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1 December 2021updated 08 Sep 2022 6:22pm

Reviewed in short: New books by Jan Morris, Siri Hustvedt, Mark Bould and Salley Vickers

Allegorizings by Morris, Mothers, Fathers and Others by Hustvedt, The Anthropocene Unconscious by Bould, and The Gardener by Vickers.

By Michael Prodger, Sophie McBain, Lola Seaton and Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Allegorizings by Jan Morris
Faber & Faber, 224pp, £14.99

“Although I am writing this on a sunny spring day in Wales,” jotted the travel writer and historian Jan Morris, “by the time you read it I shall be gone!” She was as good as her word: Morris died last year at 94 and this collection of essays was always intended for posthumous publication. The pieces do not contain any great revelations – she had written about her rich and full life in numerous books – but offer her reflections on everything from nationalism and her love of Manhattan to the importance of marmalade and why Princess Diana should have been given the royal yacht Britannia “and invited to rollick her way around the world on the national behalf, living it up without inhibition”.

The title refers to Morris’s belief that everything contains some hidden meaning – not that she finds it, admitting cheerfully that perhaps the “whole damned caboodle” is a “majestically impenetrable allegory”. And nor does it matter. For all her profundity it is Morris’s joyousness that remains most tangible, and a subversiveness of spirit. As the end approached, “Give me callowness…” she wrote, “give me fizz, give me irresponsibility.”
By Michael Prodger

Mothers, Fathers and Others: New Essays by Siri Hustvedt
Hodder & Stoughton, 304pp, £20

This loose, discursive essay collection by the American novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt spans memoir, literary criticism, feminist philosophy and science. The autobiographical essays are the finest; in precise yet luxuriant prose Hustvedt uses her family history to explore questions of memory and identity. She charts the “forgotten land of the mother and mothers”: “the speechless realm of the womb where every human being begins… a territory which Western culture has studiously repressed, suppressed, or avoided to a degree that I have come to regard as spectacular”. A pregnant woman is a chimera, she observes: during pregnancy DNA is exchanged between the foetus and mother. The boundaries between the self and other, male and female, nature and nurture are artificial and porous, as Hustvedt believes all boundaries are.

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The collection is sometimes repetitive, and the quality is variable. The least successful essays have an aloof tone and are too abstract: in place of her incisive, nuanced real-life observations Hustvedt reaches for universal truths that often feel lifeless and banal.
By Sophie McBain

The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture by Mark Bould
Verso, 176pp, £12.99

In 2016 Amitav Ghosh speculated that future generations will see our era as “the time of the Great Derangement” – deranged because most “serious fiction” fails to address our age’s central existential menace: climate change. A riposte to Ghosh’s book, The Anthropocene Unconscious argues that if one expands the cultural field of inquiry – taking in cinema, graphic novels, comics – and looks beyond manifest content, one will find that “the art and literature of our time is pregnant with catastrophe”. Mark Bould, an expert in science fiction, calls for a tendentious criticism, asking productively counterintuitive questions such as: “What happens if [we] stop assuming a text is not about climate change?”’

Some of Bould’s local verdicts may seem perfunctory (Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 “is the tired sound of boomers justifying to themselves their ruination of the world”). His ebullient, streetwise style, meanwhile – meshing high-theory with casual lyricism (reminiscent of the idiom of the countercultural blog scene revolving around the late Mark Fisher) – may not be to everyone’s taste, but Bould’s eco-socialist commitments seem increasingly inescapable.
By Lola Seaton

The Gardener by Salley Vickers
Viking, 304pp, £16.99

In her 11th novel, Salley Vickers, the author of bestsellers including The Librarian, observes the palpable effects of the EU referendum on a Shropshire community. “The village was pretty much Brexit to a man,” says the local vicar, “I’m so sorry, I should have said ‘or woman’. Forgive me.”

Our embarrassingly named protagonist Halcyon Days – thankfully she goes by Hassie – has moved to the countryside with her sister, Margot. They have used their inheritance to buy a large Jacobean house, and Hassie sets about making friends with the locals. She hires Murat, an Albanian migrant and the only person who answers her job advert, as a gardener. Together he and Hassie tend to the neglected land, but she is haunted by a former relationship, the formation and painful breakdown of which we learn about through flashbacks. Vickers’s style is exacting, her first-person narrative often charming. But her central metaphor of gardening as a means of overcoming grief – planting seeds in the hope of new life – is cliché, and mars the authenticity of her otherwise well-wrought characters.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

[see also: Reviewed in short: New books by Ann Patchett, Olivia Yallop, Duncan Weldon and Phil Burton-Cartledge]

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This article appears in the 01 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The virus strikes back