The Wild Track by Margaret Reynolds
Transworld, 320pp, £16.99
When the academic, broadcaster and critic Margaret Reynolds was in her mid-forties she realised that what she most wanted was a child. Adoption offered her the best hope of becoming a mother, but the process was gruelling. After more than six years of relentless self-examination, bureaucratic hurdles and false starts, she was matched with a six-year-old girl. Loving someone is “a commitment that tries and shapes the self”, Reynolds writes in this meditative and searching literary memoir, which is an exploration of her journey to motherhood and a painful account of the suffering experienced by children misleadingly described as “in care”.
In the weeks before she met her daughter, Reynolds was troubled by how sad she felt until she understood that her sorrow reflected the intertwining of their two fates: “She needs this thing that will be a huge positive to me, only because she has had to suffer so much that is negative for her. My happiness is her sadness,” she writes. Reynolds’ daughter contributes a few chapters towards the end of the book, and these are some of the most poignant and illuminating. “How can we change things?” she asks her mum. “Who will really listen?”
By Sophie McBain
The God Equation by Michio Kaku
Allen Lane, 240pp, £16.99
The search for a theory of everything has long occupied some of the finest minds in science – including the theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. At present scientists have two laws to explain the four fundamental forces: general relativity, which accounts for gravity and its influence on orbits and galaxies; and quantum mechanics, which covers electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces that act on atoms and subatomic particles. But these two explanations are incompatible; a coherent master theory would combine both without anomalies or infinities.
The God Equation tells the story of how physics reached this point. Kaku explains how gravity pushes rather than pulls, and tackles curious questions such as: why is the night sky black if it is filled with stars? He elucidates esoteric mathematics with graspable, real-life illustrations, and explains how breakthroughs in theoretical physics have had a tangible impact on human experience: the laws of motion were the rudiments of the Industrial Revolution; the power of earthquakes and volcanoes comes from the weak nuclear force. The result is both mind-bending and surprisingly readable.
By Pippa Bailey
The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore
Granta, 304pp, £12.99
Essex, 1643 – two years before the witch trials begin and local women hang. Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, is out for a scalp, which is bad news for poor, peculiar Rebecca West, with her sagging stockings and cat called Vinegar Tom. It doesn’t help that her mother, the bawdy Beldam West, is one of the “naughty women” in town, a mischievous outlier with a taste for confrontation and bubbling stew. Is Rebecca a witch? It hardly matters either way: this is Manningtree, where the widows are wily, the warring men are away, and suspicion is catching like fever. It only takes a child to fall ill for puritanical tongues to wag and the Witchfinder to swoop.
The Manningtree Witches is a deft, witty debut novel – a work of historical fiction that wears its research lightly. Its author AK Blakemore is a poet (her second full-length collection, Fondue, won the Ledbury Forte Poetry Prize in 2019), so the language is dazzling and precise, history always informing imagery: Hopkins dresses in “Bible-black”; tears fall like “seed-pearls”. But it’s the characters, alive and agile, that draw us in: amid the dust and gloom, we are right there with the witches, facing down the men who’d see them hanged for nothing.
By Katherine Cowles
Why Rebel by Jay Griffiths
Penguin, 176pp, £7.99
In her latest book, the environmental activist Jay Griffiths argues that we must be rebellious in order to save the planet. She painstakingly shows how many of the forces driving modern life – such as individualism and consumerism – have combined with deforestation and mass farming to leave a planet on which nearly 38 per cent of all known species are on the edge of extinction.
Griffiths is insightful and personal, using metaphor to highlight how our refusal to protect the interests of even the smallest organisms has led us to create a “marine wasteland” of our shared home. She also unflinchingly stresses the complicity of politicians, holding leaders such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro to account over their inaction and enablement of this catastrophe. While climate discourse can at times feel heavy, Griffiths’ book ends on a note of optimism, celebrating the work of Greta Thunberg and activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, and reminding us of the positive public response to their anarchic efforts: 85 per cent of Britons are now concerned about climate change.
By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio
Jay Griffiths will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival Online on 22 April. Tickets: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com
[see also: Reviewed in Short: New books by Gwendoline Riley, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Michael Spitzer and Matthew d’Ancona]
This article appears in the 21 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical