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Reviewed in short: New books by Anita Sethi, Martin Gayford, David Hockney, Musa Okwonga and Benjamin Myers

I Belong Here by Sethi, Spring Cannot Be Cancelled by Gayford and Hockney, In the End, It was All About Love by Okwonga and Male Tears by Myers. 

By New Statesman

I Belong Here by Anita Sethi

Bloomsbury Wildlife, 320pp, £16.99

In the summer of 2019, the Manchester-born writer Anita Sethi was racially abused as she travelled on a train from Liverpool to Newcastle. Asking her if she had a British passport, her attacker called her a “p***” and told her to go home. In the first book of her nature-writing trilogy, Sethi did just that – heading to her home city to set out on the Pennine Way.

Trekking through the natural landscapes of the “backbone of Britain”, she reflects on the interplay between identity and place. Her rage and trauma following the hate crime inflect her journey with a political urgency often lacking in a genre still dominated by the white, middle-class “lone enraptured male” identified by Kathleen Jamie in a 2008 review in the London Review of Books. When her mother, descended from indentured Indian workers in Guyana, took her on her first and only trip as a child to the Lake District, she recalls an elderly couple muttering how few “brown folks” you see in the countryside. Forever asked where she’s from originally, Sethi writes that she has always felt like an “outsider”. Instead, this passionate and reflective book stakes her claim to the English countryside and nature writing itself.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Spring Cannot Be Cancelled by Martin Gayford, David Hockney

Thames & Hudson, 470pp, £25

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In 2018 David Hockney bought La Grande Cour, a Normandy farmhouse more authentic than grand. He intended to use it as a base from which to paint the arrival of spring and escape the brouhaha that has followed him around for six decades. He was in Normandy when the pandemic hit and has stayed there, happily trapped and painting indefatigably – blossom, sunsets, ponds – ever since.

He leavened his contented exile with video calls with his friend, the critic Martin Gayford, and the results are collected in this lushly illustrated book. It is the third collaboration between the pair so, unsurprisingly, the talk flows effortlessly. The conversations take in everything from Hockney’s fondness for tripe and cigarettes, and Van Gogh and Monet, to music and iPad pictures. Hockney is always interesting on art, possibly because he is both unusually thoughtful and exceptionally lucid, so the chats, seamlessly directed by Gayford, are full of fascinating detail about a range of painters rather than just this displaced Yorkshireman. And there is something rather wonderful too about seeing this 83-year-old still so restless about art and fixated with looking, looking again and painting, again.

By Michael Prodger

In the End, It was All About Love by Musa Okwonga

Rough Trade Books, 132pp, £11.99

A black British writer describes life in Berlin, a cruel, charismatic city, mercurial as a lover. As he nears his 40th birthday – the age at which his father died – he realises he is lost and alone. His girlfriend has dumped him, he’s short of money, and even his self-soothing rituals – eating cake, buying brightly coloured clothing – seem to have lost their magic power. Only a mystical therapist, Dr Oppong, can lift the fear and fug: after their sessions together, the narrator resolves to travel to Uganda, where his father died 35 years previously in a helicopter crash during the country’s civil war.

And so, we learn, this book is built within the “vast blast radius” of grief – a vulnerable work of autofiction in which a celebrated author seeks safety and closure. Bringing together poetry, positive affirmations and a probing second-person voice, what risks becoming a series of self-help dictums reads much more like a book of incantations, full of lessons and verses to live by. This is Okwonga’s first novel, published in the same year as his memoir about his time at Eton, and at just over 100 pages, it is a punchy, pocket-sized tale about prejudice, racial identity, the search for home and the writer’s struggle. But mostly it’s about love – in the end it always is.

By Katherine Cowles

Male Tears by Benjamin Myers

Bloomsbury, 288pp, £16.99

In his debut collection of short stories, the novelist, biographer and poet Benjamin Myers traverses the different forms that life as a man can take. He tells fable-like tales of museum curators, astronauts and music journalists – a nod to Myers’ previous career – with each story highly distinct from the last. Many are rural, with detailed scenes of thick forests and empty farms, and the book has a foreboding sense of darkness. Featuring a selection of Myers’ previously published, award-winning work, the collection is deeply historical, spanning hundreds of years.

Although Male Tears is billed as “[laying] bare the male psyche”, it is more a historical exploration of the different types of English man that have existed over many centuries than an emotional examination of manhood. At times the stories can feel trite and predictable, reading a bit like pop psychology, the reader anticipating the ending right from the start. However, the eclectic and sweeping nature of the book as a whole is impressive, and Myers’ compassionate and tender approach to his characters makes even the most flawed of them worthy of empathy.

By Sarah Manavis

 

This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die