Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, by Megan Marshall (Mariner Books, £11.99)
Born in Boston in 1810, Sarah Margaret Fuller was one of the progenitors of Transcendentalism, a peculiarly American philosophy that preached the importance of individual self-reliance. But she has long been overshadowed by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, her contemporaries in the movement.
Megan Marshall’s new biography should help to remedy that. Fuller emerges here as one of the great women of her era, a writer, thinker and – though Marshall avoids using the word – proto-feminist who adapted Emerson’s ideas to ensure their relevance to both sexes. She was also an adventurous journalist who travelled to Europe as a war correspondent while Thoreau was plodding round Walden Pond.
Fuller’s intellectual brilliance was clear from a young age, but she was barred from attending Harvard College – which did not admit women – and had to make do with associating socially with the local graduates; she became one of the few female members of Emerson’s Transcendental Club in the 1830s. (Marshall is especially good on Fuller’s relationship with Emerson, which oscillated between warmth and froideur.)
After editing the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial, from 1840-1842, Fuller published Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), which argued for sexual equality and criticised the institution of marriage. Marshall demonstrates the enduring significance of this and other works – but also brings out the emotional difficulties Fuller experienced as she sought to escape the conventional paths open to women of her time.
Working as a foreign correspondent for the New York Tribune in Italy in 1848, Fuller fell in love with an officer in the Roman Guard, with whom she had a son. Her happiness was short-lived: she and her young family died when their ship sank – agonisingly close to shore – en route to America in 1850. But this fine biography does much to affirm her imperishable legacy as “America’s originating and most consequential theorist of woman’s role”.
The Forgiven, by Lawrence Osborne (Vintage, £8.99)
British couple David and Jo are driving to a party at their friend Dally’s home in Morocco. Tired and drunk, David hits and kills a young Berber man as he runs into the road; the couple arrive at Dally’s palatial pile with the body in the backseat. The next day the boy’s father turns up, demanding a penance: David must accompany him into the desert and help give his son a traditional burial. David reluctantly agrees, leaving Jo at the party – where she finds herself willing to be seduced by one of Dally’s greasy guests.
Osborne’s dark, wry novel belongs in that venerable “expats-behaving-badly” genre. It bowls along satisfyingly – even if it never quite delivers on the promise of its dramatic opening – and the prose is stylish, somehow both lavish and muscular at the same time. I enjoyed the concise, pin-sharp characterisations: Dally is “a man of meticulous inner workings, a man who is half clock, half ballerina, with a genius for orchestrations”; David is simply a “roly-poly Tory with a boozy red nose.”
Telex from Cuba, by Rachel Kushner (Vintage, £8.99)
Rachel Kushner’s debut novel is set amid the political turmoil of 1950s Cuba. The narrative hops nimbly between various protagonists: Everly and K.C., children growing up in the affluent U.S. expatriate community; Rachel K, a Havana showgirl and informant for Fidel and Raul Castro; and the enigmatic Maziere, a gun-runner and former Nazi whose true allegiances are obscure.
Telex from Cuba, first published in 2008, offers an intriguing, multifaceted portrait of a society in flux, although I found that the constant shifts between narrative strands left the novel rather lacking in focus. The most powerful passages are those that deal with the children, showing how their experiences in this racially segregated, quasi-colonial environment warp and limit their perspectives on the world – even if they provide ideal preparation for life back home in Jim Crow-era America.
Buffalo Soldier, by Tanya Landman (Walker Books, £7.99)
Charley O’Hara is a young slave girl in 19-century America. After the Civil War and the subsequent Emancipation she pretends to be a man in order to join a new African-American regiment in the U.S. army – the so-called “Buffalo Soldiers” – tasked with subduing the Apache rebellion.
Tanya Landman’s novel is deft and dark and pitched beautifully to its young-adult audience. Charley’s voice is nicely captured, as is her growing awareness of the irony of her situation, as a black woman who wins her freedom only to join a military force that deprives Native Americans of theirs. “Seems to me the one thing white folks find more troubling than a dark skin is a religion that’s different to their own,” she remarks as she discovers a new sympathy for her “heathen” foes.
Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence, by Thalma Lobel (Icon, £12.99)
A growing body of scientific research suggests that our minds are deeply vulnerable to the unconscious influence of sense perception. Thalma Lobel’s book is the first popular account of these studies into “embodied cognition”, which show that holding a cup of coffee makes us friendlier and that wearing sunglasses makes us more liable to cheat on a spouse.
Lobel argues that our use of metaphoric language is rooted in this psychological reality – someone will appear “sweeter” to us if they admit to a liking for chocolate; someone grappling with a “weighty” emotional issue will display the physical traits of one bearing a heavy load. Helpfully, she also mines her research for dating tips: you’ll seem more attractive to your date, for instance, if you wear something red.