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9 July 2023

From Megan Nolan to James Ball: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Reflections by Mark Avery and The Black Eden by Richard T Kelly.

By Samir Jeraj, India Bourke, Christiana Bishop and Michael Prodger

The Other Pandemic: How QAnon Contaminated the World by James Ball
Bloomsbury, 288pp, £20

With The Other Pandemic, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Ball has produced a thorough and deeply troubling account of the QAnon movement. From its origins in the misogynistic online harassment campaign Gamergate, and breeding grounds on the websites 4chan and 8chan, Ball shows how QAnon has become a digital virus, infecting the minds and realities of millions of people, destroying lives, families and poisoning political discourse. Donald Trump and other politicians and media figures on the right then seized on the movement for their own ends, and fuelled its expansion and incorporation into mainstream culture. 

The challenge is what to do about it. Ball sketches out an approach, based on the type of public health response we might expect to an analogue disease. He also examines how traditional journalistic methods and fact-checking have failed to counter conspiracy theories. The most interesting sections of this book come when Ball applies Richard Dawkins’s “selfish gene” concept to the memes of QAnon and associated conspiracy theories. It seems likely that we will encounter future mutations of QAnon and its world view until we learn how to prevent and treat its causes.
By Samir Jeraj

Reflections: What Wildlife Needs and How to Provide It by Mark Avery
Pelagic Publishing, 256pp, £17.99

If the British conservation movement were a forest, Mark Avery would be one of the ancient oaks (even though he is still a mere 65 years old). During the past four decades he’s been the conservation director of the RSPB and co-founded Wild Justice, which campaigns for legal change on nature’s behalf. His latest book, Reflections, now pours that experience into a mission statement for all those who claim to prize UK wildlife.

From the daisies he mows around on his lawn to the spiders in his bath, Avery’s love of the creeping, crawling, soaring world is evident on every page. And equally as direct is his wrath (“pah!”) for those who threaten its existence, from corporate lobby groups’ vested interests to conservation NGOs’ own “feeble” opposition to Brexit. Alongside the gripes, however, are persuasive solutions. Bringing back beavers is a “no brainer”, he writes, while more support for public ownership is key to a progressive future that puts equity for both people and nature at its heart. If enough people press this energising book into the hands of those in power, maybe our politicians too might soon agree.
By India Bourke

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

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Ordinary Human Failings by Megan Nolan
Jonathan Cape, 224pp, £16.99

When Tom Hargreaves, a wily tabloid reporter, hears that a toddler’s body has been discovered on a housing estate and that ten-year-old Lucy Green is suspected of being responsible, all he sees is his byline on the front page. After Lucy is arrested, Tom ingratiates himself with her family, holding the odious assumption that if he plies them with alcohol they’ll disclose a sensational origin story that explains Lucy’s act of violence. Yet Tom cruelly misjudges his “sources”. As the narrative moves between Ireland – from where the Greens originate – in the 1970s and 1990s London, instead of depravity Tom finds a household bruised by life’s treatment of them, existing in a state of “ordinary unhappiness”.

In her second novel, Megan Nolan, a New Statesman contributor whose fiction debut Acts of Desperation was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, is fearless in confronting the complexity of inter-generational trauma. In layered prose she imagines how accepted human imperfection and frailty can have unacceptable consequences, and questions who is to blame for a child’s wrongdoing. Nolan’s new novel is dark in subject, yet retains a tender faith in a person, or a family’s, capacity for change. 
By Christiana Bishop

The Black Eden by Richard T Kelly
Faber & Faber, 464pp, £20

It is 1956 and the Black Eden – the new Scotland promised by the discovery of North Sea oil – beckons five different boys: a farmer’s son, a schoolmaster’s son, a trawler owner’s son and a pair of public schoolboys. Oil seeps into each of their lives. As it does so, it offers possibilities, riches and quandaries: it has the potential to change them but not necessarily for the better. 

Richard Kelly has written a moral novel but also one about Scotland at a particular moment in time, from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. It is a period that saw whole communities changed, environmental concerns rising, enormous profits accruing to some, and the new national wealth fostering nationalism. Kelly conjures up the atmosphere and texture of the time and is deft in weaving the big societal themes into his five human stories, tying them together into a satisfying interconnectedness. Women are present in the book but this is a masculine world, so this is a story about the difficulties of male relationships too, pulling at the links even between childhood friends. Oil remakes Kelly’s characters in its own slippery image.
By Michael Prodger

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[See also: Death and literature in Ukraine]

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation