This startling exploration of how human and animal territories collide is written with a poet’s ear and a naturalist’s eye
In the three years since Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement berated literature for its failure to rise to the challenge of climate breakdown, fiction writers have made up for lost time. Indeed cli-fi, once a subset of science fiction, has been so quickly subsumed by realism that its days as a self-contained genre may be numbered.
The mass extinction of species has taken longer to percolate. While threatened ecosystems have sparked an explosion of powerful, elegiac non-fiction by Helen Macdonald, George Monbiot, Kathleen Jamie, Robert Macfarlane, Katharine Norbury and others, novels about wildlife have stuck largely to their traditional habitat of the children’s and young adult shelves.Continue reading... Read more »
The peoples of this globe have variously assaulted, modified and shaped the lands they live in, but few have manicured their homelands to death. Yet this, so Benedict Macdonald argues in his splendid new book, has been the fate of the British. The changes began long ago, he says. Britain’s mammoths were gone around 12,000BC, helped on their way by ice age hunters. Its last brown bears were vanquished by 2,000 years ago, and its wolves by the 18th century.
Yet even at the beginning of the industrial age, Britain still retained its wild reaches. It was the Victorians and Edwardians, with their enthusiasms for “improvement”, who routed the last of the raptors and other “undesirable” wild creatures. But it was the age of fossil fuels and neoliberal economics that finished the job. Before machine mowers, weedicides and whipper snippers, British landscapes had their untidy corners where insects could feed and songbirds forage and find safe nesting sites. Today, the baleful influence of economic efficiency is even depriving small creatures of their last sustenance – the grain once left behind by harvesters. Apart from the mendicants at our nest boxes and bird feeders, Britain’s wild creatures are increasingly left homeless and starving.
Let’s be the first generation since we colonised Britain to leave our children better off for wildlifeContinue reading... Read more »
The two novels Mark Haddon published in the decade following The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, A Spot of Bother and The Red House, were both contemporary domestic dramas. Brisk, incisive, and unsparingly honest about family dynamics, they were eminently readable; but as Haddon put it in a recent interview, when you consider the wide-open possibilities of the novel as a form, they were “a bit like having the Millennium Falcon but only using it for going to Sainsbury’s”. His 2016 short-story collection The Pier Falls was a revelation: it blasted into space and followed Victorian explorers into the jungle; injected Greek myth with savage realism in “The Island”, and in “Wodwo” brought the medieval mystery of Gawain and the Green Knight into the present day.
The Porpoise gloriously expands the restless, visionary spirit of those tales. It is a version of Pericles, with a daughter abused by her father, another daughter lost and in danger, missing mothers and a man on the run who begins his story as an adventuring hero and ends it a broken wanderer. It spreads itself across two realities, opening among the contemporary elite as Philippe, whose family has been “part of a global aristocracy” since Hellenistic times, raises his daughter Angelica as his sexual plaything. “She is made from his body … How could there be a boundary of any kind between them?” Angelica’s mother died in the plane crash that triggered her birth; she is utterly isolated by wealth and rootlessness. Though they live in south-east England, “Beyond those dark hills right now it might as well be Nunavut. It might as well be the Skeleton Coast. Roasted hulks and sun-leathered corpses. It might as well be Pentapolis or Ephesus.”Continue reading... Read more »
The passionate pro-Trump convert’s attack on the mainstream media occasionally sounds like ‘fake news’ itself
Americans’ distrust of the media is only exceeded by its disdain for Congress. Mark Levin’s latest book won’t do much to rehabilitate journalism but it should cement his standing among Trump’s go-to guys.
Levin has jettisoned any journalistic skepticism surrounding Bill Barr’s non-summary of Robert Mueller’s report
Levin writes of Hamilton undercutting Washington and acting in tandem with England. Has he forgotten 'I love WikiLeaks'?Continue reading... Read more »
After her award-winning fictionalised account of a 1950s serial killer, The Long Drop, Denise Mina returns to the present day with Conviction (Harvill Secker, £14.99), a thoroughly modern tale of sexual and financial predation and social media. Anna McDonald is on the run from an unspecified traumatic incident in her past. Having fled London, she has reinvented herself in Glasgow, and is now partner to lawyer Hamish and mother to Jess and Lizzie. A fan of true crime podcasts, she has just started Death and the Dana, the story of a sunken yacht with a murdered family on board, when Hamish announces that he is leaving her. Distraught, Anna runs away once more and finds herself trying to determine what really happened to Leon Parker, the man found dead on the yacht, with whom she has a connection. The initial impetus for the investigation may be a stretch, but the narrative is plausible and compelling, as the mysteries of Parker’s fate and Anna’s past unfold in parallel and collide, dangerously, in the present.Continue reading... Read more »
In the first sentence of Feebleminded, the world is experienced as a kind of “horizontal vertigo”. It’s a pretty good description of what reading this slim book is like: an intense, disturbing, accelerating spiral. Originally published in Spanish in 2015 as La débil mental, it is the second part of what the Argentinian author Ariana Harwicz has termed an “involuntary trilogy” exploring extreme mother-child relationships. Her previous book, Die, My Love (translated by Carolina Orloff and Sarah Moses), was narrated by a young mother driven to the edge of madness by desire, loneliness and frustration. Its stream-of-consciousness style and the visceral intensity of its prose – uncomfortable, but completely engrossing – earned it a place on the Man Booker International prize longlist last year.
