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29 May 2023

From the war in Ukraine to the life of Roger Deakin: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Anna Metcalfe’s Chrysalis and Octavia Bright’s This Ragged Grace.

By Megan Gibson, Ellen Peirson-Hagger, Matthew Gilley and Michael Prodger

The Russo-Ukrainian War by Serhii Plokhy
Allen Lane, 400pp, £25

Over the past year there’s been no rationing of books on the war in Ukraine, as publishers have ushered hastily researched and assembly line-written hardbacks into shops. Yet if you were in search of a historian’s take on an ongoing conflict, you could do worse than Serhii Plokhy, a leading scholar on Ukraine. He covers the ten months following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, while also effectively tracing the roots of the war back centuries. Though he reveals his personal stake in the war – his sister was in Zaporizhzhia when Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded; his cousin was killed on the front line near Bakhmut – he keeps an academic’s distance.

One of the most fascinating sections traces the different political trajectories of Russia and Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Though Russia briefly flirted with democracy, the country settled into autocracy. Yet Ukraine lacked a “recent tradition of national statehood” and no single national narrative took hold. The resulting fragmentation made politics much more competitive – and democratic. Where that will lead the country – Plokhy, for the most part, wisely refrains from looking ahead – is impossible to say.
By Megan Gibson

This Ragged Grace: A Memoir of Recovery and Renewal by Octavia Bright
Canongate, 256pp, £16.99

“If addiction is rooted in the will to forget, recovery is an act of remembering,” writes Octavia Bright in her first book. The tension between what we remember and what we forget is at the core of this evocative memoir, which braids together the stories of the author’s recovery from alcoholism and her father’s mental decline due to Alzheimer’s.

Regular listeners of Literary Friction, the podcast that Bright co-hosts, will be familiar with her intelligent yet deeply felt style. A lover of art as well as literature, she uses the works of Louise Bourgeois and Sigmund Freud to trace her story of healing, which takes place in New York City, Cornwall, Margate and on the Italian island of Stromboli. The parts about her father, who just before his diagnosis had forgotten his friends’ names but recalled the lyrics of the hot cross bun song, are anchored in west London, where Bright grew up. As a discrete section, her portrayal of his death, during the Covid-19 pandemic, is immensely poignant. It becomes even more so following Bright’s vivid descriptions of her reclamation of life. “My father died and I kept on living,” she writes, “astonished by how simple it was to do.”
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Chrysalis by Anna Metcalfe
Granta, 304pp, £14.99

Chrysalis, the debut novel by Anna Metcalfe, one of Granta’s 2023 Best of Young British Novelists, is ostensibly about an unnamed woman transforming herself into an influencer, making videos in which she holds statuesque poses for an hour at a time. She is seen, however, only through the perspectives of three narrators. We soon learn that none is reliable. At first, Elliot’s seems a typical male gaze. He admires the woman in the gym (“Her form was perfect… her face glowed, like a romantic painting”) and sees her largely in selfish terms. But then we hear from Bella, the woman’s mother, and Susie, a friend with whom she stays after leaving an abusive relationship, and both are just as possessive, though they never quite see it that way.

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The woman remains a mystery, the focus often more on her observers. It’s easy to empathise with her quest for strength and stillness, especially as a response to pain, but why must it be witnessed by others? Self-realisation and narcissism here seem inseparable. That narcissism and the narrators’ unreliability creates an unsatisfying detachment in the reader and flattens the novel’s tone, but the characters are always intriguing.
By Matthew Gilley

The Swimmer: The Wild Life of Roger Deakin by Patrick Barkham
Hamish Hamilton, 400pp, £20

Roger Deakin’s Waterlog (1999), his account of wild swimming across Britain, was the book that spawned not just the contemporary fad for diving into rivers, tarns and lakes but also the new wave of nature writing. The opening passage, as he immerses himself in the moat of his Suffolk farmhouse during a downpour, gives the texture of both the man and his writing. As Deakin backstrokes, raindrops explode in a “momentary, bouncing fountain”. With his “frog’s-eye view”, he misses nothing.

Deakin was 56 when Waterlog was published but had already worked in, among other trades, advertising (the Coal Board slogan “Come home to a real fire” was his), furniture selling, music promoting and documentary making. He died of a brain tumour at 63. Here, the nature writer Patrick Barkham deftly relates Deakin’s rich life through his notebooks, letters and the recollections of some of the many people – including Richard Mabey, Ronald Blythe and Robert Macfarlane – who were drawn by his personality and the environmentalism he put into practice at Walnut Tree Farm, the Elizabethan home he restored over decades.
By Michael Prodger

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[See also: International Booker Winner Georgi Gospodinov: “We’re living in the memory gap”]

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This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation