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15 May 2024

From Hari Kunzru to Eugene Rogan: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring The Light Eaters by Zoë Schlanger and Cypria by Alex Christofi.

By Michael Prodger, Pippa Bailey, Barney Horner and Megan Gibson

The Light Eaters by Zoë Schlanger

In The Hidden Life of Trees (2016), Peter Wohlleben revealed the extraordinary and hitherto unexpected social networks of trees – their ability to communicate, protect and support one another. In The Light Eaters, the American science journalist Zoë Schlanger looks beyond the woods to all plants, from ferns and flowers to rice and Japanese knotweed, and finds still more communities and abilities.

Schlanger talks to a variety of botanists and scientists busy uncovering the complexities of plant life, all of whom are wide-eyed as children at their discoveries. Who wouldn’t be thrilled by the knowledge that plants can communicate with others while being eaten and so warn them, or that they not only remember when they were last visited by a bee, but how many times? Who would have thought that some leaves have rudimentary vision while other plants, such as sea rocket, behave differently when surrounded by family members from the same mother plant? As a result she comes to see plants as individuals and integral to our own well-being: “A single plant is a marvel. A community of plants is life itself.”
By Michael Prodger
Fourth Estate, 304pp, £22. Buy the book

Cypria: A Journey to the Heart of the Mediterranean by Alex Christofi

The ancient Greeks believed that Delphi was the centre of the world – its “omphalos”, or belly button – but, the writer Alex Christofi believes it to be Cyprus, where his father’s family originated. “Thrown up in the middle of the sea at the meeting point of three continents [Cyprus is] an island that only exists in the tension between the Eurasian, Arabian and African tectonic plates.” It is the only member of the European Union that the United Nations designates as Asian, but its cultural character and geopolitics are European. For the past 60 years, it has been divided into halves – Turkish and Greek.

Cyprus’s history is as complex and contested as its identity: it has been settled or conquered by Mycenaeans, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Umayyads, Abbasids, Byzantines, English Crusaders, Templars, French Lusignans, Venetians, Ottomans, and the British again. In poetic prose, Cypria tells a wide-ranging national story, from Aphrodite emerging from the sea at Paphos to the worst of Brits abroad in Ayia Napa, and from the lost prequel to Homer’s Iliad to halloumi. Christofi makes a compelling case for Cyprus as a uniquely clear vantage point from which to view the birth of the modern world.
By Pippa Bailey
Bloomsbury, 352pp, £20. Buy the book

Blue Ruin by Hari Kunzru

Blue Ruin is the third prong in what could be described as Hari Kunzru’s “Three Colours” trilogy (after White Tears and Red Pill), which tackles the cultural and political vacuity of late capitalism. In Blue Ruin Kunzru sets the art world and (with less conviction) the gig economy in his crosshairs. The protagonist Jay ekes out a tough existence from manual and low-paid jobs. One day during Covid, he delivers shopping to a rural mansion in New York state, where, a touch implausibly, his former lover Alice happens to be spending the lockdown with her husband and Jay’s former best friend, Rob. It soon transpires that Jay was a notorious artist in London at the turn of the millennium who mysteriously vanished shortly after Alice broke away from their damaging relationship. He had decided to disappear by indefinitely extending a performance piece in which he mocked the commodification of the art industry by erasing himself from it.

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Jay’s trajectory is perhaps too artfully tragic to nail the rapaciousness of the market. More problematically, it’s not clear whether empathising with Jay is meant to make the reader condemn the art world or believe in it.
By Barney Horner
Scribner UK, 272pp, £20. Buy the book

The Damascus Events: The 1860 Massacre and the Destruction of the Old Ottoman World by Eugene Rogan

In 1989, the American historian Eugene Rogan was in the midst of his doctoral thesis research at Washington’s National Archives when he discovered the diplomatic dispatches of Mikhayil Mishaqa, the US’s first ever vice-consul in Damascus. The dispatches, believed to be lost, contained a first-hand account of the 1860 massacre known as the Damascus Events. Over eight days in July the seething tensions between the region’s Muslims and Christians exploded; Muslims tore through the city, slaughtering 5,000 Christians and destroying all the churches and monasteries.

Mishaqa’s dispatches vividly buttress The Damascus Events, which Rogan, now a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at Oxford, describes as “a study of one city’s descent to the brink of genocide”. It is also an examination of the work that went into bringing “the city back from the brink”. The Events, Rogan argues, marked the end of the old Ottoman empire, while the aftermath shaped modern Lebanon (with its sectarian governance) and Syria, whose capital city – after years of bolstered investment and concerted integration – was “freed from sectarian violence”, a calm that endured for more than 100 years until the arrival of the Assads.
By Megan Gibson
Allen Lane, 400pp, £30. Buy the book

[See also: From Willy Vlautin to Corinne Fowler: new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink