NS Recommends: New books from Hari Kunzru, Susan Owens, Mieko Kawakami and Sean R Roberts

Kunzru’s Red Pill, Owens’ Spirit of Place, Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd), and Roberts’ The War on the Uyghurs.

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Red Pill
Hari Kunzru

The unnamed narrator of Hari Kunzru’s cerebral novel is an essayist struggling to write a book on the self in Romantic poetry. On a fellowship at a research institute in Berlin, the narrator binge-watches a violent police show. The book spins off into a twisted tale about Counter-Enlightenment philosophy, memories of Stasi-ruled East Germany, the alt-right, and the insidious hedging of racist and conspiratorial thinking, with flippancy and humour. Knowingly highbrow, Kunzru is a consummate storyteller and has composed one of this year’s coolest, but quietly menacing, novels.

Scribner, 304pp, £14.99

Spirit of Place
Susan Owens

Susan Owens’ enlightening study of the way writers and artists have shaped our view of the landscape draws on sources as varied as St Cuthbert and Beowulf, Coleridge and WG Sebald. It was their various imaginative responses to the natural world – from fear to wonder to intimations of the numinous – that gave the countryside an emotional heft beyond the practicalities of topography. Owens tracks our changing perceptions of the character of land: if farmers and landowners have changed what we see, so have writers and artists.

Thames and Hudson, 352pp, £25

Breasts and Eggs
Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd

This novel by the bestselling Japanese author paints a striking portrait of contemporary working-class womanhood. Mieko Kawakami expertly juxtaposes the universal but rarely discussed mundanities of being a woman – sticking sanitary towels into knickers, using cold water to rinse period blood out of sheets – with moments of unbearable tension. In one such scene, Makiko joins her daughter Midoriko in breaking eggs over her own forehead, the act a strange but emotional truce after months of Midoriko refusing to speak to her mother.

Picador, 432pp, £14.99

The War on the Uyghurs
Sean R Roberts

During the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s brutal suppression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province up to two million have disappeared into concentration camps and re-education centres.  The CCP claims it is eradicating Islamic extremism, but as Sean R Roberts shows, its real aim is to eliminate the Uighur people as an ethnic group. Roberts, associate professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, DC, expertly reveals how the US-led war on terror provided Beijing with the rhetorical and practical cover for the world’s largest programme of mass imprisonment and surveillance.

Manchester University Press, 328pp, £20

This article appears in the 18 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid

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