Our pick of the week's releases
In Harm’s Way – Bosnia: A War Reporter’s Story
As a BBC reporter, Martin Bell covered many wars, but nothing prepared him for the Bosnian conflict of 1992-95. He blames Germany and Britain for the premature recognition of Croatia, after which Bosnia declared independence, and “the rest is bloodstained history”. He also blames the UN for providing “a protection that spectacularly failed to protect”. He powerfully conveys the horror and human costs of the war, and vividly etches the many inspiring and heroic people he met. But he also analyses war reporting itself, and puts its practitioners – eccentrics, idealists and risk-takers – under the microscope as he passionately argues for a “journalism of attachment”, where the reporter cannot “stand neutrally between good and evil”. He argues that Bosnia was “the most consequential war of our time” because it revealed the hollowness of the so-called new world order and led on to 9/11 and Iraq. Occasional flashes of humour light up an otherwise bleak narrative of shocking events.
The Marriage Plot
Fourth Estate, £8.99
This novel follows three American college students with messed-up love lives: Mitchell wants to marry Madeleine, but she wants to marry Leonard. The point of view varies, and so did my interest in the story. Madeleine hogs almost the first 100 pages, which is a drag, because she’s so dull. But once Leonard gets his turn the book shifts from ho-hum middle-class navel-gazing to a searing account of manic depression, aka bipolar disorder. First come mere licks of mania, which make Leonard feel great. His school work is a doddle, his sex life sizzles and his confidence soars. Then comes the crash, followed by life on heavy doses of medication. The side effects include a slight tremor, which is an unfortunate career-killer for a young scientist whose work in the lab requires precision. If you know someone with the same nasty illness and want to know how it feels, read this.
Monsieur Linh and His Child
Monsieur Linh and His Child is a beautiful 130-page novella. It is Philippe Claudel’s third work and won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It tells, delicately, the story of Monsieur Linh, who has to abandon his country after his son and daughter-in-law are killed in a war. He journeys to a foreign country, the wellbeing of the child he bears in his arms his primary concern. Isolated and forlorn in the hectic city, Monsieur Linh finds an improbable friend in Monsieur Bark, and they carve a tender reciprocal friendship despite speaking different languages. Claudel maintains a simplicity and sensitivity throughout the book, mirroring the compassion and sympathy that the men share for each other. The pace is measured, before hastening to an intense pinnacle and an enthralling twist that accentuates the beautiful starkness of the story.
Faber and Faber, £7.99
Irma Voth is 19 and has recently been abandoned by her husband. She lives in an isolated Mennonite community in northern Mexico, familiar territory for the Canadian writer Miriam Toews, whose acclaimed novel A Complicated Kindness was also set among the Mennonites. When a film crew arrives, Irma, who can speak German, Spanish and English, works as a translator, often hilariously translating as she sees fit. Along with her two younger sisters she soon leaves behind the oppression of her strict religious family and ends up in Mexico City, where, with surprising ease, they find a place to stay, a job and kind people who watch over them. And here, far from home, family secrets about their older sister can finally be addressed. Toews’s writing is beautifully assured, and what could be a heartbreaking journey is filled with humour and quirky observations. This moving book ends in redemption for Irma and for the reader as well.
Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge
By John Gimlette
Profile Books, £8.99
Suicidal cultists, intrepid explorers, a European space centre, dysentery, drug-running presidents, slave revolutions, heads on stakes, malaria, desolate prison colonies: they’re all part of the story of the Guianas. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana lie east of Venezuela and north of Brazil and take up most of the space between the mouths of the Amazon and the Orinoco. Despite centuries of attempted colonisation and modernisation, 90 per cent of the population lives within 15km or so of the coast, and the vast majority of the interior remains a “watery, green anarchy” made up of untameable forest crosshatched by thousands of savage rivers and haunted by the demonic “water monkey”. There is almost no order, and what order exists is in flux.
It is impossible to imagine a better guide to these surreal and chaotic countries than John Gimlette. His eye for strange detail is magnificent, his imagery is poetical, and he writes with effortless, exquisite flair. COLM FARREN