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4 May 2022updated 08 Sep 2022 6:08pm

Reviewed in short: New books by Calum Jacobs, Lara Williams, Alex Rowson and NoViolet Bulawayo

A New Formation edited by Calum Jacobs, The Odyssey by Lara Williams, The Young Alexander by Alex Rowson and Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio, Sarah Manavis, Michael Prodger and Pippa Bailey

A New Formation: How Black Footballers Shaped the Modern Game, edited by Calum Jacobs
Merky Books, 288pp, £16.99

The impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020 was felt particularly acutely in the sporting world, and since then conversations about race and racism in football have been prevalent. Importantly, this new essay collection, edited by the south London-born writer Calum Jacobs, does not put the onus on black people to create a blueprint for “ending racism”. Instead, it explores the ways in which black footballers have helped to forge today’s game and represented their communities by displaying their cultures proudly, both on and off the pitch.

The collection contains thoughtful essays and profiles, and interviews with football’s trailblazers, including “Uncle” Ian Wright and Anita Asante. Through the personal experiences of its contributors the book reveals how identity, nationality, religion and black cultural expression helped embolden the likes of Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford to become the protagonists of the game – and of society. Proud and vibrantly told, A New Formation is an expansive yet nuanced history of football’s black pioneers, past and present.
By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

The Odyssey by Lara Williams
Hamish Hamilton, 208pp, £14.99

The retelling of myth is a literary mode that has undergone something of a revival in the past few years. Some are great and sweeping; others are ham-fisted, trying to work modern quirks into millennia-old storylines. The latest in this genre is from Lara Williams, the author of the hedonistic, critically acclaimed novel Supper Club. The central character of her Odyssey, a surreal spin on Homer’s epic poem, is Ingrid, who is disassociated from her reality working odd-jobs on a luxury cruise-liner. We follow Ingrid as she interacts with her equally disaffected colleagues on board. Together they are led through a series of bizarre and sometimes violent exercises set by their boss.

The novel is vivid and compulsive, and shrouded in a mystery that sets us up for a grand revelation of why this strange cast of characters would choose this punishing lifestyle. Yet after all the build-up, Williams offers mundane, even trite, reasons for why they have sought detachment from the outside world. Though the final twist is disappointing, Williams’s novel remains an addictive and intriguingly dark (if not profound) take on an ancient narrative.
By Sarah Manavis

The Young Alexander: The Making of Alexander the Great by Alex Rowson
William Collins, 494pp, £25

To the despair of all subsequent would-be world kings, Alexander the Great conquered the known globe by 33 and is rumoured once to have wept because “there were no more worlds to conquer”. Alex Rowson, the producer of the Time Team television series, has set out to examine Alexander before he earned his epithet – and, faced with the fact that the legends about the conqueror are as numerous as the ancient sources about his life are sparse, he uses recent archaeological discoveries to bolster his narrative. Indeed, the account of the 1977 excavation of the tomb of Philip II of Macedon, at Aigai, west of Thessaloniki, has all the romance of his son Alexander’s exploits.

The boy Alexander was no less remarkable than the man: taught by Aristotle, he defeated invading Thracians at 16, commanded a wing of Philip’s army two years later and was king of Macedon at 20. This was merely a taster before the conquest of lands all the way to India, an empire of more than two million square miles. As Rowson deftly shows, from an early age Alexander proved to be fearless, resourceful and, when he thought it necessary to secure his father’s crown, utterly brutal.
By Michael Prodger

Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo
Chatto & Windus, 416pp, £18.99

It would be easy to compare Glory – in which His Excellency, the supreme leader of the kingdom of Jidada, who also happens to be a horse, rules over his animal kingdom – with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, except in the first chapter a character tells us: “This is not animal farm but Jidada.” His Excellency, the Old Horse, who led Jidada out of colonial rule in the War of Liberation, has clung to power for 40 years, aided by his Defenders, a violent pack of dogs, and his wife, Marvellous, a donkey – until a new leader, his former deputy, rises. You don’t have to know much of Zimbabwean history to see the parallels with the fall of Robert Mugabe. (Though those who do will appreciate that the Old Horse’s wife is known as “Dr Sweet Mother”, a reference to the PhD Grace Mugabe obtained in just two months, and will recognise that the new leader’s “famous scarf” is a nod to successor Emmerson Mnangagwa’s striped number.)

Glory, the second novel from the Booker-shortlisted author NoViolet Bulawayo, has its own lexicon and is written in a speech-like rhythm that adds to the sense of fable. It is a fairy tale, a work of satire – and a warning.
By Pippa Bailey

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This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future