Tomorrow Perhaps the Future: Following Writers and Rebels in the Spanish Civil War by Sarah Watling
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £22
From George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway to Laurie Lee and Arthur Koestler, the names of many of the male writers who took a stand during the Spanish Civil War are familiar ones. Less well known are the women who also saw the conflict as a defining moment for both civilisation and their own lives. In her engrossing and impressive book, Sarah Watling looks at some of those women who went to war, not just to fight fascism or scratch the itch of adventure but also to show what women could do. In travelling there, they put themselves at a specific type of risk: as the journalist Martha Gellhorn wrote, in war “there is an outstanding scarcity of women”.
As well as Gellhorn, the cast of Watling’s book includes the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, the poet and society provocateur Nancy Cunard, the privileged rebel Jessica Mitford, and numerous other fascinating figures. Watling shows that they did not deal in empty gestures, but experienced both the front line and the panic and strained ennui of the towns and villages. “We are determined or compelled to take sides,” said Cunard, and these women emphatically did.
By Michael Prodger
A Spell of Good Things by Ayòbámi Adébáyò
Canongate, 352pp, £18.99
The second novel by Ayòbámi Adébáyò, whose debut, Stay With Me, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, is a deft combination of political drama and everyday observation. The story, set in the state of Osun, south-western Nigeria, is told through Eniola, a teenage boy whose family is stricken with poverty after his father loses his teaching job, and Wuraola, a trainee doctor from a wealthy dynasty. Their stories converge amid a bitter state governorship election.
The book recalls Chinua Achebe’s searing political novel Anthills of the Savannah, which is referenced. But along the way much time is spent on the details of life in these two social strata – on Wuraola’s intense romance, and exhaustion in the overstretched public health system; and Eniola’s shame as his family resort to begging. In one passage, his mother looks at her nails, broken by anxious biting, and remembers the pleasure she used to take from painting them, how “reaching into a bag bulging with bottled colours and wonder became a pocket of joy and rest”. As Eniola falls in with a corrupt candidate and violence blooms, the reddened flesh of his mother’s fingertips stays on the mind.
By Matthew Gilley
You Are Not Alone by Cariad Lloyd
Bloomsbury, 304pp, £18.99
In You Are Not Alone the podcaster and actor Cariad Lloyd offers both a memoir and a manual. The book, which she describes as for “anyone who has ever felt lost in grief”, feels like a warm bath. Lloyd writes with arresting honesty about the pain of losing her father as a teenager. Her description of the time her terminally ill dad shouted at her for refusing to clear away her dinner plate left me feeling bereft for the girl who knew her father was dying, but not exactly what him dying would entail.
But the book is not just tragedy and suffering. Lloyd’s chatty writing style is familiar and funny. She is candid about the usefulness of grief – as a girl she played the “DDC” or “dead dad card”, a useful tool for skipping detention – and offers advice for fellow grievers, from “funeral chat” icebreakers to sincere words of comfort. She leans on excerpts from Griefcast, her award-winning podcast from which the book grew, including testimonies from other public figures – her “grief club” – to demonstrate the unique challenges of loss as well as its ubiquity. “Let us be courageous and acknowledge that the deal with life is that death will be the end,” Lloyd insists.
By Zoë Grünewald
Away from Beloved Lover: A Musical Journey Through Cambodia by Dee Peyok
Granta, 368pp, £16.99
Cambodia and Beatles-era rock ’n’ roll might seem an unlikely pairing, but in the Sixties Phnom Penh was swinging. A mania for Western moptop bands was fusing with traditional music, and a unique post-colonial pop was taking hold, led by stars such as the Édith Piaf-esque Ros Sereysothea, and Sinn Sisamouth, Cambodia’s answer to Elvis. Both artists, along with an estimated quarter of the country’s population, were killed during the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of 1975-79, which obliterated this vibrant scene.
Dee Peyok’s book relates her mission to recover this erased heritage through encounters with survivors. She is a devoted-fan-turned-preservationist but brings too much of herself into the frame; first-person passages, dense with cliché, read like an over-sharer’s boho travel blog. Her interviewees’ stories of resilience, though, are remarkable: the drummer who risked execution for the sake of his hidden record collection; the rock guitarist who saved himself by charming troops with Khmer folk chops. In giving these musicians a voice, Peyok has done the Cambodia she fell in love with a genuine service.
By Chris Bourn
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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con