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1 May 2024

From Sunjeev Sahota to Jonn Elledge: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Dispersals by Jessica J Lee and All Things Are Too Small by Becca Rothfeld

By Sophie McBain, George Monaghan, Michael Prodger and Anna Leszkiewicz

Dispersals: On Plants, Borders and Belonging by Jessica J Lee

What distinguishes a native species from an invasive one, or a plant from a weed? Given humans’ entanglement with the natural world, how can – or should – we draw a line between what is natural and what is man-made? As an environmental historian, and a peripatetic British-Canadian-Taiwanese writer, Jessica J Lee is well placed to explore these questions. In a series of concise, interlocking essays, she entwines her personal story with the political history of different plants, among them cherry trees, seaweed, soya beans and mangoes. An essay on tea explores how profoundly the plant, and the drink, have been shaped by trade and empire. Consider the words we use: countries that first received tea by sea, from southern China, call it by something that sounds like the Min Nan (Hokkien) word te: tea, tee, thé. Those who first received it overland likely call it something that sounds like the Mandarin word cha: chai, shay, cha.

Lee’s writing is filled with such snippets as this, and her essays are contemplative, elegant, neatly structured. But soon I found myself hoping for something wilder and less restrained, more emotionally revealing. The reader is, after all, a highly invasive species. 
By Sophie McBain
Hamish Hamilton, 288pp, £16.99. Buy the book

The Spoiled Heart by Sunjeev Sahota

In The Spoiled Heart, the new novel by the Booker-shortlisted Sunjeev Sahota, Nayan Olak competes in a union election and pursues a strange woman, Helen Fletcher. One political drama, one suspense mystery. Intertwining lives and dark pasts abound.

Sahota has a capacity to see sin in sufferers, and possesses a brave touch. A mother talks about her son’s most difficult times, but pretends that he attempted suicide, for extra pity. A man loses his child, and is “made glamorous by the nature of his losses, by the hypnotic allure of a bereaved parent”. Two union rivals are willing to use diversity and inclusion policy and class cynically to further their own campaigns. 

There is the occasional quirk: people in “shorn-off denims” drinking “Buds” on “busted” porches saying the weather “looks good out” did not put this unworldly reader, anyway, immediately in mind of Sheffield. But the motivating intrigue around Helen’s past is fun at all times, and the emotional high points – concentrated especially in Nayan’s relationships with his election rival and with his love interest’s son – come pretty thickly too.
By George Monaghan
Harvill Secker, 336pp, £18.99. Buy the book

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A History of the World in 47 Borders by Jonn Elledge

Some national borders make sense – a river, a sea, a mountain range – but others are arbitrary, mere dotted lines through nothingness. Whatever the geography, however, the demarcations have history: the first recorded example, says Jonn Elledge, dates from Egypt in the fourth millennium BC when the country was divided between Upper and Lower Egypt. Borders have shifted throughout the centuries, the playthings, he points out, of ideas about the nation state, of conquest and politics, but also of increasingly accurate mapping tools and the partitioning of new territories such as the air or, indeed, space. The world’s borders as they stand today are mostly no more than two centuries old.

In his sprightly telling of “the stories behind the lines on our maps”, Elledge looks at a series of historical case studies, from Genghis Khan’s conception of a Mongol world without borders to the Anglo-French reconfiguration of the Middle East in 1916. He examines more theoretical map lines too, such as the international date line and time zones and how strange not-quite-borders such as the demilitarised zone between South and North Korea came about. As contemporary events show all too clearly, lines on maps still matter. 
By Michael Prodger
Wildfire, 368pp, £25. Buy the book

All Things Are Too Small by Becca Rothfeld

The literary critic Becca Rothfeld, best known as a fearless book reviewer for the Washington Post, rages against smallness in her first published book of essays. “Plates, cups, books, bodies and all the rest are too small, not contingently, but constitutionally. There is no way around the sense, lodged hard in the throat, that the greatest human longings exceed any possible fulfilment. To want something with sufficient fervour is to want it beyond the possibility of ever getting enough of it.” It’s the longing that motivates love, religion, ambition – Rothfeld advises us not to deny it.

As a framing device, its a sufficiently loose one – this collection encompasses Austen, Barthes, Dutch mysticism, David Cronenberg – and Rothfeld’s approach to cultural reference is appropriately voracious. She is a precise, dynamic critic and her personal writing is vivid and insightful. Some of her topics – Marie Kondo, mindfulness, #MeToo – are so well-trodden by contemporary essayists as to be ground into the dirt: a sense of duty rather than thrill intrudes here. But more often, Rothfeld is unexpected, intelligent, engaging – and clearly delights in her task.
By Anna Leszkiewicz
Virago, 304pp, £20. Buy the book

[See also: From Marilynne Robinson to Ross King: new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March