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5 June 2024

From Iain Sinclair to Colombe Schneck: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Going Home by Tom Lamont and The Roads to Rome by Catherine Fletcher.

By Anna Leszkiewicz, Michael Prodger and Zuzanna Lachendro

The Paris Trilogy by Colombe Schneck

“My childhood was utopian. I was not a girl.” So begins Colombe Schneck’s Seventeen, the first instalment of this semi-autobiography in three parts. Schneck was raised by open-minded Jewish parents in Paris: her youth was defined by a personal and intellectual liberty that seemed beyond gender. At 17, in 1984, she is free to read Emmanuelle, to go where she pleases and to sleep with boys. She is happy, and free. Until she falls pregnant. 

First published in 2015 in France, Schneck’s “novella” of abortion is written in a blunt and immediate first-person present tense. Friendship (2021) – which begins as Colombe’s best friend, “Héloïse”, discusses her terminal cancer in 2018, then jumps back to 1977, chronicling their relationship through the years – shifts into a novelistic third person. Swimming (2019) – which details 50-year-old Schneck’s love affair with both a man she first met in childhood and with swimming at her local pool – slips back into the first person, flitting between tenses. Seventeen was inspired by Annie Ernaux’s memoir Happening, which detailed her own (illegal) abortion of 20 years earlier, in 1964. Schneck, translated by Lauren Elkin and Natasha Lehrer, also shares Ernaux’s plain style: simultaneously intimate and detached.
By Anna Leszkiewicz
Scribner, 206pp, £14.99. Buy the book

Pariah Genius by Iain Sinclair

In his own words, the photographer John Deakin was “fatally drawn to the human race”. He immortalised one tranche of it in particular – the louche, hard-drinking circle of artists, criminals and hangers-on that orbited Francis Bacon in the Soho of the 1950s. It is thanks to Deakin’s pictures that we have a record of Bacon, Lucian Freud, Dylan Thomas et al in their fume-and-fug world.

During the pandemic, two large boxes of Deakin’s negatives and contact sheets were sent to Iain Sinclair, psychogeographer and author of hard-to-classify books about urban fringes. From these images Sinclair has created a fictionalised portrait of Deakin himself, following him from the Wirral to London and Paris, El Alamein – where he was the official war photographer – and back to Soho. From early in his career, Deakin comfortably straddled high society and low life, and characters from both flit, bitch and booze their way through the pages. Deakin, however, was no voyeur but a participant – gay and talented, catty and self-contained – and in Sinclair’s intuitive telling becomes a mesmerising presence centre frame.
By Michael Prodger
Cheerio, 325pp, £19.99. Buy the book

The Roads to Rome: A History by Catherine Fletcher

Around 20 BCE, the emperor Augustus erected the Milliarium Aureum – the Golden Milestone – in the Forum in Rome. All the roads of the empire were considered to start there and all distances to the furthest outposts, whether Northumbria, Cádiz or Jerusalem, were measured from it. “Metalled” rather than packed-earth surfaces allowed Rome’s couriers to travel more than 50 miles a day and its armies 25. More than the Colosseum or the Pantheon, this network of roads, amounting to 100,000km in all, was Rome’s greatest architectural legacy, says Catherine Fletcher. Along them flowed armies and trade, then pilgrims, art and ideas, and later tourists.

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Taking as a cue Charles Dickens’s observation when walking the Appian Way that there is “a history in every stone that strews the ground”, Fletcher, in her rich narrative of the long afterlife of Rome’s roads, looks at the travellers who tramped them – crusaders, bandits, Grand Tourists and poets. Some, such as Tobias Smollett, complained about landladies and postilions, while others, such as Napoleon and Mussolini, embraced their symbolism to march on Rome itself. The roads, says Fletcher, were never merely utilitarian.
By Michael Prodger
Bodley Head, 400pp, £25. Buy the book

Going Home by Tom Lamont

Growing up is not limited to childhood, as shown by the award-winning journalist Tom Lamont in his debut novel. The caring protagonist Téo Erskine, his complicated father, Vic, and unreliable best friend, Ben Mossam, face a dilemma: what will they do with their childhood friend’s infant son, Joel, after the unthinkable happens?

In this touching exploration of male relationships, Lamont paints London as it is. On the streets, loud with a multilingual blend he calls Londonese, ex-council flats neighbour six-bedroom mansions. It is a tender story of interconnectedness, community and the consequences our actions have on those around us – be it family, friends, or the local rabbi – where everyone has a lot of growing up to do, from two-year-old Joel to 70-year-old Vic. It is also a story of second chances, where the protagonists can catch enchanting “glimpses of the world as first met” thanks to Joel’s discovery of people and things that surround him. The characters’ flaws add vivacity and realism to the narrative, as well as providing constant ups and downs. From the imperfections of life, Lamont has fashioned a poignant work of fiction.
By Zuzanna Lachendro
Sceptre, 320pp, £16.99. Buy the book

[See also: From Sarah Harkness to Roger Crowley: new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024