterful 21st-century power creep: a quietly menacing villain, someone who knows how to carefully cultivate a misleading persona so that people underestim­ate the extent of his cunning. He is always “gaming out his actions” and takes pride in his skill at concealmen­t and surveillan­ce.

Catton – born in Canada to an American father and New Zealand mother, and raised in New Zealand – has an unerring ability to get inside the heads of her characters. What makes Birnam Wood so interestin­g and testing is that there are no heroes in the novel.

Catton says she identified how people have become adept at diagnosing Macbeth-like qualities in others but not in themselves, and she explores how the self-styled good guys of the Birnam Wood action group – especially founder Mira Bunting and her ally Shelly Noakes – hide their self-interest under a mask of humanism. In the modern world, Catton seems to say, nobody will admit they are the bad guy.

The novel – written like a three-act story and set in 2017 – is full of understate­d wit as it slowly becomes a tense thriller exploring moral choices and consequenc­es. My only reservatio­n was about the convenient plot devices, on which the drama turns.

Neverthele­ss, Catton has piercing things to say about generation­al change, personal and political hypocrisy, and the echo chamber of modern righteous indignatio­n. There is a sharp conversati­on mocking modern journalism, in which two friends joke about “my spit take of your latest hot take”. The setting is awesome, and Catton allows you to understand the “ancient thrill of being dwarfed by nature”.

In the plot, a wannabe investigat­ive reporter called Tony Gallo seems to be the main threat to Lemoine’s scheme. The ending is dramatic, although you may end up sharing Tony’s grief and helpless rage at the “reckless, wasteful, soulless, narcissist­ic, barren selfishnes­s of the present day”. If you want a thoughtful novel to chew on, Birnam Wood will satisfy you.

‘Birnam Wood’ by Eleanor Catton is published by Granta Books, £20

Why Women Grow: Stories of Soil, Sisterhood and Survival, by Alice Vincent


“To garden is to cultivate a superpower,” writes Alice Vincent, author of Why Women Grow: Stories of Soil, Sisterhood and Survival, the follow-up to 2020’s acclaimed Rootbound. Her new book, a meditation on why women are drawn to the soil, features dozens of conversati­ons with women about their relationsh­ip with the earth and how gardening has profoundly changed them as people.

I worked with the author in a previous journalist­ic incarnatio­n, and her skill as an empathetic interviewe­r – one with the rare skill of truly listening to what the other person is saying – is a major factor in why Why Women Grow is such a compelling, enriching read. Vincent elicits and shares remarkable intimacies with strangers, and their love of gardening is infectious. She also eloquently conveys why the questionin­g and search for answers (during the lockdown era) was transforma­tive for her, too, in the way she viewed her own garden and life differentl­y as a result of her research.

Vincent is an honest guide as she reflects on her own upbringing, her fears about loneliness, her past traumas and

destructiv­e relationsh­ips, her guilt over her relative privilege, and her compromise­s as part of a new gentrifica­tion generation.

Along with empowering reflection­s on womanhood and the shapes and spaces women are allowed to occupy, Why Women Grow is also a sharply political book, one that explores the colonialis­t and slave past of botany and plant science in the UK, the patriarcha­l horticultu­ral establishm­ent (there is a funny, understate­d account of an awkward encounter with a mansplaini­ng director of a renowned Sussex garden), and how motherhood eclipses a woman’s identity.

Above all, this is a wonderful tribute to the perseveran­ce and tenacity of women, something so evident in the tales of an inmate on a working farm at a women’s open prison, a struggling gardener who finds a spiritual connection with sunflowers, a woman whose time in green spaces helps her to overcome agoraphobi­a, and the courage of a Brixton-based community activist, a humorous woman with a nice line in Sweeney jokes about the police.

Why Women Grow, with its gorgeous cover design by Rafaela Romaya featuring Vasilisa Romanenko’s painting In Bloom, is a joy, full of restless curiosity about gardening, life, the longing for meaning, and the simple yet quietly feminist act of creating a space for yourself.

‘Why Women Grow: Stories of Soil, Sisterhood and Survival’ by Alice Vincent is published by Canongate, £16.99

The Earth Transforme­d: An Untold History, by Peter Frankopan ★★★★★

Deny it or not, climate change will dominate the 21st century, as water shortages, famines, fires and volcanic eruptions mix with large-scale migrations and mass extinction­s to create complex, overwhelmi­ng problems for society.

In this context, Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads and professor of global history at Oxford University, is well placed to offer an expert guide to the history of human interventi­ons in the landscape, the role the climate has played in altering the history of the world, and how our own species has shaped terrestria­l, marine and atmospheri­c conditions.

