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11 May 2022

Reviewed in short: New books from David Bosco, Emma Smith, Charlotte Philby and John Agard

The Poseidon Project by Bosco, Portable Magic by Smith, Edith and Kim by Philby and Border Zone by Agard.

By India Bourke, Ellys Woodhouse, Michael Prodger and Matthew Gilley

The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans by David Bosco
Oxford University Press, 256pp, £22.99

Like the world’s oceans, the new book by the American journalist and academic David Bosco is both compellingly deep and formidably large. Bosco has set himself a daunting task. His hoped-for destination: a greater understanding of how humanity can better manage its greatest common asset. His vessel: a scholarly mix of history, law, and the contemporary politics of ocean governance.

The result is a long, complex voyage. Starting with Hugo Grotius, who in 1609 introduced the principle of the “freedom of the seas”, Bosco traces the tension that has troubled international politics ever since: between certain rulers’ desire to control ocean access and others’ insistence that the seas should be open to all. Piracy, slavery, overfishing, deep-sea mining and the discovery of marine genetic resources are among many factors that complicate this problem, going right up to today’s increasingly volatile stand-offs in the South China Sea and the Arctic. Yet while much is demystified by the book’s comprehensive analysis, there is also a sense that Bosco has left something lurking out of reach – namely, what this high-seas drama should make us feel.
By India Bourke

Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers by Emma Smith
Allen Lane, 352pp, £20

We are told that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But what about its cracking spine, or its deckled edges, dog-eared corners or the peculiar smell of ageing pages? The physical qualities of books are the focus of the Oxford academic Emma Smith’s latest study. Smith is interested in books as material objects, in their “bookhood”, rather than the wisdom they contain. In 16 chapters she charts their history, from the printing of the Gutenberg Bible through to the Amazon Kindle, also taking in the carefully curated book display or “shelfie”, familiar to Madame de Pompadour and Marilyn Monroe before its recent Zoom-led re-emergence.

While the book’s episodic structure encourages readers to dive in at any point, it restricts Smith from delivering an overriding argument. It would seem intuitive to connect the chapters on censorship, book burnings and publishing freedom, but these are told in discrete segments, while a grim chapter detailing the practice of using the skin of enslaved people as leather binding is jarring in its proximity to one on choose-your-own-adventure books. Smith’s approach means the only link between each section is her unwavering fascination with books as objects.
By Ellys Woodhouse

Edith and Kim by Charlotte Philby
The Borough Press, 364pp, £14.99

Edith Tudor-Hart studied photography at the Bauhaus in the late 1920s but found spying a surer way of bringing about the promised communist future than taking pictures. In Austria, where she was born, she had met Arnold Deutsch, a Soviet recruiter, and was in contact with him again when they both moved to Britain in 1933, Edith as the wife of a GP in Wales. While she took photographs depicting social issues for the Listener she also set about recruiting Kim Philby. Despite Edith being a person of interest to the security services, she would later work as a Soviet courier and facilitator for Anthony Blunt.

This is the woman – and the story – at the centre of Charlotte Philby’s latest novel. The territory has been heavily trodden by the likes of Alan Furst, Charles Cumming, Philip Kerr and, of course, John le Carré. Philby, however, is the granddaughter of the Cambridge spy. She is also a dextrous writer who gives her tale a quickening, thrillerish propulsion. And behind it is the reader’s pleasant suspicion that Philby’s personal investment in her subject might be revealing the sort of details to which only family members are privy.
By Michael Prodger

Border Zone by John Agard
Bloodaxe, 144pp, £12

John Agard’s poetry is generous with its pleasures. His wit and playfulness are on full display in Border Zone, a title that could encompass the Guyanese-British poet’s five decades of writing about the margins of Englishness. In the best of the book’s sequences, “The Plants Are Staying Put”, he reflects on taking up gardening during the pandemic – “Sorrow has sprouted cross-border legs./But the plants are staying put” – and finds insightful ways of expressing his perennial themes.

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Agard approaches all his subjects, and forms, with a keen awareness of history. “Windrush Postscript”, about the 2018 deportation scandal, is one of many sonnets in which he deftly inhabits the established mode in his own style. Vernacular voices are also key to his appeal. In “How Delroy Dee Lost His Job at English Heritage House”, Delroy takes aim at a monument to the house’s former owner: “If dat statue wasn’t taking up so much space/you’d have a lot more room to let in de horizon.” Boundaries are everywhere. In one of the gardening poems the edges of the lawn become the margins of a page. Whether in horticulture or history, Agard asks, what if the margins were “left free to breathe”?
By Matthew Gilley

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

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This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer