Paperback reviews: Report From the Interior, Testament of Youth, The Amber Fury, Sex, Lies & The Ballot Box, The Burglar Caught by a Skeleton

Paul Auster (above) has the gift of making the personal feel universal, you feel as like he’s addressing you directly

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The Independent Culture

Report From the Interior by Paul Auster (Faber & Faber £10.99)

Infancy and childhood are often glossed over in autobiographies, as if they have to be got out of the way before the real stuff begins. Not so in Paul Auster’s latest memoir. His early years are the main event: his earliest thoughts, his conviction that there was a Man in the Moon, his fascination with stars and birds, his fear and distrust of God, his belief that there were two secret letters of the alphabet that only he knew about, his love of America, followed by his growing perceptions of its injustices, his awareness of being Jewish and his disappointment on discovering that his hero, Thomas Edison, was an anti-Semite.

There is a strong sense of how he was formed, as man and writer, by literature and art, from his enduring love for Peter Rabbit to his fascination with films – the stories of The Incredible Shrinking Man and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang are rendered in detail, the former exemplifying art’s power to enthral and amaze, the latter its power to make one aware of injustice. The later sections lack this intensity – his adolescence, college years, and early adulthood are covered in less detail and there is a long section based on letters that he wrote to his girlfriend when he was an aspiring writer living in Paris in his early twenties.

The final section, “Album”, is a collection of black-and-white photos of significant scenes. But it’s the early years for which one would tend to re-read this. As a writer, Auster has always been all about the voice. Here, the second-person voice that he uses, addressing his boyhood self, is compelling: wise, thoughtful, sympathetic, crystal clear even when sentences run to more than a page. He has the gift of making the personal feel universal. You feel as like he’s addressing you directly. And, in a way, he is.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (Virago £9.99)

Vera Brittain’s classic autobiography, first written in 1933, is still wonderfully fresh today. There is a modernity of outlook in her mental distance from the oppressive structures that surrounded her. If a contemporary young woman was suddenly thrust back 100 years in time, she would surely respond to the unfairness and institutionalised sexism of Edwardian England in a similar way. Brittain writes of her struggle to convince her father that she should go to university, her hours of solitary study to enable her to gain entry to Somerville, her nascent political consciousness, and then the eruption of the First World War, which took away her fiancé, her brother, and several close friends. She leaves college and becomes a nurse, first in London, then Malta, then France. Later, there is her friendship with Winifred Holtby when she returns to Oxford after the war. A marvellous, emotionally engaging literary autobiography. The only bits that feel dated are the poems that preface each chapter; Edwardian poetry has not worn well.

The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes (Corvus £7.99)

Alex Morris, a young, one-time theatre director, recently bereaved, flees London and takes a job at a Pupil Referral Unit in Edinburgh. The kids have deep reservoirs of anger, and tendencies to violence – but by teaching them Greek tragedy, Alex begins to get through to them. But the themes of fate and retribution that they have learned about inexorably lead one of them towards playing out her own tragedy in the real world ... Natalie Haynes is right to note, in her afterword, that teenagers and Greek tragedy are a perfect match. The writing here is a little too direct and over-explanatory, and the perceptions too obvious, to make this a success as a literary novel. But as a YA novel, it works very well.

Sex, Lies & The Ballot Box by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford (Biteback Publishing £14.99)

A collection of essays on elections by political academics, Sex, Lies & the Ballot Box is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. From perspectives of psychology, sociology, and economics, the essays analyse voting trends and explore what can be learnt from behaviour at the ballot box. Find out why people lie about voting intentions, and how the state of the economy affects voting patterns. Discover how political tribalism governs views on policies, and how political affiliations affect people’s opinions of the Downing Street cat. You’ll also learn here that Ukip voters are the most unadventurous in bed; Lib Dems are the kinkiest. The take-home point is that when it comes to elections, we are a lot less rational than we like to think.

The Burglar Caught by a Skeleton by Jeremy Clay (Icon Books £8.99)

This is categorised on the back of the book as Humour/History, and that’s about right. It’s a collection of bizarre stories from Victorian newspapers, such as the circus elephant that broke into a man’s house and pulled pictures off the wall with its trunk; the sleepwalker who climbed on to a roof and fired at a policeman; the girl whose presence caused a bucket to come to life and throw water around, and flowerpots to “behave in an extraordinary manner”; the man who ate a cap and a newspaper for fivepence; the Gloucestershire women who punished a wife-beater by spanking his bottom and throwing buckets of water over him. Singular occurrences, shocking scenes, peculiar accidents: it’s Horrible Histories for grown-ups.