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2 July 2024

From Neil Jordan to Lara Maiklem: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring The Singularity by Dino Buzzati and The Road to the Country by Chigozie Obioma.

By Finn McRedmond, Barney Horner, Michael Prodger and Will Dunn

Amnesiac: A Memoir by Neil Jordan

Michael Collins – the sprawling biopic about the Irish revolutionary hero – is perhaps the director Neil Jordan’s most conventional box-office hit. “Give us the future, we’ve had enough of your past. Give us our country back,” Collins (played by Liam Neeson) roars. In Jordan’s novel, he mentions with satisfaction that, since this film’s release in 1996, these fictional words have been attributed to the real Collins many times.

It is an apt anecdote for a book just as much about how to remember the past as it is about simply recording it. Jordan frequently second guesses his recollection, and wonders aloud whether he should even be writing Amnesiac, a mercurial book that flicks between his childhood, his Hollywood career and Ireland’s evolution from a conservative, weary place to one with a cosmopolitan, liberal sheen. As with Michael Collins, Jordan is exploring the chasm between reality and what we remember as reality.

This is always the challenge with memoirs. But few make it as explicit as Jordan. One chapter closes: “I don’t remember, but I do remember her telling me,” only for the next to open: “But then I don’t trust memory.”
By Finn McRedmond
Apollo, 304pp, £25. Buy the book

The Road to the Country by Chigozie Obioma

In 1967, the Nigerian army invaded the country’s south-eastern region, which had unilaterally declared its independence as the Republic of Biafra. The nearly three years of attritional, full-scale war that followed were brutal, with the federal state’s more advanced weaponry, supplied by Harold Wilson, eventually pulverising the secessionists into defeat. It is into this carnage of history that the Nigerian author Chigozie Obioma consigns the protagonist of his new novel Kunle, a gentle student who reluctantly joins the Biafran army.

We follow Kunle’s journey through the war. His motivation – searching for a brother lost in the region – feels like a rather flimsy pretext for him entering the conflict, but Obioma eloquently complements his depictions of war-realist butchery with a magical-realist “Seer”. The Seer watches Kunle from the past, in colonial 1940s Nigeria. In interstitial chapters, he acts as a sort of narrative sage that locates Kunle’s suffering within a broader national trajectory. Obioma has spent both of his previous novels trying to work out the social and cultural substance of Nigeria. The Road to the Country is, perhaps aptly, given its title, his most defined attempt yet.
By Barney Horner
Hutchinson Heinemann, 384pp, £16.99. Buy the book

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A Mudlarking Year by Lara Maiklem

With her 2019 book Mudlark, Lara Maiklem revealed the satisfactions of the life of a river scavenger. Then living by the Thames in Greenwich – what she calls the longest archaeological site in England – she scoured the shores for the historical detritus the tides uncovered, from prehistoric worked flints to Georgian pipe bowls. She now lives in Kent, and though her forays take more planning, the lure of the river and its treasures is just as strong. Her new book is an evocative month-by-month account of her addiction “to chasing lost and discarded objects and pulling stories of forgotten Londoners from the mud”.

The Thames, Maiklem says, is an “obsessive sorter” and she knows where it deposits things. March brings a French copper coin from the reign of Henry II, May a silver ring from the 1700s engraved with the word “Alwayes”, July a 16th-century shoe sole. There are bones and bits of masonry and modern rubbish too, but her truffling does more than connect her with long forgotten lives – it links her with her fellow obsessives and with the seasons as they ebb and flow along with the river.
By Michael Prodger
Bloomsbury, 368pp, £22. Buy the book

The Singularity by Dino Buzzati

On 13 May, the tech company OpenAI released a new version of its chatbot, ChatGPT. The new release included five possible voices, one of which sounded like the Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson. Johansson later revealed that she had been contacted the previous September by OpenAI’s CEO, Sam Altman, who had asked her to lend her voice to ChatGPT; when she declined, he released a version of the software which sounded so similar to her, she said, that her “closest friends[…] could not tell the difference”. (OpenAI has said the voice was “never intended to resemble” Johansson’s.)

The Singularity was first published (in Italian, as Il Grande Ritratto) in 1960. A stylish, compelling little mystery, now translated by Anne Milano Appel, it is the story of a university professor who is recruited to a mountain research institute at which even the guards have no sense of the science being conducted within. Although it is more than six decades old, it predicts the situation in which Johansson has found herself with unsettling accuracy. Like her, its characters are confronted by the presumptuous arrogance of men whose brilliance in engineering disguises how morally and emotionally incapable they are.
By Will Dunn
New York Review of Books Classics, 160pp, £14.99. Buy the book

[See also: From Kathleen Jamie to Richard Overy: new books reviewed in short]

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This article appears in the 02 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Britain