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14 April 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 10:44am

Reviewed in Short: New books by Gwendoline Riley, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Michael Spitzer and Matthew d’Ancona

Our writers review My Phantoms by Riley, The Committed by Nguyen, The Musical Human by Spitzer and Identity, Ignorance, Innovation by d’Ancona.

By New Statesman

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

Granta, 208pp, £12.99

Gwendoline Riley, the author of five previous novels, notably First Love (2017), a portrait of a volatile relationship, now presents the record – unflinching and excruciating, but at times grimly hilarious – of a decades-long stalemate between mother and daughter. Bridget, a middle-aged academic, starts by recalling where her mother, Helen or “Hen”, was born – in Venezuela, in 1949 – and ends by recounting her miserable death, 60-odd years later, in a care home in the north of England. In between comes not a biographical memoir, but a sort of character assassination, streaming with evidence of an ill-lived life: a largely joyless career, two disparately defective husbands (including Bridget’s ogreish wide-boy father), next-to-no lasting friendships, resolutions made then abandoned.

The only constant is Helen’s recourse to sayings and clichés, to announcements insecurely tethered to feeling. “Any challenge could only invigorate the pantomime,” Bridget recalls. “If my questions were more than a feed, or if I pressed a point,” she tells us, Helen would clam up, or put her arms over her head. My Phantoms is the story of a woman whose refusal to communicate – her desire to stay “beyond reach” – never entirely overwhelms her daughter’s efforts to get through.

By Leo Robson

The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Corsair, 368pp, £18.99

With his debut novel The Sympathizer, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016, Viet Thanh Nguyen gave a voice to the voiceless. For decades, anglophone literature and film had portrayed the Vietnam War through the eyes of the US. Nguyen’s spy thriller, narrated by a nameless “man of two faces and two minds”, the son of a French priest and a Vietnamese villager, established the author as an advocate for displaced people around the world – as well as a masterful storyteller.

Its sequel, The Committed, rings with the same tragicomic tone and direct manner that made the first book so captivating. We are in 1980s Paris, where our protagonist becomes involved in an underground criminal consortium. The action is dense – some sentences run on for multiple pages – but Nguyen never lets his political intent slide. He deftly challenges empire in its totality, the legacy of French colonisation coming under particular scrutiny at all times. Walking in Paris, the narrator is reminded of Saigon, where the streets were designed to replicate Haussmann’s Parisian boulevards. “Saigon was just a cheap imitation of haute couture,” he remarks. “Colonies were a pearl choker adorning the alabaster-white neck of the coloniser.”

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The Musical Human by Michael Spitzer

Bloomsbury, 470pp, £30

Human evolution, says Michael Spitzer, has been accompanied by the sound of music. What’s more, it has helped shape us, and while the development of language as a driver of society and the wider human story has been given a great deal of attention, the role of music has been largely overlooked. The oldest musical instrument is a 40,000-year-old bone flute discovered in Germany, but rhythm pre-dates that by multiple millennia.

Spitzer, a musicologist, traces the development of music from a communal force to the isolated listening that is now the norm. He looks at the ramifications of musical notation, at the cult of the genius composer, at our rhythmic closeness to insects and our affinity with whales and their songs, and he ranges from hominids to Whitney Houston and from ancient Greece to “Gangnam Style”. Among the innumerable facts and diversions of this bold, compelling and ear-opening survey, Spitzer also shows how the “passive listening” of the West is a refutation of our musical heritage. The origins of music lie in nature, he says, so the more engaged we are with one, the closer we are to the other.

By Michael Prodger

Identity, Ignorance, Innovation by Matthew d’Ancona

Hodder & Stoughton, 288pp, £20

In his latest book, Matthew d’Ancona responds to the populism of recent years by advocating a collaborative form of politics that centres on identity, reforming the education system and reacting to technological change. The author, a former editor of the Spectator and current editor of Tortoise, takes a wide-ranging approach. In the first section, he argues that liberals should recognise society’s inequalities and form a progressive alliance with those who espouse identity politics. He provides an authoritative critique of the latter’s intolerance of those who have differing views, but his focus on fostering consensus means he too readily assumes the two ideologies are compatible.

The sections on “Ignorance” and “Innovation” include an impassioned case against an exam-based education system, an intriguing investigation into the impact of social media on young people’s cognition, a predictable discussion of Universal Basic Income and a strong argument for Big Tech companies disclosing their algorithms. It’s a shame, then, that the conclusion, which might have brought these many ideas together, is too brief to offer anything more than a cursory summing up.

By Freddie Hayward

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This article appears in the 14 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people