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18 August 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 10:40am

Reviewed in short: New books from Alex Renton, Rupa Marya and Raj Patel, Elif Shafak, and Michelle Zauner

Blood Legacy by Renton, Inflamed by Marya and Patel, The Island of Missing Trees by Shafak and Crying in H Mart by Zauner.

By Michael Prodger, Gavin Jacobson, Christiana Bishop and Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Blood Legacy: Reckoning With a Family’s Story of Slavery by Alex Renton

“I am an heir of Britain’s slavery past,” begins the journalist Alex Renton in his highly personal book about his family and the enslaved people his ancestors once owned. For Renton, the legacy of slavery is an active thing; it has shaped him and given him privilege. This book is his way of grappling not just with the complexities of slavery itself and the issues of acknowledgement and compensation, but the personal difficulties that come with being a descendant of the Fergussons, plantation owners in Tobago and Jamaica who held 950 black lives in their hands. 

Where the book goes deeper than mere discussion or polemic is in Renton’s use of the family archive. It is in the testaments of the people involved – both slaves and slave owners – that the real force of Blood Legacy lies. The papers reveal the everyday business of overseers, runaway slaves and mortality (of “obstructed viscera”, “water in the head”, drowning “in the muck pitt”), as well as moral qualms. A degree of personal guilt for these quotidian horrors drives Renton’s conviction that reparations, personal and governmental, are both feasible and necessary. 
By Michael Prodger
Canongate, 400pp, £16.99   

Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice by Rupa Marya and Raj Patel

On 11 August this year, Sicily registered what may have been the hottest temperature ever recorded in Europe: 48.8°C. Wildfires rage across Europe and the US. The UN secretary-general António Guterres described the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report as a “code red for humanity”. “The planet is inflamed,” write the authors of this book, and so too are our bodies. Indeed, “your body is part of a society inflamed” – inflammation is not just your immune system’s response to heal an injury or fight an infection; it is the result of biology and globalisation intersecting. 

Rupa Marya, a physician, and Raj Patel, a political economist, take the reader on a tour of the human body – including the immune, digestive, reproductive, nervous and respiratory systems – to examine the social and environmental causes of ill health. They show how Alzheimer’s is linked to cellular damage caused by stress and “environmental toxicity”, and why in the US and the UK, Covid-19 hospitalisation and death rates were far higher for people of colour than for white people. In doing so, they cast a critical light on the hidden connections between our health, the dead hand of colonialism and modern capitalism. 
By Gavin Jacobson
Allen Lane, 496pp, £20  

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

In her 12th novel, Elif Shafak – the British-Turkish writer whose 2019 book 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize ­– transports us to the hot, rich Mediterranean landscape of post-colonial Cyprus, where scents of cyclamen and honey-soaked feta drift among whitewashed walls. In 1974 Nicosia, Defne, a Turkish Muslim girl, and Kostas, a Greek Christian boy, daringly meet in secret under the branches of a fig tree that grows inside a local tavern. Later that summer, the young couple are torn apart as Turkish troops descend upon the north of the island, dividing the city and its people along ethnic lines. 

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Shafak evocatively tells the couple’s 40-year love story through a fast-paced narrative that moves between the past and present, and pivots around the perspectives of Defne, Kostas, their daughter Ada, and the fig tree that helped conceal their relationship. The book explores the lasting impact the war has had on Cypriots and the natural world – the displacement, exile, disappearances and destruction – while also revealing the tender efforts of the island to heal and regrow.  
By Christiana Bishop
Viking, 368pp, £14.99   

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

In 2018 Michelle Zauner – also known as the indie-pop musician Japanese Breakfast – wrote a viral New Yorker essay about the grief she experienced after her mother’s death from cancer. In this wildly moving memoir, her first book, Zauner’s relationship with her mother is the centrepiece, and in its orbit spin the matters her mother’s death made her address: how to forge an identity between Korean and American cultures; how to guard one parent’s secret from the other; how to grieve someone you loved, but are not sure you always liked.

As her mother grows ill, Zauner realises that she must learn to cook the Korean meals of her childhood – both to soothe her mother in the moment, and to make sure those recipes aren’t forgotten. In doing so, she learns the great caring power her mother found in cooking for others. The day after her mother’s funeral, Zauner drives to an Asian supermarket to buy the ingredients for doenjang jjigae, a stew of vegetables and tofu. She prepares the dish for her aunt and cousin, and watches them eat it. “For a moment I felt useful, happy that after all the years the two of them had looked after me, I could do this one small thing for them.” 
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger
Picador, 256pp, £16.99

[see also: Reviewed in short: New books by Alwyn Turner, Mary Gaitskill, Paul McVeigh and Luke Kennard]

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This article appears in the 18 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Betrayal