In Feebleminded, a woman in her late 20s lives with her mother in a remote village. Her lover is a married man whose wife is pregnant, and when he calls off their affair, both mother and daughter lure him into their home for a dark form of retribution. The immersive, headlong narrative moves between past and present, observation and dialogue; it is sometimes hard to tell whether mother or daughter is speaking, or whether we are seeing through the eyes of an adult or a child. Often the pair seem like one creature, possessing each other in moments of intense emotion: “The fever rises and suddenly my lips are purple and I’m her.”Continue reading... Read more »
Katie Hickman’s study recounts stories with sympathy, clarity and verve, but raises the question of British misapprehensions about the empire
“It’s a well-known saying that women lost us the empire,” the film director David Lean said in 1985. “It’s true.” He’d just released his acclaimed adaptation of A Passage to India, EM Forster’s novel in which a British woman’s accusation of sexual assault compromises a friendship between British and Indian men. Misogyny may not be the first prejudice associated with British imperialists, but it has proved as enduring as it was powerful. As Katie Hickman discovered when she started writing about British women in India, Lean’s view (if not Forster’s) “remains stubbornly embedded in our consciousness”. “Everyone” she talked to “knew that if it were not for the snobbery and racial prejudice of the memsahibs there would, somehow, have been far greater harmony and accord between the races”.
Her book, vivaciously written and richly descriptive, offers a rebuke to such stereotypes. She animates a cast of British women who travelled to India before the 1857 rebellion. They included “bakers, dressmakers, actresses, portrait painters, maids, shopkeepers, governesses, teachers, boarding house proprietors … missionaries, doctors, geologists, plant-collectors, writers … even traders” – and some of them might not have been out of place in a Lean epic of their own.Continue reading... Read more »
Elizabeth Strout, Jonathan Franzen and others on mysterious author Elena Ferrante’s work and persona
Straight-up documentaries about literary subjects are so rarely released theatrically, it’s hard not to cheer when one makes it into cinemas. So hooray for those responsible for nudging this look into the work of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante (author of My Brilliant Friend, The Days of Abandonment and others) into view; it can’t have been easy, even though Ferrante’s books are bestsellers around the world, especially in the US. The fact that the author’s name is likely to be a pseudonym and that no one knows who “Elena Ferrante” is, lives, or looks like, or even if she is a woman, must have made selling this film even more of a challenge. That’s particularly true nowadays given how crucial an author’s appearance, accessibility and physical presence at publicity events is to a work’s success.
Inevitably, director Giacomo Durzi spends a bit of screen time reviewing hints and theories about Ferrante’s real identity, based on close reading of the work and gossip in the Italian literary world. But, for the most part, her peers interviewed here, such as Elizabeth Strout (author of Olive Kitteridge and My Name Is Lucy Barton) and the infamously curmudgeonly Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom), can only marvel admiringly at her ability to resist the pressure from publishers and the media to participate in the whole literary dog and pony show.Continue reading... Read more »
Espionage at its most effective: the tale of Richard Sorge, the brilliant chancer who lived intensely and was betrayed by the USSR
Unlike Kim Philby, whose dramatic life as a Soviet agent seems endlessly fascinating to the British public, Richard Sorge’s story is virtually unknown, at least in the English-speaking world. He had many traits in common with Philby, only to a greater degree. Dashingly handsome, he relieved the tensions of leading a life of deception and betrayal with wild motorbike rides, serial seduction and evenings of paralytic alcoholism.
He also outdid Philby in the range of his espionage exploits. Whereas Philby’s most important work for Moscow came during the early years of the cold war while hiding in plain sight in the easy-going Anglo-American establishment into which he was born, Sorge penetrated two touchy and xenophobic elites, the Nazi party and the Japanese court. From his vantage point in Tokyo in the most crucial years of the second world war, he sent Moscow details of Hitler’s preparations for invading the Soviet Union in 1941 as well as a running commentary on the arguments within the Japanese imperial government about whether to attack to the north, in other words Siberia (which Hitler wanted his Japanese allies to do), or to the south (the direction Japan finally chose).Continue reading... Read more »
During the second world war a Norwegian woman suffered terrible head injuries when she was struck by shrapnel. Afterwards, she developed a German accent, even though she had never left Norway: shopkeepers refused to serve her and she was accused of being a Nazi collaborator. The case reveals the traumatic effects of foreign accent syndrome, caused by damage to the areas of the brain that control vocal anatomy. Cox, a professor of acoustic engineering, says it also shows the extent to which “voice lies at the heart of our identity”.
Filled with remarkable insights and evidence from current scientific research, Cox’s illuminating survey takes the reader on a fascinating journey from the distant past and into the future of speech. He begins with simple vocalisations like those used by other animals to warn of danger or attract a mate. Rather wonderfully, Darwin believed there was a sung protolanguage, one similar to birdsong. But “language is what makes us human” and its emergence some 200,000 years ago was due to the improved cognitive capacity of Homo sapiens. According to Cox, “speaking and listening are some of the most complex tasks our body and mind have to perform”. He reveals the true wonder of these abilities we all take for granted, from the earliest stage of life (foetuses can hear in the womb from 24 weeks, their heart rates increasing whenever they hear their mother’s voice), to how our “vocal identity” reveals who we are and how inner speech allows us to have a conversation with ourselves.Continue reading... Read more »