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25 May 2022

Reviewed in Short: New titles from Kris Manjapra, Karolina Ramqvist and Emilie Pine

Black Ghost of Empire by Manjapra, Bear Woman by Ramqvist, Deep Deception by Alison, Belinda, Helen Steel, Lisa and Naomi, and Ruth & Pen by Pine.

By Michael Prodger, Lola Seaton, Zoë Grünewald and Anna Leszkiewicz

Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation by Kris Manjapra
Allen Lane, 256pp, £20

According to the Tufts University history professor Kris Manjapra, although the period from 1780 to 1880 saw an end to centuries of the enslaving of African peoples, the former slaves were none the better for it. In numerous places captive labour continued for years after slavery’s end was declared, while freed slaves received neither reparations nor recognition. In Africa colonial expansion imposed new constrictions; in the Caribbean the apprenticeship system intended to ease the transition to freedom could be even harsher than slavery itself; in northern US states slaves had to pay for their own freedom. However noble the aims of the abolitionists, in practice emancipation “aggravated slavery’s historical trauma and extended white supremacist rule and anti-blackness”, says Manjapra.

Consequently, his book offers a frequently unsettling counter-narrative to the congratulatory strand of abolitionist history. “The history of slavery and emancipation is not a story of endings, but of unendings” and, he adds, the effects and the lack of meaningful restitutions and redress still affect post-slavery societies today. 
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books from Graham Caveney, Giles Tremlett, Charlotte Van den Broeck and Chitra Ramaswamy]

Bear Woman by Karolina Ramqvist, trs Saskia Vogel
Bonnier, 400pp, £16.99

In 1542 a French noblewoman, Marguerite, was marooned on a remote island for having a scandalous affair with a fellow passenger while onboard a naval expedition to “New France” (in today’s Canada). Her lover, maidservant and, later, baby, were stranded with her, but all perished except for Marguerite, who braved the wild animals (hence “bear woman”) and was eventually retrieved by fishermen.

Conforming to a tiresome vogue, Bear Woman does not simply reconstruct this sparsely documented historical episode, but embeds Marguerite’s story in a pedestrian memoir about the process of telling it (and googling it – the search engine is mentioned upwards of 20 times). The details of the narrator’s writing process and research trips aren’t reliably scintillating (“My coffee was still so hot that the cup burned my fingers. I had to set it down and blow on it”). This hybrid-memoir is weighted towards personal candour and immediacy, but these need to be artfully deployed and transfigured by style. Ramqvist’s modishly spare prose, translated by Saskia Vogel, doesn’t achieve the austere radiance it perhaps aspires to.
By Lola Seaton

Deep Deception: The Story of the Spycop Network, by the Women who Uncovered the Shocking Truth by Alison, Belinda, Helen Steel, Lisa and Naomi
Ebury Press, 400pp, £20

This is a book not just about deception or state surveillance, but also misogyny. It’s about law enforcement recklessly trampling on the lives of five innocent women by using them to shore up the false identities of police officers seeking to infiltrate non-violent left-wing movements. It is a story about how the state uses women and disposes of them, about institutional sexism and corruption at the highest level. In Deep Deception the women who were betrayed by the Spycop scandal – many of whom remain anonymous – speak candidly about the men who broke their hearts and lied to them: from the first “I love you” to reflections on moments of suspicion; incriminating photos, credit cards and passports in different names.

But rather than wallowing in pity, their collaborative work claims victory. When the women find out about their partners’ alternate lives they seek legal action, despite the power of the establishment that they confront Arriving at a pivotal moment, when both the Met Police and Westminster are facing a reckoning over their treatment of women, this is an inspiring read that elucidates the power of justice.
By Zoë Grünewald

[See also: Against the Bolaño industry]

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Ruth & Pen by Emilie Pine
Hamish Hamilton, 256pp, £14.99

Emilie Pine’s debut novel is set in Dublin over a single day; comparisons to James Joyce’s Ulysses are somewhat inevitable. But Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is clearly the major modernist influence on this story. Pine’s two protagonists are strangers to one another; her prose follows the rhythms of their thoughts as they go about their respective days.

Pen is an idealistic and autistic 16-year-old, skipping school to attend a climate march with her crush, Alice, and struggling to balance her competing excitement and anxiety. (She has recently read “that book” about “the man with shell shock”.) Ruth is a psychotherapist, reeling from a shock in her marriage. Both are immersed in their own worries, temporarily interrupted by the sensory distractions of the city. “Strange, Ruth thinks, pausing at a shopfront, how you can smell the scent of olives or spices and the fact that your husband possibly/maybe/probably hates you can be pushed aside, put almost out of mind, at the prospect of food.”

Pine is best-known for her essay collection Notes to Self; here, she shows promise as a sensitive, empathetic writer of fiction.
By Anna Leszkiewicz

[See also: How Sergei Magnitsky paid with his life for exposing Vladimir Putin’s financial corruption]

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This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control