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19 March 2023

From Benjamin Myers to Timothy Garton Ash: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Eve by Claire Horn and A Stranger in Your Own City by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad.

By Emma Haslett, Jeremy Cliffe, Michael Prodger and Matthew Gilley

Eve: The Disobedient Future of Birth by Claire Horn
Profile, 224pp, £14.99

In 2017 US researchers succeeded in gestating a premature lamb foetus in an artificial uterus, managing what scientists had for decades been attempting: partial exogenesis, or gestation outside of the womb. The scientists were clear that their objective was to create life-saving technology for extremely premature babies, who have about a 10 per cent chance of survival if born before 24 weeks’ gestation. But in Eve, the Canadian academic Claire Horn uses it as a springing-off point to explore the history and future of exogenesis – from the “incubator baby shows” of the late Victorian era, to the idea’s roots in eugenics, to the possibility of future artificial womb technology being used either as a tool to liberate women from what one feminist described as the “barbaric” process of pregnancy – or a dystopian means to control who can reproduce.

Horn’s book, written while she herself was pregnant, offers an engrossing insight into the future of birth through the lenses of the most pressing women’s health issues of our era, from abortion to gender identity. It is a sobering reminder that wherever technology promises to improve women’s lives, there also exists a threat that someone, somewhere, will attempt to co-opt it to control their bodies instead.
By Emma Haslett

[See also: Who is criticism for?]

Homelands: A Personal History of Europe by Timothy Garton Ash
Bodley Head, 384pp, £22

There are historians of Europe who remain detached from the messy realities of the continent’s present. And there are commentators who are immersed in that present but lack the historical knowledge to truly understand it. No figure better unites both disciplines than the British historian and public intellectual Timothy Garton Ash. His history of the continent’s “overlapping timeframes of postwar and post-Wall” is rich with originality and memoiristic details.

He takes us from the Europe “Destroyed” of 1945 , through a continent “Divided” during the Cold War, to a Europe “Triumphing” and then “Faltering” over the past three decades. His is a perspective melding the Anglophone tendency of viewing the continent from the outside-in with the deep local knowledge and Carolingian sensibilities of a life spent criss-crossing its Rhenish and Danubian heartlands. A Remainer, the author resists the temptation to score Brexit points and presents the continent warts-and-all – but none the less “worthy of hope” for it.
By Jeremy Cliffe

[See also: The new politics of time]

A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
Hutchinson Heinemann, 480pp, £25

There have been numerous accounts of the Iraq War and the bloody upheavals of its aftermath from soldiers, historians and commentators, but fewer from the Iraqis who were caught up in its sequence of tragedies. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad was raised in Baghdad and his early memories centred around the Iran-Iraq War and later the Gulf War. After the US-led invasion he was hired as a translator/go-between by a British reporter and found himself travelling around a country he had never known well. The experience turned him into a journalist himself and this book – part memoir, part reportage – recounts the reactions of his fellow citizens, fighters and civilians alike, to being confronted with a changing cast of adversaries. Under Saddam Hussein “we knew the parameters of fear” but with the arrival of foreign soldiers, Shia and Sunni insurgents and Isis, even that certainty disappeared.

His interviewees variously describe corruption, brutality, torture, fanaticism, nihilism and fatalism. The invasion meant bewilderment for some and opportunity for others. Abdul-Ahad recounts it all in evocative prose that makes the indictment that underlies not just his words, but also those of his fellow Iraqis, all the more potent.
By Michael Prodger

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[See also: Mary Harrington interview: “Make sex consequential again”]

Cuddy by Benjamin Myers
Bloomsbury, 464pp, £20

“Each stone tells a story,” says Ediva, an Anglo-Saxon woman, as she describes her visions of Durham Cathedral. That is the foundation of Cuddy, Benjamin Myers’s polyphonic ninth novel. Its four parts (plus a prologue and interlude), covering 1,300 years, are told in prose, poetry, drama, first person, second person and third person – and are connected by the cathedral and St Cuthbert (aka Cuddy), who is buried inside.

Characters and stories recur as if they are archetypes produced by the place – or as if history is a haunting. In one tale, set in 1827, a snobbish professor is confronted by an apparition, a boy with owlish eyes. He feels as if their two hearts “fell into step as one, and time elongated into a contorted moment that felt as if it might be infinite”. Cuddy likewise synthesises aspects of Myers’s past work: the rural outsiders of The Gallows Pole; the way Under the Rock sees so much through the filter of one location. In the final, contemporary part, a young labourer (with owlish eyes) is overwhelmed by the cathedral’s history and the stories in each stone, while his mother fades from life. It is a sublime conclusion.
By Matthew Gilley

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[See also: Jeanette Winterson wants more life]

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This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink