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2 November 2022

From Malorie Blackman to Barbara Kingsolver: recent titles reviewed in short

Also featuring Julia Voss’s biography of Hilma af Klint and Living Together by Mim Skinner.

By Anoosh Chakelian, Barney Horner, Ellen Peirson-Hagger and Michael Prodger

Living Together: Searching for Community in a Fractured World by Mim Skinner
Footnote Press, 304pp, £14.99

In the old pit villages of County Durham, where Mim Skinner lives, there are public bread ovens built into the terraces. During the Industrial Revolution, families would bake bread together. Today, instead of sharing tools and resources with neighbours, we prefer to buy and hoard our possessions. Skinner points out that this even applies to items such as drills, that the average person uses for a total of ten minutes in their life.

Living Together describes the “fractured world” of today’s Britain: there are chronic levels of loneliness, and 76 per cent of adults feel their sense of community has vanished. Visiting swanky urban “co-living” spaces, Buddhist centres and eco-villages, Skinner goes in search of a different way of life. This book, a sensitive and colourful account, if laden with political correctness, also maps the author’s personal journey. Having spent her twenties in a community house, where Skinner dressed from a shared wardrobe and squished into a bunkbed – one bedroom was kept for the asylum seekers and rough sleepers who passed through – she ended up in a conventional coupledom of Netflix nights and Amazon deliveries to the door.
By Anoosh Chakelian

[See also: Bob Dylan’s problem with women]

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Faber & Faber, 560pp, £20

The influence behind Barbara Kingsolver’s ninth novel is clear: Demon Copperhead is David Copperfield, transposed to the rural communities of Lee County, Virginia, at the turn of the millennium. Rather than filthy factories, Kingsolver gives us tobacco farms; instead of punitive boarding houses, we get high-school American football. It’s difficult to move through the 500-plus pages without playing character snap: U-Haul must be Uriah Heep; Sterling Ford is Steerforth; and Maggot, Peggotty. The narrative can be mapped in a similar way. We follow Demon, real name Damon, through a catalogue of callous foster guardians. The book’s villain is not a character at all, but a socio-economic epidemic: the opioid crisis. Depression and desperation are rife, and in the absence of a functioning health system, care is supplied by prescription drugs.

Though Demon Copperhead sometimes strays into prurience, Kingsolver blends mangled verbs and muddled prepositions to create a lively vernacular style. Charles Dickens may never have come up with “I was inked with the shit-prints of life”, but Kingsolver reminds us that the social tragedies he identified 170 years ago are as salient as ever.
By Barney Horner

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Just Sayin’: My Life in Words by Malorie Blackman
Merky Books, 288pp, £16.99

Malorie Blackman has lived a remarkable life. Born in Surrey to Bajan migrants, she grew up in many different parts of south-east London. The constant moving, she later learned, was due to her father’s gambling addiction. In 1975 he walked out on the family and the house was repossessed, leaving a 13-year-old Blackman, her mother and two brothers homeless. Later, a racist school careers adviser quashed her dreams: “Oh no. Black people don’t become teachers. Why don’t you be a secretary instead?” Aged 18 she was diagnosed with sickle cell disease, and told she wouldn’t live past 30.

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Blackman is now 60, a multiple bestselling author and former Children’s Laureate, best known for her Noughts & Crosses series. She has written her memoir to inspire others from disadvantaged backgrounds to do great things. While she does not want to be called a role model, she undoubtedly is. Sometimes her insistence on emboldening her readers tempts her towards cliché – and her use of “Just sayin’” to conclude particularly punchy chapters grows tiring. But Malorie Blackman’s candour is charming, and her positive influence on the world of books is undeniable.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

[See also: Yara Rodrigues Fowler: “I wanted to disorient the Anglophone reader”]

Hilma af Klint: A Biography by Julia Voss, translated by Anne Posten
University of Chicago Press, 448pp, £28

The origin of abstract art is usually told as a male story, with Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian among those credited with the turn away from the representational. In the 1980s, however, that changed when the paintings of the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint – that had on her instructions been kept out of sight after her death – were finally revealed. It emerged that she had been making fully abstract works years before her better-known male peers. Her pictures were spiritual-mystical visualisations of her interest in theosophy, and mixed biomorphic and geometrical motifs to express her sense of the numinous.

Julia Voss’s biography of Af Klint (1862-1944) is the first full life of the painter and shows her growth from working in the traditional genres of portraiture and landscape into far more radical fields. She explains not just Af Klint’s beliefs, but her relations with the occultist and reformer Rudolf Steiner and her efforts to exhibit some of her work to fellow spiritualists. Af Klint thought of her paintings as dictations from the astral plane. Voss’s scholarship shows how remarkable the woman was who transcribed them.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Fashion and fetishism: the drawings of Henry Fuseli]

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This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak