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11 June 2023

From Ronnie O’Sullivan to a Ukrainian family memoir: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Being Human by Lewis Dartnell and We All Go Into the Dark by Francisco Garcia.

By Pippa Bailey, Michael Prodger, Ido Vock and Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Unbreakable by Ronnie O’Sullivan
Seven Dials, 272pp, £22

In his second autobiography, Ronnie O’Sullivan describes his biggest challenge: “To become someone I could look at in the mirror and not turn away from.” Such vulnerability might not be what you’d expect to hear from a snooker legend. But Unbreakable adds to a growing subgenre of sports media that goes beyond surface-level accounts of an athlete’s career highs, instead focusing on the psychological tolls of elite sport and daily life – and how they often overlap.

O’Sullivan is candid when detailing the struggles with which both “Snooker Ronnie” and the tea-loving, scone-scoffing “Ordinary Ronnie” have contended. He writes about how both his parents were imprisoned while he was still a teenager, his own time as a distant father and his spell in rehab. This rationalist, therapeutic approach – which he owes to his time with the psychiatrist Steve Peters – is also evident in O’Sullivan’s treatment of his iconic sporting moments, such as his tightly contested World Championship semi-final against John Higgins in 2022, which O’Sullivan won, going on to claim his seventh title. Unbreakable provides a fascinating insight into the fortitude and fragility of an elite sportsperson’s mind.
By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

The Rooster House: A Ukrainian Family Memoir by Victoria Belim
Virago, 304pp, £20

Victoria Belim grew up in Ukraine in the 1980s, spending her summers with her family in the village of Bereh, before emigrating to the US after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2014, when Russia first invaded, she returned to Bereh, wanting to know more about her native country and her tangled family history. In her first book, Belim follows the story of Nikodim, a relative mentioned in her great-grandfather’s diaries as having “vanished in the 1930s fighting for a free Ukraine”.

As a detective story, the account can be ponderous, comprising false starts and complaints about relatives reluctant to revisit the past. As a portrait of life in a changing Ukraine, though, the narrative sparkles with details of rural life and Soviet-inherited bureaucratic absurdity. The denouement will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the horrors of Stalinism. Belim describes her family as having “survived more tragedies than should be allotted by fate”, a characterisation just as applicable to Ukraine itself. The Rooster House is a moving account of a still much-misunderstood country, given extra poignancy by the disaster now unfolding.
By Ido Vock

[See also: The 14 best books of the year so far]

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We All Go into the Dark: The Hunt for Bible John by Francisco Garcia
HarperCollins, 336pp, £16.99

Between February 1968 and November 1969, three women – Patricia Docker, Jemima MacDonald, Helen Puttock – were killed in Glasgow. Each had been out dancing at the Barrowland Ballroom in the city’s East End; each was dark-haired, a mother; each was menstruating at the time of her death. The killer – nicknamed Bible John for his reported fondness for quoting scripture – was said to be red-haired and well-dressed. Despite Scotland’s biggest manhunt, half a century later the case remains unsolved.

Unfortunately for Francisco Garcia, last year the BBC ran a documentary and a podcast series revisiting the case, and so there is little in We All Go into the Dark that feels truly new: reclaiming the stories of the victims; the 1996 exhumation of the suspect John McInnes for DNA testing (spoiler: it wasn’t him); the possibility that Bible John was actually the serial killer Peter Tobin (a theory here discredited by the detective who caught Tobin). Most interesting are Garcia’s interviews with those directly involved in the case over the decades – crime reporters, detectives, a pathologist – and the underlying social history of how bogeymen come to be.
By Pippa Bailey

Being Human: How Our Biology Shaped World History by Lewis Dartnell
Bodley Head, 368pp, £22

For all our physical and mental dexterity, “in many ways, humans just don’t work particularly well”, writes the astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell. The human body is riddled with design flaws: for example, walking upright puts strain on our backs and knees and we need a more varied diet than any other animal to source the nutrients necessary for survival. In this revealing survey, Dartnell looks at the consequences throughout history of the quirks of our genetics, anatomy and psychology.

The deaths of innumerable indigenous Americans from infections brought by the first European colonists left the newcomers short of cheap labour, he notes,
and was a major driver of the transatlantic slave trade. Conversely, during the American War of Independence, British troops in the South were badly afflicted with malaria while American soldiers suffered far less because they had long lived with the disease. Elsewhere, the haemophilia endemic in Europe’s interrelated royal families – the “curse of the Coburgs” – led to the fall of both the Spanish and Russian monarchies. Biology determines more than personal destiny.
By Michael Prodger

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

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out