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6 July 2022

Reviewed in short: New books from Bella Lack, Helen Benedict and Eyad Awwadawnan, Simone de Beauvoir and Simon Jenkins

The Children of the Anthropocene by Lack, Map of Hope and Sorrow by Benedict and Awwadawnan, The Inseparables by de Beauvoir and The Celts by Jenkins.

By Philippa Nuttall, Zoë Grünewald, Ellen Peirson-Hagger and Michael Prodger

The Children of the Anthropocene: Stories From the Young People at the Heart of the Climate Crisis by Bella Lack
Penguin Life, 272pp, £9.99

Bella Lack is an 18-year-old British environmental activist. While Greta Thunberg (who has written the foreword to Lack’s first book) has led the charge for climate action, Lack is focused on protecting the natural world in its widest sense: as well as campaigning for emissions reductions, she argues that wildlife deserves more of our attention. The Children of the Anthropocene is a brave and heartfelt attempt to commit to paper how we can all do more to stop polluting the planet. Through the stories of people all over the world, Lack shows how air pollution, overconsumption and plastic waste are destroying habitats and lives.

She tells the story of Belyndar, who grew up in the low-lying Solomon Islands, watching the rivers dry up and the sea levels rise, and recounts the experiences of Daniel, an Ecuadorian hunter turned conservationist. The Nigerian eco-feminist Oladosu Adenike highlights the devastating impacts of climate change on women’s lives in low-income countries. Rather than simply engendering sympathy for those on the front line of this crisis, Lack’s book empowers readers with clear actions they can take to join the fight for a better world.
By Philippa Nuttall

Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece by Helen Benedict and Eyad Awwadawnan
Footnote Press, 336pp, £12.99

Map of Hope and Sorrow celebrates the resilience of humanity. Its authors, the Columbia University professor Helen Benedict and the Syrian writer and refugee Eyad Awwadawnan, join forces to gain the trust of five refugees from across the globe as they arrive, safer but not settled, in a Greek migrant camp. All have different stories. Hasan escaped from the brutal and bloody civil war in Syria, while Evans fled Nigeria after being beaten and persecuted as a gay man.

This book could feel like a bleak glimpse into a world of tragedy and despair, but occasional moments of humour and genuine connection allow for a contrast that makes it an engaging read. Hasan fondly remembers his sister teasing him about his long-lost love. Mursal, an Afghani refugee, recalls wonderful childhood memories: swimming in the river; the sweets and candies bought by patients of her doctor father. Importantly, the book’s epilogue outlines the actions that need to be taken to aid the plight of the many other refugees still without homes – a sobering reminder that such suffering is an ongoing reality for millions outside these pages.
By Zoë Grünewald

The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir, translated by Lauren Elkin
Vintage Classics, 154pp, £8.99

This “lost” Simone de Beauvoir novel, which went unpublished in her lifetime (that her partner Jean-Paul Sartre “held his nose” when she showed it to him may have had something to do with it), is the best kind of love story: it tells of the complex adoration between young female friends. Beauvoir wrote The Inseparables aged 46 in 1954, five years after The Second Sex was published. By then she was an acclaimed philosopher – and she believed that renown had in some way to do with Elisabeth Lacoin, known as “Zaza”, her childhood friend who died when both women were 21. “For a long time, I believed that I had paid for my own freedom with her death,” she wrote in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.

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In this rousing novel, elegantly translated by Lauren Elkin, Beauvoir becomes Sylvie, and Zaza is Andrée. Their passionately intellectual relationship is strained by the norms of the day; the girls are headstrong yet expected to devote themselves to family. In revering Andrée’s rebelliousness, Beauvoir constructs an indictment of the French society of the time. Meanwhile, the pair’s splendour blazes out of every page.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

The Celts: A Sceptical History by Simon Jenkins
Profile, 290pp, £16.99

The subtitle of this book is “a sceptical history”, but Simon Jenkins – familiar as a forthright and often contrarian commentator on modern Britain – is in fact less sceptical than categorical. He says of the Celts: “There was no such tribe, country, culture or language. Not only that, but the peoples customarily identified as Celtic have never behaved together so as to justify one name.” The Celts, in his telling, were the assorted peoples around the fringes of England who were left unassimilated as it coalesced into an Anglo-Saxon realm: the name Celts – “keltoi” – first appears in Herodotus, meaning “aliens”. If there was unity then it was in the inability of these peoples to unite against the centre, and in their shared experience of oppression, from Viking raiders and Norman castles to Cromwell’s near-genocide in Ireland and the Highland clearances.

Where Jenkins is less sure-footed is in his treatment of Celtic mythology. Even if the Celts weren’t real, Celticness is, and it has proved a powerful point of identification, then as now, for the parts of these islands that feel no kinship with London and its orbit.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: How TS Eliot found happiness]

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This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson