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15 September 2021

Reviewed in short: New books by Steve Richards, Michael Pye, Justine Picardie and Sandro Veronesi

By Ailbhe Rea, Michael Prodger, Christiana Bishop and Lola Seaton

The Prime Ministers We Never Had: Success and Failure From Butler to Corbyn by Steve Richards

Why do some politicians rise to become prime minister, while others, often no less talented, fail to make it? Why did Harold Wilson become PM while Denis Healey didn’t? Why John Major but not Michael Heseltine? And what went wrong for Jeremy Corbyn, Ed Miliband and, indeed, David Miliband? Missed opportunities and political miscalculations are the subject of veteran political commentator Steve Richards’ latest collection – 11 essays about figures who did not quite reach No 10.

If the premise feels contrived, that’s because it is. One wonders at points whether Richards would have been better off writing a book simply about the politicians who have fascinated him most during his career, roaming freely through his extensive experience unshackled by artificiality. But much of that knowledge shines through regardless, most notably in a particularly authoritative chapter on the Miliband brothers. You might finish this book ambivalent about why these figures never became prime minister, but you will gain a lot of fascinating insight into British politics, both recent and historic, in the process.
By Ailbhe Rea
Atlantic, 320pp, £20

Antwerp: The Glory Years by Michael Pye

For the first six decades of the 16th century, writes Michael Pye, Antwerp “functioned like a department store”. There was little that couldn’t be found there: thanks to its position on the river Scheldt, goods from around the globe, especially from the newly discovered Americas, shipped up on its wharves – from diamonds and bibles to perfume and feathers. The city may not have had the exoticism of Venice but as a trading entrepot it matched it. What helped its success, says Pye in his wonderfully lively and fact-rich history, was a prevailing pragmatism; differences of religion, sexual peccadillos and what one contemporary described as “dancing, nightly buffooneries and ravishing of virgins” were all sanctioned in the name of commerce.

The Reformation and the invading Spanish brought the city’s tolerance and its boom years to an end. Pye tells that part of the story vividly, but then he makes tangible every aspect of life and death in Antwerp, from the inhabitants’ conspicuous consumption and the barely edible food that belied their wealth (“it would be hard to live more poorly” said one unimpressed diner) to the plague they couldn’t escape.
By Michael Prodger
Allen Lane, 272pp, £25

Miss Dior: A Story of Courage and Couture by Justine Picardie

In this moving and beautifully illustrated historical biography, Justine Picardie ­– the author of the 2010 bestseller Coco Chanel – delves into the archives of the fashion house Dior to tell the story of Christian Dior’s younger sister Catherine. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, a young Catherine joined the French Resistance ­­– an early attestation to her indomitable spirit. But in 1944, she was betrayed and arrested. Picardie does not shield readers from the torture that Catherine endured at the hands of the Gestapo, nor the suffering that followed as she was deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. Yet Catherine survived, and in 1945 she came home to her brother in France.

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Unsurprisingly, as a former editor of Harper’s Bazaar UK, Picardie writes most vibrantly when reflecting on the sartorial history and effervescent atmosphere of postwar Paris. The hope that the opulent silks of Dior’s 1947 “New Look” collection represented ­– the luxury, femininity and freedom ­– was everything that the Nazi occupation had sought to extinguish and, as we now know, Catherine’s bravery helped to restore.
By Christiana Bishop
Faber & Faber, 448pp, £25

The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi, tr. Elena Pala

“The hummingbird” is the nickname given to Marco Carrera, the steady centre of Sandro Veronesi’s tender, beguilingly epic novel, a bestseller in Italy since its publication there in 2019. Marco earned the epithet as a child due to his diminutive size, but as he matures it assumes a symbolic significance. Buffeted by emotional disaster, Marco is a hummingbird, Luisa, the great, unconsummated love of his life, tells him, “because all your energy is spent keeping still. Seventy wing beats per second only to remain where you are.” His life repeatedly shattered by tragedy – the suicide of his sister, the estrangement of his brother, his misfired marriage, his permanent separation from Luisa – Marco embodies the sheer effort of simply going on.

The complex, subtle design of the novel, with a patchwork of key episodes moving back and forth through time, and its textual variety – partly made up of letters, emails, transcripts of phone calls – disguise its saga-like scale, its epic proportions catching you off guard. It’s almost only once you emerge from its acutely painful ending that you realise how much of life you have witnessed – the vastness, as well as the richness, of the story.
By Lola Seaton
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 304pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor