Frostquake by Juliet Nicolson
The snow that started falling in Britain on Boxing Day 1962 didn’t thaw until March. With blizzards, dangerous ice and temperatures lower than -20˚C, that winter was colder and longer than any on record. In this lively chronicle Juliet Nicolson, who was eight years old at the time, argues that the winter of 1962-63 marked a turning point in society, with Britain’s social conventions beginning to burst apart at the seams. With cameos from Joanna Lumley and Harold Evans, and a nod to imminent Beatlemania, Nicolson buoyantly contends that out of devastation good can come.
Chatto & Windus, 368pp, £18.99
Mother for Dinner by Shalom Auslander
The fourth book from the satirical American author is a grotesque family comedy that follows perhaps the most marginalised group of all: cannibals. Seventh Seltzer, a publisher’s reader in New York, has grown cynical of his industry’s recent interest in promoting minority voices. But when he is called to his mother’s death bed, he must consider his own culture’s customs: as ancestral cannibals, he and his siblings are expected to eat their mother. Written in fast-moving, deadpan prose, this novel pokes fun at the contemporary obsession with the “immigrant experience”, while holding dear the importance of preserving tradition.
Picador, 272pp, £16.99
The Happy Traitor by Simon Kuper
The double agent and Communist spy George Blake was, by all accounts, an amiable man – easy going and quick to laughter. Nevertheless, while an MI6 operative he betrayed the service to the Soviet authorities and as many as 50 agents met their deaths as a result. Simon Kuper’s biography, based on a 2012 interview, doesn’t forget the cost of Blake’s actions despite the colourful and well-told trajectory of wartime anti-Nazi activities, Cambridge Russian studies, capture by the North Koreans in Seoul in 1950, “turning”, conviction and flight to Russia after escaping from Wormwood Scrubs. A breezy story, says Kuper, but Blake’s betrayals “had barely any effect on geopolitics”.
Profile, 288pp, £14.99
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
A young man and a young woman, both black British, both artists, meet in a pub in south-east London and begin – somehow incrementally and all at once – to fall in love. This short debut novel is both a sweet, painful love story to savour and an account of what it means to live in fear in your own city, to be viewed simply as a black body and never truly seen. Nelson’s prose is intense and lyrical, with a pleasing scattering of musical references.
Viking, 176pp, £12.99
[see also: NS Recommends: New books from Richard Flanagan, Brian Christian and Vesna Main]
This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy