The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee
Profile Books, 448pp, £20
“Black people and other people of colour certainly lost out when we weren’t able to invest more in the aftermath of the Great Recession… at least partly because of racist stereotypes and dog whistles used by our opposition. But did white people win? No, for the most part they lost right along with the rest of us.” So writes Heather McGhee in the introduction to The Sum of Us, subtitled “what racism costs everyone and and how we can prosper together”. The rest of the book, which is impactful in its straightforward style, makes that case: racism isn’t just holding back black America. It is holding back all of America, even the white parts.
McGhee’s argument is clear: she is not saying that white people in the United States are hurt as much by racism as black people are. But she is saying that racism – crucially, the policies it drives and the concentration of wealth those policies allow – hurts everyone except for the richest. McGhee weaves together personal anecdotes and family history, reporting and social science to present an image of what the United States is, but does not have to be. It is a picture some Americans grew up seeing, which others ignore at their peril.
By Emily Tamkin
The Anglo-Saxons by Marc Morris
Hutchinson, 528pp, £25
Around the turn of the fifth century, Roman rule in Britain collapsed. Into this power vacuum came the Anglo-Saxons. They were not a single invading entity, but rather a group that emerged through the conquering of and assimilation with Britons by northern Europeans and southern Scandinavians. Considering that by the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, England was a united nation ruled by a single king, it is tempting to view the intervening centuries as ones of steady progress. But they were marked by brutal war, struggles over succession and near-continuous Viking raids.
The historian Marc Morris masterfully picks out key themes and characters, from King Offa to Alfred the Great, to produce a coherent and compelling narrative of this turbulent time. It is also a story about England and Englishness: the shires drawn up by the Anglo-Saxons remain almost unchanged today, and it was in this period that the first king of England was crowned and the idea of an English race entered common usage. Given the scale of his subject and, in places, the paucity of evidence, Morris emphasises early that “a definitive history of this period is impossible”, but this colossal book comes close.
By Pippa Bailey
In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo, translated by the author and John Cullen
Small Axes, 235pp, £9.99
It seems crass to compare the horrors of one virus outbreak with those of another, but Véronique Tadjo’s chronicle of the 2014-16 West African Ebola epidemic is painfully resonant today. In the Company of Men was first published in French in 2017, and so the timing of its translation into English feels uncanny. Here are familiar snapshots of desperate patients and overwhelmed hospitals, of health workers in plastic suits and triage tents; even the virus itself is recognisable, passed from bats to humans following years of habitat destruction. But then there are the unfamiliar, unimaginable scenes: victims bleed from every orifice; young children die before their parents.
Tadjo, an award-winning Franco-Ivorian author, draws on real-life testimony, and it’s perhaps because of this – as well as the translation – that the language can be hackneyed. These matter-of-fact accounts then sit uneasily next to the novel’s flimsy fictional passages – fables narrated by a bat, a baobab tree or the virus itself. But there’s plenty of poetry, too, and sharp reminders of the cruelties of plagues past and present: the disease is “worse than war. A mother, a father, a son can become the mortal enemy. Pity is a death sentence.” And pity is all around.
By Katherine Cowles
[See also: Paul Kingsnorth and the new climate fiction]
If You Were There by Francisco Garcia
HarperCollins, 336pp, £14.99
Francisco Garcia was seven when his father, Christobal, disappeared from his life. After Christobal moved from Andalusia to London with Garcia’s mother, addiction had taken hold of the young Spaniard’s life, and without the language or a stable job to support himself, he spent more and more days away from his family.
In this moving account, Garcia poignantly details the effect his father’s absence had on his childhood, and how he remained haunted by questions of what had happened as he moved away for university and then began his career as a journalist. He slowly processes his father’s behaviour, gently weaving his story around the experiences of other families whose loved ones have gone missing, meeting the organisations that try to find them and people who have “returned” after seemingly vanishing. Garcia identifies the pressures that are often at play in the lives of the 176,000 people that are reported missing annually; mental health, poverty, starved services and intrinsic vulnerability all contribute to “the erosion of the already imperfect social safety net that used to catch people before they fell out of vision”. This is a beautiful exploration of unresolved grief, and the power and tenacity of those the missing leave behind.
By Christiana Bishop
This article appears in the 19 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of meritocracy