The Stranger's Child, By Alan Hollinghurst
Zero Degrees of Empathy, By Simon Baron-Cohen
Empire, By Jeremy Paxman
Dear Zarl, By Zarghuna Kargar
The Immortal Dinner, By Penelope Hughes-Hallett

Paperback reviews of the week

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

Picador £8.99

*****

Cecil Valance is a poet, aristocrat and Cambridge undergraduate, whom we meet in 1913 when he visits his friend and clandestine lover George Sawle at his home, Two Acres. Cecil also finds time for a brief flirtation with George's younger sister, Daphne, and writes a poem for her autograph album which becomes one of his most famous works - posthumously, as he is killed in the Great War. The first 105 pages are a preternaturally vivid and deliciously readable evocation of Edwardian Britain, which might have been written by Forster or Ford Madox Ford, and the excerpts of Cecil's poetry are a pitch-perfect parody of the early 20th-century English pastoral genre of verse, written in jingling tetrameters - the titles, alone, "Two Acres", "Soldiers Dreaming" and "The Old Companions" suggest a kind of sub Rupert Brooke. The next section is an equally vivid evocation of Britain in the 1920s; and the next section, Britain in the 1960s; and so on, up to 2008, and in each era the effects of Cecil's life and death on the survivors change, as the truth becomes overlaid by mythology. A novel about time, and change, and art, and sex, and death which is also as light as a soufflé. It's clever, subtle, melancholy and amusing at the same time. I know it is a reviewer's cliché, but I did actually miss my stop on the tube while reading this.

 

Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen

Penguin £9.99

****

This short, succinct book persuasively argues the thesis that what we loosely, emotively call "evil" is more precisely a lack of empathy. The thesis is not entirely new (Mary Midgley argued for something similar in her book Wickedness) but Baron-Cohen gives it a solid scientific grounding. He argues that evils like the Holocaust (the most conspicuous example of many such atrocities) are only explicable if we postulate an empathy spectrum, on which one's position is influenced by both genes and environment. He distinguishes between affective and cognitive failures of empathy, as exhibited by psychopaths and autistic subjects respectively. He also draws a positive conclusion: he argues that empathy is an under-used and under-appreciated resource, and that we should research ways of increasing it. Otherwise, conflict and cruelty are certain to persist in human affairs.

 

Empire by Jeremy Paxman

Penguin £8.99

****

Empire begins with the British Empire's disreputable origins in piracy and the slave trade, and takes us through the story of its steady accretion of territory, the crises like the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Indian Independence, as Indian nationalists call it) and the Boer War, laying bare the peculiar combination of greed, arrogance, sanctimony and religiosity that sustained it, right up to its disintegration after WWII. Paxman writes with gusto and a shrewdly judging eye. This is no apologia for Empire, but a clear-eyed condemnation of it, tinged with a kind of bemused respect for some of the more outlandish Empire-builders: Richard Burton, General Gordon, TE Lawrence. Robert Clive, on the other hand, is shown up as a scoundrel and a brute. It's not huge on analysis, but the storytelling is great.

 

Dear Zari by Zarghuna Kargar

Vintage £8.99

*****

Zarghuna Kargar produced and presented the BBC World Service's Afghan Women's Hour from 2004 to 2010: this book is a selection of some of the true stories of women's lives in Taliban Afghanistan. They are stories to make your blood boil with indignation: women beaten and abused by brutal husbands and poisonous in-laws, persecuted because they didn't bleed on their wedding night, given away to pay debts, forced into marriage from the age of 11, denied legal rights, shut up in dark rooms and forced to weave carpets, imprisoned behind burqas. One woman is disowned by her husband because she loses a leg in a rocket attack. It is a sick, misogynistic society in which the toxic cult of shame means men will murder daughters and sisters rather than bear the disapproval of neighbours. The only bright spot is the courage and stoicism of the women; but there are not many happy endings.

 

The Immortal Dinner by Penelope Hughes-Hallett

Vintage £9.99

****

On 28 December, 1817, the painter Robert Haydon held a dinner party at which the guests included Keats, Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and the explorer Joseph Ritchie. Hughes-Hallett's enjoyable history of this one evening, with its poetry readings, discussion of the merits of Homer, Shakespeare and Milton, debate about art and science, tipsiness, mockery and nonsense, also gives a wider picture of Regency society, with digressions into the acquisition of the Elgin Marbles, the career of Humphrey Davy, the politics of the Royal Academy, and the genesis of Frankenstein. A memorable evening, memorably evoked. I wonder if the drama critic John Reynolds, who was invited but didn't turn up, kicked himself afterwards.

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