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16 February 2022

Reviewed in short: New books by Sofi Thanhauser, Jessica Au, Jo Browning Wroe and Joseph Sassoon

Worn by Thanhauser, Cold Enough for Snow by Au, A Terrible Kindness by Wroe and The Global Merchants by Sassoon.

By Pippa Bailey, Ellen Peirson-Hagger, Anna Leszkiewicz and Michael Prodger

Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser
Allen Lane, 400pp, £20

Human beings are the only animals that get dressed, and the only animals that tell stories: the words “text” and “textile” both come from the Latin “texere”, meaning “to weave”. In Worn, Sofi Thanhauser uses six fibres – linen, cotton, silk, wool, rayon and nylon – to tell the story of clothing, from the ancient silk route to globalised supply chains. Anthropologists estimate that pre-industrial humans spent as much time making cloth as they did producing food; when its production moved from the smallholding to the factory, the simple rhythms of the day were altered.

Textile making harmed both people and planet long before the advent of fast fashion. Cotton production for instance is chemically intensive and demands huge amounts of water. It was instrumental in the colonisation of India and the slave trade in the US, as it is now in Uyghur forced labour in China. Thanhauser convincingly argues that getting dressed is a political act. Worn is also, unavoidably, about women: their place in the home and the value of their labour. It is an incredibly well-reported account of how fashion, far from being trivial, has shaped human history.

By Pippa Bailey

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 104pp, £9.99

An uneasiness runs through Cold Enough for Snow, the quietly deft and moving second book by the Australian author Jessica Au and winner of the 2020 Novel Prize. The novel follows an unnamed narrator and her mother as they visit Japan. Together they take day trips to notable sights, visit galleries and eat in restaurants. They talk to each other, yet their conversation lacks real intimacy. That wouldn’t itself be of note – not all mother-daughter relationships hold innate warmth – without the daughter’s evident craving for a more affectionate bond.

As they travel, the narrator remembers moments from her childhood. The two green-tea ice creams she buys on a train recall the ice creams her mother used to give her and her sister while she did the shopping. Then she is reminded of her partner’s tendency to joke about her frugalness, a trait, she understands now, that was – or is – her mother’s, and which she is just repeating. As these evocative scenes fall together, any semblance of her mother’s form begins to break away, until the reader is left wondering: who is this woman talking to? Is her mother really there at all?

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By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

[see also: Reviewed in short: New titles by Elizabeth Wilson, Michael Grothaus, Jonathan Katz and Whitney Goodman]

A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe
Faber & Faber, 400pp, £14.99

On Friday 21 October 1966, a coal mining spoil tip perched on a mountain slope above a small, southern Welsh village collapsed, causing an avalanche that hit the local junior school. One hundred and sixteen children were killed in the Aberfan disaster, and this is where A Terrible Kindness begins. Nineteen-year-old William Lavery is a recently qualified embalmer attending his own graduation dinner when it is interrupted by a telegram: “Embalmers needed urgently at Aberfan. Bring equipment and coffins.” When he arrives, someone already on the scene explains: “The bodies recovered first were relatively intact, and most of those have been identified… Now it’s getting harder.”

But Jo Browning Wroe’s debut novel, which became an instant bestseller on the Sunday Times top ten list, is not really about the tragedy at its opening (and some readers may find the use of the avalanche as a literary device tasteless): instead, it jumps backwards in time to William’s days at choir school in Cambridge. Browning Wroe, who grew up in a crematorium, uses a restrained style to gradually build a portrait of a traumatic childhood and young adulthood.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

The Global Merchants: The Enterprise and Extravagance of the Sassoon Dynasty by Joseph Sassoon
Allen Lane, 448pp, £30

As the Rothschilds were to banking in the 19th century, the Sassoons were to trade. This Arab-Jewish family originated in Ottoman Baghdad and, says the historian and descendant Joseph Sassoon, “settled in India, traded in China and aspired to be British”. From 1830, the Sassoons rose alongside the British empire and for 150 years traded goods including cotton and silk, tea and spices, pearls and opium. From strongholds in Mumbai, Shanghai and London they established routes that crossed the world, carrying both commodities and the family name, becoming figures of significance in business, and society and politics too.

For his dynastic history, Joseph Sassoon drew on his family’s correspondence, much of it written in a near-obsolete script, and he has used it tellingly and stylishly. His characters include the business panjandrums but also the art-collecting Philip Sassoon, the poet Siegfried, and Rachel Beer, the first female editor of a British national newspaper. Globalisation may have lost some of its lustre recently, but the pioneers who made it a reality remain impressive.

By Michael Prodger

[see also: Reviewed in Short: New titles by James Hamilton, Xochitl Gonzalez, Ben Rawlence, and Gulbahar Haitiwaji and Rozenn Morgat]

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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War