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22 June 2022

Reviewed in short: New books from Victor Sebestyen, Susan Jonusas, Howard Jacobson and Keiran Goddard

Budapest by Sebestyen, Hell’s Half Acre by Jonusas, Mother’s Boy by Jacobson and Hourglass by Goddard.

By Alix Kroeger, Gavin Jacobson, Michael Prodger and Pippa Bailey

Budapest: Between East and West by Victor Sebestyen
Orion, 432pp, £25

When Gustav Mahler was appointed conductor of the Budapest Royal Opera in 1888, he made himself so widely hated that two of the tenors challenged him to a duel. It is not clear how, if there were two of them and only one of him, it could be called a duel, but it sounds as though one of Mahler was more than enough for anybody. Sebestyen’s history of Budapest is full of such fascinating facts: every other page includes a lengthy footnote as an aside.

The first 60-odd pages are taken up with a brisk summary of early Hungarian history; paradoxically, the book only really comes alive with the Battle of Mohács, in 1526, when Budapest was largely destroyed by the Ottoman army. The narrative swings back and forth between the broad sweep of Hungary’s past and the almost tangible sense of the city: its streets, its people and its cafés – where the revolution of 1848 began and the words of the national anthem were written. The book ends with 1989, the fall of communism and the emergence of a young firebrand named Viktor Orbán. For anyone seeking background on Hungary’s recent history, this is an excellent place to start.
By Alix Kroeger

[See also: Henry Kissinger’s whitewashing of Richard Nixon]

Hell’s Half Acre by Susan Jonusas
Simon & Schuster, 368pp, £16.99

Combining frontier history with true crime, Hell’s Half Acre doesn’t match the literary verve of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965), nor the sinister atmospheres created by Richard Lloyd Parry in People Who Eat Darkness (2010) – the greatest work of true crime since Capote’s classic. But Susan Jonusas has produced a compelling and lively thriller that chronicles the story of a serial-killer family in 19th-century Kansas.

In the early 1870s, as America emerged from the shadow of civil war and people criss-crossed the land looking to settle down and make a life, the Benders, a German immigrant family, murdered at least ten people in Labette County, Kansas. Drawing on a wealth of archival sources, Jonusas’s book is not only a history of murder and manhunt (the Benders, who killed travellers in their cabin and buried them in the cellar, escaped justice) – it is also an impressive history of America on the edge of modernity. It punctures the romanticised vision of the outlaw, too. “Buried beneath the myth of the outlaw,” Jonusas writes, “are very real criminals whose violence left an indelible imprint on communities across the frontier.”
By Gavin Jacobson

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Mother’s Boy: A Writer’s Beginnings by Howard Jacobson
Jonathan Cape, 288pp, £18.99

Mother’s Boy is Howard Jacobson’s account of how he got that way. The route to becoming a lauded novelist and Man Booker Prize winner was fraught – largely because he made it so. “I came out of the womb in every sense the wrong way round,” he claims, and it wasn’t until he was in his forties and published his first novel that he began to right himself. This memoir, full of the bittersweet and the humorous, relates vividly, touchingly, and often self-flagellatingly his experiences of childhood, grammar school in Manchester, Cambridge with the Eng-lit panjandrum FR Leavis, jobs in Cornwall, Australia and Wolverhampton and, along the way, two marriages.

Jewishness is, of course, central; Jacobson is a product of its family structures, its bequest of insider-outsider status and the traits he saw in his father, who talked and did, and his mother, who read and thought. Jacobson’s mother died while he was writing this book, and in a late conversation she asked him about it: “‘What is it again?’ ‘A memoir.’ ‘What’s it about?’ ‘Me, Ma, what do you think?’ She sounded concerned. ‘Is that a good idea?’” Well, yes, it was.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Geoff Dyer and the art of slacking off]

Hourglass by Keiran Goddard
Little, Brown, 208pp, £12.99

Hourglass, the first novel from the poet Keiran Goddard, isn’t prose, but it’s not exactly not prose either. Almost every sentence is followed by a paragraph break, so it reads like free verse or a string of proverbs. Our unnamed protagonist is particular, obsessive, a shrewd observer, and literal-minded to the extent that you imagine he may struggle in social situations. The narration is so purely in his head that he is burningly real, the other characters only half seen.

His is a universal story about two people falling in love, one person falling out of it, and the other coming to terms with their loss – largely by walking until his feet bleed and throwing away household items that suddenly bother him. His observations are beautiful (“Love snuck through the city and repainted it when we weren’t paying attention”), funny (“Gilets are an aesthetic abomination and an affront to God!”), and quietly profound (“I wonder if it is possible to learn to love the rain, or love the darkness, or the wind./If we ever have a child I will take it out in the rain and say things like: What a wonderful rainy day!”). Read it in one glowing session.
By Pippa Bailey

[See also: Bob Stanley’s pre-history of pop breathes life into a lost musical era]

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This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working