China: An Epic Novel by Edward Rutherford (Hodder & Stoughton), £20.
Rutherford is not only a master storyteller of fiction; he also manages to give a clearer view of a historical period than you could find in most learned factual books. The depth of his research into the period from the Opium Wars to the Boxer Rebellion shines through almost every page as he weaves together the lives of several seemingly unconnected characters. They drive the narrative through the seven decades of a clash of civilisations and mutual misunderstanding whose effects are felt to this day in China’s view of the outside world, despite having long emerged from the ‘Century of humiliation’.
The author does not judge his characters; instead, he explains their motivations and their moral strengths and weaknesses. We see the impoverished Chinese pirate out to make his fortune, the English merchant importing opium into the Middle Kingdom, the troubled missionary and the young wife in a rural hamlet struggling to survive as turmoil sweeps across the Middle Kingdom. Their fictional stories are mixed with the appearance of real figures from history, such as Lord Elgin and the Daoguang Emperor himself. Rutherford’s knowledge and eye for detail also extend to the country’s geography; we move from the small port village of Hong Kong to the growing city of Shanghai and on to the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Readers should not be put off if they are not familiar with these historical events. The narrative flows, and the characters develop as the sweep of history is revealed in an extraordinarily well-researched work. Rutherford manages to write both a history lesson and an enthralling novel.
Intimacies By Lucy Caldwell (Faber & Faber), £12.99.
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I don’t like short stories – I’m too greedy a reader. Just as I become invested in a character, they vanish, and the narrative starts anew. A few years ago, Hilary Mantel’s collection of short stories, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, reluctantly tempted me into the genre. Now, Lucy Caldwell has won me over.
Caldwell’s Intimacies is a collection of eleven short stories that chart the steps and missteps of young women as they make their way in the world. In MayDay, readers meet a female student in Belfast who has to order pills online to end an unwanted pregnancy. Lady Moon shares the turmoil of a woman whose unborn baby appears to have significant health issues.
The standout story is the opening tale, Like This. A mother is busy managing an angsty toddler and her baby in a restaurant when the eldest of her children declares he needs the toilet. With no space for the buggy in the facilities and not wanting to wake her finally sleeping newborn, she leaves the pram with a customer and fellow mother. It only dawns on her later that she has left her child, albeit for a few minutes, with a total stranger. Good writers have the reader enthralled within the first ten pages; Caldwell achieves this feat in the first few lines.
In The Irish Times, Houman Barekat called the collection a “bric-a-brac of ordinary life”. The use of ‘Bric-a-brac’, referring to a mixture of items with insignificant value, does this collection a disservice. Caldwell’s eleven episodes of hope and heartbreak fit together so coherently that when you reach the final page, you bid farewell to eleven fully formed characters. Lisa McGee, the writer of Derry Girls, deems Intimacies “heart-stoppingly good”. This is a far more deserving description.
Greater: Britain After The Storm by Penny Mordaunt and Chris Lewis (Biteback), £20.
It is rare for a serving senior Minister to publish a book while in office, and what a book it is. Before you even reach the first chapter, there is a veritable Becher’s Brook of bedazzling “names” saying how wonderful it is – Boris Johnson, Tony Blair, Elton John, Richard Curtis, Ruth Davidson, Peter Hennessey, Ben Ainslie, and Bill Gates wrote the Foreword. Leap past this guff, body swerve the foreword, and head straight to the introduction; this is where the serious engagement starts. The scene is set.
Penny Mordaunt and Chris Lewis’s questions boil down to what’s going on in Britain today; how did we get here, and what can we do to fix it? The book’s premise is that Britain needs sorting out. Who can challenge that essential thesis? Answers and practical examples come aplenty in the chapters that follow. No sector, institution or group is left unanalysed. This is not one of those tomes that outline how awful things are without the authors knowing what to do. Mordaunt and Lewis are proud of Britain and want to see it do better.
Mordaunt is a brave politician with a compelling personal backstory. As a leading Brexiteer her decision to back Jeremy Hunt in the Conservative leadership campaign probably cost her a seat in the Cabinet. Boris Johnson’s willingness to provide a quote for the book is a sign that the breach has healed. Greater: Britain After The Storm provides the first serious post-Brexit vision for Britain. That alone makes it a book of note. Its prescription is ambitious, maybe at times beyond reasonable achievement, but it’s a book full of hope and ambition and worth spending time with.