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27 July 2022

Reviewed in short: New books from Jonathan Freedland, Kate Molleson, Linda Villarosa and Benjamin Wood

The Escape Artist by Freedland, Sound Within Sound by Molleson, Under the Skin by Villarosa and The Young Accomplice by Wood.

By Michael Prodger, Ellen Peirson-Hagger, Gavin Jacobson and Pippa Bailey

The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World by Jonathan Freedland
John Murray, 376pp, £20

The journalist Jonathan Freedland’s book starts in 1944 with Rudolf Vrba and Fred Wetzler hiding for three days under a pile of timber in Auschwitz concentration camp. They had spread tobacco soaked in petrol around the logs to put off the guard dogs and after their nerve-shredding wait the two young men broke out of the compound – the first Jews ever to escape. The tension, however, barely drops. The pair, after further ordeals, finally made it back to their native Slovakia, where Vrba put his extraordinary facility with numbers to great use. He had been forced to work in various sectors in Auschwitz and had memorised what Freedland calls “the data of industrialised murder”. He used it to compile a 32-page report that he presented to the Allies: it provided a comprehensive account of the Nazi’s genocidal programme, which had previously been the stuff of rumour. Freedland estimates that Vrba’s report immediately saved the lives of Budapest’s 200,000 Jews who were waiting to be deported.

Vrba’s postwar life was one of neither contentment nor acclaim but this account finally brings both his extraordinary actions and his heroism into the light.
By Michael Prodger

Sound Within Sound: Opening Our Ears to the 20th Century by Kate Molleson
Faber & Faber, 368pp, £18.99

The music critic and broadcaster Kate Molleson introduces us to ten 20th-century composers whose works are rarely included in the “canon” of classical music – because they are not white, male and Western. She travels to upstate New York to visit Annea Lockwood, the 82-year-old New Zealander who is fascinated by how sound is formed both by nature and by our bodies. In Oxford she meets Peggy Seeger, whose mother Ruth Crawford, known as a collector of folk songs, wrote formidable string quartets in her youth.

[ See also: The rise and fall of Lex Greensill ]

Molleson is tremendous at describing music. An album by Walter Smetak, who spent his career in Brazil, is “an astral smirr, a pointillistic smudge, a crowded and inky night sky like a microtonal Milky Way”. And among these vivid musical details is an important political point: Molleson will not allow her book to be used as a weapon in the culture wars. “It is an odd and spurious fear that The Great Works are somehow threatened if classical music becomes more inclusive,” she asserts. Bach and Brahms are in no way slighted because we now also know the joys of the Danish electro pioneer Else Marie Pade, or the Ethiopian pianist and nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

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Under the Skin: Racism, Inequality and the Health of a Nation by Linda Villarosa
Scribe, 288pp, £16.99

The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the deep racial inequalities that define the capitalist democracies of the West, nowhere more than in the US, where black people died at a significantly higher rate than white people. George Floyd had coronavirus when a Minneapolis police officer murdered him in 2020 – a moment that brutally exposed how black Americans experience life at the cruel intersection of health and state violence.

Introducing her new book, the journalist-activist Linda Villarosa reminds us that the US “has the most advanced medical technology in the world – and spends more on healthcare than anywhere else” – yet black and other minority Americans are largely denied this technology. While Villarosa once thought poverty was the root cause of black Americans’ health problems, she now believes that the US healthcare system is built atop a structural racism in which myths about the black body – that black people have higher pain thresholds, for example – remain deeply embedded in the (white) medical establishment. This is a searing indictment of a broken health system in the age of American decline.
By Gavin Jacobson

The Young Accomplice by Benjamin Wood
Viking, 368pp, £16.99

“He’d had her spinning like a pony on a carousel from the beginning, and she hadn’t even heard the music playing.” Joyce Savigear has been at the mercy of Mal – flabby, hairy and older, though we’re not sure by how much – since he lured her away from her job at a department store at 16 with promises of trips to the zoo and a life different from that of “ordinary folk”. It’s 1952 and she and her younger brother are beginning afresh, having each been selected from borstals by the Mayhoods, a pair of architects who own a farm, for the quality of their drawings. The improbability of their both being chosen, unknowingly, from different institutions adds an air of foreboding.

The Mayhoods, inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s creative communal living project Taliesin, replant the Savigears into a new life, working the land and apprenticing in architecture. But soon Mal’s malign influence creeps into even this upright, bucolic setting. Benjamin Wood’s tender fourth novel is about nature and idealism, but it also examines responsibility and the fragility of aspiration.
By Pippa Bailey

[ See also: The best books for summer 2022 ]

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special