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31 August 2022

Reviewed in short: New books from Steve Brusatte, Selby Wynn Schwartz, Katy Hessel and Seán Hewitt

The Rise and Reign of the Mammals by Brusatte, After Sappho by Schwartz, The Story of Art Without Men by Hessel and All Down Darkness Wide by Hewitt.

By Will Dunn, Pippa Bailey, Michael Prodger and Christiana Bishop

The Rise and Reign of the Mammals by Steve Brusatte
Picador, 528pp, £20

Being a mammal is all about teeth. The rest of the natural world bites with daggers, but the mammalian mouth is a toolbox of clamps, pestles and scissors. The varied diet this allows is what gave us the energy to become hot-blooded, fast-moving animals with bigger brains, growing from shrew-like things that scampered between the toes of dinosaurs into a great array of animals, from blue whales to bats, as well as armies of strange, extinct beasts such as the chalicotheres, a group of eight-foot-tall vegetarian horse-gorillas that may have been hunted by the first humans.

The palaeontologist Steve Brusatte has a gift for stories such as this, which span millions of years and unfold in the fossil record. He writes with an infectious enthusiasm not just for the animals he describes but for the science itself, and the wondrous effect of time on biology. Fragments of tiny jaws, prised from rock by his fellow scientists, show how evolution took bones from the mouths of ancient mammals and shrank them into delicate chains in the inner ear that allow us to hear tones and frequencies other animals do not; without mastication, we would never have known music.
By Will Dunn

After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz
Galley Beggar Press, 288pp, £9.99

The Booker-longlisted After Sappho is extraordinarily confident and inventive for a debut novel. Selby Wynn Schwartz’s subjects are visionary and transgressive female artists, writers and thinkers, beginning with the Italian poet Lina Poletti in 1885 and ending with Virginia Woolf in 1928, via Radclyffe Hall, Colette, Romaine Brooks, Isadora Duncan and others. Their stories are told in a series of portraits, some only a paragraph long, founded on biographical details but taking great leaps into imagination. Moving between and keeping track of this great host of characters is not easy, but their stories, though fragmentary, are together a swelling chorus (indeed, Schwartz’s first-person narrator is a “we”, a collective), an urgent manifesto for female emancipation and for the broad church of womanhood.

In one vignette, Sibilla Aleramo goes to see a performance of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Schwartz describes Nora leaving her husband and children in the final act, “clicking the latch of the door behind her with a sound like a century snapping shut”. Each of After Sappho’s women is, in her own way, a Nora.
By Pippa Bailey

The Story of Art Without Men by Katy Hessel
Hutchinson Heinemann, 520pp, £30

Way back in 1971, the art historian Linda Nochlin wrote an essay entitled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Her answers were multifarious but the overriding explanation was that men simply haven’t allowed them to be. Katy Hessel references Nochlin with the title of her podcast, The Great Women Artists, and out of that has grown this book. However, rather than simply designating a slew of lesser-known female artists as “great” she employs them to show that there is an alternative – and parallel – art historical narrative to that represented by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rubens et al.

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Through rarities such as Plautilla Nelli and Sofonisba Anguissola in the 16th century and Clara Peeters and Artemisia Gentileschi in the 17th, Hessel recalibrates the story of painting from a female perspective. The early centuries are thin simply due to the paucity of surviving work by talented women painters but her story becomes fuller and more persuasive the closer it gets to today. Hessel is clear-sighted and impartial enough not to over-claim for her subjects but show that they are full of interest and every bit as worthy of attention as their male peers.
By Michael Prodger

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All Down Darkness Wide by Seán Hewitt
Jonathan Cape, 232pp, £14.99

One may have doubts over the depth of a memoir written by someone in their early thirties, but the Irish prize-winning poet Seán Hewitt’s new work is a beautiful, vulnerable account of living in a world in which, as a queer man, he has always felt othered. With lyrical prose Hewitt brings pace and texture to his narrative by skilfully weaving together the different phases of his life: his childhood near Liverpool during which he learned to hide his queerness and “to cohabit with the world’s tacit disdain”; the joy of finding community at Cambridge University and the confidence to explore his sexuality; falling in love with his boyfriend Elias and following him to Sweden, a time of happiness but also immense strain as Hewitt quickly becomes a carer to a partner experiencing a mental health crisis.

He reflects on the quieter influences that shaped him too: his faith and literary idols, such as the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose verses litter the pages. All Down Darkness Wide is a rich, moving memoir in which Hewitt reveals the loneliness of his early life, but also hope for his future yet to be written.
By Christiana Bishop

[See also: Ian McEwan and the mess of living]

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This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine