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18 May 2022

Reviewed in short: New books from Graham Caveney, Giles Tremlett, Charlotte Van den Broeck and Chitra Ramaswamy

On Agoraphobia by Caveney, España: A Brief History of Spain by Tremlett, Bold Ventures by Van den Broeck and Homelands: The History of a Friendship by Ramaswamy.

By Sophie McBain, Jeremy Cliffe, Michael Prodger and Gavin Jacobson

On Agoraphobia by Graham Caveney
Picador, 208pp, £12.99

“If we’re talking agoraphobia, we’re talking books,” the author Graham Caveney writes in this short yet expansive work exploring his all-consuming fear of open spaces. Confined at home, he escaped through reading. The first agoraphobic he encountered through a book, he realised years later, was Harper Lee’s reclusive Boo Radley – but the literary world is replete with people like him. Caveney draws on literature, history and philosophy to better understand his condition, and writes in fragmentary prose. His own story fits into the margins. He writes of the alcoholism that almost killed him, and of his support group, where fellow agoraphobics trade coping strategies and one-liners: “Agoraphobia: don’t leave home without it.”

Caveney traces the roots of his phobia to the sexual abuse he experienced at the hands of a Catholic priest when he was a child. He later sued the Marist order, and his agoraphobia became evidence. “The process taught me how slippery our stories can be, capricious and slanted…” he writes. “Lives are messy, contingent, mysterious. Our stories about them should never be too neat, but disrupt and surprise, make us as different to ourselves as to others.” This striking book embraces the slipperiness, the mess and the mystery.
By Sophie McBain

España: A Brief History of Spain by Giles Tremlett
Head of Zeus, 320pp, £25

Spain is different” went the slogan cooked up during the Franco years to lure northern European tourists to the costas. It captured a deeper truth: the country is indeed intriguingly and often intoxicatingly distinctive from the rest of Europe. But why? Giles Tremlett, a veteran Madrid correspondent, provides an excellent whistle-stop tour through the history that explains it all. From the geological foundations of the Iberian Peninsula to the eurozone crisis and beyond, his new book places geography at the core of its argument. In many senses Spain sits at the crossroads of history: a meeting point between the European, Atlantic, Levantine and African worlds. Yet it is also together with Portugal a peninsula at Europe’s far south-western edge. It is at once pivotal and peripheral.

In Tremlett’s brisk and readable telling, the country’s past plays out as a contest between these two realities and the contradictory forces they produce: those of purist isolation and heterodox openness. Spain emerges from his account as a stone fortress somehow still capable of absorbing new arrivals (from the Romans, Visigoths and Moors to practically every 20th-century “-ism” going), a synthesis of insularity and integration.
By Jeremy Cliffe

Bold Ventures by Charlotte Van den Broeck, translated by David McKay
Vintage, 304pp, £16.99

Are architects more fatally susceptible than other artists? This is the conclusion of Charlotte Van den Broeck, a Belgian poet who is fascinated by the mirroring of architectural flaws and the psychological faults in their creators. Her book looks at 13 buildings that were implicated in the suicides of their architects. The case studies include Eduard van der Nüll, an architect of the Vienna State Opera who killed himself because of the critical opprobrium heaped on the building; the great baroque architect Francesco Borromini, who took his own life while grappling with one church design; and the architects of a Washington DC cinema who killed themselves in the years following a fatal roof collapse.

Except, however, that not all of her deaths had anything to do with buildings. Indeed, Van den Broeck’s book is less about her case studies than herself and the nature of creativity, as if she fears that her own mental scaffolding won’t be strong enough to support her chosen life as a writer. Less of her personal stucco and more bricks and mortar would have helped.
By Michael Prodger

Homelands: The History of a Friendship by Chitra Ramaswamy
Canongate, 368pp, £16.99

Fleeing Nazi Germany, Henry Wuga arrived in Britain in the late 1930s on the Kindertransport. He got married in Glasgow and worked as a baker before establishing his own kosher company. The journalist Chitra Ramaswamy, who was born in the 1970s to Indian migrant parents, was sent to interview Wuga as part of a piece on the experience of refugees living in Scotland. Despite their different backgrounds, they developed a close friendship against the backdrop of Brexit, increasing anti-Semitism and the rise of the far right.

Ramaswamy chronicles Wuga’s story from Nuremberg to Scotland (including stays at numerous British internment camps), threading into it details from her own life. As she goes she asks: what constitutes a home? Ultimately, she discovers there is no real answer beyond the fact that “disorientation is the true birthplace of millions of us”. Drawing inspiration from James Baldwin, and WG Sebald’s Austerlitz, Homelands is the latest in the proliferating genre of the intergenerational memoir and an eloquent testament to the tribulations of national belonging.
By Gavin Jacobson

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[See also: Reviewed in short: New books from David Bosco, Emma Smith, Charlotte Philby and John Agard]

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This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato