The World on Fire, By Anthony Read

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The Independent Culture

Why did the Man Booker long-list shun this wonderful debut? A mystery – but one oddly apt for a novel that so plausibly creates an artist's life and shows it blown and broken by gales of passion, chance and fate. Jennet Mallow is a Yorkshire-born painter who, to fulfil her gift, spurns the "self-sacrifice of women" expected in the postwar decades. But, in one dazzlingly written and brilliantly executed scene after another, she remains a credibly torn soul in whom love and art tragically spar. From dank London to wild Spain and radiant Cornwall, Kay shows people who change in shifting lights and angles "like a chameleon on a rainbow". A marvel. BT

In this engaging work, an Oxford professor of Chinese utilises Vermeer's luminous realism to explore the global economy of the 17th century. The hat in "Officer and Laughing Girl" takes us to Canada. Samuel Champlain was seeking the North West Passage but found beaver pelts, which bind into pliable, waterproof felt when boiled with poisonous mercury glue (hence mad hatters). The dish of fruit in "Young Woman Reading a Letter" inspires a chapter on Chinese porcelain. One ship carried 126,391 pieces. The scales in "Woman Holding A Balance" introduce the silver trade: illuminating footnotes to Vermeer's miracles on canvas.