Cruelty, cunning, coming of age, and cultivating the land
Martin Chilton reviews the most interesting books for March
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
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