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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

Ordinary lives turn dramatic in a Booker prize contender. Plus a harrowing escape from the Hermit Kingdom

Maggie Fergusson | November/December 2015

FICTION The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, One, hardback, out now. “My children will be great men,” boasts Mr Agwu of his five boys, growing up in the economically and politically troubled Nigeria of the mid-1990s. “They will be lawyers, doctors, engineers.” Instead, while he’s away for work, his sons go fishing in the Omi-Ala river and meet a crazed seer who prophesies that the eldest, Ikenna, will be killed by one of his brothers. So begins the fatal unravelling of a happy middle-class family: two boys meet shocking deaths, their mother suffers a breakdown. Chigozie Obioma’s outstanding, Booker-shortlisted debut sits finely balanced on the cusp between myth and reality. Narrated by nine-year-old Benjamin, the story is intricate, but the tone guileless. Benjamin himself is deeply endearing, so, when he too is drawn into the tragedy, the effect is heartbreaking.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg, Cape, hardback, out now. This powerful yet tender first novel opens with sirens, the hum of helicopter blades and a massive conflagration at a house in Connecticut. On the eve of her wedding, Lolly Reid, her fiancé, her father and her mother’s boyfriend all die in the blaze. But Lolly’s mother, June, survives, condemned to drag out “a half life” in a motel on the west coast, consumed with guilt. With June at its centre, the novel ripples out to encompass a chorus of the voices of those touched by the fire. We are drawn into the drama of very ordinary lives. Ultimately, hope triumphs over despair. June opts for life – and, “rough as life can be”, says Cissy, the motel cleaner, “I know in my bones we are supposed to stick around and play our part.”
 

MEMOIR The Lost Landscape by Joyce Carol Oates, Fourth Estate, hardback, out now. As children we fear ghosts, writes Joyce Carol Oates. By the end of our lives we have become ghosts, “inhabiting the lost landscape of our childhood”. In this plangently beautiful memoir, Oates begins with her early years as a solitary child (“Loneliness weakens. Aloneness empowers”) on a farm in western New York state, and revisits her life up to her marriage. There is much to celebrate, but also elements of shock. Oates’s grandfather is murdered. Her best schoolfriend commits suicide. Her younger sister is born at the far end of the autistic spectrum – violent, and unable to relate to the parents who love her. Oates splices her memories with reflections on her formation as a storyteller. A writer, she suggests, is someone who understands “how deeply mysterious the ‘familiar’ really is”.

REPORTAGE The New Threat by Jason Burke, Bodley Head, hardback, out now. Only 53 people have been killed in Britain in terrorist attacks by Islamic militants – so, in purely selfish terms, is our fear of Islamic extremism overblown? Yes and no, argues the veteran foreign correspondent Jason Burke, in this impressively cool-headed tour d’horizon of a threat that is “diverse, dynamic, fragmentary and chaotic”. We needn’t worry about the two big players: al-Qaeda is much diminished, and Islamic State taken up with its struggles in Syria and Iraq. But we should fear “lone wolves” such as killed Lee Rigby in 2013 and the Charlie Hebdo staff earlier this year. They are not lone at all, Burke urges, but plugged into “the movement”, a simmering subculture of Islamic extremism. There are no easy answers: “The idea that some kind of silver bullet exists is attractive, but sadly without foundation.”

In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park (with Maryanne Vollers), Fig Tree, hardback, out now. On a pitch-black, freezing night in March 2007, when Yeonmi Park was 13, she and her mother were smuggled across the Yalu river from North Korea into China – driven not so much by the longing for freedom as by the fear of starvation. They found neither food nor asylum. Falling into the hands of traffickers, they were subjected to hideous exploitation before reaching South Korea two years later. This is an account of their harrowing journey, but also of the struggle to shed the “emotional dictatorship” governing North Korea. Park grew up knowing no word for “love”, except one expressing love of the dynasty that has ruled the Hermit Kingdom for three generations, and believing the “Dear Leader” could control the weather with his thoughts.

POETRY The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie, Picador, out now. Last year, buoyed up by the referendum, Kathleen Jamie (a firm “Yes”) resolved to write a poem a week. The result is this very personal celebration of Scotland, beginning in winter, with an easterly “striding up from the sea/like a bitter shepherd”, and carrying us through the year. Jamie doesn’t romanticise her surroundings – crisp packets skitter down the street with autumn leaves – and her attention is less likely to be caught by a grand view than by something small and intimate, like the moon caught in the leafless branches of a sycamore, framed by a window, fluttering like a pied wagtail. Nor are all the poems inspired by nature. Some yearn for her girlhood – my favourite, “Another You”, celebrating the very particular way in which her mother expressed love for her children.

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