A Walk-On Part: Diaries 1994-1999, By Chris Mullin
Then, By Julie Myerson
Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London, By Nigel Jones
Nightwoods, By Charles Frazier
I Still Dream About You, By Fannie Flagg

Paperback reviews of the week

A Walk-On Part: Diaries 1994-1999 By Chris Mullin

Profile, £9.99

****

Diaries are the most private of literary forms, but politicians know that they are writing for the public. Diaries that might be called in evidence in an enquiry one day; might even, if the author rises high enough in the ranks, be published. With this in mind, they're always a strange hybrid of public account and private self-justification.

Chris Mullin, an MP for 23 years and former departmental minister in the Labour government of Tony Blair, doesn't reinvent or challenge this hybrid – personal "moments" are confined to his five-year-old daughter's cute comments, and his writing style is hardly at the level of the Booker, the prize he helped judge in 2011. But he is on the inside, which is all we need to know, and he's pleasingly partisan, too. A fan of Blair and loather of Brown, he nevertheless criticises the former for not restraining Peter Mandelson, and praises the latter in office: "these days Gordon exudes an aura of competence and self-confidence which, in opposition, he lacked." He lets us see the predictions he makes, too: "At last, a Labour Chancellor who is not at the mercy of events." Oops.

One nice point – he has a conversation in 1998 with John Major, telling the former PM jokingly that all he needs now is a stately home in which to hang the portrait he has had painted of himself and his wife, Norma. "I can't afford one," Major replies. "You'll have to do a few more of those lectures," Mullin tells him. Tony Blair must have been ear-wigging.

 

Then, By Julie Myerson

Vintage, £7.99

****

Myerson, never one to resist the personal, references her "dark year" in her Acknowledgements, pointing perhaps to her memoir about her son's drug-taking and the subsequent hostile media coverage. Then possibly emerges from that experience, a dystopia, where post-apocalyptic London is home to a woman who's lost her memory and her family. She lives in a destroyed office block with a stranger called Graham and three young people, Sophy, Ted and shadowy Matthew. Gradually, as her memory returns, the horror of what she has done to her family, and the mass violation she seems to feel she has invited, emerges. Writers always imagine that their own world is the world at large; in this case, Myerson's necessary authorial egotism has turned round a really compelling story.

 

Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London, By Nigel Jones

Windmill, £8.99

****

Much of this deliciously bloody history involves kings and queens and their renegade subjects or throne-grabbing relatives, but the Tower of London wasn't just a fortress and a palace; it was also, rather bizarrely, something of a zoo for many kings, housing an exotic and dangerous menagerie that included lions and tigers and even an elephant. And it wasn't always the impenetrable castle its originator, William the Conqueror, hoped it would be: Wat Tyler's hordes managed to break into the apartments of Queen Joan, mother of Richard II in 1381, for example, and molest both her and her ladies-in-waiting. The Tower's grisly reputation for torture didn't really begin until the reign of Henry VIII, though, a reputation it has never quite shaken off.

 

Nightwoods, By Charles Frazier

Sceptre, £7.99

*****

This superb tale of lone, forest-dwelling Luce, who has been obliged to take in her murdered sister's mute young children, builds up Night of the Hunter-type tension, as Frazier dramatises his battle between good and evil. Luce's brother-in-law, Bud, gets off his murder charge thanks to a weak prosecutor and comes looking for his step-children, convinced that they know where his dead wife stashed the loot he stole. Luce herself is a kind of mirror-image of the mute children, damaged into retreating into this forest, unwilling to engage, until the unlikely prospect of Stubblefield, the grandson of her landlord, comes into view. A tale of second chances, and the damage and the good that families can do, it is little short of a masterpiece.

 

I Still Dream About You, By Fannie Flagg

Vintage, £7.99

****

Flagg possesses the enviable talent of lightening the darkest subjects without ever trivialising them. This partly due to the honest intimacy of her protagonists' voices: in this case, former Miss Alabama, Maggie Fortenberry, who has decided to end her life, seeing little point in carrying on with her failing estate agency business and her single life. Flagg treats her characters with respect – she has Maggie fill out a "Things to do before I go" list which is eminently practical and meant to cause as few problems afterwards as possible, without ever making her look ridiculous. Flagg's women-dominated worlds may seem heart-warming and cosy, but they also tap into women's real fears and dreams.

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