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7 February 2024

From Paul Strathern to Kerry Hudson: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi and James and John by Chris Bryant.

By Michael Prodger, Ellen Peirson-Hagger, Pippa Bailey and Anoosh Chakelian

Dark Brilliance: The Age of Reason, from Descartes to Peter the Great by Paul Strathern

The age of reason could, says Paul Strathern, “justifiably be called the Age of Reason and Unreason”. For every advance in human thought, from Newtonian physics and Hobbesean political theory to Rembrandt’s pictorial humanism and the philosophy of Descartes, there was a corresponding retreat into the irrational and violence. The long 17th century saw the emergence of European empires and an economic system built on slavery, as well as the Salem trials and the Thirty Years War – a conflict that in terms of scale and mortality wouldn’t be matched until the 20th century.

Strathern approaches the myriad paradoxes of the period through a series of significant lives and events, whether Caravaggio and Robert Hooke or the founding of the Dutch East India Company and the development of money markets. He is adroit in bringing together his personalities and wider currents and illuminates them with vivid detail, such as a failed assassination attempt on Spinoza or Racine restricting his plays to a vocabulary of 4,000 words. If the age of reason came at great human cost, Strathern also feels that its heir – our own age of progress – still has more to pay.
By Michael Prodger
Atlantic, 400pp, £25. Buy the book

Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi

Reading the fiction of Helen Oyeyemi is like riding a roller coaster. At first it’s easy to feel like you’re out of your comfort zone. But once you give yourself over to the experience, it’s exhilarating. Oyeyemi, who was in 2013 named on the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list, moved to Prague in 2014. It is in the Czech capital that this, her eighth novel, is set.

The story follows estranged friends Hero and Thea as they attend their old pal Sofie’s hen-party weekend. The book’s absurd charm is constant: a sentence about listening to a song 11 years after it was a Eurovision entry leads to an aside describing a strip of metal added to a bridge to prevent suicide jumps that is “also 11 years old”; one recurring character is a man in a giant mole costume. The trio attend bridal breakfasts and receive facial massages while they work out what they are to each other now. But there’s another mystery at play: why does the book that Hero is reading, “Paradoxical Undressing, tell a different story each time she opens it? Parasol Against the Axe is a book full of contortions that pokes holes in our preconceptions of narrative. With her furiously fast-paced and idiosyncratic prose, Oyeyemi is the perfect person to tell it.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger
Faber & Faber, 272pp, £16.99. Buy the book

Newborn: Running Away, Breaking from the Past, Building a New Family by Kerry Hudson

The novelist Kerry Hudson’s 2019 memoir Lowborn begins with a devastating summary of her peripatetic childhood, which was marred by alcoholism and poverty: “one single mother; two stays in foster care; nine primary schools; one sexual abuse child protection inquiry; five high schools; two sexual assaults; one rape; two abortions; my 18th birthday”. Hudson is now long estranged from both her parents, and Newborn, a sequel of sorts, asks: how does someone who experienced such a dysfunctional upbringing create a better one for their own child?

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Hudson spent much of her thirties travelling, having casual sex and insisting she didn’t want to have children. But the urge to have a baby came “in rushes, like travel sickness”. When, eventually, she and her by-then husband found they couldn’t conceive, they moved abroad to build their life. Then, Hudson discovered she was pregnant. Newborn explores the travails of having a baby you can barely afford in a country you barely know with breeziness and humour, so that the emotional punches, when they come, are all the more winding.
By Pippa Bailey
Chatto & Windus, 272pp, £18.99. Buy the book

James and John: A True Story of Prejudice and Murder by Chris Bryant

If you rely on histories of early-19th-century Britain, you may be forgiven for finding it a “virtually homosexuality-free zone”, according to Chris Bryant, a Labour MP and prolific historian of parliament. “Sodomy” and “buggery” were considered so deviant that even legal chroniclers dared not speak their names. But thanks to one resourceful Old Bailey court record-keeper and a good dose of archival zeal, in his new book Bryant uncovers the story of James Pratt and John Smith, the last men in England to be hanged for being gay.

The resulting work is an insight into a supposedly enlightened era – of slavery abolitionists and the Great Reform Act. Bryant meticulously stitches together the reality beneath: an atmosphere of deep prejudice and moral panic that led to two men being condemned to death in 1835. James and John is too fastidious – laden with citations and often superfluous detail (a digression about St Paul’s church’s “Dutch oak box pews” and “triple-decker pulpit” is typical) – to be a pacy read. But with its courtroom denouement and Dickensian setting, TV commissioners will take note.
By Anoosh Chakelian
Bloomsbury, 336pp, £25. Buy the book

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This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?