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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

Total immersion with Hilary Mantel, a reality check from Jackie Kay and a new light on Graham Greene

Maggie Fergusson | July/August 2012

NOVELS
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, 4th Estate, hardback, out now.
Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker-winner “Wolf Hall” is a contemporary classic, for two good reasons. It convinces us of a beating heart beneath the black cloak of history’s pantomime villain Thomas Cromwell, and plunges us five-senses-first into Tudor England in a way that’s neither quaint nor contrived. Equally compelling, this sequel reveals a third strand to Mantel’s genius: an ability to plant readers squarely in a drama while keeping them aware of ghosts crepitating in the wings. It covers the months leading up to the execution of Anne Boleyn, whom Cromwell frames with habitual cunning and casuistry. But away from the public chessboard he’s troubled by melancholy and a mottled conscience, particularly on account of Cardinal Wolsey. Mantel’s prose mirrors his shifting moods—mandarin as he assembles his case against the queen, it becomes lyrical as he mourns his wife and daughters. The novel demands total immersion. Don’t rush it.

Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis, Cape, hardback, out now.
In this savage black comedy, Amis takes a comprehensive swipe at contemporary Britain—its schools, press, ageism, obsession with celebrity and wealth, and unwillingness to engage with reality. Lionel Asbo is a loutish, unsuccessful criminal, a cross between Bill Sikes and a “Little Britain” caricature. When he wins £139,999,999.50 on the Lottery (moral: the loser takes it all), he uses it to acquire a Hello lifestyle, and to bully both his prematurely ageing mother and his nephew Des Pepperdine, who harbours a dark moral secret. At times the satire shades uncomfortably into farce, but there are moments of chilling slow-motion terror, and Amis’s writing is a delight. Adjectives, adverbs and descriptions are kept on a choke chain, released, like Asbo’s Tabasco-fuelled pit bulls, only when they can really bite.

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon, Fig Tree, hardback, out now.
Like its diminutive 15-year-old narrator, this elegant sliver of a novel punches above its weight. Growing up in depressed rural England in the early 19th century, Mary is a farm girl who has acquired rudimentary literacy while employed by the local vicar. Written in urgent, childlike prose—no capital letters, minimal punctuation—this final testament explains why her lessons are about to cost her her life. Mary’s voice is convincing and attractive: a feisty, lippy creature with the kind of spirit men both love and long to break, she has a native love of the slowly turning agricultural year, and an instinctive intelligence about human nature. As her tale builds to its devastating conclusion, she evokes sympathy not only for herself but for her gruesome but pitiful abuser.

SHORT STORIES
Reality, Reality by Jackie Kay, Picador, hardback, out now.
Most of the stories in this exceptional collection are told in the first person, combining Glasgow vernacular with boisterous, big-girl humour (a number are concerned with weight and diets). But at their heart is loneliness, and the bizarre, sad stratagems adopted by “the recently bereaved, the dumped, the chucked” to cope with isolation. One woman spends her “staycation” pretending to be a “Masterchef” contestant, cooking under the eye of the burglar alarm “that could just as easily be the eye of the watching world”. Another, dragging out her days in an abusive old people’s home, invests hope in the one apparently kind, sane carer, Vadnie. A few stories later, we visit Vadnie away from work, musing over headstones in Willesden Lane cemetery, grieving for an imaginary husband. Which is more painful, Jackie Kay asks, fantasy or reality?

MEMOIR
The Man Within My Head by Pico Iyer, Bloomsbury, hardback, out now.
Graham Greene once started a memoir called “110 Airports”. Pico Iyer, an Indian brought up in England and California and now living in Japan, has spent much of his life in airports. Aged eight when his family moved to Santa Barbara, he chose to “commute” back to school in Oxford—“I have always loved being alone.” As restless as Greene, with whom he has intricately identified since he was a teenager, he now roves the world as a travel writer. This unusual memoir is a “counterbiography”, a homage to two fathers—his charismatic natural father and the father he adopted mentally, and whose books he reads as though they were his own “private diary”. It is not only compellingly readable, but as telling about Greene as any biography yet published.

HISTORY
Just Send Me Word by Orlando Figes, Allen Lane, hardback, out now.
Drawing on the largest known cache of Gulag letters, Figes tells the story of two Muscovite scientists, Sveta and Lev, who, having met as students in 1935, kept their love for one another alive over a separation of 14 years. Their dogged devotion in the face of suffering both physical and mental—Lev describes temperatures falling to -47ºC in the Arctic winter, Sveta battles with depression—is extraordinary. But equally remarkable is the courage of Lev’s Gulag companions in helping to smuggle his letters out of the camp, and, more than once, to smuggle Sveta in. Around his central story, Figes weaves a vivid picture of Russia under Stalin, and in a moving final chapter he meets Lev and Sveta, grandparents in their 90s, shortly before their deaths. 

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