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5 July 2023

From Leïla Slimani to Laura Cumming: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Penance by Eliza Clark and White Hot by Matt Roller and Tim Wigmore.

By Peter Williams, Sarah Dawood, Michael Prodger and Barney Horner

White Hot: The Inside Story of England Cricket’s Double World Champions by Matt Roller and Tim Wigmore
Bloomsbury, 268pp, £22

On the rare occasions England men’s teams have won a world title – 1966, 2003 – swift decline has followed, with one exception: today’s white-ball cricketers. After 20+ years of cluelessness had produced yet another World Cup humiliation in 2015, ex-Test captain Andrew Strauss, one-day skipper Eoin Morgan and coach Trevor Bayliss combined to liberate a generation of rare attacking talent – Jos Buttler, Adil Rashid, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes – and the first to understand T20 cricket. This culminated in a victory in the 2019 World Cup final, before a World T20 win last year made England the first team to hold both the 50- and 20-over titles.

White Hot, by ESPN Cricinfo’s Matt Roller and the Telegraph’s Tim Wigmore, offers a detailed account of how England went from white-ball dinosaurs to pioneers, while also serving as a pleasant memento of a time when coherence broke out in part of English cricket. But to remember what winning really meant, best revisit that sanity-mangling final at Lord’s in 2019. You’ll still end up behind the sofa, unable to watch, until they scrape home, by the barest of margins.
By Peter Williams

Watch Us Dance by Leïla Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor
Faber & Faber, 309pp, £16.99

Leïla Slimani’s latest novel shows how liberation and repression can co-exist. Watch Us Dance is set in 1960s and 1970s Morocco, following its independence from France in 1956. King Hassan II rules under the guise of freeing the country from its former oppressors, while simultaneously killing, jailing and disappearing political dissidents. Meanwhile, rich, liberal hippies from abroad seek out the country’s beaches, and the younger generation empower themselves through academia and communist literature.

In her multi-perspective novel, Slimani follows the lives of one family, exploring the breakdown of beliefs between generations and the impact of simultaneous progression and oppression. Mathilde, a diligent French housewife, is married to Amine, a Moroccan farmer with archaic values on family, gender roles and state welfare. Their children navigate their mixed cultural identities and reject traditional ideals: the couple’s daughter, Aicha, excels as a doctor while their son, Selim, resentfully pulls away. Although Slimani’s vibrant imagery evokes the sights, sounds and smells of Morocco, the themes feel universal.
By Sarah Dawood

[See also: Death and literature in Ukraine]

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Thunderclap: A Memoir of Art and Life and Sudden Death by Laura Cumming
Chatto & Windus, 272pp, £25

The author and Observer critic Laura Cumming is a lovely writer about art and about her own family. Both are present in Thunderclap, a beguiling sort-of memoir. It charts first her fascination with Carel Fabritius, the painter of The Goldfinch who died when the powder magazine of Delft exploded in 1654, reducing a swathe of the Dutch city to motes of dust. Cumming’s feelings for this mysterious artist border on love. As does her identification with the art of the Dutch Golden Age and its depictions of the texture and light in modest interiors and on homely streets.

Folded into these themes is a closer affection still. While in On Chapel Sands (2019) she examined her mother’s past, here she treats her father, the painter James Cumming, with the same attention and sympathy she applies to Fabritius and his pictures. Her father died in 1991 not in a thunderclap, but of cancer. Yet the two men are tied together in Cumming’s mind, by art as well as emotion. When she looks at one of her father’s pictures: “I see his mind all around me.” In Fabritius’s 13 surviving pictures she sees his mind too.
By Michael Prodger

Penance by Eliza Clark
Faber & Faber, 434pp, £14.99

Joan Wilson is set aflame in a beachside chalet. The fire goes out, she wakes up and crawls to a nearby hotel. But it’s too late. This is the starting point for Alec Carelli’s true-crime account of three teenage girls’ murder of their schoolfriend. Except none of it is real. The story is Eliza Clark’s. Clark, who was on this year’s Granta Best of Young British Novelists list, intersperses Carelli’s version of events with interviews, podcast transcripts and prose sections drawn from the girls’ accounts. It’s the prose entries of this intertextual troika that become problematic, as the reader realises that Carelli’s vision is just that: a vision. In revealing the extent to which truth is subject to perspective, Clark undermines the foundations of the true crime genre.

Penance is an intricately woven portrait of girls made vulnerable by abuse, bullying and loneliness. Their stultification occurs in both their provincial seaside town (though the novel’s Brexit vote-night setting feels like a vague attempt at political significance), and among online communities. As the teenagers’ obsession with serial killers begins to inform their actions, the real horror emerges: true crime is swallowing itself.
By Barney Horner

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

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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