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It’s a family affair

What to read

Genes, lost fortunes and a power-crazy dynasty – family troubles unite our choice of books

Genes, lost fortunes and a power-crazy dynasty – family troubles unite our choice of books

June/July 2016

The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver
The longer Lionel Shriver (above) lives abroad, the sharper is her telescopic eye on America. The health-care system, obesity, the professional tennis circuit, teenage killers: all have come under Shriver’s scrutiny. Her newest novel, “The Mandibles”, set in a future when America’s financial system is in freefall, is her most inventive. The dollar is being held to ransom by an upstart new currency. The Mandibles’ savings and an expected inheritance are turning to dust. The government insists everyone must be microchipped, greedy hoarders empty shops of toilet paper and essential food, incontinent elderly relatives have to be taken in when their nursing homes become unaffordable. In God they trusted, but God let them down. In one last roll of the dice, Aunt Nollie, an expat author (Shriver’s alter ego) and a few enterprising relations set out on what proves to be their final adventure. And what a turn it takes. ~ FIAMMETTA ROCCO

Barkskins by Annie Proulx
Over 700 pages long, spanning 320 years and featuring dozens of characters, “Barkskins” took Annie Proulx five years to write but the novel has been brewing in her mind for decades. At its heart a tribute to the world’s boreal forests, “Barkskins” mesmerises, fascinates and exhilarates as the reader is drawn into the brutal reality of three centuries of man’s intent to make money from wood. The book begins with the arrival in New France (Canada) in 1693 of two Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, as indentured “barkskins”, or woodcutters, desperate to wrest a living from trees in exchange for land. Sel stays and fathers three children with Mari, a native-American woman, but Duquet runs away, going on to plant the acorn that becomes Duke & Sons, one of the biggest logging and lumber companies in the world. The ensuing chapters switch between the fortunes of each man’s descendants. “Barkskins” is powerful for its detail: characters are brought to life with bold incisiveness; intricate layers of family history coalesce as time passes; dark humour encircles violence, drama and vengefulness. Underpinning it all is the character of the forest, its “cold purity” a prescient counterpoint to man’s hot greed. ~ HELENA VENABLES

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
This ambitious work begins with Gregor Mendel’s breeding experiments with peas in the gardens of St Thomas’s Abbey in Brno and his discovery that hereditary information is carried by discrete particles – the genes of the book’s title. Over 150 years, from Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to cloning, Mukherjee documents the advances and missteps of scientists chasing the secrets of heredity. But the most memorable passages are those that describe the author’s own genetic inheritance. His family’s struggle with mental illness poignantly illustrates some of the dilemmas people will face as scientists continue to unlock the wealth of data in human genomes; the contrasting fates of his mother and aunt, twin sisters whose lives followed different paths, show the interplay of genes and the environment. “The Gene” ends with a warning. Humanity is gaining the ability to change the fate of its species by manipulating its genes, but it has not, so far, used this power well. Mukherjee writes that the largest eugenics project in history was carried out not by the Nazis but by the Indians, who have chosen to abort millions of female fetuses in the past decade. ~ ANANYO BHATTACHARYA

The Romanovs 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore
In two previous books, Simon Sebag Montefiore has brought the butcher Stalin to life for modern readers. Here he explores the Romanov dynasty, which ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917. This enthralling and gruesome book mixes sexual exploits, torture, war, betrayal and diplomacy. It partly describes how Russia morphed from miserable weakling into mighty empire. But it is mainly the story of the personalities: the cruelty of Ivan the Terrible, the unstoppable willpower of Peter the Great, and then Catherine, perhaps more deservedly “the Great” for her brains, charm, vision and sex drive. Sebag Montefiore’s thesis, broadly, is that Russia’s vastness leads to outsize politics: “autocracy tempered by strangulation”, as Madame de Staël put it. His fans will be hoping he now turns his attention to a missing link in his books on Russia: Vladimir Lenin. ~ EDWARD LUCAS

The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar
“The country that separates fathers and sons has disoriented many travellers.” In this remarkable memoir, Hisham Matar recounts his obsessive search for his father. Is Jaballa Matar, a Libyan determined to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi, alive – or did he die in 1996 when the regime massacred 1,270 inmates of Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison? His American-born son only knows is that in 1990 his father was kidnapped in Cairo by Egypt’s secret police and sent from exile back to Libya. Matar’s quest for certainty embraces Benghazi, London hotels for meetings with Qaddafi’s ambitious son Saif al-Islam and the halls of Westminster to lobby the government of Tony Blair. All is in vain: the father’s fate remains a mystery. But for the reader that’s not the point. This remarkable book is not about the politics of Libya but about the ties between father and son that cannot be broken. ~ JOHN ANDREWS

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