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2 October 2023

From Gordon Brown to Natalie Haynes: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Family Meal by Bryan Washington and Pure Wit by Francesca Peacock.

By Alona Ferber, Rachel Cunliffe, Michael Prodger and Matthew Gilley

Permacrisis: A Plan to Fix a Fractured World by Gordon Brown, Mohamed A El-Erian and Michael Spence, with Reid Lidow
Simon & Schuster, 336pp, £25

In January 1989, months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a rare display of global unity came into effect with the Montreal Protocol. Signed in 1987, the landmark agreement phased out the chlorofluorocarbons that were punching a hole in the ozone layer. This is just one example that the authors of Permacrisis reach for to prove their point: that humankind has cooperated to solve problems before – and can do so again.

The book is the outcome of Zoom calls between three friends during the Covid-19 pandemic. It features a lot of truisms (“global problems demand global solutions”), capitalist success stories, and arbitrary cultural references (such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding). But the writers do at least seem to care about solving today’s confluence of economic, geopolitical and ecological crises. Railing against neoliberalism, they find answers in familiar places – growth (though a more sustainable and inclusive kind), improved economic management, a new global order with “better managed globalisation”, revitalised international institutions and “innovative financing”. It’s no revolution. Still, it’s reassuring to see some adults remain in the room.
By Alona Ferber

Divine Might: Goddesses in Greek Myth by Natalie Haynes
Picador, 304pp, £20

This book is enjoyable if you’re a fan of classical mythology (I am) and enjoy the current trend of female writers reclaiming the stories of ancient heroines (I do). Natalie Haynes knows the format well: her previous fiction and non-fiction have covered the women of the Trojan War, Medusa and Jocasta. In Divine Might, she turns to goddesses. Understanding Greek myth’s female deities will, she argues, help fill in the gaps of centuries of art and literature produced primarily by men. 

But is it “the essential guide to the Greek goddesses, as you’ve never seen them before”? Not really. It’s full of wonderful stories – how the Muses inspired Hesiod to tell of the creation of the universe; how seductress Aphrodite fell for a mortal and gave him a son who would grow up to found Rome; the fearful spite of jealous Hera – and is packed with detail from ancient source material. But there is little holding these tales together beyond the fact that they all contain goddesses. I don’t buy Haynes’s argument that such female characters somehow need reclaiming. These goddesses can – and do – speak for themselves.
By Rachel Cunliffe

Pure Wit: The Revolutionary Life of Margaret Cavendish by Francesca Peacock
Bloomsbury, 384pp, £27.99

As a child in the pre-Civil War decades, Margaret Lucas, later Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, was shy to the point of dumbness. As a grown woman she suffered from a bashfulness she described as “melancholy”. Nevertheless, she would write poetry, prose, essays and plays that she was determined to publish under her own name rather than anonymously, as was more usual for a woman, and she dressed outlandishly. She became a 17th-century celebrity. Samuel Pepys thought her “a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman” who, in London, was “followed and crowded upon by coaches all the way she went”, their passengers thrilled no doubt by reports of her “naked neck” and “scarlet-trimmed nipples”.

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Few may read her writing today, not even her work of proto-science fiction The Blazing World. But her life bears retelling and Francesca Peacock adroitly recounts Cavendish’s ordeals as a monarchist under Cromwell, her years in exile in Paris, her supportive marriage, her ennoblement and fame. She stresses too, occasionally with a hint of special pleading, her importance as both a writer and as a woman in the public eye. 
By Michael Prodger

Family Meal by Bryan Washington
Atlantic Books, 320pp, £17.99

In Family Meal Bryan Washington describes cooking with a disarming simplicity. “Cam chops and he minces. He cracks eggs into a bowl… He ladles everything into a pan.” There is poetry in listing foods and the motions of preparing them. For these characters, cooking is an act of care; these scenes are moments of stillness in a fraught, frequently tragic story. The novel, which follows Washington’s acclaimed debut, Memorial, begins with Cam, who has returned to Houston, Texas, after the death of his boyfriend. While in a self-destructive loop he reconnects with TJ, with whom he grew up. Cam’s narration is obfuscating, his behaviour destructive, but Washington writes about him with empathy. The narrative then moves to TJ, who struggles to love Cam, and himself.

The book’s title holds an implicit challenge. There are meals in the novel shared between friends, lovers and colleagues, but few by “conventional” families. The story holds weighty themes: it is about being black in America, being gay, the burden of family history and the strains of friendship. Washington’s response is: slow down, pay attention, cook, eat.
By Matthew Gilley

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This article appears in the 04 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour in Power