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17 January 2024

From Colin Barrett to Hannah Ritchie: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Deterring Armageddon by Peter Apps and Missing Persons, or My Grandmother's Secrets by Clair Wills.

By Michael Prodger, Pippa Bailey, Tom Gatti and Megan Kenyon

Deterring Armageddon: A Biography of Nato by Peter Apps

“It is my very firm belief that if Nato had come into being earlier, there would have been no Second World War,” said Field Marshal Montgomery in 1953, before doubling down and claiming it as the best defence against a third world war too. So far, he has been proved right. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, founded in 1949, may, in the words of its biographer Peter Apps, be “a very imperfect institution” but it proved an effective bulwark against the Soviet Union and has long been a key player in conflicts outside its own region. It is now the world’s longest-lasting multinational military alliance.

Apps starts his book not with the formation of Nato but with the current war in Ukraine, at once a justification for Nato’s existence and its biggest challenge, and then makes a chronological narrative out of the set pieces of the past 75 years. The Cuban missile crisis, the Berlin Wall, Afghanistan and the Balkan wars are interspersed with the difficulty of decision-making, and the security – and problems – that come with American leadership. As Apps points out, the history of Nato is a history of postwar politics too.
By Michael Prodger
Wildfire, 624pp, £25. Buy the book

Missing Persons, or My Grandmother’s Secrets by Clair Wills

Between 1922 and 1998, Ireland’s mother and baby homes housed at least 56,000 unmarried mothers and 57,000 babies and small children. At one, Bessborough in Cork, between the mid-1930s and mid-1950s, 25 per cent of the babies born there died – five times the state infant mortality rate. It was at Bessborough that the Irish historian Clair Wills’s cousin Mary was born.

Wills’ uncle, Jackie, got a neighbour, Lily, pregnant in 1954. They did not marry – Wills speculates “in no small part” because Lily, who was from a poorer family, “was never going to be accepted” by the matriarch, Wills’s grandmother. Lily was dispatched to Bessborough and never heard from again. It is a story that is “Dickensian in its details: abandonment, cruel institutions, itinerancy”. It is also a common one. State- and church-run homes for “fallen” women were an open secret in 20th-century Ireland, used by families wanting to hide the inconvenient evidence of sex outside marriage (never the men), but rarely spoken of. Missing Persons is an affecting and enraging book, part memoir, part national history, about Wills’s attempt to uncover the truth about her family and the hundreds of others like it.
By Pippa Bailey
Allen Lane, 208pp, £20. Buy the book

Wild Houses by Colin Barrett

Like his hero Alice Munro, whose fiction is rooted in her native Huron County in Ontario, the Irish author Colin Barrett has found little reason for his characters to leave home – in his case, County Mayo in the west of Ireland. His superb debut novel deepens the world of his two short-story collections, which detailed small-town life and its disappointments, warmth, humour and violence.

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Wild Houses is, like his story “Calm with Horses” – adapted into a film in 2019 starring Barry Keoghan – a tale of crime and punishment. A teenage boy named Doll is kidnapped on the street by the brutish Ferdia brothers and taken to an isolated house, occupied by Dev, a troubled young man grieving the loss of his mother. Doll’s brother owes money to the Ferdias’ boss, and they intend to teach him a lesson, whatever the collateral damage. Unfolding over a single weekend, and moving between Doll’s girlfriend Nicky’s distressed search and Dev’s locked-down house, the novel has the tension of a gritty noir thriller and the comic menace of a Pinter play – but Barrett’s fealty to his characters means that each is given space to step back from the narrative and reveal something of their true selves.
By Tom Gatti
Jonathan Cape, 272pp, £16.99. Buy the book

Not the End of the World: How We Can Be the First Generation to Build a Sustainable Planet by Hannah Ritchie

It is very hard to feel positive about climate change. This existential problem is hanging over us and solving it will require a wholesale change to our way of living. Eco anxiety is on the rise: last year the Woodland Trust reported that almost two thirds of people in the UK are worried about the effects of rising temperatures.

But the data scientist Hannah Ritchie is out to change that. Her new book neatly cites examples of human progress on sustainability. In fact, Ritchie argues that the world has never been sustainable, so the work that policymakers, scientists and ordinary consumers are doing in pursuit of this goal is progress itself. This is a personable and comforting book, which backs up its thesis with rigorous data analysis. From pointing out that far less plastic ends up in the ocean than we might think – meaning that dealing with the problem of plastic pollution is within our grasp – to the fact that deforestation rates have fallen by 26 per cent since the 1990s, Ritchie makes it clear that progress is already happening to prevent further damage from climate change. Now, we must keep that momentum going.
By Megan Kenyon
Chatto & Windus, 352pp, £22. Buy the book

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[See also: From Bettany Hughes to Aniefiok Ekpoudom: new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge