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Reviewed in short: New books by Sam Lee, Edmund de Waal, Polly Barton and Matthew Brown and Rhian Jones

The Nightingale by Lee, Letters to Camondo by de Waal, Fifty Sounds by Barton and Paint Your Town Red by Brown and Jones.

By New Statesman

The Nightingale by Sam Lee

Century, 240pp, £14.99

Every so often, someone reopens a forgotten door into the natural world and magic ensues. In May 1924, the British cellist Beatrice Harrison found such an opening when she arranged a live BBC recording in her garden – accompanied only by the sound of a nightingale. The performance soon became a global phenomenon, offering something “all of us in this busy world unconsciously crave and urgently need”, as Lord Reith wrote at the time.

Sam Lee, a folk singer and Pan-like intermediary for wilder things, now picks up where Harrison left off. His book tells the story of humanity’s relationship with the nightingale in all its international and artistic depth; from Byzantine song to the Blitz. Through this, Lee also shares his contemporary journey into the nightingale’s “melodious plot”, stretching through his co-performances with the birds, live lockdown broadcasts and the recent Extinction Rebellion protest in Berkeley Square. At a time when the UK’s nightingale population is in precipitous decline, Lee’s book is not just a lyrically crafted biography, but a moving rebellion against political inaction and lost connections. It is a bell to toll you out into a forest of re-enchantment.

By India Bourke

[See also: The contradictions of Edward Said]

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Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal

Chatto & Windus, 192pp, £14.99

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Readers of Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes will know him as an author with a heightened reverence for the past. That book was marked by its delicacy of expression and thought, helped by its author being a descendant of the Ephrussi, the hugely wealthy European Jewish family at its centre. Such traits are evident, too, in this new book, in which De Waal treats a figure from the Ephrussi’s belle époque milieu, Count Moïse de Camondo, a banker who amassed a fabulous collection of 18th-century French art.

De Waal approaches his subject through a series of letters in which he interrogates the count about his life, his family and his collecting. The letters start tentatively but gradually become more confident as the author feels his way into an imaginary friendship – or at least a kind of intimacy – with the count. A one-sided correspondence can never be as satisfying as a whole one, but De Waal’s gentle and thoughtful probing is persuasive and his exploration of the family history after the count’s death in 1935 – especially the deaths of family members under the Nazis – is both poignant and unforced.

By Michael Prodger

[See also: Philip Roth and the repellent]

Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton

Fitzcarraldo, 347pp, £12.99

Language, you come to understand as you read this probing, musically minded memoir, is both a necessary tool of expression and a plaything. At the age of 21, Polly Barton, now a literary translator, moved from the UK to Japan. There, alongside her studies in Japanese, she learned what it really means to pick up a foreign language – not just to expose oneself to linguistic and cultural differences, but to immerse oneself in a new mode of thought entirely.

Japanese has approximately three to five times the number of onomatopoeic sounds Indo-European languages have, which has been largely overlooked in Western-centric linguistic study. This gives Japanese speakers the ability to “evoke vivid, affect-rich ‘images’ of an experience, to place listener and speaker alike immediately ‘at the scene’”. In Fifty Sounds, Barton muses on Wittgenstein and recounts her social faux pas and moments of linguistic revelation via her own mimetic dictionary, where “nuru-nuru” is “the slippery sound of knowing the lingo” and “kiri-kiri” is “the sound of the small sharp dark piercing feeling, or not loving anime as much as you should”. Barton is a lively, inquisitive writer, and her first book is a warm and eye-opening account of the precarity of human communication. By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Margaret Reynolds, Michio Kaku, AK Blakemore and Jay Griffiths]

Paint Your Town Red by Matthew Brown and Rhian Jones

Repeater, 152pp, £10.99

Recent elections have brought the UK’s regionalised inequality, and its political salience, to national attention – hence the Conservatives’ selectively munificent intention to “level up” the post-industrial communities that its own austerity regime helped to ravage over recent times. But this well-conceived pamphlet offers an alternative solution to localised decline: “community wealth-building”, which couples local regeneration with local empowerment by developing “small and socially conscious enterprises, including worker-owned businesses, community land trusts and community banks”.

In this vision, residents are not passive recipients of centrally dispensed largesse but agents of transformation. The centrepiece of the book is an account of the so-called Preston model, which in recent years has begun to reverse the fortunes of this depressed town in the north-west of England, drained of “wealth, opportunities and influence” by funding cuts and the loss of manufacturing industries. With economic transformation led by Westminster improbable, what the authors term “universalisable localism” – inspired by what’s been achieved in Preston – can be an “important source of hope and change”.

By Lola Seaton

This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?