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21 September 2022

From Maggie O’Farrell to Sayaka Murata: recent books reviewed in short

Also featuring Sick Note by Gareth Millward and a biography of Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen.

By Anoosh Chakelian, Michael Prodger, Sarah Dawood and Chris Bourn

Sick Note: A History of the British Welfare State by Gareth Millward
Oxford University Press, 256pp, £30

Who is really sick, and who decides? The answer, in postwar Britain, has never been simple. Gareth Millward – a historian of the British welfare state – tries to work it out in this thorough yet entertaining social history of the sick note – a process with which every British worker will be familiar (even if only through texting a photo of a positive lateral flow test to one’s boss).

Since the modern welfare state was established in 1948, the phrase “sick note” has become loaded. In the Nineties it was a nickname for the perennially injured Tottenham Hotspur player Darren Anderton, while during the New Labour years the tabloids wrote of a “Sicknote Britain” teeming with malingerers. The Labour government even considered sending “mystery shoppers” into GP surgeries to check whether certificates were being handed out too freely. But this cynicism was nothing new: the government suspected miners of absenteeism in the Fifties. Millward goes on to trace how in 2010 the sick note – via work capability assessments and other tests for disability or sickness benefit claimants – eventually became the “fit note”, shifting the focus on to declaring people fit to work.
By Anoosh Chakelian

[See also: Reviewed in Short: New books by Rupal Patel and Jack Meaning, Melvyn Bragg, Laura Bates and Paddy Crewe]

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
Tinder Press, 368pp, £25

Maggie O’Farrell lays out the narrative arc in the very first paragraph of her new novel. The 16-year-old Lucrezia, daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, is sitting at dinner with her new husband, Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, when she has a chilling epiphany: “as if some coloured glass has been put in front of her eyes, or perhaps removed from them”, she realises “that he intends to kill her”. The story then unfolds this chronicle of a death foretold – Lucrezia’s childhood, the brokered dynastic marriage, the heady world of courtly power, and the flashes of love and fear that mark her brief and fateful union.

O’Farrell spins her story from Robert Browning’s haunting poem “My Last Duchess” and her register and language are more poetic than in her previous historical fiction, Hamnet, a story based around Shakespeare’s son. Her world here comprises silks rather than fustian, the exotic beasts of Alfonso’s menagerie rather than domestic animals, and a ducal lodge in the woods rather than a house in Stratford-upon-Avon. Lucrezia is a beguiling central figure, both innocent and wise, a doomed girl in a dark fairy tale.
By Michael Prodger

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Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Granta, 272pp, £12.99

Life Ceremony is a strange, inventive and disconcerting collection of dystopian fiction. In this book, her third to be translated into English, the Japanese author Sayaka Murata explores “taboo” topics such as cannibalism and objectophilia (the romantic love of inanimate objects). In doing so she challenges our perceptions of normal behaviour. The central story depicts a future where funerals have been replaced with bizarre rituals that involve eating the dead and then participating in sex parties to repopulate a dwindling planet. Another is set in a society where it is commonplace to make furniture out of human body parts.

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Amid the insanity are tales that are more believable, such as one about an asexual couple who resort to medical treatment to have a child, and another about cohabiting friends who raise a family together. At times Murata’s morbid creativity can repulse; at others, her refreshing jibes at traditional ideals such as monogamy can draw laughter. Marvel at Murata’s brash imagination and bravery, but be warned: Life Ceremony is not for the squeamish.
By Sarah Dawood

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

Nightfly: The Life of Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen by Peter Jones
Chicago Review Press, 368pp, £28.99

Living in an era that recalls the pessimism of the 1970s means it’s ideal timing for a book on Donald Fagen – a musician who, as one half of the American jazz-rock duo Steely Dan, helped give that decade its cynical, dissolute edge. Anyone hoping for tales of hellraising excess will be disappointed, though. Despite the narcotics that saturate his lyrics, the pianist’s rock-era demons were workaholism and perfectionism. Peter Jones reveals these compulsions as both an asset – Steely Dan’s “precision was remarkable for the era” – and a personal tragedy. By the 1980s, Fagen was in therapy for his “intolerance of anything he perceived as a flaw”.

Jones, a jazz singer himself, has stitched together a colourful story from scant first-hand material. He is at his sharpest appraising the albums and their legendarily lush production, informed by his musician’s ear. But the reclusive Fagen wasn’t interviewed for the book and, seen chiefly through his brittle public persona, he is hard to like. In the end, the reluctant band leader remains hidden. As a biography, this isn’t perfect – but after following Donald Fagen through five decades of exhausting fastidiousness, that’s a relief.
By Chris Bourn

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books from Sophie Pavelle, Brendan Simms and Steven McGregor, Ana Kinsella and Gerald Murnane]

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This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke