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22 February 2023

From Em Strang to Kapka Kassabova: new books reviewed in short 

Also featuring Owlish by Dorothy Tse.

By Will Lloyd, Michael Prodger, Katie Stallard and Zoë Grünewald

Elixir: In the Valley at the End of Time by Kapka Kassabova
Jonathan Cape, 380pp, £20

This is the third volume in the Bulgarian-born writer Kapka Kassabova’s travel trilogy. It follows Border (2017) and To the Lake (2020) in which she explored – culturally, historically and psychologically, as well as geographically – the places where a cluster of south-eastern European countries meet. She returns to the same region here, and the valley of the Mesta River as it flows between Bulgaria, Greece and North Macedonia. It is a region, she says, where “invaders, plagues, recyclers, nature and neglect had left their mark” and while a “Babel of languages” had once been spoken there, now the people have largely gone. 

Kassabova spent time in the valley, initially on a hunch but later to understand the old traditions and tinctures of an ecosystem rich in medicinal plants. Elixir recounts both her meetings with the people who are still there – a vivid motley of herders and healers – and the distinctive nature of the valley which, for all its isolation, is no more immune to the degradation of the climate than more glamorous realms. Kassabova is a poet and novelist as well as travel-memoirist, and it shows in her aperçus and real-life fables.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Super Infinite review: A masterful biography of John Donne]

Owlish by Dorothy Tse, translated by Natascha Bruce
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 224pp, £13.99

Professor Q cannot see what is in front of him. For the protagonist of Dorothy Tse’s surreal debut novel, this applies both to his wife – a civil servant named Maria who cooks his dinner every evening – and to the political transformation of the city he lives in. Set in Nevers, a barely disguised rendering of contemporary Hong Kong, which has been handed back from colonial rule to the repressive Vanguard Republic, the book explores the professor’s withdrawal into a fantasy world as he falls in love with a life-sized music-box ballerina named Aliss.

Translated from Chinese, Tse’s disorientating narrative follows the professor as he escorts Aliss around the city and subjects her to his physical desires inside an old church. There are glimpses of the security forces descending on Nevers, but the professor doesn’t notice the students disappearing from his lectures or the protest movements percolating on campus. Owlish is a novel about the cognitive dissonance required to live under an authoritarian regime. As a shopkeeper tells the professor: “No such thing as beautiful or unbeautiful here. You see what you want to see.”
By Katie Stallard

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[See also: Roald Dahl’s books are nasty by nature – editing a word or two won’t make them nice]

Quinn by Em Strang
Oneworld, 208pp, £14.99

Em Strang’s novel Quinn reads like a fever dream. It follows the tormented internal monologue of a man serving a life sentence for the disappearance of his childhood sweetheart, Andrea, and his eventual release on parole to care for her mother. The book starts on a sinister note, with Quinn in his dark, lonely prison cell. The reader soon understands that this is a man coming to terms with his own culpability.

Strang is a poet who has spent a decade working in Scottish prisons. Here she leans on natural imagery – delicate but vicious birds, dense woodland, caking mud – to reflect the brutality of Quinn’s existence. His flashbacks, disjointed memories and a dream where he imagines he has maggots crawling on his face, beautifully capture his unravelling mind as it is tortured by resurfacing memories. But the book is not all darkness. The development of the relationship between Quinn and Andrea’s mother is delicate and touching. His care for her at her most vulnerable, bathing her body or reflecting on her forgiveness, soften the book, making this devastating story one of redemption too.
By Zoë Grünewald

Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading and Public Speaking by Mehdi Hasan
Macmillan, 336pp, £20

Argument, debate, strong opinions: these are all things that Mehdi Hasan loves. Do they love him back? Hasan is an argumentative man. Forceful rhetoric, whether written in the pages of the New Statesman, delivered at the Oxford Union, or displayed nightly in his current gig hosting The Mehdi Hasan Show on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service, has also made him a famous man. Now, this arguer-in-chief shares his hard-won insights.

In Win Every Argument Hasan offers his Ten Commandments, his stress-tested rules for shredding debate opponents and winning over audiences. “This book is intended as a practical guide,” Hasan writes, for everyone from trial lawyers to political candidates. (He cheekily suggests that some spouses may benefit, too, from being able to argue well.) The result is workmanlike; Win Every Argument is a programmatic affair. Though written with insight, it will seem familiar to anyone who has read a book about oratory. And haunting each page is the unspoken question: is every argument worth winning? It’s not something Hasan, to whom slagging-matches of all forms have been kind, appears to have considered.
By Will Lloyd

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon