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28 September 2022

From Elizabeth Strout to Robert Harris: recent books reviewed in short

Also featuring How To Speak Whale by Tom Mustill and a history of the Nineties by James Brooke-Smith.

By Gavin Jacobson, Michael Prodger, Ellen Peirson-Hagger and India Bourke

Accelerate!: A History of the 1990s by James Brooke-Smith
The History Press, 304pp, £20

Charting the history of the 1990s from the end of the Cold War to 9/11, James Brooke-Smith endeavours to make sense of a decade that resists characterisation. It is a period that has passed neither into history proper, nor into historical caricature (like the “Roaring Twenties”). Brooke-Smith, a professor at the University of Ottawa, shows how instead of the triumphant release after a prolonged period of tension, the 1990s was a decade of disorientation and division. To do so he explores the era’s trends, hits and contradictions across film, literature, music, TV, gaming and the internet.

The amount of material he marshals is impressive, but reading the book is a bit like falling down a “Wiki hole”, where you bounce from topic to topic without pausing to ask questions about power or capitalism. Wiki-holing can be fun and occasionally instructive, but it’s hardly credible as a method of history. Without any theoretical keystone to hold the source material together, Brooke-Smith can only describe what happened – or what was produced – at that time, rather than explain what it all meant and if any of it mattered. 
By Gavin Jacobson

Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris
Hutchinson Heinemann, 480pp, £22

In 1660, under the restored monarchy of Charles II, the Indemnity and Oblivion Act was passed by parliament. It granted a general amnesty for most of the crimes committed during the Cromwellian Commonwealth. Exempt, however, were those men directly involved in the regicide of Charles I: no pardon for them, but a death sentence. In Robert Harris’s latest taut and suspenseful novel, Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law Colonel William Goffe – real historical figures – are two such men, on the run for their lives.

This is a classic chase yarn, a 17th-century Rogue Male or Day of the Jackal. The two condemned men flee to America, where they are followed by the manhunter Richard Nayler, an invented character. Nayler has been tasked with catching the fugitives, dead or alive, but is motivated – obsessed, even – by a personal desire for revenge rather than by duty or a bounty. Harris, deft as ever, weaves a hefty amount of historical fact into the narrative – politics, religion, colonial life, family ties – as well as themes of forgiveness and reconciliation. Underneath it all though is the remorseless and building propulsion of hunter and prey.
By Michael Prodger

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout
Viking, 304pp, £14.99

Elizabeth Strout’s fiction is rightly praised for its startling insight into the human condition, written in exceptionally clear prose. In the first three novels in her Lucy Barton series, Strout details the life of a successful author who had a traumatic childhood in a poor town in Illinois. As an adult Lucy is highly empathetic but often self-absorbed. She experiences infidelity, divorce, loss and new love – and somehow, in writing about the specifics of one person’s life, Strout writes about us all.

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By contrast, the events of Lucy by the Sea feel less involving. This is the fourth Lucy Barton book, published less than a year after Oh William!, which is shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize. It is March 2020, and Lucy narrates the mundanities of her new locked-down life, as well as what is taking place in the outside world: the increasing severity of the pandemic; George Floyd’s murder; the storming of the Capitol. In focusing so laboriously on recent historical events, Strout loses much of her character’s humanity. In her best work this comes out in Lucy’s less likeable traits, but disappointingly few are explored here.
By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

How To Speak Whale: A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication by Tom Mustill
William Collins, 288pp, £20

The author and biologist Tom Mustill writes that today’s attempts to decrypt the natural world take place “where big data meets big beasts”. By “bugging” animal habitats and training machines to comb the data, scientists are conceiving ever more ingenious ways to access their minds. And this author has particular reason to pursue what whales are thinking.

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Ever since 2015, when a humpback breached on to his kayak, missing him and his friend by inches, Mustill has wondered: was the creature trying to kill them? Or did it jump by mistake and then swerve mid-air to spare their lives? The incident was caught on camera by holidaymakers and went viral online, sending him on a quest to better understand the ties that exist between species. Mustill, who is also an Emmy-nominated film-maker, has already produced a BBC documentary about his findings. He now channels his story into this even more extensively researched and energetic book. We may never be able to fully comprehend what goes on in the minds of other species. But it is via the informed, far-reaching empathy of intermediaries such as Mustill that we stand our best chance of seeing into the non-human depths.
By India Bourke

[See also: Hilary Mantel’s death is an incalculable loss to our national life and literature]

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This article appears in the 28 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Truss Delusion