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21 February 2024

From Lucas Rijneveld to Amitav Ghosh: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Unearthing by Kyo Maclear and Six Stories by Stefan Zweig.

By Michael Prodger, Pippa Bailey, Ellen Peirson-Hagger and Alona Ferber

Smoke and Ashes: Opium’s Hidden Histories by Amitav Ghosh

Between 2004 and 2015 Amitav Ghosh immersed himself in opium as he worked on his “Ibis trilogy”, a series of novels set in the 1830s and ranging across the Indian Ocean in the years before the First Opium War. The books totalled more than 1,700 pages and all that research has now found another form in his new work Smoke and Ashes, a mixture of history, travelogue and family memoir.

The role of opium in the history of colonialism is well known but Ghosh personalises it with the discovery of his own family’s role in the trade. His father’s ancestors were Bengalis who moved to Chapra, a hub for the opium industry set in an impoverished region of north-eastern India, to find work in the clerical and legal aspects of the business. And the more Ghosh looks, the more he finds evidence of the trade elsewhere in the modern world – in 30 American towns named Canton, in the word “hipster” which comes from the habit Chinese opium-smokers had of propping themselves on their hip, and in the opioid epidemic that is ravaging many American cities. The history of the drug, Ghosh lucidly shows, is contemporary too.
By Michael Prodger
John Murray, 416pp, £22. Buy the book

Unearthing: A Story of Tangled Love and Family Secrets by Kyo Maclear

When Kyo Maclear was a child, her mother used to say she had found her as a baby, floating down the river in a large peach. Only later did Maclear realise she was repeating the story of Momotaro, one of Japan’s most famous mukashi banashi, or folk tales. Then, aged 49, the children’s writer discovered that she had been told another tall tale about her origins: a DNA test revealed that her recently deceased father was not her biological parent. Unearthing could have been about Maclear’s quest to discover the truth about her paternity, but instead it is something far more interesting: a mystery about her mother.

Maclear does not speak Japanese, her mother’s first tongue, and her mother’s is “a story that she struggled to express – or had no wish to express – in her adoptive language, English”. Instead, Maclear turns to a language her mother knows well: that of gardening. She digs into the soil in her yard in Toronto, Canada, in the hope of finding her own roots. The result is a lyrical and at times cryptic meditation on nature, kinship and the lives of both humans and plants.
By Pippa Bailey
Pushkin Press, 416pp, £18.99. Buy the book

My Heavenly Favourite by Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchison

We never learn the name of the titular “heavenly favourite” of this striking novel. The 14-year-old daughter of a Dutch dairy farmer, she is deeply troubled, having been traumatised by the early death of her older sibling and her mother’s subsequent desertion of the family. Caught between childhood naivety and an adult understanding of the world’s horrors, she listens to pop songs and reads Roald Dahl books, yet also feels an affinity with Hitler, believes she has conversations with Freud and claims she was culpable for the 9/11 attacks. The novel’s narrator is a 49-year-old vet who gets to know the girl when he visits the farm. He tells the story of his infatuation and eventual sexual relationship with the girl in frighteningly addictive rampages of text, with some sentences carrying on for many pages.

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Like the author’s first book, the International Booker Prize-winning The Discomfort of Evening, Lucas Rijneveld’s second novel to appear in English is flush with farmyard imagery. Here the beauty of the natural world and the brutality of humankind mingle. It is an apt setting for such a grotesque story, told with remarkable abandon.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger
Faber & Faber, 352pp, £16.99. Buy the book

Six Stories by Stefan Zweig, translated by Jonathan Katz

The Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig is having a renaissance. This month two new translations of his works appear: his only full novel, Beware of Pity, and this, Six Stories, two novellas and four tales written between 1911 and 1937. Zweig was fond of telling stories within stories. And so, in “The Invisible Collection”, an elderly man boards a train and tells our protagonist (who had only started narrating the story one paragraph earlier): “I have to tell you – you see, this is just about the strangest experience I have been through.”

Through Zweig we see the ravages of a postwar, post-imperial world. In “Buchmendel” and “The Buried Candelabrum”, Zweig tells of the Jews, ever-wandering in strange lands. In “Episode on Lake Geneva”, a Russian soldier trying to get home drowns in the lake. “A simple wooden cross was set over his grave,” writes Zweig, “one of those little crosses that mark the final resting places of the nameless, places with which our great continent is now covered from one end to the other.” Six Stories holds the themes of Zweig’s oeuvre: the sweep of history, and the tragedies of the individual within it.
By Alona Ferber
Penguin Classics, 304pp, £9.99. Buy the book

[See also: From Adam Phillips to Kate Manne: new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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