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Mixed Media: Books

The Story of a Brief Marriage

by Anuk Arudpragasam (Granta, ISBN 9781783782376)

This striking debut novel is set during the blood-drenched last days of the Sri Lankan civil war. In a civilian enclave trapped between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers is Dinesh, a helper in a field hospital tending to the wounded casualties of the indiscriminate bombing by both sides. In defence against the daily horror of the death and destruction surrounding him, Dinesh has retreated into himself, feeling little emotion and barely eating or sleeping. He is jolted out of his protective numbness when he is approached by an older man who asks him to marry his daughter, Ganga, in a desperate attempt to afford her some protection against the marauding soldiers. Expecting imminent death and seeing little point to any of his actions, Dinesh agrees and slowly, tentatively, he and Ganga embark on establishing human contact in the bowels of hell.

The author spares the reader nothing of the visceral, graphic violence inflicted on his characters – the book opens with a particularly harrowing amputation performed on a child – and the arbitrary, casual nature of death is a constant presence in the book. However, Arudpragasam writes with a delicacy and precision that cuts against the horror of his subject matter and underscores the basic humanity of his doomed protagonists. We are left, in the final analysis, with rage against the horror of war, certainly, but also with an affirmation of the possibility of care and tenderness even in the worst places imaginable.

★★★★ PW


Talking To My Country

by Stan Grant (Scribe Publications, ISBN 9781925228861)

Stan Grant is a journalist who, as a correspondent for CNN, Sky News and The Guardian, has reported from global conflicts stretching from North Korea to Iraq. He is also an indigenous Australian from the Wiradjuri people and in this illuminating memoir he sets out to explore his own history, that of his family and people, and that of the Australian nation.

What he finds, primarily, is racism. While Australia’s long shameful history of oppression against its indigenous peoples, for so long denied and ignored, is at last being acknowledged, Grant is right to highlight the ongoing effects of colonialism. It is not in history but in these times that indigenous people make up just three per cent of the population but a quarter of prison inmates, and that one in five indigenous male prisoners attempt suicide.

Not surprisingly, this is a harsh, angry book; Grant is well aware that had things taken a different turn, he could have been among the statistics of addiction and death. Education and a love of literature – particularly the writing of James Baldwin – were his ways out and he is very much the exception. The conflict between pride in his heritage and shame and rage at what has been inflicted on his people, is present on every page. Searingly honest, this is a compelling and harrowing book in which Stan Grant adds his strong voice to the clamour for social justice and indigenous rights.

★★★★ PW


The History Thieves

by Ian Cobain (Portobello Books, ISBN 978 1 84627583 8)

It is said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But what if you never knew about it in the first place? The latest book by investigative journalist Ian Cobain sets about uncovering some of the British government’s dirty secrets – from a string of hushed-up wars to the mass surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden – and the elaborate architecture used to keep them hidden.

Cobain’s easy prose turns potentially dry subject matter into an intriguing set of stories. They track the development of the British pathology of concealment from early statutes to the present day, bolstering his premise: official secrecy in Britain goes far beyond what is required for safe government.

Shocking revelations include Operation Legacy – a systematic project in the dying days of the British Empire to destroy, remove and conceal records of dark deeds that might sully its reputation (the torture and massacre of Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya, for example, detailed in a cache of 1,500 files).

Cobain punches holes in the idea that Britain is an open, transparent country and he worries about the growing trend towards ‘closed procedures’ in the justice system. While concerned with protecting civil liberties and holding government to account, this book also questions the core of national identity. If so much of their history is concealed, the British are not who they think they are.

★★★★ HH


Trump Unveiled. Exposing the bigoted billionaire

We live, it is said, in a post-factual era. When US voters elect a new president this month we will see just how accurate that saying is. One of the candidates is a colossal, pathological liar; the other is accused of habitually concealing the truth.

In Trump Unveiled, author John K Wilson cites Politicofact, which rates 71 per cent of Donald Trump’s statements as lies, compared with 29 per cent of Hillary Clinton’s. This book serves up Trump in chunks: Trump the Narcissist, Lying Trump, Bankrupt Trump, Paranoid Trump, Racist Trump, Sexist Trump, Careless Trump… you get the idea. As you might expect, the antics of this bundle of bullying contradictions are grimly entertaining. But what still shocks is that so many people don’t seem to care whether he is telling the truth or not as long as he is telling them lies they like to hear. If the ‘billionaire pseudo-populist’ wins the top job, it will be a national disaster for civil rights and social cohesion. The international threat is even greater. An impulsive, aggressive, paranoid Trump as president of the most powerful nation in the world, with immediate access to the US’s expanding nuclear capability (see next month’s NI), does not bear thinking about.

Who is Hillary Clinton?

A more complex picture emerges from Who is Hillary Clinton? – a collection drawn from articles in the Left-leaning Nation magazine. In her introduction, Katha Pollitt says there is plenty here for fans of Clinton, but rather more for her critics. It shows how enduring is the feeling expressed by contributor David Corn in his 1996 article: ‘What is she hiding? Perhaps her biggest secret: who she really is.’ Supporters show a genuine Left lawyer, a true progressive who only entered corporate law as a means of supporting her family – and husband Bill’s political career. Others point to a far too cosy relationship with big business (fossil fuels, fracking) and a hawkish foreign policy (backing the Iraq invasion). Some claim that she repeatedly ‘over-corrects’ to fend off accusations that she is a radical.

Plus there is the fact that she is a woman, and a feminist to boot. The Trump v Clinton contest has shown in full hideous spectrum just how much higher the bar is set for women. And as to this book’s central question? Don’t expect a definitive answer.

★★★ VB



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