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12 April 2023

From Amy Key to Tom Clark: new books reviewed in short

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

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio, India Bourke, Ellen Peirson-Hagger and Michael Prodger

Broke: Fixing Britain’s Poverty Crisis edited by Tom Clark
Biteback, 304pp, £14.99

A litany of statistics from think tanks and charities, as well as the government’s own data, outline the damage that the austerity imposed since 2010 has inflicted on living standards in the UK. Yet these numbers quickly fade from public consciousness. The human tragedies, however, tend to be remembered. A heart-breaking example is the death in 2020 of Awaab Ishak, a toddler living in Rochdale who lost his life “due to prolonged exposure to mould,” according to the coroner’s report.

Broke, a collection of dispatches from social affairs reporters and edited by the journalist Tom Clark, outlines the crises of austerity with similarly shocking experiences. We meet “Yvonne”, a Windrush-generation care worker, who retired early due to a degenerative spine condition. One evening, as she struggled to feed herself on Universal Credit, she thought: “If you’re sleeping, you won’t feel hungry.” Javed – one of many migrants whom the state bans from receiving support – battles with homelessness in Leeds, which leads him to attempt suicide. Broke shows the human side of the shameful statistical record of destitution that austerity and the current cost-of-living crisis has brought to millions of Britons.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Beastly: A New History of Animals and Usby Keggie Carew
Canongate, 384pp, £20

Reading Beastly is a little like padding, barefoot, through a rainforest. Anecdotes about our conflicting relationships with the non-human pile high like epiphytic lichens, one lifeform atop another: here, a violent Old Testament God celebrates meat-eating; there, a parson-naturalist helps change our attitude to nature from arrogance to awe. Together they pull the reader deeper into Carew’s biophilia-affirming thesis: that humanity flounders or flourishes depending on how far it nurtures its affinity with the natural world.

At times, the effect is almost overwhelming – and this is not a book for the faint-hearted. From lab-testing on animals to factory farming, humanity’s crimes are laid bare. But while horses are killed to help achieve visual effects on film sets, actors then demand that legal safeguards are put in place. And where North American beavers have been extirpated, ingenious conservationists design devices to literally parachute them back into their habitat. Ultimately, this heartfelt book suggests that our natures can still make good – if we reconnect to the best of our creaturely selves.

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By India Bourke

[See also: The best books of 2023 so far]

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Arrangements in Blue: Notes on Love and Making a Life by Amy Key
Jonathan Cape, 240pp, £18.99

“The desire for romantic love sometimes builds up behind my temples like a bad weather front,” writes the poet Amy Key in her first book of prose. In our society, romance is both an ideal and an obligation. Coupledom is the default, but it doesn’t account for everyone. Key, who is in her mid-forties, hasn’t had a boyfriend for over 20 years. In this fearless memoir, she shows how, despite the shame she sometimes feels about being single, her life remains full of affection.

Key is aided by Joni Mitchell’s seminal 1971 album Blue, which she first heard aged 14. Then, the record “ignited my desire and ambition for romantic love”, she writes – but now Key finds all kinds of nuance in Mitchell’s lyrics, and uses each of the ten songs as a starting point for self-reflection. She recalls former boyfriends and her grandparents’ domestic bliss, and astutely critiques the modern creed that you must love yourself before you can expect anyone else to. She describes the imperative for a solo restaurant diner to “appear occupied” and the simultaneous impracticality of eating while holding a book. Wonderfully, Key’s prose retains all the intimacy of her verse. Arrangements in Blue is a tender, subversive study of love in its myriad forms.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

White: The History of a Colour by Michel Pastoureau
Princeton University Press, 240pp, £35

This is the sixth book by the Sorbonne professor Michel Pastoureau to examine the meanings, both cultural and artistic, of a different colour. From antiquity onwards, white has been rich in symbolism, almost always of the virtuous kind – embodying moral purity, wisdom and cleanliness. It has also had a spell in the chromatic wilderness, for several centuries from the late Middle Ages being regarded as a non-colour. Nor was it always the opposite of black, an idea that seems to have become prevalent with the advent of printing, but was usually contrasted with red. 

Pastoureau’s history looks at white’s role in religion, fashion, femininity, nobility and art. He discusses everything from how hard it was for dyers to obtain a pure white and why it is the colour given to ghosts, to the adoption from the 1830s of white wedding dresses (country girls previously wore red for their nuptials) and the origins of the all-white kit of tennis players (it didn’t show perspiration stains and could be boil-washed without fading). The book is full of fascination and is as abundant in unusual images as in revealing facts.

By Michael Prodger

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[See also: The best children’s books for spring 2023]

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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue