Every Breath You Take: China’s new tyranny, by Ian Williams (Birlinn) £16.99
When historians look back on the frightening 21st century rise of China, they may marvel at the way it took many Western politicians the best part of a decade to work out what they were up against. When Xi Jinping became China’s leader in 2012-13 it was assumed that he would continue the process begun by his predecessors after 1989. They had emphasised market liberalisation and the forging of economic alliances with foreign powers. It seemed in that period as though we were all moving closer together under the banner of globalisation and free trade. That was an illusion. Xi – a Marxist and nationalist hardliner, for all that he smiles a lot – turned out to be much tougher than he looked. He saw the West coming and rumbled its desperate leaders who were hungry, after the financial crisis of 2008, for investment from China. In Every Breath You Take, Ian Williams charts the terrifying centralisation of power by the Chinese state and the way in which the Chinese Communist Party has tipped into full-scale tech-totalitarianism. Williams takes us down the New Silk Road, with China bulldozing its way into a position of dominance, and explains how a search for influence in the West has turned into full-scale interference in our economies and societies. And there are the Uighurs, treated to forced labour, tyranny and re-education.
Williams knows his stuff, as an award-winning foreign correspondent reporting for a quarter of a century from Asia with a special interest in China. This is an accessible, valuable, troubling, timely book.
Of Women and Salt, by Gabriela Garcia (Pan Macmillan), £14.99.
In her debut novel, Of Women and Salt, Gabriela Garcia explores issues of race, identity and gender, told through the exploration of one family tree, from 19th century Cuba to modern day detention centres.
Opening in the Cuban province of Camagûey in 1866, Maria Isabella is the only female worker at a cigar factory. In present day Miami, her great-great-granddaughter, Jeanette, battles a drug addiction and an unquenchable thirst for information about her family history, after her mother Carmen emigrates to the US. Each chapter begins in a new year, in a different location, with the role of narrator being passed between Garcia’s fiery characters. At times it reads like poetry, and at others like a diary or prose. Linking politics, history and an inheritance of unspeakable trauma, the chapters tell a story of female Latina strength and pride.
The novel is addictive. As I followed Maria Isabella’s family tree, my copy followed me, finding a temporary home around the house atop a side table or fruit bowl, as I snuck a handful of pages here and there in between daily routines.
The words “Who are we, weakness? No, we are force,” dominate the narrative. First read out-loud to Maria Isabella and her fellow factory workers from a real-life letter from Victor Hugo to Cuban activist Emilia Casanova de Villaverde in 1870, variations of it then appear throughout the novel right up until the final page. In making her mark on the literary scene with this book, Garcia is a force too.
The Hard Crowd, by Rachel Kushner (Jonathan Cape), £18.98.
In this collection of essays dating back to 2000, the American writer Rachel Kushner memorialises her life and the people in it. Kushner’s life experiences couldn’t be further from my own, and, as the opposite of a petrol-head (much of the book centres around her love of cars and motorcycles), I was initially put off. A few essays in, I had lost my sense of self and given in to Kushner’s experiences. Her words free up space, so the reader can walk mile upon mile of her adventures.
Ruminating on everything from the kindness of truckers, life in a refugee camp in Jerusalem, growing up “a girl from the sunset” in San Francisco, and finding meaning in Jeff Koons Balloon Dogs, Kushner’s life has been defined by extraordinary social adventure and constant introspective reflection. Her ability to draw humanity out of her anecdotes and daily interactions and turn them into essays is impressive.
In the essay ‘We Are All Orphans’ a mother tells Kushner she wants her kids to “be able to imagine other lives.” This is what Kushner’s writing facilitates. Her experiences may be niche, but her writing is transformative. This is escapism fuelled by adrenaline.