Show Hide image

Blair, Barnes and big reads: the books to look out for in 2016

From political autobiography to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, our culture editor rounds up the most interesting books of the year.

The publishing year begins with fond goodbyes to two writers known for their humanity and, in different ways, their gifts for storytelling. Henning Mankell, the creator of Inspector Wallander, and David Cesarani, an authority on modern Jewish history, died last October. Quicksand (Harvill Secker, February) is a collection of Mankell’s essays tackling “what it means to be human”, and in Final Solution: the Fate of the Jews 1933-49 (Macmillan, January) Cesarani draws on decades of scholarship to question assumptions about the causes of the Holocaust.

Many thought that by now we would also have bid farewell to Clive James and the Dr Feelgood co-founder Wilko Johnson, yet both, miraculously, have endured their illnesses. Johnson’s Don’t You Leave Me Here: My Life (Little, Brown, May) will consider his complicated relationship with mortality as well as his rock’n’roll youth. The prolific James has three books lined up: Collected Poems: 1958-2015 (Picador, April), Gate of Lilacs: a Verse Commentary on Proust (Picador, April) and Play All: a Binge-Watcher’s Notebook (Yale University Press, August), in which he gets to grips with the television box set streaming revolution.

It is not known whether Clive James and John le Carré have kissed and made up since James incinerated The Honourable Schoolboy in 1977 (“Already working under an assumed name, le Carré ought to assume another one, sink out of sight, and run for the border of his reputation”) but in September le Carré will finally publish a memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (Viking), which the publisher describes as “an exhilarating journey into the worlds of his ‘secret sharers’ – the men and women who inspired some of his most enthralling novels”.

In politics, autobiographies are also expected from the multi-talented Labour peer Joan Bakewell (Stop the Clocks, Little, Brown, February) and Malcolm Rifkind (Memoirs, Biteback, July), one of only four ministers to serve throughout the whole of both the Thatcher and Major premierships. For emotional honesty, look to midlife memoirs from Miranda Sawyer (Out of Time, Fourth Estate, June) and Marina Benjamin (The Middlepause, Scribe, June), or Maggie Nelson’s meditation on gender fluidity and motherhood, The Argonauts (Melville House, April).

In the arts, the world’s most successful performance artist, Marina Abramovic, tells her story (Fig Tree, November). And the world’s most divisive electronic musician, Moby, gives an account of his early career in Porcelain (Faber & Faber, June): Salman Rushdie welcomes it as “a life comically overcrowded, filthy, alcohol-fuelled, vegan, unbelievably noisy, full of spit and semen and some sort of Christianity; and often, suddenly, moving”.

Presumably a rather different sort of Christianity will be on display in Pope Francis’s first book published during his papacy, The Name of God Is Mercy, a “deep, simple and intimate dialogue” that will be released simultaneously in 84 countries (Bluebird, January). The NS contributor and former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams will assess St Augustine’s contribution to theology, philosophy and psychology in On Augustine (Bloomsbury, April).

Books about Islam are sadly outweighed by books about Islamic State. This year, publishers have unearthed some personal stories of defiance. The Girl Who Beat Isis by Farida Khalaf (Square Peg, May) is the true story of a Yazidi girl’s capture and escape from enslavement; Fighting Isis by Tim Locks (Sidgwick & Jackson, July) is the tale of a British former prison officer and bouncer who sold his house and joined a Christian militia group in Iraq. Bigger-picture accounts are offered in Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East by Patrick Cockburn (OR Books, April) and The War of the End of Times: What the Islamic State Wants by Graeme Wood (Allen Lane, September), which is based on his influential report for the Atlantic magazine last year.

It was the threat of Isis (and the ensuing debate over bombing the group in Syria) that split Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party so badly in December. His strong views on foreign affairs are likely to be examined in what Biteback describes as the “first comprehensive biography”, Comrade Corbyn: a Very Unlikely Coup by Rosa Prince (February). Nick Clegg had his own unlikely coup back in 2010 and his book Politics: the Art of the Possible in an Age of Unreason (Bodley Head, May) will “draw on stories and lessons” from his time as deputy prime minister. But a bigger noise is likely to be made by Tom Bower’s Broken Vows: Tony Blair – the Tragedy of Power (Faber & Faber, March). Bower is a “big-game hunter”, an investigative reporter whose biographies have left lawsuits littered in their wake. What skeletons will fall clattering from the Blair cupboard when he prises open its doors?

Europe’s political economists are still trying to identify the best escape routes from the financial crisis. The former Syriza minister Yanis Varoufakis presents his case against austerity in And the Weak Suffer What They Must? (Bodley Head, April) and Thomas Piketty, whose Capital in the 21st Century caused a sensation in 2013, returns with Chronicles: On Our Troubled Times (Viking, April), a collection of his columns for the French newspaper Libération.

Russia is another headache for Europe. A Very Expensive Poison: the Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War With the West by Luke Harding (Faber & Faber, March) is an in-depth investigation into what happened before, on and after 1 November 2006, when Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London. For deeper history, turn to Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian writer who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her Chernobyl Prayer is published in April by Penguin Classics; Second-Hand Time, a collection of first-hand pieces on nostalgia and the Soviet Union, had already been snapped up before her win by the enterprising Fitzcarraldo Editions, which will publish it in May.

