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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

A tender life of one novelist, and sparkling new work from three more – plus the pick of the year

Maggie Fergusson | January/February 2014

BIOGRAPHY Penelope Fitzgerald by Hermione Lee, Chatto, hardback, out now. "I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated," Penelope Fitzgerald once wrote. She considered herself one of these "exterminatees". After glowing with early promise, she lived much of her life in drudgery and near-destitution. Then, in her 60s, she began to publish novels that were short and scintillating. Four were shortlisted for the Booker; one won it, and, at 80, she found fame on both sides of the Atlantic. She kept herself carefully concealed, but this tender, determined biography winkles her out in all her contradictions: the woman who had been through anguish, but learned that comedy made it bearable; who appreciated "ordinariness", but wrote always with a "hint of the sublime". She emerges as not only one of the great novelists of the 20th century, but one of the most personally fascinating.

FICTION Monsieur le Commandant by Romain Slocombe (translated by Jesse Browner), Gallic Books, paperback, out now. The narrator of this deeply unsettling novel, Paul-Jean Husson, is a first-world-war hero, member of the Académie Française and zealous Catholic. He's also a serial adulterer, Nazi sympathiser and rabid anti-Semite. His daughter-in-law, Ilse, is beautiful, and Jewish. Writing at the height of the Occupation to an SS officer he has befriended over games of chess, Husson makes a confession. He has fallen for Ilse and she's expecting his child. Unable to reconcile his obsessive love for her with his hatred of those "stinking beasts" the Jews, he has to find a solution. Romain Slocombe shows how intellectual brilliance coupled with religious fervour can breed a kind of rational insanity. I doubt there's a more compulsively readable novel inspired by the years the French still call "les non-dits".

Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera, Heinemann, hardback, out now. In moving to England, the Conservative politician Enoch Powell declared in 1968, a West Indian or Asian will find he has "lost one nationality without acquiring another". For Arjan Banga, revisiting his immigrant parents' corner shop in Wolverhampton during the riots of 2011, these words retain a horrible ring of truth. Banja is a prodigal son who has spent his 20s gallivanting round London, dabbling in graphic design. But when he finally returns, he finds that Bains Stores is where he feels most at home. This is rollicking comedy, lit up by hilarious set-pieces; but it's also dark satire. Nearly half a century after Powell's notorious speech, the Banja family remain at best invisible to their white neighbours, at worst the butt of shameful, indiscriminate "Paki-bashing". Thank God for Sanghera's sense of humour: it sugars a bitter pill.

The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, hardback, out now. Read this tiny, elegant volume over lunch, or slip it into a Christmas stocking; but don't be fooled by its size. It's more thought-provoking than most novels 20 times its length. In north-west London stands the Embassy of Cambodia (in fact, as well as in this story). Locals, walking past, think "genocide": large-scale, headline-grabbing horror. They don't know, and might not care, that in a house in the same street a young African woman is being horribly abused. Fatou is, in effect, a slave—paid nothing, her passport confiscated by her employers, the Derawals. When she saves their daughter's life, Mrs Derawal, obscurely jealous, throws her out. "To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss," the Khmer Rouge once chanted. It's a sentiment still flourishing, Zadie Smith suggests, in secret pockets of the Willesden middle classes.

THE TWO BEST READS of 2013

BOOK OF THE YEAR: NON-FICTION Command and Control by Eric Schlosser, Allen Lane, hardback, out now. Narrowly outstripping Alan Johnson's quietly devastating memoir, "This Boy", Eric Schlosser's survey of the development of nuclear weapons since 1945 left me chilled. You don't need Dr Strangelove to trigger nuclear catastrophe, Schlosser shows, just a maintenance man with a shaky hand—and his catalogue of near-disasters is eye-stretching. He swings from the panoramic to the particular, homing in on the pregnant wife, cooking dinner, unaware that her husband had just inadvertently pierced the side of a Titan II missile with three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the second world war (including the atomic ones). Schlosser's style is unflustered, but his message is grim. Every nuclear weapon is a disaster waiting to happen. "They are out there…sustained by our denial. And they work."

BOOK OF THE YEAR: FICTION Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, Doubleday, hardback, out now. Life is not a rehearsal—but supposing it was? Given a second or even a third chance, could we all become heroes, or would fate relentlessly trip us up? For Ursula Todd, at the centre of Kate Atkinson's teasing but profound ninth novel, time is not linear but circular. Born (or possibly stillborn) in 1910, she lives and re-lives the great events of the 20th century—the Spanish flu epidemic, the rise of Nazism, the Blitz—many times, and in different ways, each one utterly compelling. In less skilled hands, this stop-start structure would make readers sea-sick, but Atkinson keeps us feeling secure, her cool, spare style giving us room to exercise our own imagination and add our own nuance. Given a second chance, the Man Booker judges would surely not overlook this gem again.

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