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9 March 2022

Reviewed in short: New books from John L Williams, Toni Morrison, Marlon James and Samuel Fisher

CLR James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries by Williams, Recitatif by Morrison, Moon Witch, Spider King by James and Wivenhoe by Fisher.

By Michael Prodger, Lola Seaton, Elliot Hoste and Ellen Peirson-Hagger

CLR James: A Life Beyond the Boundaries by John L Williams
Constable, 496pp, £25

As John Williams states at the beginning of his absorbing biography, CLR James may have been born in the Victorian age but he belongs very much to ours. Although for much of his life James was an ardent Trotskyist – he spent a month in Mexico with Trotsky in 1939 – what matters now more than the innumerable factions of international socialism (adroitly handled by the author) was his role as a proselytiser for pan-Africanism, Caribbean independence, and racial justice.

James’s life was divided between his native Trinidad, Britain and the United States, all of which inflected his ideas on class and racial struggle, themes that found their clearest expression in two of his most important books, World Revolution (1937) and The Black Jacobins (1938). Yet the work that still resonates most is his autobiographical cricket memoir Beyond a Boundary, which laid the basis for innumerable writers to treat sport as a way of discussing broader societal issues – though few have done it with such style. Williams negotiates all this as sure-footedly as he does the thrice-married James’s often messy private life. The result may be a single biography, but it describes multiple lives.
By Michael Prodger

Recitatif by Toni Morrison
Chatto & Windus, 80pp, £9.99

Composed in 1980, “Recitatif” was the only short story Toni Morrison ever wrote. This anomalous exercise, Morrison explained in 1992, was “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial”. Roberta and Twyla (our narrator) meet as children in a shelter, where they find themselves because, as Twyla tells us in the indelible, typically economical opening line, “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick.”

This slight new volume is advertised as the story’s first “stand-alone” publication, but the story does not really stand alone. “Recitatif” is only half of Recitatif; the other half is an introductory essay by Zadie Smith. Venturing far beyond exegesis, Smith’s puzzling over our curiosity about which of the two protagonists is black and which white leads her to expansive philosophical and political reflections on race, identity, liberation and capitalism. In a fit of mindless obedience, I read Smith’s introduction first. The depth and dazzle of the essay overpowered or pre-empted my own response to the story. This introduction, like perhaps all introductions, should have been an afterword.
By Lola Seaton

Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James
Hamish Hamilton, 656pp, £20

The opening novel of Marlon James’s Dark Star Trilogy, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, was the story of Tracker, a hunter tasked with recovering a lost child whose identity was cloaked in secrecy. Rather than beginning where the first book left off, the second volume, Moon Witch, Spider King, tells the same account from the perspective of Sogolon, one of Tracker’s companions and the eponymous moon witch.

Don’t be deterred by the apparent repetition. The novel, set on a magical-realist early African continent, borrows from a folk tradition in which the use of multiple narrators is common, and uncovers new truths in old tales. Sogolon, who in the first book was somewhat of an antagonist, is recast as our hero. In this multi-layered mode of storytelling, James masters the fantasy form. The action hurtles towards a seemingly logical conclusion but veers off course by way of explosive revelation. James presents a narrative that confidently treads a tightrope between confusion and elucidation. It’s this double play that makes the complicated story, for all its twists, utterly compelling to read.
By Elliot Hoste

Wivenhoe by Samuel Fisher
Corsair, 160pp, £12.99

The second novel by Samuel Fisher – the co-founder of Burley Fisher, the beloved independent bookshop in east London – is a stirring, exacting tale. In a fictionalised version of Wivenhoe, Fisher’s Essex hometown, it has been snowing for months. Food and power are in short supply, many residents have chosen to flee, and there have even been rumours of polar bear sightings. This world exists in a time not far from our present climate crisis: the snow has transformed their village, but these characters talk about where they were on the day Princess Diana died, and how they’d much prefer to be watching daytime TV than playing yet another game of cards.

Set over 24 hours and told from the perspectives of Helen and her son Joe, Wivenhoe lays bare its characters’ most intimate vulnerabilities. Helen, who is suffering from an undiagnosed, all-consuming illness, doesn’t know whether she has the strength to flee the village. She craves liberation, and manages to find it in the most unlikely of settings: “It’s amazing how living with pain makes you so alive to every feeling,” she thinks, “like your skin has opened, offering your nerves up to the air.”
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror