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23 March 2022

Reviewed in short: New books from Brian Brivati, Anne Tyler, Helen Mort and Michelle Drouin

Losing Afghanistan by Brivati, French Braid by Tyler, A Line Above the Sky by Mort and Out of Touch by Drouin.

By Alix Kroeger, Pippa Bailey, Zoë Grünewald and Sarah Dawood

Losing Afghanistan: The Fall of Kabul and the End of Western Intervention edited by Brian Brivati
Biteback, 368pp, £20

This collection of essays provides a depressingly accurate inventory of the wreckage left by the shameful US-led withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. It unpicks the failures of intelligence and understanding that led to two decades of flawed policymaking. As well as rightly criticising the countries involved, including the UK, the book shines an unforgiving light on the internationally backed Afghan government, including what one contributor describes as “Afghans in Suits”: corrupt opportunists who exploited the naivety of ignorant donors and the real difficulties facing poorer Afghans.

The collection appears to have been hastily edited – the first essay is already out of date, as it is based around forecasts for the winter of 2021-22, which has passed. Its editor, Brian Brivati, admits he was an ardent supporter of liberal interventionism; now, he asks, what was it all for? The conflict in Ukraine raises some of the same questions as Afghanistan: “How to defend the undefended, protect citizens against their own states and hold perpetrators to account,” he writes. The pressure for international action is there, but as these essays show, the solutions applied in Afghanistan have been discredited.
By Alix Kroeger

French Braid by Anne Tyler
Chatto & Windus, 256pp, £16.99

Many novels about generational trauma are centred around one seismic event that changes everything, but this is too neat a narrative to be realistic. Anne Tyler, one of today’s best chroniclers of family life, chooses to take a gentler, more winding path to “dysfunctional”. In her latest novel – her 24th – there are several “fateful” events: a family holiday at a lakeside cabin, a train journey, a new partner introduced over Easter lunch. Their effects are slight and slippery, leading the reader to consider what each look, word and touch might mean. Underneath it all is the sense that the Garrett family has always been foreign to one another.

French Braid follows three generations of Garretts, from the 1950s to the present day, each section told from a different character’s perspective. Most compelling is that of Mercy, a mother who, once her youngest child has left home, gradually and without announcing her intention moves from the house she shares with her husband to her art studio, to begin her second life. Tyler’s prose is incisive and sharply observed without feeling effortful or overwrought, giving the impression that these are not characters of her making, but autonomous people whose lives she unobtrusively documents.
By Pippa Bailey

A Line Above the Sky: On Mountains and Motherhood by Helen Mort
Ebury Press, 288pp, £16.99

Helen Mort’s poetry is deeply moving, and an evocative quality is present too in her first memoir. In A Line Above the Sky Mort, who is a keen mountaineer, explores motherhood alongside nature, weaving together personal climbing anecdotes and stories of her idol, the revered climber Alison Hargreaves, to draw parallels between the danger and thrill of mountaineering and the fear and intense love in being a mother.

Mort writes that the motherly connection to a baby alters the perception of one’s own body and purpose just as the mountaineer’s instinct for danger keeps them safe and propels them onward. In this tender book she shows how motherhood can feel like standing alone on the mountainside, staring directly into a crevasse. Upon the birth of a child, she posits, losing your footing is no longer an option – like the tenacious mountaineer, a mother must continue pressing forward, pushing her body and mind to its limits for that unexplainable, immeasurable connection to the rockface of motherhood.
By Zoë Grünewald

Out of Touch: How to Survive an Intimacy Famine by Michelle Drouin
MIT Press, 240pp, £22.50

When was the last time I hugged my best friend? How often do I compulsively scroll through Instagram? Could socialising literally save my life? These are some of the questions I asked myself after reading the behavioural scientist Michelle Drouin’s succinct yet comprehensive exploration of technology and its interplay with our personal relationships. Rather than taking the morose perspective that smartphones are simply instruments of isolation, she argues that they have expanded our social networks but that an internet obsession can also be to the detriment of our closest connections.

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Drouin offers tips for how to embrace the online world without jeopardising real-life experiences, from limiting screen-time to dating more decisively. Using cold, hard statistics (the average person reportedly touches their phone 2,617 times a day), personal anecdotes and colourful analogies (Tinder swiping is like a sushi conveyor belt), she proves that intimacy is crucial to our health and happiness and compels us not to lose it to accidental tech addiction.
By Sarah Dawood

[See also: Lee Child: “I never believed in writer’s block”]

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This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain