Short reviews

The Devil You Don't Know,
Zuhair al-Jezairy
Saqi Books, 288pp, £10.99
Zuhair al-Jezairy's The Devil You Don't Know paints a grisly image of Iraq, "a country that specialises in waiting for destruction and death". The book traces his armchair involvement in the war, first in exile and then upon his return to an Iraq on the brink of Balkanisation along ethnic, religious, tribal and sectarian lines.

Al-Jezairy blames the anarchy that broke out in the country on the power vacuum created by the crushing of the Ba'athist regime, and argues that the Iraqi people, who have historically lived from occupation to occupation, were not ready for democracy before this most recent intervention. They are as helpless in the face of the invading western forces as they were powerless under Saddam Hussein.

The Devil You Don't Know is a personal tragedy. It records a journalist's struggle to play his part in undoing the "Ba'athification" of Iraq's media, and his efforts to work in a "Talibanised" society that still censors by killing. Although the book gives readers an Iraqi perspective of the 2003 invasion and the aftermath, some of its distinctive regional flavour may be lost beyond the diaspora.
Anisha Ahmed

The Rehearsal,
Eleanor Catton
Granta Books, 317pp, £12.99
Eleanor Catton's debut novel blurs the divisions between the real, the imagined and the staged. When an underage schoolgirl is discovered to be having an affair with her thirtysomething music teacher, the girl's peers rush to judgement, mixing fact and fiction, truth and falsehood. The resulting, expertly polished, mosaic of intrigue and self-discovery offers a vivid and acute portrait of the anxieties of late adolescence. And when a local drama college decides to turn the scandal into a stage show, the imagined is made real, and the real becomes performance.

Catton is a fresh and exciting talent, and she endows her young characters with a precocious understanding of their own emotions. Her style takes a cue from her content, as the reader is often reminded that the plot itself is a performance, and the characters mere players in a theatrical production based on an imaginative interpretation of the past. The result is a daring twist on the quintessential coming-of-age story.
Tara Graham

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, On tour with the far right