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Maggie Fergusson

Six Good Books

The shepherd who is now a bestselling author, Anne Enright’s sixth novel and a ripping yarn about the news from Waterloo

Maggie Fergusson | July/August 2015

 

MEMOIR The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks, Allen Lane, hardback, out now. The Napoleonic Wars, by blocking off the Alps, lured early tourists into “discovering” the Lake District. But farmers had been working these fells and valleys for over 5,000 years. James Rebanks comes from a long line of Lakeland shepherds. Despite flunking his first public exams, he read history at Magdalen, Oxford – wanting only to return to his Herdwick flock in Matterdale. This outstanding debut follows the arduous cycle of the farming year: while tourists have affairs with the Lakes, what Rebanks describes is a long, hard marriage. His prose is earthed and conversational; it feels as if you’re leaning over a gate, listening to his ruminations. The book, a bestseller, exudes tough passion, and a sense of belonging and love that holds you rapt to the very last line: “This is my life. I want no other.”

FICTION The Green Road by Anne Enright, Cape, hardback, out now. Enright’s sixth novel is bookended by family lunches – acutely awkward, perfectly observed. At the first, on Palm Sunday 1980, handsome Dan, eldest and most favoured of the four Madigan siblings, announces he’s entering the priesthood. His mother, Rosaleen, takes to her bed. By the second lunch, it’s 2005, and Rosaleen has summoned her grown-up children home for one last Christmas before she sells Ardeevin, the family home in County Clare. In between, they’ve gone very different ways: Dan, having abandoned the priesthood, has come out in HIV-ridden New York; Emmet, his brother, escapes his loneliness through compassion addiction, as an aid worker in Mali. But, however far they run, their lives remain dominated by Rosaleen. She’s the lynchpin of the family, and of the novel: exasperating, monstrous and then, in a final twist, deeply lovable.

The Infidel Stain by M.J. Carter, Fig Tree, hardback, out now. Carter revels in double lives. As Miranda Carter, she’s the author of an exceptional biography of Anthony Blunt, the art historian and Soviet spy. As M.J., she writes detective fiction, and has created a Holmes and Watson of her own: phlegmatic, opium-eating Jeremiah Blake, and his genteel sidekick, William Avery. Here she brings them home from colonial India to solve a series of gruesome murders among the Victorian gutter press, exposing preachy, philanthropic members of the aristocracy as lewd criminal hypocrites. The prose is witty and nimble: Carter deftly deploys a cast in which fictional figures rub shoulders with real ones –Henry Mayhew, Alexis Soyer, Dickens. But her great achievement is her evocation of Victorian London, its slummy “rookeries”, and shocking gulf between rich and poor. Plus ça change.

REPORTAGE How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt, Bodley Head, hardback, out June 18th. In 2000, the average American spent over $70 a year on CDs. Then came a generation of “adult adolescents” like Stephen Witt. He has a year and a half’s listening on his digital library – everything from Abba to ZZ Top – and it hasn’t cost him a dime. A self-confessed obsessional bootlegger, Witt explores how music piracy became to the late 1990s what drugs were to the 1960s: a crime so widely committed that the law was unenforceable. He introduces us to darknets and cyber-criminals, but his most profligate pirates are strikingly ordinary: men like Dell Glover, pillar of the Baptist Church and devoted father, who, for eight years, smuggled cds out of a Universal pressing plant in California, costing the industry tens of millions. Underlying Witt’s pacy narrative is an urgent question: if we don’t face the music, what will become of it?

Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim, Rider, paperback, out now. At Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, independent thought is life-threatening. Suki Kim, a Korean-American journalist posing as a Christian missionary, taught there from July to December 2011, and at huge personal risk smuggled out this haunting account of six months in “a linguistic and cultural Galapagos”. Her students, 270 of the brightest young men in North Korea, are utterly ignorant of the outside world. Naive and infantilised, they are also deft liars. Although she cannot trust them, Kim comes to love them, making subtle attempts to prise open their minds. Whether she succeeds is doubtful: she leaves them inconsolable over the death of Kim Jong-il. The sealed border of North Korea lies not just at the 38th parallel, “but in each person’s heart, blocking the past and choking off the future”.

HISTORY The News from Waterloo by Brian Cathcart, Faber, hardback, out now. The best things are worth waiting for, but the waiting can be agony. Wellington’s victory in 1815 was probably the biggest news to reach Britain in the 19th century, but took days to do so. London had more than 50 newspapers, and not one had sent a reporter, so the city seethed with nervous rumour. Brian Cathcart, professor of journalism and founder of the Hacked Off campaign for a more accountable press, tells a tale of four messengers: a dodgy Colchester ship owner and a Green Knight, who got the story wrong; “Mr C”, who was first, but not trusted; and Henry Percy, charged with carrying both Wellington’s dispatch and two cumbersome Imperial eagles home to the War Office. A comedy of errors, but also a vivid portrait of an unsettled nation, overtaxed and desperate for peace, this is history at its jolliest. 

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