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Life in the Lone Star state

The pull and power of Texas

…chance encounters, poetry and war

…chance encounters, poetry and war

April/May 2018

Why would a Pulitzer prize-winning political writer who is deeply worried at the direction politics has taken in Texas choose to make his life there? This question was the spur for Lawrence Wright to begin his 11th book, God Save Texas.

Wright has eclectic interests, and he has written books on subjects as wide-ranging as the origins of al-Qaeda and the internal workings of Scientology. That breadth makes him a fine guide to a state that is less monocultural than many people realise.

Non-fiction about Texas tends to advance one of two theories. According to the first, Texas is a weird mutation in America’s DNA, an aberration and a place to be mildly afraid of. In the second, Texas is America’s future. Wright’s take is closer to the second, but he has fun with both notions, mixing reporting, history and his own family’s story to explain the Lone Star state (above).

If you want to know what the best cowboy novel is, how the assassination of John F. Kennedy changed Dallas, why George W. Bush was so popular before the invasion of Iraq, or how Texas state politics descended into an intra-Republican culture war, Wright has you covered.

If you just want to picture what the stars are like in a West Texas night, he can do that too. The result is a gentle, rather moving book written by a Texan who loves his state but maintains enough distance from his subject to appreciate its glorious weirdness.~ JOHN PRIDEAUX

London underground
Two unusual protagonists hold centre-stage in Aminatta Forna’s latest novel, Happiness. Jean is an American divorcee, a runner who loves solitude and boning up on the habits of urban foxes in London. Attila is a widowed Ghanaian psychiatrist, an evanescent yet thoughtful bon viveur on a brief visit to the British capital to give a keynote speech at a conference on how war affects civilians.

A chance encounter on Waterloo Bridge leads to something more serious after Attila checks up on the daughter of family friends and discovers she has been caught up in an immigration crackdown and her young son has gone missing. How Jean and Attila eventually find him, and each other, is just one part of this multi-layered story that explores the varied underworld of (mostly) unseen London.

Half Scottish, half Sierra Leonean, and now teaching at Georgetown University, Forna writes with clarity and warmth about the richness of multicultural society and the notion that trauma doesn’t always have to result in damage, but can lead to growth and resilience. At 53, she is at the peak of her literary powers. Don’t be put off by the banal title, this is Forna’s most intelligent novel to date. ~ FIAMMETTA ROCCO

Bombay boys
The Book of Chocolate Saints, by Indian poet and writer, Jeet Thayil, is rooted in Bombay in the 1950s and 1960s. Three poets – one Hindu by heritage, one Jewish and one Catholic – embody the cosmopolitan climate of a city that Thayil both celebrates and mourns. Into this setting comes our wayward hero, Newton Francis Xavier, a poet-turned-painter, whose Goan background and early literary acclaim is based on a real Indian poet, Dom Moraes, who died in 2004.

Newton’s Jesuit headmaster laments that his star pupil has  “married his talent to negativity”. From Bombay to London, Paris and New York in the aftermath of 9/11, then back to India, addiction and obsession mark five decades of Newton’s life. During this time, for all his gifts, he can no more control his behaviour than “the wind and the rain”. The novel tracks Newton’s artistic and romantic peaks and troughs, driven as he is by a “self-destructive incendiary poet’s mythology”, through the voices of parents, teachers, wives, lovers, cronies and (above all) another character, his apostle-biographer Dismas Bambai.

Exuberant but melancholic, Thayil’s sprawling polyphony salutes the daring – and counts the cost – of bohemian lives pushed to the edge of martyrdom. Newton, that “magnet for chaos and magic”, is no untarnished hero. All the same, his reckless charisma lets us share the novel’s bittersweet “nostalgia for the poets of Bombay”. ~ BOYD TONKIN

Love in a hot climate
Moon Brow, by an Iranian, Shahriar Mandanipour, blends war memoir with an evocative love story.

Amir Yamini, the devil-may-care playboy hero, vanishes in the Iran-Iraq war only to be found again five years later, missing an arm and his memory.

The novel tracks Amir’s search for the mysterious Moon Brow, the faceless woman who haunts his dreams. Narrated alternately by the Angel of Virtue and the Angel of Sin, the two halves of Amir’s personality, “Moon Brow” slips between past and present, taking us from Amir’s erotic adventures with his enigmatic first girlfriend in pre-war Tehran to the horrors of the front and his strained relationship with the dutiful sister who has brought him home from hospital.

Translated into lush English prose by Sara Khalili, “Moon Brow” mixes messy modern politics with the dreamlike intensity of myth. The novel is as much about sex and death as it is about history. Amir’s obsession with male virility and sexual desire cannot be separated from the puritanical culture that tries to stamp out such impulses at every turn. ~ TARA ISABELLA BURTON