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2 March 2022

Reviewed in short: New books by Anna Della Subin, Roopa Farooki, Mark Hodkinson and Ayanna Lloyd Banwo

Accidental Gods by Della Subin, Everything is True by Farooki, No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy by Hodkinson and When We Were Birds by Lloyd Banwo.

By Lola Seaton, Anoosh Chakelian, Ellen Peirson-Hagger and Ellys Woodhouse

Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine by Anna Della Subin
Granta, 480pp, £20

Apotheosis, divinisation, deification: endowing humans with divine status may, the debut author Anna Della Subin writes, seem “archaic”, something that should have receded with the secularising, rational influence of the Enlightenment, but in fact “the accidental god haunts modernity”. “Accidental” because mortals – from Christopher Columbus to Haile Selassie to Prince Philip (always men) – were usually hailed as gods without their consent; self-deprecating denial often inflamed the devotion.

Subin’s inventive theme can appear too ingenious, and its ambitious exploration unwieldy: Accidental Gods vaults between eras and continents. The stylish prose can feel mannered (“I tell you not of one god but of many… I will sing, too…”). Yet Subin, who studied at Harvard Divinity School, expertly brings out the nuance and ambivalence of deification: it has both “propped up empires” and “brought them down”, legitimised power and checked it. Accidental gods are not merely delusions reinforcing the oppression of credulous subjects, but defiant “co-authored creations”, a way to “imagine alternative political futures”.
By Lola Seaton

[See also: Pankaj Mishra’s divided self]

Everything is True: A Junior Doctor’s Story of Life, Death and Grief in a Time of Pandemic by Roopa Farooki
Bloomsbury, 240pp, £14.99

Just as the UK government enters its “don’t test, don’t tell” phase of the pandemic, the NHS junior doctor Roopa Farooki’s front-line memoir arrives to punch readers in the gut with grim memories of the first wave. Writing in the evenings after 13-hour shifts, she captures the horror of Covid-19 as it fills her hospital. At the time, she was grieving for her sister Kiron, who died of breast cancer just weeks before the lockdown.

Full of gallows humour, resentment and fear, Everything is True is a warts-and-all riposte to the “clap for carers” hero narrative: there is the consultant who insists on shaking hands ungloved; the bitching about cancelled leave in junior doctor WhatsApp groups; and jokes among colleagues about whether they would save each other the “last ventilator” (“who have you pissed off, lately?”). Addressing the book to herself, Farooki uses an unusual, second-person staccato (“you wash your hands. Again”, “You’re here, and she’s gone”, “You cry”), which takes some getting used to, but works as a raw, real-time inner monologue.
By Anoosh Chakelian

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[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Tessa Hadley, Nadia Wassef, Cradle Community and Penelope Corfield]

No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy: Memoirs of a Working-Class Reader by Mark Hodkinson
Canongate, 368pp, £16.99

Mark Hodkinson was a collector of beer mats and conkers before he became a collector of books. Now in his mid-fifties, he has more than 3,500 titles. He grew up in a working-class family in north Manchester, where his father considered reading and writing “a feminine pastime”, and his mother believed library books were “dirty, the harbingers of germs”. This is a charming memoir of how teenage obsessions with JD Salinger and Trevor Hoyle – as well as with punk music – forged Hodkinson’s independence.

Woven into this rollicking tale are moving passages about Hodkinson’s grandfather who, after an accident aged 19, experienced manic episodes for the rest of his life. He was the only person who showed an interest in Hodkinson’s reading at home, and later the author would write books on Prince and Bruce Springsteen under his grandfather’s name – John W Duffy. Further chapters about Hodkinson’s attempts to make a decent living from books (he ultimately set up his own publisher, Pomona, whose titles include a selection of Hunter Davies columns from this magazine) show that the industry remains elitist. Still, Hodkinson refuses to let that get in the way of his healthy book habit.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

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

When We Were Birds by Ayanna Lloyd Banwo
Penguin, 288pp, £14.99

When her estranged and tormented mother dies, Yejide is left with an unconventional inheritance: descended from corbeaux (“black vultures”), she must guide the souls of the dead to the afterlife. Meanwhile, Darwin arrives in the fictional city of Port Angeles carrying only his mother’s words: “Is only dead in the city… Rasta don’t deal with the dead.” Yejide and Darwin are destined to find each other at Fidelis, the ancient cemetery where Darwin works as a gravedigger.

Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s debut novel is an enchanting exploration of love and loss, a ghost story whose characters are haunted by their ancestral responsibilities. The rich and rhythmic prose – the book is written in a loose form of patois – captures the lush landscape of Trinidad, where Banwo was born. Prophecy is important to the plot, which means When We Were Birds can feel predictable, but Darwin and Yejide’s inevitable meeting in the second half of the book is just as triumphant and joyous as fate anticipated. I only wish I could have basked in the beauty of their relationship for longer.
By Ellys Woodhouse

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This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times