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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

A stirring novel about the Lockerbie bombing, a thriller about social media and a memoir of autism

Maggie Fergusson | September/October 2013

FICTION The Professor of Truth by James Robertson (Hamish Hamilton, hardback, out now). The Lockerbie bombing of 1988, though never named, is at the heart of this novel, which is both a heart-wrenching study of grief and a call to arms. Alan Tealing, a lecturer in English literature, loses his wife and daughter. Twenty years on, the energy he once put into family life is funnelled into an obsessive campaign to prove that the man imprisoned for the bombing was framed for political ends. If the first half of the story, set in an ice-bound Scottish winter, is more compelling than the second, unfolding in the heat of Australia, I won’t be alone in feeling driven by Tealing’s narrative to press for a re-examination of the evidence surrounding the conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. "Literature", Tealing says, "makes nothing happen." James Robertson might just prove himself wrong.

Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach (Picador, hardback, out now). Can social media extend life beyond death? This thriller by Lottie Moggach, daughter of the bestselling Deborah, is narrated by Leila, a computer geek (with a weakness for split infinitives) who allows a chat room to lure her into taking a sinister commission. "Project Tess" requires her to harvest information from a troubled art dealer. When Tess commits suicide, Leila has to take the reins of her e-mail and Facebook accounts, to spare her family and friends distress. Moggach is fascinating on the psychology of simulated relationships; on the safety and control offered by virtual, as opposed to "F2F", friendship. She’s also good at evoking a particular kind of contemporary loneliness: Leila closeted in a flat above a curry shop in Rotherhithe, pushed to the fringes of society by property prices and unemployment, rudderless, adrift. A compulsive debut.

NATURE  Four Fields by Tim Dee (Cape, hardback, August 29th). Fields tend to be overlooked, in both senses. But Tim Dee, who grew up amid the concrete of Croydon, and subscribed aged ten to Farmers Weekly, relates to them in a way that seems almost symbiotic. He dwells on four fields he loves: one carved from the "oozy truculence" of the fens; one on an old farm in Zambia, roamed by wildebeest with "lawnmower mouths"; a battlefield in Montana; and, most haunting, a field in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, complete with sinister mutations in birds and trees. Dee has a poet’s ear for the texture of words, half-rhymes and shades of meaning. He leads you on a seductive, sometimes unsettling walk, whether applying forensic precision to sights and senses, or wandering down byways of history, literature, memoir and myth.

MEMOIRS  The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida (Sceptre, hardback, out now). The Japanese characters for autism signify "self", "shut” and "illness", and Naoki Higashida, who was 13 when he wrote this eight years ago, is so severely autistic that he can only communicate via a cardboard keyboard. His responses to questions about his condition read like a series of urgent messages smuggled from a high-security prison. They explain specifics—why it calms him to flap his hands in front of his face, for example—and they also explode the myth that autism is incompatible with empathy. For the novelist David Mitchell, whose son is autistic, Higashida’s insights provided a lifeline. In an introduction as moving as the main text, he explains how they helped him to jettison self-pity, and to appreciate that autistic people have minds "as curious, subtle and complex as yours, as mine".

The Bucket by Allan Ahlberg (Viking, hardback, Sept 5th). Allan Ahlberg delighted generations of children by writing the words to go with his late wife Janet’s illustrations in "Each Peach Pear Plum", "Peepo!" and "Burglar Bill". Now, dipping his bucket into the well of early memory, he evokes the working-class 1940s childhood that inspired those classics. With a wistful affection reminiscent of Nigel Slater’s "Toast" and Raymond Briggs’s "Ethel & Ernest", he nails a decade, and a place—the industrial town of Oldbury in the west Midlands of England, where his adoptive parents worked as a cleaner and a fitter’s mate, and the little house on Cemetery Road where he sheltered from bombs under the kitchen table, surrounded by green light filtered through the tasselled cloth. Written in a mixture of poetry and prose, this is no linear memoir, but a collection of shards of intensely remembered moments and feelings, which flash in and out of the shadows like fish in a pool.

HISTORY  Modernity Britain by David Kynaston (Bloomsbury, hardback, out now). David Kynaston’s technique as a historian is subtly immersive. His magisterial "Austerity Britain" and "Family Britain" covered the years from 1945 to 1957. This one proceeds only to 1959, and the election that brought the young Margaret Thatcher to Parliament. Those were the days when Britons "never had it so good", when the first stretch of motorway was opened, the first Premium Bond sold, the first "Blue Peter" aired. Kynaston’s unobtrusive pen defers to the evidence he so painstakingly gathers, from newspapers and books, diaries and letters. The result is much more than a patchwork of period detail, but the detail is irresistible. From 1958 to 1959, sales of refrigerators went up by 90%. Yet still only one British household in ten had one. 

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