Welcome to our weekly Books Digest where we round up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features French Braid by Anne Tyler, My Fourth Time, We Drowned by Sally Hayden and James Bridle’s Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence.

For more books, take a look through our Books Digest Archive.

French Braid by Anne Tyler (Vintage Publishing), £11.89.

Alice Crossley

With twenty-four novels under her belt, it should come as no surprise that Anne Tyler’s latest book is a work of art, and yet the 80-year-old author’s writing has a way of beating even the highest of expectations. 

French Braid tells the story of three generations of the Garrett family and flits between 1959 and 2020 (with a brief mention of the pandemic at the end). The novel begins with one of the granddaughters, Serena, spotting a man she thinks might be her estranged cousin at a train station.

Tyler then whisks us back to the family’s beginning, with the marriage of Mercy and Robin Garrett, unwinding the family history to reveal how they grew apart. The truth of the book, however, is that not much happened at all; French Braid is a tale of family mundanity and how we often miss the little moments that make us who we are.

French Braid is a poetic and unputdownable novel that seems effortlessly in its skilful interweaving of a complex web of characters. The book’s only downfall is that it was over too quickly, thankfully there is plenty more of Anne Tyler’s writing to turn to next.

My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World’s Deadliest Migration Route by Sally Hayden (HarperCollins), £14.99.

Caitlin Allen

The humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine has garnered mass attention across Europe, and those fleeing the violence have been treated with much compassion. It has, however, brought into sharp relief the different treatment of refugees from other corners of the world, fleeing similarly desperate situations. 

Irish journalist Sally Hayden’s new book is a staggering account of the plight of refugees from North and East Africa, attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean Sea into Europe — and the cruelty of European immigration policy. 

Hayden’s investigation all stems from a Facebook message she received from a stranger in 2018: “Hi sister Sally, we need your help,” it read, “We are under bad condition in Libya prison. If you have time, I will tell you all the story.” This stranger turned out to be an Eritrean refugee, and the prison he spoke of was a Libyan detention centre where he was being held, after his failed attempt to reach Europe by boat.

This single message was Hayden’s entree into “a human rights disaster of epic proportions.” Her book is based on years of interviews with hundreds of refugees and migrants — Eritreans, Somalis, Ethiopians, Gambians and Sierra Leoneans — all of whom found themselves imprisoned indefinitely in Libyan detention centres after the EU started funding coastal interceptions in 2017. It documents in painstaking detail their accounts of torture, starvation and sexual abuse inside these centres. 

This book is a quest for accountability – exposing the negligence of NGOs, corruption within the UN and the EU’s complicity in human rights abuses. It’s a plea for individuals in the West not to grow immune to this form of suffering. But, crucially, it is also about restoring humanity to those who have been cruelly deprived of it. It details the courage and resilience of refugees, and gives a voice to all those fleeing who tell her they would rather “die to live than live to die.”

Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence by James Bridle (Penguin), £15.89.

Bill Bowkett

Technology has become intrinsic to human life. But as artist James Bridle explains in his intricate new book, Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence, we must expand our relationship with nature if we are to build a “more-than-human world”.

Rapid advances in computer sciences — such as artificial intelligence — have stripped humans of agency and damaged our planet through the depletion of natural resources. To prevent further damage, Bridle says, humankind must learn to live with technology and the natural world “rather than dominate it”.

From redwood forests to satellites and proto-Roomba tortoises, Bridle’s book rethinks the intersection of ecology, technology and intelligence, in search of a more equitable world.

Ways of Being is an important work emphasising the need to protect biodiversity. The question is, are politicians and policymakers prepared to invest billions in ecological infrastructure to rise to Bridle’s challenge?