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15 February 2023

From Mark Hyatt to Nona Fernández: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Killjoy by Jo Cheetham and The Treasuries by Clare Bucknell.

By Rachel Cunliffe, Christiana Bishop, Michael Prodger and Barney Horner

Killjoy: Taking on a Macho Media Empire and Winning by Jo Cheetham
Picador, 400pp, £16.99

This is a book that has been woefully let down by its PR team. It promises us “the true story of the No More Page 3 campaign” and that it will appeal to “fans of Everyday Sexism [and] The Guilty Feminist”. Given the Sun stopped publishing images of topless models in 2015, in the era before #MeToo and before Republicans were overturning abortion rights, it feels dated – as though the publisher is trying to jump on the bandwagon with an issue that isn’t relevant now.

It’s a shame, because Killjoy is rather wonderful.
In what is more memoir than manifesto, Jo Cheetham charts her journey from shy graduate student, riddled with insecurities about her working-class roots, to fearless feminist campaigner. It’s not really about the cause – it’s about finding a voice. Yes, there’s a lot of feminism (in one particularly chilling episode, Cheetham recalls a teacher at her school having Page 3 open on his desk), but far more engaging is the story of how one woman grew out of her debilitating imposter syndrome. It’s a book that’s funny, relatable and heart-warming – and that has been marketed wrong.

[See also: Best books of the year]

Voyager: Constellations of Memory by Nona Fernández, translated by Natasha Wimmer
Daunt Books, 126pp, £9.99

For the Chilean writer Nona Fernández, human memory and astrology have an intimate connection. After her mother experiences a series of fainting episodes, Fernández accompanies her to a neurological exam and is left transfixed by the hospital monitor, which shows a scan of her head. The technology portrays hundreds of thousands of neurons, axons and dendrites exchanging messages with one another, an autonomic system that the author likens to a starscape. She writes: “In my mother’s brain, groups of stars constellate in the name of the fond memory lighting them up.”

Fernández weaves together this unique perception of the cosmos with her memories of growing up in Chile under the military dictator Augusto Pinochet. She recounts the atrocities – many of which were committed by a military unit known as the Caravan of Death – that occurred during his rule and reveals a people still grieving for what was lost during that time. Voyager is a captivating memoir that not only offers a deeper understanding of one of Chile’s most acclaimed writers, but also a new insight into the history and resilience of the Chilean people.  

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[See also: The best books of 2022]

The Treasuries: Poetry Anthologies and the Making of British Culture by Clare Bucknell
Head of Zeus, 352pp, £27.99

In this intriguing and revealing book the historian Clare Bucknell argues that, from the 17th century on, it was not just the poems and prose of our great national writers that helped shape our sense of a shared culture, but the act of gathering disparate works into anthologies. And the urge to anthologise has never gone away.

As well as familiar names such as the bumper-selling The Golden Treasury of 1861 edited by Francis Turner Palgrave and Arthur Quiller-Couch’s The Oxford Book of English Verse of 1900, she looks at less familiar compilations. Poems on Affairs of State, for example, which provided 17th-century readers with satires on Restoration politics and Charles II’s roster of mistresses; the 109 volumes of The Poets of Great Britain from Chaucer to Churchill initiated in 1777 by John Bell; and The Mersey Sound of 1967, which helped launch the Liverpool poets Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri. Bucknell shows how such collections cut across class, brought new readerships and infiltrated the national consciousness. 

[See also: The best non-fiction books to read in 2023]

Love, Ledaby Mark Hyatt
Peninsula Press, 176pp, £10.99

Mark Hyatt was born into poverty in 1940 and died by suicide in 1972. The manuscript for his sole novel Love, Leda (written in around 1965, but never published) was left to gather dust in the house of a friend until its rediscovery in 2019. It is a febrile assemblage of experiences in the life of a young gay man in the early Sixties, set across ten or so days and nights in London.

The protagonist, Leda, is captured in raw, immediate prose that lays out in granular and idiosyncratic detail his casual jobs and casual hook-ups. While explicitly (and often graphically) acknowledging Leda’s homosexuality, the book also grapples with what it means to be gay in a world that remains, at least on the surface, obstinately heterosexual. Leda is also in love with a straight, married man whose paternalistic attitude to Leda’s homosexuality is neutralising – a potent symbol of a society’s refusal to acknowledge anything that might deviate from the norm. With its publication, Love, Leda enters into the canons of gay and working-class postwar literature – a remarkable reclamation given that Hyatt was illiterate until early adulthood.

[See also: The best of culture in 2022]

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This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere