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From Caleb Azumah Nelson to the artists of Kettle’s Yard: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring a biography of Messalina and a story collection by Shalash the Iraqi.

By Megan Gibson, Rachel Cunliffe, Ellen Peirson-Hagger and Michael Prodger

In the autumn of 2005, more than two years after the US-led invasion of iraq began and on the eve of Saddam Hussein’s trial, a blog documenting daily life in Thawra City, a densely packed Shia suburb of Baghdad, was born. Written by the pseudonymous Shalash, the blog’s inventive (and often invented) dispatches went about as viral as was possible in Iraq at the time, given that access to regular electricity, let alone the internet, was patchy.. A civil war was brewing in the already besieged country and yet Shalash’s regular updates – which featured an eccentric cast of real and imagined characters including corrupt politicians, bumbling grifters and local oddballs – painted a surreal and wickedly funny picture of life in Baghdad. Describing the various speaking styles of Iraqi politicians, Shalash writes that then prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, “talks like he just ate a few expensive dictionaries and is about to lose his lunch”.

Read together as a collection – in English, 20 years after the invasion, its author still anonymous – Shalash the Iraqi reveals a side, not to mention a sense of humour, of Iraq that has been woefully absent from Western ideas of the country.
By Megan Gibson

Messalina: A Story of Empire, Slander and Adultery by Honor Cargill-Martin
Bloomsbury, 432pp, £27.99

Everyone loves a good sex scandal – and historians are no exception. The tragedy of Messalina, the third wife of the emperor Claudius, is almost too perfect. Her promiscuity is legendary: Roman writers recounted salacious tales of how the empress used to escape the palace to prostitute herself in a brothel, or tried to marry her lover while her husband was still alive.

We should not take these stories as entirely factually accurate. Yet, argues Honor Cargill-Martin in her biography of the supposed whore-empress, the tales offer insight into how Rome’s elite struggled to adapt to the new political realities of one-man dynastic rule and the emergence of imperial women as serious power players. Similarly, the fixation on Messalina through the ages, the way “her name itself became a noun, an adjective, a warning, a joke, an insult, a compliment and a benchmark” for debauchery, reveals Western society’s obsession with defining women by their sex lives. The book is a lesson in ancient Rome, but more interesting is what it says about misogyny, patriarchy, and how women get written in or out of history.
By Rachel Cunliffe

[See also: The best books of 2022]

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Small Worlds by Caleb Azumah Nelson
Viking, 240pp, £14.99

Recent conversations about the state of contemporary literary fiction have often ended with one question: where are all the brilliant, young, male novelists? Here is one. Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Small Worlds, which follows his Costa First Novel Award-winning Open Water, is an emotionally astute novel that cements this 29-year-old south London author as one of the UK’s best.

The story begins in 2010, a few days before our narrator, Stephen, is due to leave school. He anxiously awaits his exam results, which will determine whether he will go to music school with Del, a childhood friend whom he is in love with – not that he’s told her. Over the next couple of years, Stephen and his peers navigate the trickiness of early adulthood, made tougher by systemic racism and his relationship with his father, a Ghanaian immigrant whose past traumas also affect his son. Like Open WaterSmall Worlds is a musical book; the works of Fela Kuti and J Dilla act as a soundtrack. What’s more, Nelson is a rhythmic writer, using repeated motifs – variations on phrases about what we remember and what we forget, about dancing to solve problems, about the way the sun catches the back of a loved one’s neck – to make this touching novel perfectly formed too.

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By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard Artists by Laura Freeman
Jonathan Cape, 400pp, £30

Although Jim Ede spent his early years training to be a painter, he never made it. His efforts were not, however, wasted. In 1921 he became assistant curator at the National Gallery of British Art (from 1932 the Tate Gallery) and put his sensibilities to the service of better Artists. Ede was an early adopter of modernism at a time when the British art establishment was antediluvian in its tastes. While battling to change official attitudes he formed close friendships with a group of progressive British Artists, from Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore to Barbara Hepworth and Alfred Wallis – and the tyro Frenchman Henri Gaudier-Brzeska who had died in the trenches in 1915 – and bought their work. In the late 1950s, Ede put his collection on display at Kettle’s Yard, a cluster of four converted cottages in Cambridge.

In her deft and stylish book, Laura Freeman gives the group the sort of attention the Bloomsbury set has long attracted. As she tells the story of the patron and his artists through the works he owned she shows why for Ede, who died in 1990, friendship was itself a work of art and well worth collecting.
By Michael Prodger

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[See also: The 14 best books of the year so far]

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This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?