On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times by Michael Ignatieff (Pan Macmillan), £16.99.

Alastair Benn 

Consolation is a wonderful theme – and a useful way into the tradition of practical philosophy that Michael Ignatieff, the ex-liberal politician and historian, invokes in his latest book On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times. An artful storyteller, Ignatieff takes us on a whistle-stop tour through the lives of a nice selection of western philosophers and public intellectuals (Boethius, Marx and Vaclav Havel all get a look-in). 

Ignatieff is at his best drawing lessons about the strategies these figures employed to get through tricky patches. He explores the frequent mismatches between their personal experiences and the principles they committed to in their work, and Ignatieff offers some thoughtful reflections on the limits of philosophy in the rough and tumble of life.

This is a useful index to the varied role consolation has played in western thought. And yet, he is far more fluent on the twentieth-century – especially and predictably on the dilemmas Czech “philosopher king” Havel faced in power, given Ignatieff’s deep knowledge of Central Europe). And some of the commentary on his classical examples, Cicero is given particularly short shrift, feels hastily put together.

A Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us about the Destiny of the Human Species by Rob Dunn (John Murray Press), £25.

Lily Pagano

In his new book, A Natural History of the Future: What the Laws of Biology Tell Us about the Destiny of the Human Species, biologist Rob Dunn argues that humankind’s determination to resist and challenge the laws of the biological world, rather than surrender to them, is our biggest threat to survival.

From Darwin’s law of natural selection to the diversity-stability law, science proves that a more diverse and richer ecosystem is more stable throughout time. And yet, we continue to violate these laws in the name of self-preservation as a species. 

It is this determination to simplify the complexities of the natural world, bending them to our will and service, that could cost our species survival, argues Dunn. As we cause the deaths of numerous species that struggle to adapt to us — by overusing biocides, for example — we reduce our own survivability in the process. 

Informative, accessible and thought-provoking, the message ultimately presented by Dunn in A Natural History is one of caution. The reader is urged to contextualise human existence as a species and begin to live within the laws of nature, using them to our advantage rather than attempting to tame them, dooming ourselves in the process. 

Everything is True: A junior doctor’s story of life, death and grief in a time of pandemic by Roopa Farooki (Bloomsbury Publishing), £14.99.

Caitlin Allen 

Using war metaphors to describe the coronavirus crisis is often seen as distasteful. But Roopa Farooki’s searing memoir of life on the wards during the first forty days of the pandemic lays bare just how much the hospital came to resemble the frontline of a battle. Those working in the NHS were “dodging silver bullets shaped like pretty viral crowns,” writes Junior Doctor Farooki. That’s not to say Farooki has accepted her role as a war hero – far from it. Doctors are not soldiers, she repeatedly reminds us. Doctors haven’t signed up to serve as sacrificial lambs.

The book is comprised of diary extracts, which Farooki would come home and scribble down after her thirteen-hour shifts, to chronicle the devastating losses she witnessed. 

Her account is a poignant reminder of just how little we knew about the virus in those first few weeks, and vividly conveys the fear, confusion and uncertainty felt by those working on the hospital “frontline.” We are reminded too of how vulnerable and unprepared doctors were, in part due to government incompetence. Getting PPE was “a Russian roulette based on shift pattern”. 

Farooki’s memoir is a two-fold reflection on grief: she grieves for all those lives lost to coronavirus in the overcrowded wards, but she also reflects on a very personal loss. The one person she would most like to talk to about the madness unfolding during those first forty days is her sister – who died of cancer just weeks before the pandemic began. Her sister serves as an inner voice throughout the book, as she imagines conversations the two of them would have had together. 

Farooki is not just a junior doctor, she is also an accomplished novelist and creative writing lecturer. Which explains her beautiful turn of phrase and poetic reflections on loss and grief: “The sound of breaking hearts is deafening,” she writes.