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28 April 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 10:42am

Reviewed in short: New books from Stephen Walker, Annie Ernaux, Justine Cowan and Gabriela Garcia

Beyond by Walker, Simple Passion by Ernaux, translated by Tanya Leslie, The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames by Cowan and Of Women and Salt by Garcia.

By New Statesman

Beyond by Stephen Walker

HarperCollins, 512pp, £20

When Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space 60 years ago, the KGB wanted to send a bomb with him. The point of the bomb was not that it could be dropped on the US but that, in the event that his Vostok craft came down on foreign soil, Gagarin and his ship could be remotely destroyed. The bomb idea was eventually overruled but, had Gagarin not survived his flight, the world might never have known his name. The same applied to the man who put him in space, Sergei Korolev, whose identity was kept secret until after his death. Korolev, who had been sent to a Siberian gulag where he lost all of his teeth, became the chief engineer of the Soviet space programme, driving through the giant R-7 rocket, the Sputnik satellites and probes to the moon, Mars and Venus. By his desk he kept the battered aluminium mug that had been his only possession in the Siberian camp.

Stephen Walker has amassed a wealth of detail on this fascinating time, and on the engineers and experts who put the first human in orbit, but who were never allowed to speak about it. Beyond is a reminder of the fragility of history and a testament to the brilliance of a terrorised people.

By Will Dunn

Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux, translated by Tanya Leslie

Fitzcarraldo, 80pp, £8.99

The “passion” documented in this slight text is “simple” in that it simplifies. The narrator’s all-consuming desire for the married man with whom she is having an affair reduces her world: she is either with him or waiting for him, the passage of time weighed in absence or presence, zeroes and ones. “All my actions – from the choice of a film to the selection of a lipstick – were channelled towards one person.” The narrator’s overpowering passion is, of course, not really “simple” at all, but unreasonable, inexplicable – yet she does not wish to explain it, aiming “simply to describe it”.

This is the latest in a sequence of translations belatedly bringing the acclaimed French writer Annie Ernaux, now 80, to Anglophone attention. What mesmerises here, as elsewhere in Ernaux’s oeuvre, is the interplay between the solipsistic intensity of the material and its documentary, disinterested, almost egoless presentation. Reminiscent of the poet Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without its Flow, a study of how grief mangles chronology, Simple Passion is a riveting investigation, in a less tragic key, into what happens to one’s experience of time in the throes of romantic obsession.

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By Lola Seaton

The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames by Justine Cowan

Little, Brown, 320pp, £20

Justine Cowan always knew her mother, Eileen – exacting and often cruel – was different. In this moving story, Cowan painfully recalls the effect her mother’s volatility had on her childhood in California, and how it led to estrangement in adulthood as her legal career developed and she left her mother behind. Yet, despite their broken relationship, upon Eileen’s death Cowan found herself drawn to discovering her mother’s past: a history that had remained entirely hidden to her until she read Eileen’s memoir, which she had previously refused to open.

To her astonishment, Cowan learns that her mother had been raised in the Foundling Hospital in London, an institution
established in the 18th century to house the children of unmarried mothers and rear them for a life of domestic service. Eileen’s formative years, living under sadistic, matronly figures, had been full of physical abuse and emotional neglect – acts
that Cowan movingly recognises as being what “took my mother away from me”.

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This is a beautifully written and tender account of how a daughter came to a late understanding of her mother, and how she began to heal the wounds of all that had gone before.

By Christiana Bishop

Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia

Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Displacement is woven into the fabric of Of Women and Salt, the debut novel by the poet Gabriela Garcia. The book is the history of the women in one family – originally from Cuba and later the US – between 1886 and 2019, and is intensely political, exploring the impact of immigration regulations, living with otherness and having war in your blood. Multiple perspectives across five generations link to form a bigger picture, which, combined with a lack of chronology and varying third- and first-person narration, evokes a seasickness. But the choppy narrative is steadied by the fact of the novel itself, a solid object that is meaningful to the characters. In 1886, Maria Isabel, working in a cigar factory in Camagüey, thinks “of what it would be like if someone wrote a book about her. Someone like her wrote a book.”

At the centre of this novel is a reflection on Cuban identity, motherhood and the variety of women’s experience. As omniscient readers, we see the similarities between estranged mothers, daughters and cousins, and understand that fantasies about different lives in different places are often not the reality. We also learn plenty – this book is their home, and it is we, the readers, who are displaced.

By Emily Bootle

[see also: Reviewed in short: New books by Margaret Reynolds, Michio Kaku, AK Blakemore and Jay Griffiths]

This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas