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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

A shocking account of loss, an enlightening guide to money, and a moving novel from Marilynne Robinson

Maggie Fergusson | November/December 2014

MEMOIR The Iceberg by Marion Coutts, Atlantic, hardback, out now. The day Marion Coutts first took her son, Ev, to the childminder, her husband Tom was told he had a brain tumour. This fierce, pure memoir traces the two years between diagnosis and death. While Ev learns to speak, Tom’s grasp of language collapses. Phrases elude him. The letter P disappears. Then words crash away until he can no longer name his wife or son. Poleaxed by exhaustion, Marion lives in a “present continuous”, her thoughts chasing to and fro “like a dog on a tether”. Where does love lie in the brain? Will that too desert them? There’s no emotional incontinence here, no self-pity. Coutts writes with grace, precision and an awareness, even when near despair, that she, Ev and Tom are living something “strangely wonderful”. It’s shocking and instructive: an astonishing achievement.

HISTORY Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, Harvill Secker, hardback, out now. Reading this “brief [416-page] history of humankind” is like doing a strenuous workout: invigorating, but often acutely uncomfortable. Sweeping with impressive ease across nearly 14 billion years, from the Big Bang to the near future, Harari delights in upending cosy assumptions. We didn’t evolve smoothly from stooping apes to standing men. There were once at least six different homines, of which sapiens came out top. We triumphed not through brain or brawn, but our ability to believe, collectively, in fictional entities: religions, nation-states, limited-liability companies. Thus bonded, we became “the deadliest species in the annals of biology”, ecological serial killers wreaking cruel havoc on our fellow creatures, and on the planet. And in the next thousand years, Harari insists with disquieting confidence, we’ll oversee our own extinction. Homo not so sapiens, perhaps.

FINANCE How to Speak Money by John Lanchester, Faber, hardback, out now. In autumn 2008, as billions were being wiped off the stockmarket, I found myself in a roomful of writers. “Where’s all the money gone?” asked one. Nervous laughter; no answer. As John Lanchester would say, we only “sorta-kinda” knew. His mission is to combat the baffled impotence most of us feel when bombarded by financial news; his method is carrot and stick. Economics affects us all, he insists; individually and collectively, we cannot afford to ignore it. But (the carrot) if you can master the lingo, it becomes commonsensical, and surprisingly entertaining. In Lanchester’s clear, companionable prose, the fog surrounding terms like quantitative easing and residential mortgage-backed securities evaporates. Emboldened, you embrace whole news concepts—plogs, bail-ins, fungibility. The effect is exhilarating. You can do it; this can help.

FICTION Lila by Marilynne Robinson, Virago, hardback, out Oct 9th. What’s so great about Marilynne Robinson? Her novels are few: this is her fourth in 35 years. They are uneventful, and unfashionably rooted in questions of faith. They return repeatedly to the same ageing minister, the Rev. John Ames, in his one-horse Iowa town, Gilead. But Gilead is the grain of sand through which Robinson explores eternity, and she does so in a quiet, ruminative style that takes over your heart as well as your head. Once you’ve fallen under her spell, she’s not just mesmerising but 
indispensable. You urge your friends to read her. Here, she turns to Ames’s young wife, Lila, an unwanted child rescued and raised by a rough-cut, itinerant saint. It’s a love story, unconventional and deeply moving. It’s also a reflection on suffering and joy; on the mystery that “life on Earth is difficult and grave, and marvellous.”

The Children Act by Ian McEwan, Cape, hardback, out now. Fiona Maye, a childless High Court judge working in the Family Division, has a razor-sharp mind, an unblemished reputation and a happy marriage. Her equilibrium seems steel-plated. Then, simultaneously, her husband falls for a younger woman, and she’s called to adjudicate in the case of a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, Adam Henry, refusing medical treatment without which he’ll die. The twin challenges both break and make her. There are flaws here. The relationship between Fiona and Adam sometimes strains credulity. I longed for McEwan, so comfortable in the Mayes’ silk-dressing-gowned world, to venture into the working-class Henrys’. But he pulls us convincingly into the mind of a 59-year-old woman as she wonders what her life has amounted to, and he does so in crisp prose that is, like Fiona’s, “almost ironic, almost warm”.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel, 4th Estate, hardback, out now. “Sorry to Disturb”, the first of these dark tales, might have lent its title to the whole collection. Story by story, Hilary Mantel leads us into apparently innocuous settingsa solicitors’ office in Wilmslow, a hotel in the East Midlands, a surgery in Harley Street (that street ending not in Marylebone Road but in “death and the place you were before you were born”)only to reveal them crepitating with misery. As in “Wolf Hall”, she involves all five senses. In the Jeddah apartment where an expat wife falls prey to an unwelcome visitor, we hear the rattle of the air conditioning, smell the insecticide, feel the heavy coffin-lid doors. We become so inured to strangeness and shoals of ghosts that the final, title, story, in which an IRA marksman waits to murder the prime minister, seems bland, almost tame.

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