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13 May 2023

From Katja Hoyer to Charles Foster: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Why is this Lying Bastard Lying to Me? by Rob Burley and The Happy Couple by Naoise Dolan.

By Jeremy Cliffe, Michael Prodger, India Bourke and Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990 by Katja Hoyer
Allen Lane, 496pp, £25

In 1989, as a four-year-old Katja Hoyer visited the observation platform of the television tower in Berlin with her parents, and witnessed protests that would soon contribute to the demise of her native country, East Germany. The hated Wall, the atrocities of the Stasi, the ultimate triumph of the pro-democracy demonstrations: such are the familiar motifs by which, over three decades on, that state is now remembered.

Yet as ghastly as its political regime was, East Germany was also a home to 16 million people living three-dimensional lives of “tears and anger […] laughter and pride”. While only a minority felt genuine “Ostalgie” (nostalgia for the East) after its fall, a larger number remember it wistfully while accepting its passing. That reunification with the West was more of a takeover than the fusion of the two Germanies into something genuinely new did not help. Now a historian and commentator, Hoyer tells the country’s human story with a compelling eye for detail in a book that deftly unpicks the complexities and contradictions of the so-called People’s State.
By Jeremy Cliffe

Why is this Lying Bastard Lying to Me? By Rob Burley
Mudlark, 432pp, £16.99

As a television producer and editor for the BBC, ITV and Sky News, Rob Burley has spent 25 years trying to get straight answers from politicians. It has been a Sisyphean task: a University of York study identified 35 ways politicians evade questions – 36 if you include Boris Johnson hiding in a fridge – and interviewees know them all. Under Margaret Thatcher 46 per cent of questions received a straight answer, by Theresa May’s tenure that was down to 27 per cent. Now, who knows?

Burley’s book is a droll and vivid first-hand account of the less than stately pas-de-deux between interviewer and interrogator. He looks at the techniques of questioners from Brian Walden and Andrew Marr to Sophy Ridge and Emily Maitlis and at politicians’ countermeasures. Tony Blair’s modes, for example, included ideas wonk in the early days of New Labour, victimhood during the furore over Bernie Ecclestone’s £1m donation to Labour, and righteous statesman over the Iraq invasion. Some of the book recounts knockabout stuff but, as Burley points out, as trust in politicians plummets the consequences of evasiveness are clear to see.
By Michael Prodger

Cry of the Wild: Eight Animals Under Siege by Charles Foster
Doubleday, 256pp, £16.99

Charles Foster is perhaps best known for having spent six weeks living in a badger sett, munching on earthworms. For his brazen 2016 book, Being a Beast, the vet turned law professor attempted to capture, on all fours if needed, what life might be like for some of the creatures that inhabit the edges of the human world. Now, in a collection of short stories, he marries these method-writing insights with fiction’s emotional pull. Ardent and arresting, the resulting chronicle of the lives (and deaths) of a fox, orca, human, mayfly, rabbit, gannet, otter and eel, is one of the darkest, most haunting books I’ve read in a long time.

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Alongside the more obvious harms that humanity inflicts on the natural world – from shooting parties to oil slicks – Foster’s tales unearth the hidden horrors of toxins and intensifying agriculture. Yet the stories are also motivated by such depth of attention and love for the natural world that their very existence offers some hope for a better future. “It is purpose that keeps everything alive,” he writes of two eels mating just before death. Likewise, Foster seems to suggest, humanity might still pluck life from the flames.
By India Bourke

The Happy Couple by Naoise Dolan
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 288pp, £16.99

In this witty novel, which follows Naoise Dolan’s bestselling debut Exciting Times, we follow a cast of characters in the build-up to a wedding. There is Celine, a pianist, who is engaged to Luke, who disappears from his own engagement party. There’s Maria, Celine’s ex-girlfriend, and Archie, Luke’s ex-boyfriend, who is also due to be his best man. You can see where things might go wrong.

Dolan – by virtue of being a young, female, Irish author – is often compared to Sally Rooney. Both novelists write about the personal relationships of twenty-somethings in contemporary Dublin, but Dolan’s writing feels less pored over, which makes for a zippier read, although one where the characters feel almost too zeitgeisty to be real. Archie is in many ways a formulaic corporate lawyer, taking drugs on weekdays and playing tennis against his firm’s partners at weekends – that he is queer and open-hearted saves him from becoming a caricature. Dolan is known for her humour and light touch, but here it is the more introspective moments – such as when Celine’s sister Phoebe suggests that her habit of playing the piano in her head is a means of dissociation – that stand out.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

[See also: Why read life-writing?]

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This article appears in the 17 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List