Two brown girls grow up on a north London estate. They sing, dance and make up stories; mostly they ignore the disdain each of their mothers has for the other. “I wanted to believe that Tracey and I were sisters and kindred spirits, alone in the world and in special need of each other,” writes the anonymous narrator at the start of Swing Time, the fifth novel by Zadie Smith (above). At the end Tracey sends the hero an email titled: whore. What transpires in between is the main arc of this book.
Tracey, loud and lippy as well as lithe, throws herself into making it on the stage. But it’s her other life choices that do for her career. “As you can see, I tried vanilla, café au lait and chocolate, and you know what I figured out? On the inside, they’re all the fucking same: men.” Her friend takes a different road – as the PA of Aimee, a pop star whose similarities to Madonna extend beyond her one-word moniker. Aimee fetches up with an entourage in west Africa, sleeps with the young man who is helping to run her project, and ends up adopting a newborn African baby for cash. Many authors have tried writing about the black and white worlds and about the inter-racial blundering that ensues, but none with the subtlety and clarity, humour and sadness of Zadie Smith. “Swing Time” is her best book yet. ~ FIAMMETTA ROCCO
WOMEN IN LOVE
The letters between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and a journalist were discovered by a writer in 1978, years after both women had died. The writer, appalled, sought to suppress them, even inquiring whether the Roosevelt library could get them “locked up again”, perhaps for decades.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and the letters inform Eleanor and Hick, a delightful account of the relationship of the two women. They met when Lorena Hickok was assigned to cover the First Lady for the Associated Press. Hick, gutsy yet fragile, was able to draw out the emotionally reserved Roosevelt. They both learned from each other – Hick, who left AP as their relationship deepened, importantly helped turn Roosevelt into a master writer and communicator. There were tensions and jealousies, especially as Hick came to realise that Roosevelt led too busy a life for her alone. But as their relationship evolved and passions calmed, she could always look back at those moments when they said to each other: “je t’aime et je t’adore.”~ KATE GALBRAITH
For Explosion City to join China’s premier league as a “provincial-level metropolis”, Kong Mingliang, the mayor, has to build a 100km subway and Asia’s largest airport. Within a week. No sweat: after all, even the sun blazes at his command. In today’s miraculous China, where Explosion swells within a decade from a mountain backwater into a Babylon of wealth and sin, “if he were but to give the word in his next directive, all of the city’s willow trees would bloom with scholar-tree blossoms.”
The Explosion Chronicles, a satirical extravaganza by Yan Lianke, brilliantly translated by Carlos Rojas, has its roots firmly embedded in Chinese reality. In an uproarious cavalcade of boom and (Yan hints) bust, the four Kong brothers and their resourceful womenfolk mastermind the ascent of their home town. Explosion becomes China in microcosm, as it “replicated in miniature the pain and prosperity undergone by the nation itself”. The novel’s farce, fantasy and fun stay just a step or two ahead of China’s gravity-defying truth. Not surprisingly, Yan’s work has been repeatedly banned in China. ~ BOYD TONKIN
Fans of Sunil Khilnani’s 1997 masterpiece, “The Idea of India”, might be disappointed that, whereas “Idea” was a lithe argument in favour of the beloved republic, his new book, Incarnations, is a series of 50 short biographical pieces. But they are in for dozens of happy surprises.
Starting with the Buddha and ranging across ancient, medieval and modern figures from politics, the arts, business and more, each portrait is an essay. More pointed in the case of the best-known figures, like the emperor Akbar or Gandhi, more informative in the case of the lesser-knowns, like Basava, the 12th-century poet who wrote songs against caste – each word to be heard like “a dagger of crystal” – or Malik Ambar, the military slave from Abyssinia who revolutionised guerrilla warfare in the Deccan, none is a chore. These glittering “Incarnations” make the same argument as “Idea”: Khilnani subtly decries both the fantasies of Hindu-first nationalism and the exaltation of greed that he sees in the India of the current prime minister, Narendra Modi. ~ ALEX TRAVELLI
At not even 150 pages, the latest work by the Viennese-born Robert Seethaler is slim; but it is never slight. Flawlessly translated by Charlotte Collins, A Whole Life was deservedly shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. The hero, Andreas, is a man of few words. “Talking meant attracting attention, which was never a good thing.”
As a small boy in an alpine village, Andreas is taken in, reluctantly, by a local farmer, his mother having led “an irresponsible life” and been punished for it with an early death from consumption. He grows up, always in the mountains, lives through avalanches, sees children die from diphtheria, falls in love and has his friends arrange a proposal by igniting the words, “For you, Marie”, on the mountainside using paraffin. He leaves the valley only once, to fight in the second world war; he is captured and imprisoned in Russia. At the end of the war he returns to the mountains, and watches modernity begin to invade their timeless beauty. His life is a simple one, but his mission grand: humanity’s search for dignity. ~ FIAMMETTA ROCCO