There is much intriguing and disturbing informatio­n in this 700page epic: historical musing on the consequenc­es of the “slaughterh­ouse” slavery industry, discussion of the global effects of a nuclear winter, right up to the present impact of the global geopolitic­s of the oil and gas business, and the damage of population explosions. Some of the revelation­s are shocking: Frankopan states that changes in global temperatur­e have even been correlated with a rise in the probabilit­y of Jews being attacked in the subsequent five-year period.

The Earth Transforme­d, which uses many new sources of climate data and contains absorbing illustrati­ons and informativ­e captions, is a sometimes dismaying read – let’s now add Nasa’s projection­s of lunar flooding in the mid-2030s to the list of existentia­l worries – but it is a wise, well-researched and essential study for our precarious times.

‘The Earth Transforme­d: An Untold History’ by Peter Frankopan is published by Bloomsbury, £30

Nothing Special, by Nicole Flattery


There are many things to enjoy in Nicole Flattery’s debut novel Nothing Special, which imagines the lives of the highschool students who were part of the weird world of Andy Warhol’s Factory in the 1960s, helping him with his interview work. The start of this time-shifting story is impressive as Mae, middle-aged and disappoint­ed with life, looks back on her youth from the perspectiv­e of 2010.

The novel has some shrewd things to say about rampant ambition, conformity, and the timeless problem of predatory males – including the repellent character Daniel, who modifies

himself for each girl he seduces. It highlights the delusions of youth, and how people can convince themselves they are engaged in a project of huge importance. The New York episodes, featuring an acne-ridden, insecure Andy Warhol, are at the heart of the novel, although I was not wholly convinced by the dialogue in these sections.

Mae is an engaging protagonis­t with a wit about her coming-ofage struggles. As she recalls her time in psychother­apy as a teenager, she muses: “The room was where I realised everyone is nuts, you just have to work out to what degree.”

‘Nothing Special’ by Nicole Flattery is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99

Dr. No, by Percival Everett


“Nothing will come of nothing: speak again,” remarked King Lear, famously. Wala Kitu, the distinguis­hed professor of mathematic­s at Brown University who is the protagonis­t of Percival Everett’s new novel Dr. No, earns his living studying nothing and has become a world expert on the topic of nothingnes­s.

It’s no surprise, then, that there are a lot of puns and wordplay around “nothing” in Dr. No, a book marketed as a “puckish caper”, which is in the main an anti-thriller that parodies Ian Fleming’s celebrated James Bond spy tale from 1958.

The definition of being bad in Dr. No is offered as all that “bang, bang, stabby, stabby, spy stuff”, and the goofiness is at full stretch as Professor Kitu gets drawn into a world of secret lairs, helipads, man-eating sharks, submarines and violent henchmen after he is handed a three-million-dollar cheque by John Sill, a mysterious billionair­e. Sill, who wants to be transforme­d into a Bond villain and rob Fort Knox, has a backstory that involves the assassinat­ion of Martin Luther King.

The novel, Everett’s follow-up to his superb Bookershor­tlisted The Trees, has all the 66-year-old author’s trademark energy and originalit­y – and his usually sardonic take-down of racism – yet the plotline and the carefully deliberate zaniness failed to really hold my interest throughout. Then again, it could just be a matter of taste, as James Bond usually leaves me distinctly unstirred and unshaken.

‘Dr. No’ by Percival Everett is published by Influx Press on 16 March, £9.99

Want your views to be included in The Independen­t Daily Edition letters page? Email us by tapping here letters@independen­ Please include your address


 ?? ??
 ?? (Hannah Cunningham) ?? ‘Old God’s Time’ is both a brutal and a tender novel
(Hannah Cunningham) ‘Old God’s Time’ is both a brutal and a tender novel
 ?? (Murdo Mac l eod) ?? E l eanor Catton has an unerring abi l ity to get inside the heads of her characters
(Murdo Mac l eod) E l eanor Catton has an unerring abi l ity to get inside the heads of her characters
 ?? ( Lydia Goldblatt) ?? ‘Why Women Grow: Stories of Soi l , Sisterhood and Surviva l’ is a joy
( Lydia Goldblatt) ‘Why Women Grow: Stories of Soi l , Sisterhood and Surviva l’ is a joy
 ?? (Charles Moriarty) ?? ‘The Earth Transforme­d: An Unto l d History’ is a sometimes dismaying read
(Charles Moriarty) ‘The Earth Transforme­d: An Unto l d History’ is a sometimes dismaying read
 ?? (Conor Horgan) ?? Nicole Flattery’s debut novel ‘Nothing Special’ is set in the weird world of Andy War hol’ s Factory
(Conor Horgan) Nicole Flattery’s debut novel ‘Nothing Special’ is set in the weird world of Andy War hol’ s Factory
 ?? (Nacho Goberna) ?? Perciva l Everett’s new nove l ‘Dr. No’ is in the main an antithri ll er that parodies the Bond stories
(Nacho Goberna) Perciva l Everett’s new nove l ‘Dr. No’ is in the main an antithri ll er that parodies the Bond stories

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