Paperback reviews: Miracles of Life: Shanghai To Shepperton, Secrecy, Family Likeness, Sane New World: Taming the Mind, The Great Mathematical Problems


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Miracles of Life: Shanghai To Shepperton By J G Ballard (Fourth Estate £8.99)

James Graham Ballard’s autobiography Miracles of Life, published shortly before the author succumbed to cancer in 2009, is a quiet classic of the form. Written in an elegant, unadorned style, it describes Ballard’s journey from China to suburban Shepperton, where he became arguably Britain’s greatest post-war novelist.

Born in 1930, young James lived the cosseted life of a Western expatriate in Shanghai, a place he describes as a “bright but bloody kaleidoscope”. After the Japanese invasion and the onset of the Pacific War, Ballard and his English parents were held for two years in Lunghua prison camp, where they endured disease, weevil-riddled food and the attentions of violent soldiers.

Ballard later revisited his internment in Empire of the Sun (1984), his most famous and most conventional novel. But this memoir – fully half of which is devoted to the author’s first 16 years in China – enables us to see how those experiences also influenced more characteristic fiction like The Drowned World (1962) or High-Rise (1975), in which ordinary scenes and settings are given dark, surrealistic twists.

In his introduction to this edition, China Miéville observes that Miracles of Life at once helps to explain Ballard’s fictional oeuvre and deepens its mysteries. Ballard writes, for instance, that wartime China left him with a sense that “reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment” – a statement that is both revelatory and ambiguous.

Ballard later moved to England and met his wife, Mary Matthews. He raised their children alone after Mary’s death in 1964, living a suburban life while crafting his stories. In joining the dots between Shanghai and Shepperton, this wonderful book helps us to appreciate his work’s mixture of the mundane and macabre.

Secrecy By Rupert Thomson (Granta £7.99)

This fine novel is set amid the intellectual and political ferment of Renaissance Italy. The year is 1691: a Sicilian artist named Zummo – who specialises in creating waxwork tableaux depicting death and decay – is summoned by the Grand Duke of Florence to sculpt a life-size Venus for his personal enjoyment.

Zummo accepts the commission, but his position is compromised by his run-ins with a scheming bureaucrat, Stufa, and his erotic obsession with Faustina, daughter of the Duke’s promiscuous wife. And rumours about past indiscretions in Sicily threaten his reputation.

As he prepares the Duke’s waxwork, Zummo announces his desire to craft something that, depending on “one’s ‘angle of approach’, could be viewed on at least two different levels”. Thomson lends a pleasing ambiguity to his own work, too: on one level this is an historical romp, a Dan Brown-style cloak-and-dagger intrigue; on another it offers a sophisticated literary exploration of sexual desire and the limitations of creativity.

Family Likeness By Caitlin Davies (Windmill £8.99)

At the centre of Caitlin Davies’s novel is Muriel Wilson, a woman who grew up in a children’s home in 1950s Kent after her parents abandoned her. Decades later, Muriel has found peace, but her daughter, Rosie, is determined to find her grandparents so they might explain.

The ending is rather too sentimental, and a sub-plot concerning the family’s connections to Dido Belle, the illegitimate black daughter of an 18th-century British nobleman, doesn’t amount to much. But the passages describing young Muriel’s coming to terms with her abandonment are movingly done: “When there is no adult to call your own, you must adjust to those you are closest to. You shape yourself as best you can ….”

Sane New World: Taming the Mind By Ruby Wax (Hodder £8.99)

Having struggled with depression, the comedian Ruby Wax set out to learn more about the illness. This witty and accessible book is the result. She begins with a rambling diatribe about modern life – running together everything from X Factor contestants to floods in Papua New Guinea – which threatens to simplify the issues involved (and features some very bad jokes).

But, as the book develops, Wax proves a knowledgeable and entertaining guide to neuroscience. Her message is an optimistic one: by adopting “mindfulness” techniques, we can rewire the brain to evade unhealthy patterns of thought. “Improvise your life, grow some new neurons,” she advises.

The Great Mathematical Problems By Ian Stewart (Profile £9.99)

Stewart seeks to give a popular account of classic mathematical problems. Sensibly, given his subject matter, he focuses on the people who solved them: from Henri Poincaré, who saw how to solve a previously intractable conundrum in the act of stepping off a bus, to Andrew Wiles, who became obsessed with Fermat’s last theorem at the age of 10 – and finally cracked it 30 years later.

Stewart writes wonderfully, illustrating his ideas with vivid metaphors. Mathematics’ inter-related research areas and specialisms make it rather “like a natural landscape”, he says, “where you can never really say where the valley ends and the foothills begin, where the forest merges into scrub and grassy plains ….”