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26 October 2022

From Louise Glück to Rachel Aviv: recent books reviewed in short

Also featuring Susan L Shirk on China under Xi Jinping and Ryan Gingeras on the Ottoman Empire.

By Katie Stallard, Michael Prodger, Christiana Bishop and Matthew Gilley

Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise by Susan L Shirk
Oxford University Press, 320pp, £19.99

When Xi Jinping became leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in November 2012, many international observers saw him as a pragmatist who would ensure China’s continuing economic rise. He was a “red princeling”, the son of a communist revolutionary who had served alongside Mao Zedong. But his family had suffered terribly during Mao’s tumultuous reign. The conventional wisdom was that Xi’s experience under Mao would make him wary of repeating the same mistakes. “He fooled us,” one Chinese economist tells Susan Shirk in her new book, Overreach.

Shirk, a former senior US state department official and leading scholar of Chinese politics, examines how Xi consolidated power during his first decade in office and adopted a more muscular foreign policy. She traces the origins of this assertive turn to Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, as China’s extraordinary economic growth fuelled the CCP’s confidence in its own political system and Western confidence about the country’s trajectory began to fade. Shirk is not optimistic about the path ahead. A new Cold War is under way, she warns, and it will be much more dangerous than the last one.
By Katie Stallard

The Last Days of the Ottoman Empire, 1918-1922 by Ryan Gingeras
Allen Lane, 368pp, £30

The Ottoman empire – “the sick man of Europe” – was a long time on its deathbed. After more than six centuries as one of the world’s great powers, and one of its most feared, it finally expired on 1 November 1922 when the sultanate was abolished. Some two weeks later, the last sultan, Mehmed VI, was spirited out of Turkey and into exile, and the rule of the House of Osman was over. In his impressive centenary history, Ryan Gingeras recounts not just the death throes of the old realm but the painful emergence of Turkey as a nation state from what was left of the empire’s lands once the Western powers had sliced off the Middle East.

As Gingeras has shown in previous books, Ottoman decline, exacerbated by factionalism, was merely hastened by entering the First World War on Germany’s side. Its last acts – the Armenian genocide, brutality against Greek separatists and Assyrian and other Christian minorities – meant that Turkey under Kemal Atatürk was born amid mess and blood. It is a complicated story that still reverberates under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Gingeras narrates it with lucid authority.
By Michael Prodger

Strangers to Ourselves: Stories of Unsettled Minds by Rachel Aviv
Harvill Secker, 288pp, £18.99

For some, attempting to articulate how it feels to experience the symptoms of psychosis is “like trying to explain what a bark sounds like to someone who’s never heard of a dog”, writes the New Yorker journalist Rachel Aviv in her rich, deeply reported first book. This arresting image is central to Strangers to Ourselves, which considers the way the lived experience of those suffering from a mental illness is understood by health professionals and wider society.

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Unlike in many of her award-winning feature articles, Aviv is not reporting from the outside. At the age of six she stopped eating. She was later hospitalised and diagnosed with anorexia – a condition she is now unsure she ever had. Here, she movingly weaves her memory of that time, and the impact it has had on her later life, around the profiles of five others who have suffered from chronic mental health conditions. In doing so she reveals the complex biological and environmental factors at play. Her storytelling is vulnerable, and by drawing on her own experience she raises compelling questions about how a person’s diagnosis and treatment can shape their identity.
By Christiana Bishop

Marigold and Rose: A Fiction by Louise Glück
Carcanet, 64pp, £12.99

Marigold and Rose, a short work of fiction by the Nobel Prize-winning American poet Louise Glück, tells a fable-like story of twins in their first year. They have precocious interior lives. Marigold is writing a book, which is difficult as she can’t read. She can’t speak either, but considers her basic expression to be like “that wordless time before Greek or Sanskrit”. “Would people who could read be interested in this?” Marigold asks, meaning her and Rose’s daily existence. This is the tension of the story. Glück seems to mock the significance that many give to the actions of small children, but also treats the twins’ lives sincerely. Their experience of time, for instance, is both amusingly mundane and melancholic: “Outside the playpen there were day and night… Rain arrived, then snow.”

This is an odd novel. Although it is brief, Gluck’s prose cannot match the economy of expression of her poetry. Sometimes the twins are metaphors (expressing creativity, or the struggle to understand oneself), sometimes just babies. And it feels thin, coming with the fanfare of a Nobel laureate but being in effect a single short story presented as a whole book.
By Matthew Gilley

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This article appears in the 26 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, State of Disorder