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24 May 2023

From Guy Gunaratne to the science of allergies: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring M John Harrison's Wish I Was Here and Jonathan Miles on the French Riviera.

By Sophie McBain, Christiana Bishop, Michael Prodger and Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Allergic: How Our Immune System Reacts to a Changing World by Theresa MacPhail
Allen Lane, 368pp, £25

Modern life is allergenic, the medical anthropologist Theresa MacPhail writes: around 40 per cent of the world’s population is allergic to something, and by 2030 scientists expect this to rise to half. In the US hay fever rates began rising in the mid 20th century, asthma rates in the 1960s and food allergies in the 1990s.

MacPhail’s research was partly prompted by the death of her father, aged 47, from a huge allergic reaction to a bee sting. Allergies are unpredictable: a few weeks before, her father had only a minor reaction to another sting. Why should our immune systems overreact to seemingly innocuous substances? Allergic is an exhaustive – and sometimes exhaustingly detailed – exploration of the science of allergies. MacPhail attributes their rise to climate change (which has caused higher pollen counts), air pollution and changes to the human microbiome brought on by environmental chemicals, excessive cleaning, indoor lifestyles, modern diets and antibiotics. If there is to be a “cure” to allergies, she argues, it will involve resetting our relationship to the bacteria that surrounds us – and makes us.
By Sophie McBain

Mister, Mister by Guy Gunaratne Tinder Press, 384pp, £20

We first meet Yahya Bas, the British-Iraqi protagonist of Guy Gunaratne’s new novel, in a UK detention centre having fled from Islamic State-held territory in Syria. When interrogated by an official, an unintimidated Yahya responds with his life story. The vivid, first-person narrative begins in the 1990s in east London, where Yahya is being raised by his Muslim paternal uncle and the female lodgers who live with them in a dilapidated communal house. With his Iraqi father absent, and his mother too unwell to care for him, the isolated narrator finds comfort in poetry – a discovery that made the world feel “suddenly familiar”. He is later moved to write his own verses, and after 9/11 his works preaching against the West gain notoriety.

As Yahya’s following grows so does the police’s interest in him, so he runs – first to Iraq and then to Syria, where his search for safety soon revolves around finding his father. Gunaratne – whose previous book, In Our Mad and Furious City, won the Dylan Thomas Prize – is a skilful storyteller, and the layered prose of Yahya’s world, and his actions within it, imaginatively confronts the complexity of identity and unbelonging in Britain.
By Christiana Bishop

Once Upon a Time World: The Dark and Sparkling Story of the French Riviera by Jonathan Miles
Atlantic, 464pp, £22

In 1787 Thomas Jefferson, then a minister at the court of Louis XVI for the newly minted US, travelled along the south coast of France. It was peasant country still but he found Nice both “gay and dissipated” and an “English colony”. It wasn’t until 1834, however, that the colonisation of the Riviera really began. Then Lord Brougham bought some land at Cannes, built a villa, and the great international cavalcade of the wealthy, shiny and sometimes disreputable started.

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In his vibrant and picaresque history of the Riviera, Jonathan Miles recounts the story of this strip of beaches and promontories. It is not all about the stream of writers, artists and gadflies – F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, Picasso and Matisse, Jean Cocteau and Cole Porter – who flocked there; there were darker days during the Second World War. But, helped by the instigation of the Cannes Film Festival in 1946, the champagne corks soon started popping again. Miles describes too how, although the Riviera became a victim of its own celebrity, its allure remains potent despite its fishing ports being overshadowed by high rises and hotels.
By Michael Prodger

Wish I Was Here: An Anti-Memoir by M John Harrison
Serpent’s Tail, 224pp, £16.99

M John Harrison’s latest book has the subtitle “an anti-memoir”. It’s a provocation, a declaration of what it isn’t. But even that invites assumptions about what therefore it really is, and this book – by the 77-year-old author of works of speculative fiction and winner of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize for The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again – is so wholly original that a label doesn’t do it justice.

The premise is that Harrison, a keeper of notebooks – or “nowtbooks” – for much of his life, looks back through them in an attempt to work out who he is. What follows is an assortment of dream-like recollections of his adolescence in an industrial Midlands town, descriptions of his affinity for the natural world, musings on authors such as Alan Garner and Lawrence Durrell, off-kilter remarks such as, “Wet Converse, for some reason, make me think of Andy Murray,” and nuggets of advice for authors (“Having a concept isn’t having something to write”). Wish I Was Here will leave you bewildered. Then you’ll realise that Harrison, undoubtedly one of our most idiosyncratic writers, has you exactly where he wants you.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

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[See also: Shakespeare’s race problem]

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This article appears in the 24 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Crack-Up