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9 November 2022

From Yomi Sode to Jo van Gogh-Bonger: recent books reviewed in short

Also featuring Cleopatra’s Daughter by Jane Draycott and A Line in the World by Dorthe Nors.

By Pippa Bailey, Michael Prodger, India Bourke and Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Cleopatra’s Daughter by Jane Draycott
Head of Zeus, 352pp, £27.99

Just as Egypt in antiquity was known for the fecundity of the Nile Delta, so its women were believed to be exceptionally fertile. It is likely, then, that the people of Alexandria would not have been surprised when Cleopatra VII gave birth to twins, Alexander and Cleopatra Selene, by the Roman general Mark Antony, in 40 BCE. While Cleopatra VII’s three sons, including her first by Julius Caesar, did not long outlive her, Cleopatra Selene, who was raised as a princess in Egypt, went on to become a queen. Following her parents’ suicides after the Battle of Actium, she was captured by Augustus and taken to Rome, before being married to an African prince, Juba. She ruled as queen of Mauretania (modern-day Algeria and Morocco) for the rest of her life.

It is extraordinary that such a story has remained untold for so long. The historian and archaeologist Jane Draycott has masterfully pieced together a rich range of literary and artistic sources to create this immensely readable account of a great queen, Egyptian and Roman, who wielded power at a time when women were largely marginalised.
By Pippa Bailey

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

Jo van Gogh-Bonger: The Woman Who Made Vincent Famous by Hans Luijten, trs Lynne Richards
Bloomsbury, 544pp, £20

At the time of his slow death in 1890, succumbing two days after shooting himself in the chest, Vincent van Gogh was a barely known artist. He had sold just a single painting during his lifetime and had relied on his art-dealer brother Theo for financial and emotional support. Theo himself died only six months after Vincent and it was his widow, Jo, who set about finessing the paintings she inherited into a memorial to both brothers. This single-minded woman is the subject of Hans Luijten’s thorough biography, from which she emerges as both formidable and fascinating in her own right.

She brought up the son she had with Theo – named Vincent after his uncle – alone; she agitated for workers’ and women’s rights; she met Leon Trotsky in New York. All the while she seeded, through perseverance and astute media placement, some of her bequest of 400 paintings and innumerable drawings by Vincent into Europe’s museums and galleries. By the time of her own death in 1925 she had fixed the paintings and Vincent’s tragic legend indelibly in the public mind.
By Michael Prodger

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A Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast by Dorthe Nors, trs by Caroline Waight
Pushkin Press, 240pp, £16.99

Hygge’s knitted socks and glowing firesides, the Copenhagen restaurant Noma’s hyperlocal cuisine – these are the reference points with which Denmark is often associated in the minds of outsiders. But the celebrated Danish author Dorthe Nors has other, more sand-blasted touchstones to offer. Having swapped her city life for the “living coastline” of her youth, Nors introduces readers to the line of land that reaches from Denmark’s northernmost tip to where Holland meets the Wadden Sea.

Here, instead of portraying a “harsh natural world” at the nation’s periphery, an other to be viewed “with a hunter’s gaze, within range and at arm’s length”, she reclaims the landscape as one peopled both with human voices and with its own. A Line in the World can be considered within the wider movement to recognise greater legal rights for nature. But at its heart this is a book that will speak to anyone who has ever felt their identity being wrought in the schism between urbanism and the wilder beyond. Nors has been forged there, and her poetic, wave-tossed writing speaks of its hold.
By India Bourke

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[See also: Yiyun Li’s The Book of Goose: in the shadow of Elena Ferrante]

Manorism by Yomi Sode
Penguin, 128pp, £12.99

Caravaggio is an unexpected presence in Manorism, the debut collection by the Nigerian-British poet Yomi Sode. The baroque painter was a notorious brawler and a murderer. Yet because of his “genius” – his bold style – his violence was often excused during his lifetime, and his works are still admired four centuries after his death. Does history treat everyone so fondly?

Manorism, which has been nominated for this year’s TS Eliot Prize, is an exploration of the black British male experience, in which, alongside the Italian artist’s recurring presence, other figures appear in unlikely pairings: David Starkey and the rapper Dave, Diane Abbott MP and Ant McPartlin. While society stereotypes and pigeonholes black men, Sode insists on multiplicity. Recounting the time his son asked how to whistle, his mind goes to the frenzy of a new love affair 15 years earlier. In another poem, he recalls a “lady, drunk or too familiar” asking him: “Do you want to be white?” while he worked during a writing retreat. We all have the right to be various. This collection, which is both vigorous and tender, rallies against the reality that for some that comes more easily than for others.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

[See also: How #BookTok is changing literature]

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This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink