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20 August 2023updated 21 Aug 2023 11:51am

From Helen Macdonald to Mary Jean Chan: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Homer and His Iliad by Robin Lane Fox and Chaos Kings by Scott Patterson.

By Will Dunn, Michael Prodger, Ellen Peirson-Hagger and Barney Horner

Chaos Kings: How Wall Street Traders Make Billions in the New Age of Crisis by Scott Patterson
Scribe, 336pp, £16.99

On the afternoon of 6 May 2010, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (a stock market index of America’s largest companies) suddenly plunged by around 9 per cent, the most it had fallen since it was established in the 1880s. Other indices followed, wiping out hundreds of billions of dollars in market value, as the algorithms that execute almost every transaction in financial markets reacted to what other algorithms were doing. For a moment it looked as if the financial system could collapse. And then, 36 minutes later, it didn’t: markets rose as abruptly as they had fallen.

The “flash crash”, as it came to be called, showed how complexity breeds volatility: a great mass of strategies to avoid risk had, in competition, flocked towards chaos. But while most traders walked away from the event with a sigh of relief, one hedge fund, Universa, made a reported billion-dollar profit from that half-hour of anxiety. The inside story of the original “black swan fund” and its founders, who include Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is gripping and revealing, and has a lot to tell us about the new political imperative – security in a volatile world.
By Will Dunn

Homer and His Iliad by Robin Lane Fox
Allen Lane, 464pp, £30

“Homer’s Iliad is the world’s greatest epic poem,” writes the peerless classicist Robin Lane Fox. It is also one of the most contentious: did “Homer” actually exist or was he a fiction and the poem the result of a centuries-old oral tradition? If he was a real person was he really blind? Where was he born? And when was the Iliad composed, since modern scholars place it anywhere from 800 BC to 550 BC? 

Lane Fox has had a 60-year relationship with the poem and tackles, persuasively, both these historical issues and the themes it contains. Among them he examines its representations of war, heroism, women, the gods, and – befitting the gardening writer that he is too – the natural world. Each is revealing of the daily life of deep antiquity. Perhaps most telling, however, is the way he teases out from infinite small details hidden in the Iliad‘s 15,000 lines something of the antique mindset, in particular a trait he calls a “ruthless poignancy”. It is this above all, he says, that explains why the Iliad “remains overwhelming” and why, “It makes us marvel, sometimes smile and often cry.”
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Why Rome had no culture wars]

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Bright Fear by Mary Jean Chan
Faber & Faber, 72pp, £10.99

L’esprit de l’escalier (“staircase wit”) is a French phrase that describes the predicament of thinking of the perfect reply too late. In their second collection Bright Fear, Mary Jean Chan overhears a racist conversation on the train. Chan dreams not of an argument they could have won, but a “poem I wish I could have written, in which a powerful/conversation ensues between us, where the speaker of/the poem speaks up”.

Chan, whose first collection Flèche (2019) won a Costa Book Award, was born in Hong Kong and is a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University. Their thoughtful clear-sightedness abounds in Bright Fear, which continues their debut book’s exploration of queerness and post-colonial language, now in the context of the anti-Asian racism that accompanied the Covid-19 pandemic. In its centrepiece, “Ars Poetica”, Chan tenderly depicts the complex relationship they have with their mother and homeland, and the sanctuary they find in verse. It is exhilarating to read a poet so sure of their intent. “I am asked why my poems are so clear,” Chan writes. “I’ll confess:/it’s what happens when you want to be understood.”
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

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Prophet by Helen Macdonald and Sin Blaché
Jonathan Cape, 480pp, £18.99

Nostalgia is the ultimate weapon in this sci-fi, spy, detective novel co-written by the bestselling writer and New Statesman contributor Helen Macdonald and debut author Sin Blaché. Humans are vulnerable when confronted with the memories they love the most. After a biochemical spillage, which leads to a proliferation of objects that act as portals to a state of childhood reverie, investigators Sunil Rao and Adam Rubenstein try to work out what has happened. The relationship between them forms the meat of this ambitious book, and while such a focus means it avoids the pitfalls of one-dimensional thriller fiction, the pages of dialogue dawdle into bathos before the romantic tension is resolved.

More perplexingly, Rao has an innate ability to intuit truthfulness, whether the subject of a question or statement is close or a continent away. This could have been a smart play on the omniscience of the narrator, but instead his talent feels like a slippery means of pushing the narrative forwards. Given Rao’s superpower, perhaps the Prophet mystery could have been unravelled in fewer than the novel’s 480 pages.
By Barney Horner

[See also: What Cormac McCarthy knew]

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This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect