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24 January 2024

From Philip Ball to Rachael Allen: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring My Friends by Hisham Matar and Veiled Threat by Nadeine Asbal.

By Michael Prodger, Ellen Peirson-Hagger, Megan Gibson and Barney Horner

How Life Works by Philip Ball

In 2000, when the Human Genome Project announced the first full sequencing of the three billion chemical building blocks of our DNA, it seemed that biology had given up its greatest secret. Here, said enthusiasts, was nothing less than “the instruction book of humankind”. According to the science writer Philip Ball, however, the information has not just “brought us little closer to understanding life itself” but even left us further away.

In this book, he explores the “known unknowns” of the “new biology” and discusses why belief in some ill-defined life force might be misplaced. Rather, he suggests, it is the combination of many different factors working independently – whether genes and cells or a larger entity such as the nervous system – that is the key. Biologists have long looked at individual elements, but the idea that “life is just a dizzying mess of fine details”, each vital to the whole, is wrong, says Ball; biology has a hierarchy and some elements are insignificant. His lucid book suggests that before they can understand what really comprises life, biologists have first to unlearn a great deal of what they think they know.  
By Michael Prodger
Picador, 560pp, £22. Buy the book

Veiled Threat: On Being Visibly Muslim in Britain by Nadeine Asbali

When Nadeine Asbali decided, aged 14, to start wearing a hijab while visiting her father’s family in Libya, she didn’t imagine that it would transform the way she was viewed back in Britain nor, ultimately, how she would come to see her home country. Her hijab, she discovers upon arrival in Heathrow, where she is taken aside for questioning by border guards, has “ejected” her from the relative privilege she had previously enjoyed as a white-passing kid (her English mother is white), and marked her as “foreign, menacing, un-British”.

In this polemical memoir Asbali traces the discrimination she and other visibly Muslim women face in the UK, touching on subjects as wide ranging as Andrew Tate, white feminism, Shamima Begum, “hijab porn”, motherhood and Gaza. Yet at times the sweeping approach works against the narrative; in some cases, arguments come across as unformed, such as her conflation of the Iranian morality police’s enforcement, often with deadly violence, of the hijab, and France’s ban on wearing abayas (long, loose garments) in state-run schools. The book is strongest and most compelling when Asbali writes about her own life and experience as a Muslim woman.
By Megan Gibson
Biteback Publishing, 288pp, £18.99
. Buy the book

God Complex by Rachael Allen

In God Complex, Rachael Allen’s follow-up to her debut collection Kingdomland (2019), the British poet traces the demise of a relationship alongside humankind’s destruction of the Earth. The premise sounds bleak, but this book is full of lightness and provocation. Mostly made up of free verse and prose poems, it finds space too for sing-song, rhyming stanzas that echo the familiar “Here we go round the mulberry bush” refrain. Allen often finds herself in the decaying natural world. “Immediately after you left, I swam in the toxic river,” she writes, simply. “… And thank god I am grieving/while the climate dims. What an effort otherwise,” is her satisfying follow-up, a page later.

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This is verse for the mind and body, a book filled with equal parts thought experiments and sensory experiences. “Do you ever feel like nature’s bug?” Allen ponders, cryptically. She asks a lot of questions, and uses sarcastic side-notes – “Ta-da” – and pleasingly childish words and phrases – “zilch”, “hairy gummy bear” – with verve. The result is an idiosyncratic collection of environmental poems that also acts as a moving epic of everyday heartbreak.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger
Faber & Faber, 112pp, £12.99. Buy the book

My Friends by Hisham Matar

What does it mean to be exiled? For those of us fortunate enough never to have experienced it, My Friends may be the closest we can get to understanding the sense of dislocation. Hisham Matar’s Libyan protagonist Khaled, a dissident of Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime, has by 2016 – when the story is set – lived in London for 30 years. Khaled’s titular friends are two other Libyan émigrés; the trio’s navigation through the intervening decades shows how each has internalised the pain of being shorn from their homeland.

The novel is structured around a series of recollections, triggered by a circuitous walk Khaled takes from King’s Cross station to Shepherd’s Bush. Khaled’s wanderings follow in the footsteps of Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, but the novel is more than a reworking of Ulysses. Matar is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author born to Libyan parents in New York and raised in Libya and Egypt before settling in Britain. He is well versed in the dissonance of exile, and My Friends feels like an artefact of that flux. Matar’s charged writing allows us to share in the tragedy of Khaled’s plight.
By Barney Horner
Viking, 464pp, £18.99. Buy the book

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[See also: The dictator’s best friend]

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Media Wars