Book reviews

Time Out takes a closer look at the best new books this week

Time In
What Price Liberty?

Ben Wilson
After a couple of more-than-handy welterweight histories (on William Hone and Regency satire), sickeningly youthful tyro Wilson (he was born in 1980. 1980!) has delivered his first heavyweight – a rigorous interrogation of liberty in the UK. This dense mixture of political philosophy and English history is not as brisk as Wilson’s previous books: there is much philosophical hairsplitting, particularly in the early chapters that deal with the birth of liberty during the Civil War. This battle for liberty was not relentless and inevitable but an ‘intermittent guerrilla campaign’ fought by ‘somewhat seedy adventurers’ such as William Hone, William Cobbett and John Wilkes. Much was based on property law, smuggled into the statute books by determined magistrates.

Having established the parameters of English liberty, Wilson then relates how it has been dismantled since the First World War, ‘when every aspect of civilian life was brought under central control’. Once the state regained power, it proved reluctant to let it go. ‘It is noteworthy that in 1984, unlike in 1926,’ he writes, ‘the government did not need to declare a state of emergency to deal with the miners’ strike.’ Things, of course, have got even worse since then and Wilson despairs of the ‘risk-free’ Blair government, and the way its sneering at ‘airy-fairy liberals’ and ‘liberati’ meant it was unable to articulate a defence of free speech when it came under attack from extremists. The upshot is that the populace no longer knows or cares what liberty really means. An important book for troubling times.
Peter Watts
Faber Dhs98 Available to order from Magrudy’s

Honeymoons: Journeys From The Altar

Roger Hudson and Rose Baring (eds)
‘No other holiday inspires so much anticipation, nor offers such potential for catastrophic disappointment or blissful fulfillment’ reads the blurb to this brilliant collection of writings on the subject of the honeymoon. And we can attest to the truth of this, having begun reading it in a VW camper en route to Cornwall in the UK, new husband singing at the wheel, sun streaming through the split screen, and finishing it in a grim hotel in Newcastle, rain beating on the window, said spouse on the phone to the AA.

Offering context and commentary where necessary, the editors have canvassed history, fact and fiction for the gamut of newlywed experience, from the Brownings’ blissful elopement and Napoleon and Marie-Louise’s swift exit from their marriage supper, to Charles Kingsley’s bizarre proposal of chastity and Tess Durbeyfield’s tragic disclosure of her rape. At the catastrophic end of the scale, spouses do runners, fall to their deaths and – surely it can’t get worse than Frankenstein? – have their necks snapped by grotesque monsters of their lovers’ creation. There is tenderly erotic writing from, of all people, Queen Victoria, who delights in sneaking in to watch her new husband shave. Nor do brides have the monopoly on innocence and loneliness. A 19th-century chaplain writes to his brother: ‘I have so often wished for you. Even with my wife and in the honeymoon I want a man to talk to now and then… ’

After all this turmoil, the shallow observations of Lady Diana Cooper, who married just after the First World War, strike a chord: ‘I like being called Madame,’ she writes, ‘and wearing a wedding ring and being happy all the time.’
Bella Todd
Eland Dhs145 Available to order from Magrudy’s

The Rehearsal

Eleanor Catton
When a teacher at a girls’ school is fired for sleeping with one of his pupils, it has a profound impact on the girl’s classmates, and students at a local drama school devise a play inspired by the scandal.

Eleanor Catton’s ambitious debut sets out to question the nature of fiction itself, by comparing the theatre performance to the roles that people play in everyday life. The divide between reality and fiction is deliberately blurred and the chronology tangled. Even in the supposedly ‘real’ world, characters speak in a heightened and dramatic vocabulary and speak their thoughts out loud, as though delivering soliloquies. They are frequently referred to as actors, playing their parts with varying degrees of success, and sometimes even wishing they had been cast in different roles.

Much of the story is told secondhand, as the girls confide in their saxophone tutor, but we are aware that their versions of events might be unreliable: sometimes they contradict each other and the same small details crop up in different places, as though they were stealing each other’s ideas.

It is telling that the teacher and his young lover feature very little, despite being the centre of all the action. Instead, the focus is on how others attempt to understand their relationship, using rumour, conjecture and imagination. Truth is elusive, and the characters construct narratives in order to make sense of the world. This is a novel with big ideas, which sometimes falls a little short of realising its ambitions. The uncertainty about what is real can be confusing for the reader (as can the jumps in time) and the use of language, though innovative, is occasionally over the top. However, it is still startlingly original and the more you read, the more you grow used to the style and get drawn into the book’s intriguing world.
Priscilla McClay
Granta Dhs72 Available to order from Magrudy’s

The City And The City

China Mieville
China Mieville, the author of three doorstop-sized fantasy novels, has now ventured into the detective genre, although there’s a fair whack of fantasy here, too. The result is an intriguing hybrid.

His Bas-Lag books (the loose trilogy of Perdido Street Station, The Scar and The Iron Council) won awards for their sheer scope. Yes, some of the characters had beetles where their heads should be, but he included the state brutalisation of political revolutionaries and the unionisation of prostitutes alongside the battles with other-dimensional brain-scoffing demon-moths – so readers didn’t necessarily have to be fans of fantasy to find the books a rewarding read.

The City And The City is different entirely. Half the size of those previous tomes and much more focused, it does require a level of tolerance for the conventions of the police procedural. The action kicks off, traditionally enough, with the discovery of a young woman’s naked body, and from there it’s the usual cycle of red herrings and detectives running around, shouting into their mobiles and beating up suspects.

Mieville’s considerable skill still makes this a gripping work, but it’s the sci-fi element – how can eastern European cities Besz and Ul Qoma exist simultaneously in the same place and time? – that keeps you turning the pages, rather than the whodunnit. The body is found in Besz but comes from Ul Qoma. Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad has to discover how she crossed the breach, without provoking the shadowy authority that enforces the divide.

Unfortunately, the inspector proves to be a rather dull protagonist, which occasionally hampers the first person narrative perspective. The City And The City is an extremely ambitious work with a grand finale which won’t disappoint fans of either genre; a couple of giant killer moths might have perked things up nicely, but it’s a small gripe.
Andrew Williams
Pan Macmillan Dhs72 Available to order from Magrudy’s

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