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16 April 2023

From Max Porter to Xiaolu Guo: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring All the Houses I’ve Ever Lived In by Kieran Yates and Uproar by Alice Loxton.

By Christiana Bishop, Michael Prodger, Anoosh Chakelian and Matthew Gilley

Radical: A Life of My Own by Xiaolu Guo
Chatto & Windus, 352pp, £18.99

In 2019 the Chinese-British writer Xiaolu Guo moved to Manhattan to take up a position with Columbia University, leaving her partner and child in London. Guo writes movingly of her love for them, but also of her yearning to make “a female life not trapped by domestic duty and patriarchal constraints, one that creates its own imaginative and creative power”. In New York, liberated from familial responsibilities, she “tried to grasp words and meanings in that city, as well as my sense of identity”. 

In her new memoir, the author and film-maker – whose novel A Lover’s Discourse was shortlisted for the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize – candidly explores the tension she feels between her art and the “feminine immobility” of motherhood. In short, pacy chapters Guo recalls her time in New York and her return to London during the pandemic, revealing feelings of displacement but also an urge to experience “newness” as part of her artistic process – whether that be a new home, relationship or project. Guo’s pursuit of space is a radical act and must come at a personal cost, but for her it is essential for living. “My words are never just words,” she writes. “They are my very physical existence.”
By Christiana Bishop

[See also: Best books of the year]

Uproar! Satire, Scandal and Printmakers in Georgian London by Alice Loxton
Icon Books, 416pp, £25

The age of George III was a dangerous time to be a tall poppy. Waiting for oversized or hapless personalities to thrust their way upwards were three caricaturists of savage brilliance: Thomas Rowlandson and his colleagues in ridicule James Gillray and Isaac Cruikshank. So witty and biting were the trio that, according to Alice Loxton in her vivid history of Georgian satire, they spawned not just a voracious market for their prints but also a continuing irreverence towards power and a recognisably modern celebrity culture. And they were spoilt for material: a mad king and his fat, feckless son the Prince Regent – wafting about him a scandalous marriage and sybaritism; desiccated William Pitt and rambunctious Charles James Fox; opera singers, aristocrats and followers of fashion; and the French Revolution and Bonaparte. 

The benefit of these interesting times for the caricaturists was, as Loxton shows, that they could take aim at individuals, society and, indeed, nations. These were low-hanging fruit in some cases, but Loxton is keen to stress that it took artists of rare facility – and, in Gillray’s case, of profound classical learning – to skewer them quite so devastatingly. 
By Michael Prodger

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All the Houses I’ve Ever Lived In: Finding Home in a System That Fails Us by Kieran Yates
Simon & Schuster, 336pp, £14.99

By 25, the British journalist Kieran Yates had lived in 20 different houses. Like her immigrant grandparents, who moved from Punjab to Southall, west London in the Sixties, she is a nomad. From the council estate of her early childhood to the converted workers’ quarters of a car showroom in mid-Wales, she explores what her story reveals about the home in modern Britain.

In her first solo book, the author imposes a narrative structure onto the chaos of the housing crisis. It’s a neat concept for the reader, though for a young Yates the experience was dizzying. As her family staggered up the social-housing list, she grew anxious at the blurred shapes that would appear behind an unfamiliar uPVC front door. Later, she developed a Secret Garden-esque fixation with the spores of mould creeping up the wall. Yates is best when observing detail: the gold-coloured plastic tissue boxes beloved of diasporan Indian households; the houseplants favoured by her fellow millennials; the “anonymous boys in Calvin Klein boxers” in her house-share kitchen. These are symbols of belonging in a disjointed life.
By Anoosh Chakelian

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

Shy by Max Porter
Faber & Faber, 128pp, £12.99

Max Porter’s fourth novel tells the story of a teenage boy, Shy, over one night as he sneaks out of Last Chance, a home for “disturbed” young men, and heads to a pond carrying a rucksack full of flints. Like Porter’s previous novels – his 2015 debut, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, won him acclaim – it is told in bursts of inventive prose. As Shy is beset by memories and nightmares, each register is presented in a different font, with lines on occasion spilling over pages. And like Porter’s other books, it is neither as bleak nor as difficult as a synopsis suggests. Shy is alert and critical, which is painful to read as he surveys his destructive behaviour, but equally he can be wry and self-deprecating. “Time’s been the least reliable f***er these last few years,” he says. Outbreaks of surrealism (talking animals are a Porter motif) are both funny and frightening.

Shy doesn’t reach the emotive heights of Grief is the Thing with Feathers, at times feeling a little contrived. But, as the novel’s different registers gain a cumulative power, it becomes a compelling portrait of a mind in conflict with itself.
By Matthew Gilley

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

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This article appears in the 19 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Axis of Autocrats