In the US, this will be a year of constant political hectoring and point-scoring as the presidential election draws closer. The Second Amendment is held so dear by so many Americans that Barack Obama has conceded that it will be impossible to scrap it – but in 2016, gun control is at least on the debating agenda. Published as the country goes to the polls, A Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge (Faber & Faber, November) will take a day at random and explore the lives and deaths of all the young people who were shot dead that day. The state of America – and particularly its continuing racial crisis – is also addressed in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir The Beautiful Struggle (Verso, February) and in Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement by the renowned activist Angela Davis (Haymarket, January).

Back on home turf, London has its portrait painted from various angles – Ben Judah meets its denizens in This Is London: Life and Death in the World City (Picador, January) and Rowan Moore traces its changing physical fabric in Slow Burn City: London in the 21st Century (Picador, March). The aesthetics and identities of cities more broadly are examined by two architecture critics in All that Glitters: Architecture and the City of Spectacle by Tom Dyckhoff (Random House Books, June) and The Language of Cities by Deyan Sudjic (Allen Lane, July) – and the great malaise of urban living is ­diagnosed and explored by Olivia Laing in The Lonely City (Canongate, March).

How could societies of the future become fitter, happier, more productive? The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari had a global bestseller with Sapiens, his history of humankind. In September, Harvill Secker will publish Homo Deus: a History of Tomorrow, which promises to “set out the new agenda for the modern sapiens: achieving immortality, happiness and omnipotence”. Other notable science titles include The Gene: an Intimate History (Bodley Head, June) by Siddhartha Mukherjee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies, and Do Statins Work? by medicine’s arch-sceptic Ben Goldacre (Fourth Estate, June). In Rethink (Random House Books, June), Steven Poole tells the story of how ideas that once were ridiculed are now setting the scientific agenda.

The publishing industry thrives on anniversaries. July 2016 marks 50 years since England’s 1966 World Cup win. That milestone has prompted the Times football writer Henry Winter to examine where the national side has gone wrong since in Fifty Years of Hurt (Bantam, June), and, in a more celebratory mood, Bobby Charlton shares his Memories of ’66 (Yellow Jersey, June). Shakespeare died 400 years ago in April and Oxford University Press is publishing a tranche of books to mark the occasion, including Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book by Emma Smith (March). Meanwhile, the Hogarth Shakespeare project continues with “cover versions” of The Merchant of Venice (by Howard Jacobson, February), The Taming of the Shrew (by Anne Tyler, June) and The Tempest (by Margaret Atwood, October).

The big beasts of literary fiction are represented this year by Julian Barnes, with The Noise of Time (Jonathan Cape, January), set in Leningrad in 1937, and Don DeLillo, whose Zero K (Picador, May) describes a billionaire’s hi-tech efforts to cheat death. American novelists seem likely to dominate the autumn, with books from Ann Patchett (Commonwealth, Bloomsbury, September), Jay McInerney (Bright, Precious Things, Bloomsbury, September) and Cormac McCarthy (The Passenger, Picador, October). Jonathan Safran Foer and Lionel Shriver have written family stories against backdrops of national crisis: Here I Am (Hamish Hamilton, September), set in Israel, is Safran Foer’s first novel in ten years and Shriver’s The Mandibles (Borough Press, May) follows her politically loaded 2013 novel, Big Brother. The fifth (and penultimate) volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s celebrated My Struggle series, Some Rain Must Fall (Harvill Secker), is out in March, and Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, ten years in the writing, will be published by Fourth Estate in June.

Followers of the Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction, co-founded by the NS, will be pleased to see new novels by winning and shortlisted authors. Eimear McBride won the inaugural prize in 2013 with her debut; her new novel, The Lesser Bohemians (Faber & Faber, September), is “set across the bedsits and squats of mid-1990s north London”. Autumn by Ali Smith, who won in 2014, is out in August from Hamish Hamilton. Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake was shortlisted in 2014: the sequel, Beast (Faber & Faber, August), is set in the present day and finds Edward Buccmaster “a man alone on a Midlands moor in search of enlightenment”. The final instalment in the trilogy will be set a thousand years in the future. Kingsnorth also contributes, along with Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and many others, to First Light (Unbound, May), an anthology celebrating Alan Garner, the influential author of The Owl Service and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, edited by the NS contributing writer Erica Wagner.

Other eye-catching fiction includes Augustown by the Forward Prize-winning poet Kei Miller (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, August), set in sprawling Jamaican suburbs; the debut novel from the Mercury Prize-nominated rapper Kate Tempest, The Bricks that Built the Houses (Bloomsbury, April); and two novels that give reality a sly tweak – Naomi Alderman’s The Power (Viking, November), picturing a society in which girls are physically more powerful than boys, and Dan Vyleta’s Smoke (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, July), in which, because sin is visible, “the rich are taught to control their sinful thoughts and live unstained lives”.

Raoul Moat’s sins were all too visible: in 2010 he shot three people, before killing himself, after a very public manhunt. Andrew Hankinson’s You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life (You Are Raoul Moat) (Scribe, February), is an account of Moat’s last days, that, written in the second person and drawing on diary entries and previously unheard tapes, reads like a novel.

The poetry highlight of the year is a new book from the late Seamus Heaney. In 2008, five years before his death, he spoke of “one Virgilian journey that has indeed been a constant presence and that is Aeneas’s venture into the underworld. The motifs in book VI have been in my head for years – the golden bough, Charon’s barge, the quest to meet the shade of the father.” Heaney’s verse translation, which he worked on up to a month before his death, will be published by Faber & Faber in March: a journey into the afterlife, in more ways than one. 

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.


This article first appeared in the 07 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue

Marc Brenner
Show Hide image

Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia