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24 April 2024

From Marilynne Robinson to Ross King: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Hagstone by Sinéad Gleeson and England: Seven Myths that Changed a Country by Tom Baldwin and Marc Stears.

By Pippa Bailey, Michael Prodger, Anoosh Chakelian and Tom Gatti

Reading Genesis by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson’s book is exegesis, but it’s not a scholarly study. Rather, it approaches this foundational text – of Judaism, Christianity and much of Western thought – as a work of literature. That is not to say that Robinson, who is Christian, considers it fiction, but that she believes it to be the product of multiple writers, carefully honed and refined over generations. To acknowledge the presence of human authorship is not, to Robinson, to deny its sacredness; its artistry is holy.

Reading Genesis has no marked introduction or conclusion and no chapters, but Robinson’s ever-surprising insights and light turn of phrase propel us through the primeval history of the world (creation, Cain and Abel, the flood) and the ancestral history of Israel (Abraham, Jacob, Joseph). The last 100 pages or so are given over to the text of the Book of Genesis itself. Her comparisons of the biblical narratives with the myths of surrounding cultures, principally the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh and Enuma Elish, do not decry Genesis as derivative but illuminate the serenity and goodness of the Christian God. Robinson’s reading is primarily concerned with Genesis’s realism, its humanity and family dramas, which makes it peerless in ancient literature.
By Pippa Bailey
Virago, 352pp, £25. Buy the book

The Shortest History of Italy by Ross King

From the very beginning of his vivid gallop through three millennia of history, Ross King points out Italian exceptionalism. From this thin sliver of land the Romans ruled the bulk of the known world for a thousand years, the Catholic Church had greater and longer sway still, and the Renaissance transformed art, architecture and thinking.

King, who has previously written books on Leonardo, Michelangelo and Filippo Brunelleschi, here moves out of his familiar 15th- and 16th-century territory back to Aeneas and his Trojans washing up in Italy, as migrants do today, and forward to the 20th-century industrial muscle of Fiat cars and the triumph of Giorgia Meloni. In fact-rich chapters he covers topics as broad as the fall of the Roman empire, Garibaldi and the Risorgimento, the lure of Mussolini and the fractured politics of the postwar years. Along the way he drops in details from the diet and sex lives of the many centenarian residents of the village of Acciaroli, to how the nation’s love of coffee started in the late 1600s. The result is a handbook both informative and entertaining.
By Michael Prodger
Old Street, 272pp, £14.99. Buy the book

England: Seven Myths That Changed a Country – and How to Set Them Straight by Tom Baldwin and Marc Stears

Tom Baldwin and Marc Stears – respectively Keir Starmer’s biographer and an academic think tank director, and both former Ed Miliband aides – are aware of the myopia of their class when it comes to England. “We have friends who refuse to go walking in the English countryside because they cannot stomach its pastoral connotations,” they admit. “Or who consciously avoid the places where people put ‘those little flags up’.” Luckily for readers of their book, the authors do not share this squeamishness. Travelling from a caff in Runnymede to the statues of Plymouth, a Wolverhampton gurdwara car park to the Millennium Dome, in this montage-style tour they search not for what England is, but what it’s not.

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Their thesis is that typical national narratives of “this country that is not quite a country” – as civiliser of a savage world, founder of liberty, hub of the international rich, anachronism of end-of-history Britishness – are a burden, and obscure vital nuance. After all, when they ask Nigel Farage for his favourite part of England, he chooses multicultural London: “Our global capital city gets faster and more trendy every year that comes.”
By Anoosh Chakelian
Bloomsbury, 368pp, £22. Buy the book

Hagstone by Sinéad Gleeson

On an island 12 hours’ sail from the Irish coast, with a pub and lighthouse, scraggly sheep and black shale cliffs, there is a sound: a strange hum that arrives without warning and haunts those who are able to hear it. There is a former convent, Rathglas, home to the Inions, a community of women who have chosen to remove themselves from society. And there is Nell, an obsessive artist whose work is attuned to the island’s mythic rhythms.

These elements combine in the debut novel by the editor, critic and essayist Sinéad Gleeson. It is place, above all, that makes the book sing: Gleeson captures the island’s combination of routine insularity and edge-of-the-world enchantment in sentences polished like pebbles by the Atlantic Ocean. And Nell, fond of nocturnal speeding and the sort of wild swimming that doesn’t belong in a Sunday supplement, has an impulsive intelligence that makes her a welcome guide, and a fount of ideas about art, work and companionship. The plot’s gothic turn threatens to overpower Hagstone in its final act. But the island abides.
By Tom Gatti
Fourth Estate, 320pp, £16.99. Buy the book

[See also: From Neel Mukherjee to Gavin Stamp: new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger