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17 August 2022

Reviewed in short: New books from Geoff Mulgan, CJ Hauser, Matt Rowland Hill and Hans Fallada

Another World Is Possible by Mulgan, The Crane Wife by Hauser, Original Sins by Rowland Hill and Lilly and Her Slave by Fallada.

By Rachel Cunliffe, Emily Bootle, Lola Seaton and Michael Prodger

Another World Is Possible: How to Reignite Social and Political Imagination by Geoff Mulgan
Hurst, 352pp, £20

We have become a society of pessimists. Anxiety and despondency dominate political discourse. We are facing no end of existential catastrophes: climate change, pandemics, the strain of ageing populations, the polarisation and breakdown of democracies. It’s no wonder we feel like giving up – and that in itself, argues the public-policy expert Geoff Mulgan, is the real crisis. “We can more easily imagine the end of the world than a better future,” he writes in his introduction to Another World Is Possible. And if we can’t imagine solutions to these challenges, how can we hope to confront them?

Mulgan has decades of experience working with governments and NGOs; he knows that, while progress isn’t easy, it’s not impossible. His book is a manifesto for creativity, and for thinking big. It’s full of radical policy suggestions such as replacing the creaking welfare state with a universal basic income, or moving to a holistic healthcare system focused on the lifestyle and environmental factors that contribute to morbidity, not to mention his ideas for averting ecological disaster and saving the planet. It’s a touch idealistic in places, but, as he argues, “our imagination is limitless”. If we could learn to use it again, maybe our ambition could be too.
By Rachel Cunliffe

The Crane Wife: A Memoir in Essays by CJ Hauser
Viking, 320pp, £16.99

Amid the glut of personal writing online, occasionally an outstanding piece cuts through. In 2019 that piece was “The Crane Wife”, an essay by CJ Hauser published in the Paris Review, about her decision to call off her engagement and the field trip she subsequently joined to study the whooping crane in Texas.

As is customary following such a hit – Kristen Roupenian, for example, was offered a seven-figure advance for her debut book after her short story “Cat Person” became one of the New Yorker’s most-read pieces in 2017 – a collection of Hauser’s work was swiftly snapped up. “The Crane Wife” was appealing because of its intimacy, its digital-friendly pith, its weaving of a Japanese folk tale with the gut-punch of reality. In The Crane Wife, in which she explores romantic escapades throughout her life, there is wryness and certainly online vernacular – “The thing about chatting with people on Tinder is that it is boring” – but less of the precision that made her Paris Review piece fly. She meanders and reflects through literature (Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca) and cinema (the classic romcom The Philadelphia Story). And yet it is still “The Crane Wife”, wedged somewhere in the middle, that stands out.
By Emily Bootle

[See also: When women were warriors: the forgotten female leaders of the Middle Ages]

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Original Sins: A Memoir by Matt Rowland Hill
Chatto & Windus, 320pp, £16.99

The life of a heroin addict can seem in many ways eventless – the “monotony” of scoring and shooting up occasionally “interrupted by some lurid drama”. But to those for whom this Ur-drug remains a mystery, it’s irresistibly interesting. This built-in voyeurism doesn’t remotely account for why Matt Rowland Hill’s debut is so spectacularly riveting – as well as very funny, sad and wise. A memoir about becoming disenchanted with the evangelical faith of his parents, discovering heroin at Oxford University and then spending a decade in the throes of addiction, Hill’s book is superbly made – from its taut construction to its immaculate sentences, full of perfectly judged verbs and arresting metaphors.

The book is about more than heroin, of course. It’s about what heroin dispels: pain – and thus about life (“life is pain management”). When Hill first uses, the “gorgeous, amniotic silence” the opiate induces alerts him to “an alarm bell [that] had been screaming inside me every second of every day”. This exceptional book invites reflection on our own inner alarm bells and our sometimes desperate means of quelling them.
By Lola Seaton

Lilly and Her Slave by Hans Fallada, translated by Alexandra Roesch
Scribe, 256pp, £9.99

Hans Fallada came to the attention of the English-speaking world in 2009 with Alone in Berlin, his tense story of anti-Nazi resistance originally published in 1947. Fallada, however, was long an established name in Germany, as both a writer of note in the interwar years and a troubled man with a history of drug dependency, irrational behaviour and suicide attempts. This collection of stories was discovered only a few years ago in the files of Ernst Ziemke, his psychiatrist, and they were written in 1925 when Fallada was in prison for a series of drug- and alcohol-induced thefts.

There are six short tales here. They all feature figures standing just outside society and recount their stories with a no-nonsense authorial eye and in spare prose. The opening line of “Pogg, the Coward” – a story with autobiographical overtones – could stand for all of them: “This story must be told by sticking strictly to the facts.” The narratives take in themes of despair, disappointed love, sexual predation, benighted hope: they are shot through with bleakness but together they have a percussive effect.
By Michael Prodger

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

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This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World