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28 July 2021

Reviewed in short: New books by Alwyn Turner, Mary Gaitskill, Paul McVeigh and Luke Kennard

All In It Together by Turner, Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Gaitskill, The 32, edited by McVeigh and Notes on the Sonnets by Kennard. 

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger, Leo Robson, Tom Gatti and Katherine Cowles

All In It Together by Alwyn Turner

In All In It Together, the historian Alwyn Turner follows his chronicles of the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties with a lively and anecdote-fuelled history of the first 15 years of the 21st century in England. At the dawn of the millennium, “Britain was halfway through the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth it had ever known.” This ended abruptly after the 2008 financial crash. More sinister was that levels of anxiety and insecurity were worsening. 

Turner analyses the era’s most memorable events – from the aftermath of  the 9/11 and 7/7 terrorist attacks to George Galloway’s appearance on Big Brother – and makes excellent use of footnotes. His account of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002 – when people in Eastbourne gave themselves a “St George’s suntan” by smearing sun tan lotion crosses on their backs before crisping up in the sun – is vividly described. But for a book whose author insists it is in popular culture that the “battles are fought”, some chapters are disappointingly Westminster-heavy. Look beyond Blair, Brown and Cameron: it’s the tales about a Hells Angels biker or a quote from an Outnumbered character that stand out as the true gems of the age.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger
Profile Books, 384pp, £20

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Margaret Reynolds, Michio Kaku, AK Blakemore and Jay Griffiths]

Two Girls, Fat and Thin by Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill’s pin-sharp first novel, published in 1991 and now deservingly reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic, is an exercise in the dovetailing dual portrait. You might call it the gothic flipside to Agnès Varda’s film One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, or a New York pop-feminist spin on the doubling theme repeatedly explored by Gaitskill’s favourite writer, Nabokov. 

Dorothy is a proofreader at a law firm. Justine is a freelance journalist. Both were the survivors of sexual abuse in childhood. The teenage Dorothy found escape – salvation as she saw it – in the work of the charismatic Rand-like philosopher-novelist Anna Granite. Justine expresses her contempt for the world through sadomasochism. The novel, an extraordinary depiction of the trauma-bred tendency towards magical thinking, self-sabotage and the dissociated state, begins when Justine is researching a magazine article on Granite’s followers. Then, in a bold move sustained by Gaitskill’s fluency and deft touch, they are portrayed separately, in consecutive chapters, until, eventually, they cross paths again in the novel’s final act, a showdown that mutates into a moment of catharsis.
By Leo Robson
Penguin, 308pp, £9.99

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[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Mary Ann Sieghart, Terje Tvedt, Jarred McGinnis and Brad Stone]

The 32, edited by Paul McVeigh

Inspired by Kit de Waal’s 2019 anthology Common People, this rich collection of “Irish working-class voices” showcases the work of 32 writers in an island – as Paul McVeigh writes in his introduction – “where some say class doesn’t exist”. These essays give the lie to that notion. Class identity is lodged deep. Roddy Doyle’s anger at a man joking about the aspirations of his working-class father (“I wish I’d hit him”) grows as he considers its implications. Catholic strictures, systemic prejudice or sectarianism shape childhoods, as in Rosaleen McDonagh’s moving account of the struggles of her Traveller family, or Martin Doyle’s matter-of-fact catalogue of daily violence in 1980s Northern Ireland. But hardships are leavened by communities such as Claire Allen’s Derry hairdresser (“What is said in the salon stays in the salon”).

Working-class clichés are dismantled, whether about male terseness (“My clan is full of blethering men,” writes Lisa McInerney) or housing-estate fiction that, Kevin Barry observes, always features a “bag of cans”. Barry finds a more telling signifier of identity in a person’s “gaatch”: a defensive, shoulder-forward physical stance that contains politics, religion and colonial history, “but most of all… is made out of class”.
By Tom Gatti
Unbound, 302pp, £9.99

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Heather McGhee, Marc Morris, Véronique Tadjo and Francisco Garcia]

Notes on the Sonnets by Luke Kennard

Luke Kennard’s protagonist is at an all-night party, where he meets a man who claims he can recite any of Shakespeare’s sonnets from 1 to 154. “And I’m like, Wow, that’s great. 66?” The man says no, anything but 66. “I’m like, OK, hahaha, you’re full of shit.” But he’s not, so what follows is a sequence of 154 prose poems, each set at the same party, and each linked – loosely, liberally – to 
a single sonnet. This collection isn’t about Shakespeare, it mingles with him, dances around him like a guest keeping a polite distance. 

Notes on the Sonnets is intoxicating – a kind of stream of semi-consciousness, at once alert (there are substances involved) and dazed, disorientated (there is rum involved). Sentences make your head spin, then hurt: in 154 poems, there are seemingly numberless ideas, observations, aphorisms, characters – chief among them the speaker’s beloved, who declares (as who hasn’t, on a certain kind of night?) she has a “life-ruining crush” on every person in the room. Any party, like any poem, can be surreal and self-conscious; but only the best ones revolve around love – the way we make and unmake it, the way the mind whirls under its influence.
By Katherine Cowles
Penned in the Margins, 212pp, £9.99

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This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special