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3 November 2021

Reviewed in short: New books by Simon Heffer, Lucy Burns, Warren Ellis and Helen Oyeyemi

Henry “Chips” Channon, The Diaries by Heffer, Larger than an Orange by Burns, Nina Simone's Gum by Ellis and Peaces by Oyeyemi.

By Michael Prodger, Katherine Cowles, Emily Bootle and Elliot Hoste

Henry “Chips” Channon, The Diaries: 1938-1943 edited by Simon Heffer

The second volume of Simon Heffer’s unexpurgated version of Chips Channon’s diaries sees the American-born Conservative three years into his parliamentary career and part of the coterie around Rab Butler. The manic socialising of his rise in British society remains (on meeting the Queen of Spain he noted: “Her face is a libidinous one and I wondered was she flirtatious? It would be fun to have an affair with a queen. Shall I pursue it?”). But the politics is even more fascinating.

Although Channon, an appeaser, was never a wielder of political power himself, he was close enough to those who did to report vividly on these fraught times. He watches in dismay as the “miracle” of the Munich agreement unravels (by his actions, “Hitler never helps us”) and his hero Neville Chamberlain, “the greatest man of all time”, is superseded by the “angry Buddha” Winston Churchill. These years also include the end of Channon’s marriage to the brewing heiress Lady Honor Guinness and the beginning of his relationship with the landscape designer Peter Coats. Heffer’s meticulous and generous footnotes mean that Channon’s gossipy revelations are elevated into a serious work of history.
By Michael Prodger
Hutchinson, 1,120pp, £35

Larger than an Orange by Lucy Burns

Abortion stories are rarely told – especially the worst parts. It takes nerve, in the face of a militant anti-abortion lobby, to admit that terminating a pregnancy can be traumatic, and to risk this admission being weaponised. So this abortion story – about the pain and mental distress that follows one woman’s termination – seems a particularly courageous account. In it, Lucy Burns documents her abortion and its aftermath – not just the pills and probes and bleeding (“Go to the hospital if you pass something larger than an orange”), but also the self-punishment. The procedure is one thing, but the sense of shame is a more enduring agony: Burns is pro-abortion, yet she feels her own was “disgusting and wrong”. She obsessively researches “pro-life” material. She becomes paranoid about who knows about it, and counts, from one to 52, those who find out.

Part-diary, part-poem, Burns’s first book is described as an “experimental memoir”, and its propulsive, erratic style – time-hopping, voice-shifting – captures the spiralling of her thoughts as her mental health deteriorates. It captures the messiness too: the truth that not all “mistakes” are so easily corrected.
By Katherine Cowles
Chatto & Windus, 240pp, £10.99

Nina Simone’s Gum by Warren Ellis

On the evening of 1 July 1999, Nina Simone sat in her dressing room at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Half an hour before her performance she was brought, on request, a bottle of Moët, a gram of cocaine, and six sausages. She went on stage smoking a cigarette and chewing a piece of gum which, before she began to play, she placed on a towel on the Steinway piano. In the audience was the Australian musician Warren Ellis, with his friend Nick Cave. When the concert was over Ellis walked onto the stage, folded up the towel, and put Simone’s gum in his briefcase.

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The gum became Ellis’s most treasured possession. In this compelling and uplifting book, he tells its story through lists, photographs and dated written entries. Ellis writes as though talking to a friend, recounting an out-of-body experience playing Beethoven’s Seventh, and a time when he says the composer’s spirit passed through him. After the show that July – one of Simone’s last in the UK before she died in 2003 – the singer exited the building swiftly. There was half a line of cocaine left in her dressing room, but the champagne was empty, and the sausages were gone.
By Emily Bootle
Faber & Faber, 208pp, £20

Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi

For a sensationalist media, Helen Oyeyemi was a prodigy. She wrote her first book, The Icarus Girl, when she was 18 and it was on the shelves by the time she was 20. This confirmed Oyeyemi as an overachieving luminary in the publishing world. Now 36, and on her seventh novel, Oyeyemi’s abilities as a writer have outlived the hype that once overshadowed them. Peaces charts the course of the Lucky Day, a sleeper train which hosts the “non-honeymoon” of Otto and Xavier Shin. While aboard, the couple are confronted by a magical realist world full of tightly wound whimsy. Ava Kapoor is the proprietor of the train, which she inherited from her ancestors of ill-repute. Her complex history collides with Otto and Xavier’s own pasts.

Oyeyemi writes with a verve bordering on the absurd: each chapter is thrilling; sentences that stray into the overwrought are countered by others of precise insight; tonal shifts excite rather than jar. The novel is concerned with love’s myriad impressions, and what transpires when they go unnoticed. It’s the unpredictability of this journey that lends the story its emotional life force.
By Elliot Hoste
Faber & Faber, 272pp, £14.99

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Michael Brooks, Parag Khanna, John Callow and David Hare]

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This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained