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1 May 2023

From Fernanda Melchor to Rafael Behr: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring My Father’s Brain by Sandeep Jauhar and The Seaside by Madeleine Bunting.

By Pippa Bailey, Michael Prodger, Sophie McBain and Will Lloyd

My Father’s Brain: Life in the Shadow of Alzheimer’s by Sandeep Jauhar
Oneworld, 256pp, £18.99

In this intimate medical memoir, the cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar documents the decline of his father, a prominent research geneticist, after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He asks: what remains of a person after their memory is gone? His father’s story is interwoven with the history and science of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, diseases that afflict at least six million adults in the US alone. Jauhar emphasises the importance of considering dementia from a social perspective. Autopsy studies suggest that brain damage and the severity of dementia are less correlated than one might expect: having a high “psychosocial reserve” (strong relationships and a supportive environment) can protect an individual’s cognitive function even when their brain is ravaged by the plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s.

The social challenge we face is how we support and value those whose memories are impaired. The challenge we face as individuals is how we relate to loved ones who both are, and aren’t, there. Jauhar experienced grief, frustration and rage as his father became increasingly irrational and volatile. His honest writing makes this a painful but important read for anyone who has lost a friend or relative to Alzheimer’s.
By Sophie McBain

Politics: A Survivor’s Guide by Rafael Behr
Atlantic Books, 416pp, £20

Rafael Behr’s Politics ought to be called Do Not Under Any Circumstances Become a Lobby Journalist. Behr, a former NS political editor, was a lobby journalist, and this book is about how – between the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and the general election in 2019 – being one nearly killed him. Behr was addicted to cigarettes and to pastries, but he also had a lethal weakness for Twitter and scoops. The turn of British politics in the late 2010s, towards what Behr considered to be a dangerous nationalism, dismayed him, while making him seriously ill. “I had so much anger sloshing around inside me that there wasn’t a lot of room for sympathy with the other side,” Behr, a Remainer, writes.

Behr conflates his own ill-health (which is movingly described here) with the health of British democracy, which he believes to be in “chronic condition”. Although he notes that Brexit revealed a divide that already existed, his analysis of our polarised nation does not go far enough. He writes that he is “wary of aggrandising a liberal whinge into a national syndrome”. He could perhaps have been warier.
By Will Lloyd

Clarification: this review was updated on 2 May to better reflect Rafael Behr’s discussion of Britain’s divisions before Brexit. 

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[See also: The decline of the Literary Bloke]

This is Not Miami by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 160pp, £12.99

In a story in this collection by Fernanda Melchor, a ship stowaway from Ecuador sobs when he learns he has not made it to Miami, but is instead in Veracruz, Melchor’s home state, on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Read a few chapters further and it seems a proportionate reaction. Melchor’s Veracruz is a brutal place: prison riots, shoot-outs, cartels; a former carnival queen murders her two young sons, carves them up and buries them in a plant pot on her balcony; a suspected rapist and murderer is beaten and burned alive in an extrajudicial killing by a mob.

This Is Not Miami was translated by Sophie Hughes, as were Melchor’s previous books that have appeared in English, the novels Hurricane Season and Paradais, which were respectively shortlisted and longlisted for the International Booker Prize. This collection is not quite a work of non-fiction, but nor is it fiction, either. Melchor has her own word for its genre, relatos (“accounts”), but it is perhaps easiest to understand its tales as crónica, an interpretive form of journalism that has no equivalent in the Anglophile tradition. Don’t get too hung up on what exactly This Is Not Miami is, though, and you’ll find its world filthy, disquieting and compulsive.
By Pippa Bailey

The Seaside: England’s Love Affair by Madeleine Bunting
Granta, 400pp, £20

“Few places reverberate so noisily with the ghosts of their history as the English seaside resort,” writes Madeleine Bunting. The country’s coastline is spattered with towns – Felixstowe, Scarborough, Weston-super-Mare, New Brighton – that were once elegant but now include areas of severe deprivation.

In this book, Bunting circumnavigates the coast, stopping off in some 40 resorts to examine the reasons behind this change of status. As well as talking to the inhabitants she considers the special role seaside towns still hold in the national imagination (63 per cent of the UK’s population lives within 15 kilometres of the sea) and looks for those ghosts of their past. Among the topics she prods at are Brexit, English nationalism and the climate emergency. What makes coastal resorts distinctive, she says, is their “liminality”, a state born of flux, the void of the sea, and their betwixt and betweenness. These are places “of second chances and last chances” and badly in need of the former.
By Michael Prodger

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[See also: The 14 best books of the year so far]

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This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown