Eden by Jim Crace
Picador, 272 pages, £16.99
Gardeners of Eden lack neither food nor shelter. The trees are moaning with fruit and the fishpond is well stocked; workers sleep in dormitories, watched over by feathered angel overseers. But this paradise is also a prison: the citizens of Eden are not allowed to leave its walls, where hunger is rampant (alms are pushed through the doors for the needy to take). Disobedience is met with violence, dissidence with expulsion: the story of Adam and Eve is repeated like a warning. When a worker decides she must see what lies beyond “the sublime uniformity of Eden,” her flight destabilizes the community and threatens the sanctity of the garden.
Jim Crace’s socialist politics have always permeated his fiction, and in Eden the preoccupation with power, class, poverty and inequality that underpinned his two previous novels, The melody and To harvest, stands up and pushes against fable narrative and fruitful prose. It captures the grayness of life in Eden almost too well: at times the action, narrated by a series of characters in overlapping narratives, relaxes. But his portrayal of a society in which structural power and inequality are entrenched and freedom is limited contains a powerful critique not only of religion but also of the modern state and its undemocratic turn.
By Tom Gatti
Re-Sisters: The Lives and Recordings of Delia Derbyshire, Margery Kempe and Cosey Fanni Tutti by Cosey Fanni Tutti
Faber & Faber, £18.99, 400pp
Re-Sisters details the parallels between Margery Kempe, a 15th-century Christian mystic, and Delia Derbyshire, the electronic music pioneer who arranged the original Doctor Who theme. It’s an idiosyncratic premise, made even more eccentric by Cosey Fanni Tutti’s inclusion of his own life story in the third part of the narrative. But Tutti, an avant-garde artist and musician best known as a member of Throbbing Gristle and Chris & Cosey, manages her vast array of historical records with the enthusiasm and dedication of an academic.
In Re-Sisters she maps the lives of three creatives who have each been considered the “novelty woman” in their field. It questions the idea of what it means to “record”: Kempe recorded his life in writing in the first known autobiography in English; for Derbyshire, a “record” implied sounds. In doing so, Tutti’s exciting and inventive book explains why we need to listen to those on the margins of society.
By Ellen Peerson-Hagger
On Java Road by Lawrence Osborne
Hogarth, 240 pages, £16.99
Lawrence Osborne, in the course of half a dozen novels, has forged a discerning clientele. He has two great advantages as a writer of fiction: he is as good at short stories as he is at writing travels. The sparseness of the former and the embedded details of the latter are evident in his novels about Westerners abroad, often in East and Southeast Asia, made to confront their strangeness.
On the road to Java is set in the Hong Kong of someone who knows the place well – its local restaurants, towers and crowds rather than its neon-lit facade. This is the time of student protests against the increasingly strangled hold of the Chinese state. The old friendship between Adrian Gyle, an expatriate English journalist who has just bumped into each other, and the plutocratic Jimmy Tang is put under pressure when Tang begins an affair with a beautiful pro-democracy protester named Rebecca. When she disappears, Gyle sets out to find out what happened, fully aware that the consequences will only hurt him. Here, Osborne updates Graham Greene’s “entertainment” – social relationships are ambiguous, there’s menace in the air, conversations rarely mean one thing – and everything is handled with style and adroitness.
By Michael Prodger
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Back to my trees: notes from the Welsh forests by Matthew Yeomans
Calon, 256 pages, £18.99
Author and journalist Matthew Yeomans was already suffering from anxiety and panic attacks when the 2020 Covid lockdown began. Reluctant to rely on medication and gyms being closed, he began wandering around his hometown of Cardiff to find inner calm. Soon his short urban meanders turned into long hikes through the woods.
Return to My Trees is the author’s tale of reconnecting with the natural world as he follows paths that wind through hills and valleys. The Welsh government plans to include hundreds of miles of these trails in a new national forest, aiming to connect existing forests (many areas of which are old and will need to be restored) with new trees. Following them also offers Yeomans an immersion in the cultural and industrial history of Wales. National forests, he suggests, could help make nature an “integral part of a national identity”; a proposition that is expected to extend far beyond Welsh borders.
By Philippa Nuttall
[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Jayne Buxton, Edward Enninful, Simon Heffer and Emma Donoghue]