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5 March 2023

From Janet Malcolm to Sebastian Barry: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Deep Down by Imogen West-Knights and Why Women Grow by Alice Vincent.

By Michael Prodger, Ellen Peirson-Hagger, Tom Gatti and Christiana Bishop

Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory by Janet Malcolm
Granta, 176pp, £16.99

Throughout her works, the author and New Yorker journalist Janet Malcolm remains intensely aware, and wary of, the relationship between writer and subject. That was the case regardless of whether she was writing about Chekhov, Sylvia Plath or the murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and his amanuensis Joe McGinniss. In an essay of 2010, she explained why she was suspicious of autobiography too, and one of the main difficulties to be confronted was the urge to seem interesting. But Malcolm was interesting, and not just for her writing.

Still Pictures is a memoir built around 12 family photographs; the first shows her as a young girl on holiday in her native Czechoslovakia while the others chart her family’s flight to America to escape the Nazis, her schooldays, parents and family friends. Through them she describes exile and assimilation, her regret at never managing to be a “bad girl”, the New Yorker under its fabled editor William Shawn – all full of telling inflections of her complicated and engrossing character. Malcolm, who died in 2021, never gave herself the complete Malcolm treatment, but this slim volume is as satisfying as many a fuller Life.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: The best books of 2022]

Deep Down by Imogen West-Knights
Fleet, 304pp, £14.99

The trickiness of grief is the central theme of the journalist Imogen West-Knights’s gripping debut novel. Twenty-something siblings Billie and Tom aren’t close but on hearing about the death of their father, they feel they ought to be together. Billie travels to Paris, where Tom has moved from their home city of London. There’s a tension between them, caught as they are in the aftermath of loss and in the middle of figuring out what they, as adult siblings, should be to one another.

The drama takes place underneath Paris, in the eerie labyrinth of catacombs that Billie and Tom explore on an illegal night trip. But the real emotional complexity of the novel lies in the chapters that flit back to incidents from the siblings’ childhood. We glimpse instances of their father’s aggression – his violent, public outbursts that led to their parents’ separation. We realise that Billie understands her father to have been mentally ill, while Tom sees him as a brute – and fears he has inherited his worst traits. West-Knights has a warm, lively style that would have lent itself to a neatly tied-up ending. But she remains true to life, and refuses to offer an easy conclusion. Families, she knows, are far too complex for that.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

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[See also: Why we need the Women’s Prize for Non-fiction]

Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry
Faber & Faber, 272pp, £18.99

Late in life and of unsteady mind, a former policeman named Thomas revisits memories of his family and is haunted by a history of violence. It is the premise of both Sebastian Barry’s new novel Old God’s Time and his landmark 1995 play The Steward of Christendom – although retired Detective Sergeant Kettle, gazing at the sea from his granny flat in modern Dalkey, initially seems a picture of tranquility compared to Thomas Dunne, “mad as a stone mason”, confined to a psychiatric facility a decade after the Irish Civil War.

Kindly Tom Kettle’s semblance of peace is broken, though, when former police colleagues reopen a case he investigated in the Sixties. In a skilfully disorientating narrative, Barry shows us Tom’s memories “once fresh, immediate, terrible, receding away into old God’s time” and then being summoned back into the cold light of the present. Along the way we begin to understand the profound damage sustained by his “buckled heart”. The novel is at once a story of Ireland’s reckoning with the horrors of institutional abuse, and a moving portrait of a man who, despite the worst ravages of loss, miraculously retains a capacity for love and joy.
By Tom Gatti

[See also: Nigel Biggar’s whitewashing of empire]

Why Women Grow by Alice Vincent
Canongate, 304pp, £16.99

When Alice Vincent visits Fernanda – a woman living in a flat on the 29th floor of an east London tower block – she finds a balcony bursting with plants. Vincent writes, it was “the kind of happy chaos I relish in the very best gardens, where the desire and curiosity simply to grow things outweighs that for aesthetics, order and rules”. For Fernanda, her love of cultivating fresh produce and flowers is simple: “Your garden, for the most part, is a representation of what you want closest to you.”

In her new book, Vincent – who is a former NS gardening columnist and the author of Rootbound: Rewilding a Life – meets women who have found a connection with the natural world through gardening. In turn she reflects on the events in her own life that moved her to create a green space for herself. She narrates the women’s stories with nuance and tenderness, revealing how gardens became places of refuge, joy and creativity, but also how rural life can become a burden that some long to escape. Why Women Grow is a poignant exploration of the relationship between healing and growing, and the power and mystery of nature.
By Christiana Bishop

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[See also: From Sophie Mackintosh to Stephen Moss: new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid