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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

A masterpiece by a young New Zealander, another hit from Robert Harris, and a slim volume about Auden

Maggie Fergusson | November/December 2013

FICTION The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, Granta, hardback, out now. Winter 1866, and a Scot newly arrived in the New Zealand goldfields stumbles on a motley conclave—opium dealer, card-sharp, cleric—debating recent happenings. One man's dead, another's disappeared, and the local whore has apparently attempted suicide. So opens this 832-page masterpiece, daunting to pick up, impossible to put down. Tale is laid upon tale, and everyone is forced to confront his own darkness. Like a juggler, Catton throws hundreds of balls in the air, and somehow catches them all. Shades of Wilkie Collins and Sarah Waters, but her style is distinct and vigorous. She doesn't so much tell her story as inhabit it, amused by her characters' foibles, yet able to reflect on the human condition with a wisdom normally associated with great age. Eleanor Catton is 28.

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris, Hutchinson, hardback, out now. Robert Harris is unrivalled when it comes to turning complex history into thriller fiction. Here, in a novel faithful to historical fact, he unravels one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice ever known: the conviction of a Jewish army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, for spying, and his condemnation in 1895 to a "death worse than death" on Devil’s Island. Told in the first person by Colonel Georges Picquard, who eventually established Dreyfus's innocence and revealed corruption running like rot through the French army, it perfectly captures fin-de-siècle Paris: seedy, febrile and rabidly anti-Semitic. In an eerie foreshadowing of the future Dreyfus travels into exile in a cattle truck. The son of the man who framed him, Charles du Paty de Clam, became head of Jewish affairs in the Vichy government.

MEMOIR Red Love by Maxim Leo (translated by Shaun Whiteside), Pushkin Press, hardback, out now. Maxim Leo's father was 19 when the Berlin Wall went up; he himself was 19 when it came down. A quarter of a century on, the so-called German Democratic Republic continues to haunt his family "like a ghost that can't find peace". His mother, daughter of a French Resistance hero tortured by the SS, invested her hopes in the GDR. His father, son of a one-time Nazi supporter, despised it. Ideological difference splintered their household and derailed their marriage. Now in his 40s, and himself a father, Leo persuades his parents and grandparents to revisit the past, examine their Stasi files, and ask themselves questions they have evaded for decades. In a wry, laconic style, he uses childhood memories to demonstrate how absurd "grown-up" behaviour can be—and how easily absurdity can morph into tragedy.

REPORTAGE Command and Control by Eric Schlosser, Allen Lane, hardback, out now. In November 1979, early-warning sensors indicated that Russian nuclear missiles were hurtling towards America. Klaxons sounded, US bomber crews rushed to their planes. It was discovered, just in time, that a technician had inadvertently fed a training tape, simulating Soviet attack, into the computer. Eric Schlosser’s study of 70 years of nuclear weapons is "Dad's Army" meets Kafka, a catalogue of near-catastrophe. Writing with involved detachment, and splicing documentary with disaster-movie suspense—the moment-by-moment reconstruction of a night of horror following the dropping of a tool during routine maintenance on a Titan II missile in Arkansas—Schlosser argues that Armageddon is less likely to be kicked off by hawkishness than by human error. The only solution is the total elimination of nuclear warheads. It's not rocket science.

BIOGRAPHY Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang, Cape, hardback, out now. "Le seul homme de la Chine" was how a Frenchman once described the pipe-smoking Empress Dowager Cixi, who effectively ruled China from 1861 until her death in 1908. But one of her eunuchs considered her "the most tormented person on earth". In a biography that challenges the conventional view of Cixi as a cruel conservative, the "Wild Swans" author Jung Chang portrays two women in one: the tearful, anxious insomniac who insisted on human milk for breakfast, and the tough, clear-minded leader who, governing from behind a yellow silk screen, dragged China into the 20th century. Chang's style is straightforward, almost naive. It's sometimes as if she's writing for sophisticated children—which is apt, because Cixi's extraordinary story has all the elements of a good fairy tale: bizarre, sinister, triumphant and terrible.

POETRY What W.H. Auden Can Do For You by Alexander McCall Smith, Princeton, hardback, out now. Beethoven had no more notes than the rest of us—and Auden had no more words. But his poetry strikes a deep, popular chord. "Funeral Blues" provides the only moment of gravity in "Four Weddings and a Funeral"; "September 1, 1939" was faxed around New York in the aftermath of 9/11. For Alexander McCall Smith, as for his fictional sleuth Isabel Dalhousie, Auden has for many years been an invisible moral tutor, informing his response to fundamental questions about life. In this slim, surprising volume, he shares what Auden has taught him about joy, gratitude and love. His thoughts are bracingly simple, and that's their strength. As he says of Auden's later poetry, "the fact that something is easy to listen to does not make it less intellectually significant".

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