What is a Doctor? by Phil Whitaker
Canongate, 320pp, £16.99
Phil Whitaker, the NS medical editor, has been a GP for decades. This book is both an account of the many changes he has seen – few for the better – and a reasoned but impassioned plea to be allowed to restore the personal link that once, beneficially, joined a patient and their GP.
Masquerade: The Lives of Noël Coward by Oliver Soden
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 656pp, £30
Noël Coward was many things, says Oliver Soden in his sprightly biography – playwright, performer, personality – but he was principally a workaholic. To confuse him with a dilettante is to confuse him with the age he chronicled – the traumatised postwar youth – and the class he sought: the aristocracy.
An Uneasy Inheritance by Polly Toynbee
Atlantic, 448pp, £22
This is not the memoir you might expect, in view of Polly Toynbee’s public image, or that crafted by the Daily Mail. Behind the mask of this grave social democrat is a writer with an anarchic, aristocratic family background. Toynbee is brutally knowing about herself and the air of absurdity that descends on wealthy people who try to improve the lot of the poor.
Material World by Ed Conway
WH Allen, 512pp, £20
Sand is arguably the fundamental substance of the modern world, present in everything from the concrete and glass of modern buildings to the computer chips and fibre optic cables of the digital realm. Conway’s explorations of the mines, machines and materials that enable this complexity is both revealing and empowering – a chance to see, and to an extent understand, a real world often kept from view.
Revolutionary Spring by Christopher Clark
Allen Lane, 896pp, £35
A panoramic account of “the only truly European revolution there has ever been”, Christopher Clark’s history of the revolutions of 1848 – the so-called Springtime of the Peoples – is a pioneering account of events that shook the continent. His narrative, written with verve and authority, offers a reminder of just how quickly liberals switched sides in throwing in their lot with the forces of counter-revolutionary order.
A Thread of Violence by Mark O’Connell
Granta, 304pp, £16.99
This true crime story about the Irish murderer Malcolm Macarthur, convicted of killing two people in 1982, is not just an investigation into the nature of evil but also about the synchronicities that drew the journalist Mark O’Connell to track down Macarthur and write about him. The author examines his own motives, and the ethical quandaries of journalism, with same inquisitiveness with which he probes the killings.
Soldier Sailor by Claire Kilroy
Faber & Faber, 256pp, £16.99
Soldier is a new mother, drowning in the sleep-deprived, all-consuming haze of early-years parenting. Sailor is her baby and silent sounding board for the fears, anxieties and wrenching love that motherhood brings. Claire Kilroy’s first novel in ten years is a thoughtful and touching examination of both the joys of the mother-and-child bond and the strains it puts on a woman’s sense of self.
Beyond the Wall: East Germany 1949-1990 by Katja Hoyer
Allen Lane, 496pp £25
East Germany may have had a repressive political regime but it was also a home to 16 million people living three-dimensional lives of “tears and anger… laughter and pride”. It is their experience that Katja Hoyer recounts in her compelling narrative of what daily existence – with its mixture of complexities, contradictions and the quotidian – was like for those living on the other side of the Wall.
Art Monsters by Lauren Elkin
Chatto & Windus, 368pp, £25
Lauren Elkin’s “art monsters” are the visual and performance artists, sculptors, writers, critics and poets who, from the early 20th century onwards – and particularly, for Elkin, in the 1970s and 1980s – made work from or about the female body. From Artemisia Gentileschi to Kathy Acker, female artists have eschewed traditional beauty and sought to imbue their work with a “tang” that makes the viewer flinch – a sign they are doing something right.
Small Worlds by Caleb Azumah Nelson
Viking, 272pp, £14.99
This emotionally astute second novel cements Nelson, a 29-year-old London author, as one of the UK’s best. As Stephen leaves school, he must navigate early adulthood, made tougher by systemic racism and his relationship with his father, a Ghanaian immigrant whose past traumas also affect his son. Nelson is a rhythmic writer who uses repeated motifs: his book is not only touching but well formed.
The God Desire by David Baddiel
TLS Books, 112pp, £9.99
In this honest and funny book, the comedian explores a paradox at the heart of his faith. Although he is an atheist, he loves God. He believes it is the intensity of his desire for the deity that proves His non-existence. Baddiel explores his Jewish faith – and the history of anti-Semitism – to write about death as much as God. Humans need stories, and the idea of God originates in a death-denying need for story.
August Blueby Deborah Levy
Hamish Hamilton, 256pp, £18.99
August Blue is a story of doubles. In it Deborah Levy relates the trials of Elsa, a concert pianist. She is a woman in crisis sent further spinning when she finds herself apparently pursued by a stranger, and prompted thereafter to consider her origins, and the absence of her birth mother. The contortions we undertake to avoid revealing ourselves are the novel’s true mystery.
Unbreakable by Ronnie O’Sullivan
Seven Dials, 272pp, £22
Ronnie O’Sullivan reveals that his biggest challenge came not at the snooker table but in his efforts “to become someone I could look at in the mirror and not turn away from”. He describes not just sporting nerves but how both his parents were imprisoned while he was still a teenager, his failures as a father and his spell in rehab. Here are both the fortitude and fragility of an elite sportsperson’s mind.
Biography of X by Catherine Lacey
Granta, 416pp, £18.99
The American author’s fourth novel playfully mimics biographical writing. CM Lucca sets out to investigate the life of her late wife, X, an avant-garde novelist, musician and artist whose early years are shrouded in mystery. The ensuing story features David Bowie, Susan Sontag and a reimagined American history, and simultaneously energises and satirises the genre from which Lacey pilfers.
Matrescence by Lucy Jones
Allen Lane, 320pp, £25
Motherhood transforms a woman physically and emotionally, observes Lucy Jones, and yet this profound and often violent metamorphosis – this period of matrescence – is culturally overlooked. Matrescence is a wild and beautiful book, a blend of memoir, science, psychoanalytical thinking and nature writing with a poetic sensibility and a strong sense of political purpose.
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special