Free Love by Tessa Hadley
Jonathan Cape, 320pp, £16.99
Tessa Hadley’s eighth novel is unruly, unrealistic and utterly engrossing. It’s 1967 in Otterley, a suburban town somewhere within commuting distance of London, and Phyllis Fischer is daydreaming. There’s always been something shallow about her relationship with her husband Roger, a civil servant; her children, Colette and Hugh, are exhausting in different ways. A drunken encounter with Nicky, a man young enough to be her son, instils in Phyllis the desire for a different kind of life. Before she knows it, she’s walked out of her cosy cul-de-sac and is wandering the streets of Ladbroke Grove looking for him.
The chapters that follow – charting Phyllis’s descent into hippie debauchery, featuring hallucinogenics, a burgeoning disenchantment with the establishment, and a plethora of colourful soft furnishings – are clichéd. A dramatic revelation regarding Nicky’s paternity is an overly indulgent twist. But as ever, Hadley examines the fears and longings of middle age with real perception. Read as a comedic portrait of the machinations of one naive, middle-class woman’s betrayal, Free Love is highly gratifying.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger
Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller by Nadia Wassef
Little, Brown, 240pp, £14.99
Growing up in Cairo during Hosni Mubarak’s long presidency, Nadia Wassef was warned by her father: “It’s a man’s world. Change it on your own time, but until then, learn to deal with it.” While that statement might have demoralised some young girls, Wassef instead heard a feminist rallying cry that led her to co-found Diwan, Egypt’s first independent bookshop, in 2002.
In her memoir, Wassef describes Diwan as a reaction to a state that had stopped caring about literature. Under Mubarak, bookshops selling government-approved reading dominated Egypt’s elitist literary landscape. Wassef wanted to widen the cultural imagination of Egyptians, and in the decade before the Arab Spring she began to do so. In frank, vibrant prose, Wassef charts Diwan’s commercial success and expansion to ten stores, but is also honest about its failures, the breakdown of her marriage and the quiet humiliations she endured as a businesswoman in a society dominated by men. Wassef gives a compelling insider’s perspective on living through a revolution and the effect of ongoing censorship of the written word on Egyptian society.
By Christiana Bishop
Brick by Brick: How We Build a World Without Prisons by Cradle Community
Hajar Press, 216pp, £12.50
As its cleverly equivocal title implies, Brick by Brick is devoted to dismantling and rebuilding: both abolishing the “carceral state” and revamping the suite of institutions with which it is imbricated – from healthcare to education. Published by Hajar, a new independent press “run by and for people of colour”, the book is informed by conversations with activists as well as by Cradle’s own experiences as a collective of organisers “committed to radical education”.
The first half is a systematic analysis of the prison-industrial complex and its integration with white supremacy, imperialism and capitalism. The second half is concerned with its destruction – or, at least, its diminution. Conceding this vision is unlikely to be imminently realised, Cradle propose some transitional, eminently realistic demands, including decriminalising sex work and strengthening communities so they are able to “prevent, intervene in and address harm” without recourse to state force. Repurposing a phrase associated with violence, Cradle advocate a revolutionary, compassionate communalism: “We must commit to care by any and all means necessary.”
By Lola Seaton
The Georgians by Penelope Corfield
Yale University Press, 488pp, £25
Penelope Corfield’s study of the long British 18th century – 1714 to 1830 – is as much anthropological as historical: were the Georgians a race apart or the recognisable precursors of today’s Elizabethans? The achievements of the era, she admits, remain contested and trigger “strong responses – both admiring and censorious”. History has its right and wrong sides, and she looks at how many of the themes of the age, such as the expansion of empire, slavery and the Industrial Revolution, have moved from one to the other.
Not that her book is unduly polemical. It is a vivid compendium of Georgian life, from the stateliness of its architecture and the creakiness of its constitution to its celebrity culture and sexual mores. She finds room for such niceties as the exotic plants (rhododendron, wisteria, weeping willow) imported to British shores by the nation’s colonisers, as well as great Georgians such as Edmund Burke and Mary Wollstonecraft. From her adroitly arrayed mass of material, Corfield makes it plain that history can unfold rapidly and the Georgians, like ourselves, had no option but to muddle through.
By Michael Prodger
This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed