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25 August 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 10:37am

Reviewed in short: New books by Ronald Hutton, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Pat Barker and Maia Szalavitz

The Making of Oliver Cromwell by Hutton, The Daughters of Kobani by Tzemach Lemmon, The Women of Troy by Barker and Undoing Drugs by Szalavitz.

By Michael Prodger, Anoosh Chakelian, Katherine Cowles and Rachel Cunliffe

The Making of Oliver Cromwell by Ronald Hutton

According to Ronald Hutton, the image of Oliver Cromwell as the unswerving, God-driven figurehead sent to sweep Charles I from power and establish a religious republic on Earth is one of Cromwell’s own making. In this revelatory biography – no mean feat when there have been innumerable predecessors – Hutton shows the image as being only partly true. Cromwell, he makes clear, was also an adroit self-promoter and a politician of devious brilliance whose ideas about who should rule England and how were forever shifting.

Hutton stops his account at 1646, three years before the execution of the king and seven before Cromwell’s ascension to the position of Lord Protector. His subject is Cromwell’s rise from the Huntingdonshire squirearchy to member of parliament to military commander: at the end of the first civil war he was in a position of prominence but not power.

Cromwell, says ­Hutton, was indeed a deeply religious man convinced of his divine mission but also unhindered by scruples at using pamphlets, speeches and outright lies to push his own claims. Hutton’s persuasive treatment makes Cromwell both more comprehensible and more interesting.
By Michael Prodger
Yale University Press, 400pp, £25

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

The Daughters of Kobani: The Women Who Took on the Islamic State by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

“Women, surrender,” crackles the voice of an Isis fighter over the radio. Yet the women in question are defiant: “We are going to kill you first.” It is 2014, the “year Isis shook the world”, and the terrorist group, infamous for its enslavement of women, is heading to an unexpected defeat in the small town of Kobani in north-east Syria, by an even less likely enemy.

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The all-female women’s protection unit militia of Syrian Kurdish fighters – known as the YPJ – fast became the face of the war against Isis. Through the stories of four female soldiers, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon – a veteran US journalist of Kurdish heritage – paints a vivid picture of their combat with Isis fighters, and their battle for women’s equality (many had to defy their own families’ opposition to reach the front line).

These women’s bravery, in the face of Isis’s black-robed militants, is the stuff of Hollywood – and, indeed, Hillary Clinton’s production company has bought the rights to adapt this book into a TV series. Lemmon’s key interviewees are even labelled as “characters”: a narrative gaze that means this otherwise arresting reportage veers into hagiography.
By Anoosh Chakelian
Swift Press, 288pp, £16.99

[See also: The core message of Terry Pratchett’s books was that people should think for themselves]

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The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

The women of Troy have been raped and enslaved. Their city has been ransacked and burned; their brothers, fathers and sons all killed. As Troy smoulders, the women bide their time in the Greek camp on the shore, while their captors – Agamemnon’s soldiers – drink, squabble and smash around in all their glory, waiting for the wind to pick up to begin the long sea voyage home.

Among the women is Brisies, a character who gets ten mentions in Homer’s 15,693-line Iliad but a promotion to narrator in Pat Barker’s feminist retelling of it. Brisies was our guide in Barker’s 2018 novel, The Silence of the Girls, and she returns again in this rich, readable sequel, no longer Achilles’s sex slave, but pregnant with the dead warrior’s child and married – upon his final request – to his loyal adviser. She is a matter-of-fact, dignified, if impossibly stoical narrator, and through her, Barker brings to life the mythical Trojan women, from the volatile, vengeful Cassandra, to the fallen queen Hecuba, grief-stricken and skeletal as an autumn leaf. But it is the men – Pyrrhus, Odysseus and the rest – she resurrects most successfully, observing, with wisdom and a wry smile, how frail is their manhood, how stifling their paranoia, and how ignominious their victory.
By Katherine Cowles
Hamish Hamilton, 320pp, £18.99

[See also: Olivia Sudjic’s Asylum Road is a post-Brexit novel about loss and longing for home]

Undoing Drugs: The Untold Story of Harm Reduction and the Future of Addiction by Maia Szalavitz

In 1986 an unknown woman saved Maia Szalavitz’s life by teaching her to run bleach through syringes before injecting heroin to protect herself from a deadly virus no one would talk about. At the time, the idea of harm reduction – that drug users could be helped rather than left to die – had no place in a public health framework wedded to prohibition. As Szalavitz charts in Undoing Drugs, the US’s war on drugs has been a disaster, costing the country more than a trillion dollars, incarcerating millions, and for what? More Americans now die from drug overdoses than from guns or breast cancer. “There is a better way,” she argues, “and it lies in undoing and dismantling all of our mistaken concepts about the nature of drugs.”

Radical and controversial – although at times long-winded – this book charts the 50-year history of a movement that seeks not to eliminate drugs but to reduce the harm they cause: of doctors prescribing heroin to addicts; volunteers running clean needle exchanges; activists campaigning to make naloxone – a medicine that can reverse an opioid overdose – available. ­Szalavitz makes a compelling case for more realism, more evidence-based policy, and above all more compassion.
By Rachel Cunliffe
Hachette, 384pp, £25

This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat