The Artful Dickens by John Mullan
In this sprightly and surprising study of Dickens, John Mullan unpacks the novelist’s “tricks and ploys”. Dickens’s supposed faults, says Mullan, “can often be virtues”. So he looks at recurring themes such as hauntings (Bleak House, Barnaby Rudge, The Pickwick Papers) and drownings (David Copperfield, Great Expectations, The Old Curiosity Shop) and at quirks including the writer’s love of cliché, his unashamed use of coincidence, and how he found his characters’ names. Mullan wears his formidable learning lightly in revealing how a teeming imagination made it on to the page.
Bloomsbury, 448pp, £16.99
Jack by Marilynne Robinson
Gilead, the first instalment in this series of novels, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Fifteen years on, the fourth rings with a timelessness. In it, we once again meet Jack, the prodigal son of a Presbyterian minister, who was a strange and destructive child and is now a vagrant, a drunk, a man set apart. In 1940s St Louis, we follow Jack’s relationship with Della, a black woman. In very different ways, both Jack and Della are estranged from society. In lucid prose, Robinson asks: what is the connection between perdition and loneliness?
Virago, 320pp, £18.99
In the Dragon’s Shadow by Sebastian Strangio
South-east Asia is more exposed to the political and economic power of China than any other region in the world. Three countries – Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos – share borders with the most populous country on Earth, and five are directly impacted by Beijing’s increasingly aggressive claims over the South China Sea. In this book, the journalist Sebastian Strangio investigates the bearing of China’s assertiveness. Based on scholarly research and years of front-line reporting, this is a singular guide both to China’s international ambitions and to what will become of the world’s most congested geopolitical region.
Yale University Press, 352pp, £20
The Fire of Joy by Clive James
“The poems I remember are the milestones marking the journey of my life,” writes James in this anthology of 84 works “to get by heart and say aloud”, completed shortly before he died in 2019. From the “sheer delicious sound” of Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee from Me” (depicting “a bloke… on the ropes”) to Sylvia Plath’s “Cut” (exhibiting “a sense of rhythm as rich and varied as a well-stocked jukebox”) and beyond, James’s selection and his droll, chatty, demystifying commentary succeed in rekindling the poems’ “flashing fires” and form a fitting testament to a life steeped in verse.
Picador, 310pp, £20
This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union