After sharing secrets in a surprise memoir, John le Carré (above) returns to telling tales in an enthralling novel which breathes new life into old characters. An ex-spy, Peter Guillam, is summoned from retirement to explain the disappearance of files relating to a covert cold-war operation called Windfall. So begins his “night-time journey of the soul”, which forces him down memory lane to relive the drama of a perilous escape, a compromised mission and a tragic love affair with a valuable source codenamed Tulip. But along with exorcising the spooks of his past, Guillam soon finds himself faced with the very present danger of an old acquaintance out for revenge. A Legacy of Spies sees le Carré re-examining the cloak-and-dagger exploits of his two most acclaimed novels, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, and reactivating his “unsleeping spies of yesterday” – not least “tubby, bespectacled, permanently worried George Smiley.” The result is a late-career triumph, and with luck neither Smiley’s swansong nor his creator’s parting shot. ~ MALCOLM FORBES
Ecstasy and agony
The headlines were sensational, the story sordid. In a London mansion in 2012, a woman’s body was discovered many weeks after her death, hidden in their home by her rich husband, Hans Kristian Rausing. Mayhem – the title of his sister Sigrid’s memoir of the events – is caused not just by the scandal. It has been present for years: Hans and his wife Eva were addicted to heroin and cocaine. They lived a folie à deux in their locked drug den, so lost to the world that a court gave custody of their four children to the author. Now Sigrid Rausing, an anthropologist and author of a well-received book on Estonia, has taken back control of the story from the tabloids by giving – in an elliptical, fragmentary way – her version of events. She uses literature, art, genetics and psychology to understand what happened. Though the media attention the Rausings endured is unusual, their pain and guilt are achingly described and sadly common. The terrible truth is familiar to all relatives and friends of those fighting addiction: we can’t always save the ones we love. ~ ALIX CHRISTIE
Raised in East Berlin in the shadow of the Wall, Jenny Erpenbeck gives a resonant voice to people fated to live on the wrong side of history. When Germany’s capital began to fill with refugees from conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East, their plight chimed with a border-crossing writer who wanted to prove that “there are no two halves” to mankind. Her seventh novel, Go, Went, Gone centres on a group of west Africans who, expelled from Libya after Colonel Gaddafi’s fall, congregate in a Berlin square. The labyrinthine bureaucracy of asylum law divides them from their new city. Having survived the sea, they now risk drowning “in rivers and oceans of paper”. Erpenbeck’s plot draws on her experiences as a volunteer welfare worker. The refugees’ ordeal is movingly evoked through the eyes of Richard, a retired classics professor whose own East German past sensitises him to their dreams and fears. He too knows “the mayhem of war” and its aftermath. Mixing topical urgency and a visionary sense of history, Erpenbeck unites Germany’s past with its present – and with that of the rest of our convulsive world.
~ BOYD TONKIN
After the storm
Earthquakes are so frequent in Japan that schools carry out regular drills on what to do if disaster strikes. This unquestioning and nationwide regimen meant that when an earthquake caused a tsunami that hit north-eastern Japan on March 11th 2011, killing 18,500 people, only 75 children perished at school. But of these children, 74 were at the same school. Richard Lloyd Parry, the Times’s bureau chief in Tokyo, has spent six years reconstructing what happened that day at Okawa Primary School, and the lives it changed for ever: the parents who lost their children as the sea sucked the life from the Earth; the children who lost their friends; the adults who, in the face of unprecedented catastrophe, lost all ability to take charge. Some lost their minds. The tsunami was the worst disaster to befall Japan since the atom bombs of 1945. The power of Ghosts of the Tsunami lies in the precise and unrelenting accumulation of detail: one mother, when she finally finds her dead daughter, tries to clean the mud from her face. Having neither towels nor water, she resorts to licking her child’s eyes with her tongue. This may be the finest work of non-fiction published this year. ~ FIAMMETTA ROCCO