New Times,
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13 March 2023

From Margaret Atwood to Gary Younge: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Life in the Balance by Jim Down and Liliana’s Invincible Summer by Cristina Rivera Garza.

By Samir Jeraj, Anoosh Chakelian, Michael Prodger and Sarah Dawood

Dispatches from the Diaspora: From Nelson Mandela to Black Lives Matter by Gary Younge
Faber & Faber, 352pp, £14.99

This collection of journalism from the academic and former Guardian journalist Gary Younge is a reminder of how much racism has changed and how much it has stayed the same. The pieces cover four decades of reporting from the UK, America and South Africa, ranging from the global response to George Floyd’s murder in 2020 to a chaotic evening with Maya Angelou. Younge also reaches into the past to examine real events beyond the most celebrated episodes of black history. In one piece he tells the story of Claudette Colvin, who refused to move to the back of the bus months before Rosa Parks did, but whose teenage pregnancy prevented her from being a sympathetic test case.

Apartheid ended as Younge began his career but, as he observes, its legacy is entrenched in South African class and power. Years later, the election of Barack Obama marked a monumental change in one sense, but his moderate politics failed to match the hype. Younge’s work retains a sharp and grounded view, exulting the power of community to make change rather than the promises of individuals.
By Samir Jeraj

[See also: Barack Obama: the well-adjusted president]

Life in the Balance: A Doctor’s Stories of Intensive Care by Jim Down
Viking, 256pp, £18.99

The doctor memoir, perhaps the publishing industry’s favourite non-fiction category after self-help, has lately felt done to, well, death. Yet the intensive care surgeon Jim Down’s dispatches from the pandemic front line – including his 2021 book about working on a Covid ward, Life Support, and his role as the subject of Edward Docx’s May 2020 NS essay “The Peak” – never induced reader fatigue. In Life in the Balance he chronicles his career in medicine’s “twilight zone”, and again proves there is life in the genre yet.

Down treated victims of the 7/7 terror attack in London, and Alexander Litvinenko was admitted to his ward at University College Hospital. Moving beyond the “TV drama” perception of an intensive care unit (ICU), his book is an intriguing personal journey, relayed with self-deprecation. Down became “more anxious, more risk averse” with experience – not the decisive doctor he assumed he’d be. He grew to doubt his life-changing verdicts on who would and who wouldn’t get an ICU bed. As much an ethical rumination as an insider’s account of a hospital, Life in the Balance puts a face to the patients under masks and tubes – and to those precariously charged with their care.
By Anoosh Chakelian

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[See also: From Roald Dahl to Ian Fleming, censorship is good for the book trade]

Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood
Chatto & Windus, 272pp, £22

This collection is Margaret Atwood’s ninth book of short stories – a first gathering of conceits since her Booker Prize joint win in 2019 with The Testaments. At its heart is a suite of seven about a long-married couple, Nell and Tig, which looks at what makes a shared life, from joint first-aid lessons, the characterful men they meet while living in France, and memories of a dead pet cat. However, there is also the hollowness that comes when a partner dies, with its empty hours and fractured routines. In these stories, which amount to slices of a novella, the rhythms of Atwood’s longer fiction can be felt – the mix of big themes and small details.

Elsewhere, she roams widely in stories that encompass a witch mother, a fairy-tale-telling alien, and the philosopher-astronomer Hypatia of Alexandria (although an imagined conversation with George Orwell is not one of her best). Atwood’s authorial voice is equally multifarious. Throughout all the stories, she is less interested in a narrative than in the potency of discrete episodes and how they illuminate a personality or idea.
By Michael Prodger

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

Liliana’s Invincible Summer: A Sister’s Search for Justice by Cristina Rivera Garza
Bloomsbury, 320pp, £17.99

The Mexican author Cristina Rivera Garza crosses boundaries between storytelling and investigative journalism in this shocking account of her 20-year-old sister’s murder in 1990. Violence against women then and now is rife in Mexico, with the United Nations rating the country as one of the most violent for women in the world. Liliana’s killer, thought to be a possessive and controlling former boyfriend, evaded justice due to an incompetent criminal justice system that did not properly recognise gender-based violence.

The exact details of Liliana’s death remain unknown, but Garza’s creative compilation goes some way towards unearthing the truth. She compiles first-hand interviews with family and friends, police reports, handwritten letters, Liliana’s scribblings in school notebooks, and photos to reveal years of coercion and control. She shows her sister as both a witty, loving and independent young student and the trapped victim of a persistent abuser. Her death was mundane and horrifying in equal measure. This is a personal yet universal piece of creative non-fiction that demonstrates the insidious, and often discreet, epidemic of violence against women.
By Sarah Dawood

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

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This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe