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8 December 2021

Reviewed in short: New books by Ai Weiwei, Elizabeth Strout, Colm Tóibín and Harvey Whitehouse

1,000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai, Oh William! by Strout, The Magician by Tóibín and The Ritual Animal by Whitehouse.

By Katherine Cowles, Ellen Peirson-Hagger, Pippa Bailey and Michael Prodger

1,000 Years of Joys and Sorrows: A Memoir by Ai Weiwei
Bodley Head, 400pp, £25

The birth of the artist Ai Weiwei marked the start of his family’s misfortunes. It was 1957, the year Chairman Mao began his purge of “dissident” intellectuals in the Anti Rightist Campaign, and Ai’s father – a poet, revolutionary and Communist Party insider – found himself on the wrong side of his leader. He was exiled to China’s northern hinterland for “remoulding” through hard labour, only to be banished again for five years in 1967, this time with his young son, who watched on as he cleaned latrines in the bitter cold.

To say this was a formative period for Ai would be an understatement: such events do not so much form as crush a man into shape. But Ai resisted conformity. His memoir records not just his life as artist-troublemaker but his father’s too – a parallel history in which two men, decades apart, hone their craft in the West and return home to a regime that intimidates, then incarcerates them. Ai can seem more interested in his father’s experience than his own: descriptions of his personal life are oddly impersonal, and his art is discussed as if at one remove. But of course Ai’s story is remarkable, and his project a powerful memoir-cum-manifesto. In saluting his father, Ai holds up two fingers to the state.
By Katherine Cowles

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
Viking, 256pp, £14.99

“This is Lucy. Lucy comes from nothing,” is how Catherine, Lucy Barton’s mother-in-law, would introduce her to friends. Such simple yet profound heartache – declarative statements, no desire to silver-coat facts – abound in Elizabeth Strout’s inimitable Lucy Barton novels. In Oh William!, the third in the series, our narrator Lucy – an author herself – looks back on her marriage to her titular first husband. Her second husband has recently died; William has problems in his third marriage; the couple’s two daughters are starting families themselves.

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Lucy, now 63, understands that life changes, yet she remains haunted by the truths of her upbringing: her childhood in a poor Illinois town, her abusive parents, her unrelenting loneliness. A revelation about William’s family tree throws the pair together for a trip to Maine. The journey puts the importance of legacy and memory into question, but it is Lucy’s profound observations that we read for. Why do some people move us, while others pass us by? Whose life do I impact? Who, when all this is over, will remember me?
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

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[See also: Patricia Highsmith’s many vices]

The Magician by Colm Tóibín
Viking, 448pp, £18.99

The Magician is the second book in which the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín has reimagined the life of a literary great. His 2004 Booker-nominated The Master centred on Henry James, and this latest work takes as its subject a man with whom James has much in common. Thomas Mann, the Nobel-winning author of (among others) Doctor Faustus, was born in Germany in 1875. Both he and James had brothers who were also authors; both wrote about homosexuality without ever revealing their apparent own – and both had a fondness for overlong sentences.

Their style is a stark contrast to that of Tóibín, whose prose is simple and cool, exacting and unpretentious, and at times comic in an easy, unstudied way. The Magician follows Mann through his upbringing – his mother’s widowhood and the family’s move from sedate Lübeck to bohemian Munich – marriage and fatherhood, exile, the suicides that scarred his family, and his suppressed desire. It is also a story of Germany, its unification, the First World War, the Weimar Republic and Hitler’s Reich; an intensely private portrait of a public figure who lived through a world-shaping moment in history.
By Pippa Bailey

The Ritual Animal: Imitation and Cohesion in the Evolution of Social Complexity by Harvey Whitehouse
Oxford University Press, 256pp, £25

We are the only animal, says the anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse, to follow rituals – funeral rites, say, or remembrance services – that bring no immediate physical benefits such as food or warmth. In his book, he examines sources from group psychology and evolution to child development studies to explain why rituals are nevertheless vital. He shows too “ritual codes” and how they can vary in intensity: unpleasant initiation rites, such as in the military or sport, bond small groups closely, while less extreme rituals, such as communal prayer, have a lower motivating force. 

Whitehouse is a follower of ritual himself and his book is couched in the often barbaric language of his tribe – specialist academia. This is a shame because his unpicking of our communal history and the passing on of genuflections that bond families, promote fairness and foster loyalty are full of fascination. So too are his insights on the ways that rituals and our observance of them might be used as tools in combating numerous ills, such as global warming and ideological extremism.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob: an epic that sinks under the weight of facts]

This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special