The Uncommon Reader, By Alan Bennett
The Good Muslim, By Tahmima Anam
The Dubious Salvation of Jack V, By Jacques Strauss
The Secret Olympian: The Inside Story of the Olympic Experience
I Left My Tent in San Francisco, By Emma Kennedy

Paperback reviews of the week

The Uncommon Reader, By Alan Bennett

Faber £7.99

*****

For anyone dispirited by all the royalist fervour the Jubilee has inspired – Gary Barlow's "Official Song" is surely some sort of cultural nadir – be assured that at least one good thing has come out of it. Faber has taken the opportunity to reissue Alan Bennett's fine novella The Uncommon Reader, which imagines the chaos wrought by our monarch's belated discovery of Literature.

Pursuing an errant corgi across the grounds of Buckingham Palace, the Queen comes across a mobile library, and feels obliged to check out a dusty Ivy Compton-Burnett. The book is hardly a classic, but it awakens a desire to read that soon leads her to more heavyweight fare – Henry James, George Eliot, even Proust. When Ma'am begins to neglect her duties, the equerries – led by the unctuous Antipodean aide Sir Kevin – get skittish, and conspire to put a stop to her new hobby.

Bennett satirises unenlightened politicians – Her Majesty discomfits dignitaries with recondite literary questions – but is also subtly critical of royalty itself. As the Queen reads, she discovers a new empathy for her subjects that would seem at odds with her exalted role. When Bennett summons the image of Elizabeth II happily reading the homosexual petty thief Jean Genet, we realise that, notwithstanding the celebratory bunting on the cover of this "Jubilee Edition", his little book is wonderfully subversive.

 

The Good Muslim, By Tahmima Anam

Canongate £8.99

*****

Tahmima Anam's superb novel – the sequel to her prize-winning debut A Golden Age – takes up the story of Maya and Sohail Haque after Bangladesh's war of independence in 1971.

The siblings follow diverging paths: Sohail, haunted by the horrors of the conflict, finds solace in traditional Islamic practices; Maya becomes involved in medicine and progressive politics. When Sohail's wife dies they argue over the upbringing of his troubled son, Zaid, whose uncertain future seems symbolic of the nation itself.

Anam's limpid prose is seasoned with arresting phrases – Bangladesh is, for Maya, a "broken wishbone of a country" – and her narrative at once intimate and vast, is historically informed without ever letting history overwhelm her characters.

 

The Dubious Salvation of Jack V, By Jacques Strauss

Vintage £7.99

****

At the centre of Jacques Strauss's offbeat debut is Jack Viljee, a South African who is moved to recall his childhood in 1980s Johannesburg. </p><p>The son of a British mother and an Afrikaans father, he is caught between two worlds – regarded as an effete "poofda" by Afrikaners and as an uncouth rustic by his English schoolmates – and finds friendship in the form of his family's black maid, Susie. But when Susie's combative son comes to stay Jack feels threatened – and responds with an act of betrayal.

In Strauss's occasionally sentimental depiction of his young protagonist, one senses the unhelpful influence of the American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. But his oblique treatment of the era's fraught politics is beautifully done.

 

The Secret Olympian: The Inside Story of the Olympic Experience, By Anon

Bloomsbury £8.99

**

The unnamed author of this exposé – a male member of team GB at Athens in 2004 – describes the athletes' experience of the Olympics from the first weeks of training to the inevitable post-Games comedown. </p><p>His lugubrious tone ("I didn't dream about going to the Olympics"; "the Village is a high-security housing estate temporarily populated by freaks and physiotherapists") forms a nice corrective to all the hype that surrounds London 2012. But while he proffers some wry observations on the hedonism of his fellow competitors – Olympians "lose themselves in free drinks and illicit liaisons" – this is for the most part a rather dull survey of drugs tests and fitness checks, and one wonders why he felt the need to preserve his anonymity.

 

I Left My Tent in San Francisco, By Emma Kennedy

Ebury£7.99

***

Emma Kennedy follows up her bestselling childhood memoir The Tent, The Bucket and Me with this amiable 1980s-set travelogue. After graduation, Emma and her friend Dee journey coast to coast across America, surviving earthquakes, snakes, skunks and the attentions of a porn star dwarf before finally making it home.

The pace is rather too leisurely – Kennedy spends three pages describing describing the contents of an issue of Cosmopolitan from 1989 – and one wonders how she remembers the fine details of conversations held more than 20 years ago. But she writes with warmth, and her humour is nicely pitched.

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