The Quality of Mercy, by Barry Unsworth
The 9/11 Wars, by Jason Burke
The Roundabout Man, by Clare Morrall
The Confidant, by Hélène Grémillon
A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, by Lawrence M Krauss
Paperback reviews of the week
Sunday 16 September 2012
The Quality of Mercy, by Barry Unsworth Windmill £7.99
The novelist Barry Unsworth, who died in June, is probably best known for his Booker Prize-winner Sacred Hunger (1992), which tells of a revolt aboard a slaving ship in the Atlantic.
The book is not just a stirring adventure yarn, but a parable of capitalist greed: Unsworth's mutineers establish a commune in Florida where whites and freed blacks live in harmony, until the slave trader, Erasmus Kemp, driven by a "hunger" for profit, tracks them down.
The Quality of Mercy is a belated but worthy sequel to that fine novel. The narrative begins in 1767: Kemp has brought the rebellious sailors back to London to have them tried for piracy. Standing in his way is a progressive lawyer, Frederick Ashton, who sees the case as a way of publicising the abolitionist movement, and Frederick's sister Jane, who hopes to charm Kemp into recanting his support for slavery. Woven in is the story of a mining community in Durham, where Kemp has a commercial interest.
This proved to be Unsworth's final book, and it showcases his abundant strengths as a historical novelist.
He renders the texture of 18th-century life in vivid detail, but also insists upon moral values that transcend the specificities of period and place, showing us that when a society begins to confuse moral rectitude with commercial shrewdness, then it is assuredly lost. In doing so, Unsworth both evokes a bygone time and speaks eloquently to our own. His voice will be missed.
The 9/11 Wars, by Jason Burke Penguin £12.99
The al-Qa'ida attacks of September 2001 prompted 10 years of conflict that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Journalist Jason Burke's The 9/11 Wars is a superb account of that violent decade.
Adopting both top-down and bottom-up perspectives, Burke traces broad socio-political trends, and also pays attention to the messy details of life on the ground. He shows, for example, how the American decision to postpone democratic elections in Iraq fostered militancy, even among those who initially supported the invasion.
In his introduction, Burke relates a fellow reporter's opinion that only a work of fiction "could really make sense of what was happening". Indeed, that is what this book resembles: a vast, gory, surreal novel. The tragedy, of course, is that it is all true.
The Roundabout Man, by Clare Morrall Sceptre £8.99
At the centre of Clare Morrall's quirky novel is a recluse named Quinn Smith. Quinn's late mother, Larissa, was a famous children's author, and he appeared as a character in her much-loved books. Now in his sixties, he lives in a caravan on a roundabout, and survives on leftovers scrounged from a service station café.
Quinn's narration is evasive, and the secret behind his current predicament endlessly deferred. This can be a frustrating ploy, and readers might justifiably feel that they are being led in circles, like the cars around Quinn's home.
However, Morrall's elegant prose and sensitive characterisation hold the attention, and she even locates a certain poetry in Quinn's apparently unenviable life: "I exist in the eye of the storm ... the urgency of the world whizzes past me."
The Confidant, by Hélène Grémillon Gallic Books £7.99
When literary editor Camille Werner receives a collection of anonymous letters, ostensibly documenting a series of events in occupied France, she is perplexed. They tell of a poor young artist named Annie, who agrees to carry a child for her infertile benefactor Madame M, and of the tragedy that ensues. At first, Camille takes the letters to be a work of fiction, but she slowly realises, with horror, that they reveal a truth about her own past.
Hélène Grémillon's debut novel, a prizewinner in France, is well paced, and the various narrative threads are manipulated with impressive skill. Sadly though, there are many flaws: the tone becomes off-puttingly melodramatic; Madame M morphs from nuanced character into pantomime villain; and the ending, jarringly written in free verse, fails to convince.
A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, by Lawrence M Krauss Simon & Schuster £8.99
In this introduction to cosmology, the theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss explains how recent experimental observations have proved that it is scientifically possible for "something" to arise from "nothing", providing further evidence for the Big Bang.
Krauss' attempts to debunk religious arguments about the origins of the universe resemble those of Richard Dawkins, but lack his pedagogical skill: his writing can be dense, and he often resorts to exclamation marks, as if such emphasis alone will clarify his position. Nevertheless, he shows that science has an answer to what is often regarded as a theological question – and that's certainly not nothing.
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