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19 June 2024

From Kathleen Jamie to Richard Overy: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Ronald Moody: Sculpting Life by Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski and The Cursed Friend by Elena Pala.

By Michael Prodger, Tom Gatti and Zuzanna Lachendro

Why War? by Richard Overy

If it is axiomatic that jaw jaw is better than war war why, over millennia, has military confrontation so often been seen as the preferred option? This is the question that the renowned military historian Richard Overy sets out to answer in Why War?. It is a question that concerns the future as well as the past, and in the book he examines why warfare has long been “an active choice” for seemingly “civilised” states. In doing so, he steps beyond his historian’s brief to co-opt the work of anthropologists, psychologists, biologists and ecologists too.

The title comes from a pamphlet of the correspondence between Freud and Einstein in which they tried – and failed – to account for mankind’s militarist urge. Overy’s investigation encompasses 30,000 years of human history and studies numerous causes – what he calls a “messy cocktail” – of our belligerence, among them evolution, belief systems, national security, access to resources and the urge to power. The conclusion of his fact-rich and wide-ranging book is that war is normal: “There are scant grounds for thinking that a warless world is about to emerge from the current or future international order.”
By Michael Prodger
Pelican, 400pp, £22. Buy the book

Ronald Moody: Sculpting Life by Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski

British 20th-century sculpture is dominated by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. One artist of their generation who might have joined them was Ronald Moody, born in Jamaica in 1900, whose importance is now being recognised in a new exhibition at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield. Like Moore and many other modernists, Moody was strongly influenced by the ethnographic works he saw in museums. In his case, the effect of a visit to the British Museum caused him to give up training to be a dentist in London and turn to sculpture instead.

Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski’s handsomely illustrated biography is the most concerted treatment of the artist yet. She had rich material to work with – Moody was not only a woodcarver but later experimented with concrete and resin; he was also a poet and a broadcaster. His prewar success saw him exhibit internationally and took him to Paris, where his friends included Man Ray. He escaped the Nazis and fled through France and Spain. He never really recovered his earlier momentum, however, despite working until his death in 1984. Sowinski’s book reveals a significant figure and a proselytiser for Caribbean art.
By Michael Prodger
Thames & Hudson, 256pp, £30. Buy the book

Cairn by Kathleen Jamie

In Cairn, the Scots national poet reduces the essay form to its essence. Having turned 60, Jamie writes, “I can sense the shape of my life pinned against the natural world I was born into.” Like the “slipshod heap of stone” she finds on a clifftop, these miniature “observations and distillations” serve as a “trail marker” connecting deep time with the present and future.

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The “great dismantling” of the climate crisis – and the related ruptures of war and human displacement – are never far from Jamie’s mind. But they coexist with hope. On an uncannily hot day, thoughts of drought and the absence of insects are disrupted by a joy-inducing “crowd of white butterflies… fluttering around me like a shredded contract”. With her son and his friends she recalls Greenham Common as she attends a climate march, a “mosaic of tiny incidents forming a huge intention”. On the Firth of Forth, observing the Bass Rock, she spots “a pennant of twenty-odd gannets”, survivors of a recent avian influenza epidemic: “Stay alive! You call after the flying birds! Stay alive.”

“How can we make a world?” Kathleen Jamie asks. These fragments, shored against our ruins, are a necessary part of the answer.
By Tom Gatti
Sort of Books,144pp, £9.99. Buy the book

The Cursed Friend by Beatrice Salvioni

The Cursed One is thought to bring bad luck. And yet Francesca hovers on a bridge in a north Italian town watching her run around carelessly, sandals discarded on the pebbled bank of the River Lambro. She doesn’t know that this brief encounter with the rebellious and fiery girl below her will develop into a forceful bond.

In her debut novel Beatrice Salvioni reconstructs 1930s Italian society on the brink of the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, with all its prejudices and contradictions. There’s a clear divide between the ultra-Catholic, Duce-loving middle class, with maids and fast cars, and those who are struggling amid postwar inflation. The two girls are worlds apart yet somehow find common ground in rebelling against sexism and injustice – even if that comes at a cost to themselves and their families. Growing up surrounded by people who are dejected and fearful under Mussolini’s iron grip, Francesca is greatly influenced by her association with the Cursed One as they fight against provincial conformity. Through the tie between the two girls, Salvioni’s fast-paced narrative forges an intense yet timeless tale of female friendship
By Zuzanna Lachendro
William Collins, 240pp, £16.99. Buy the book

[See also: From Simon Lister to Violet Moller: new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation