Books in brief: From Lafcadio Hearn to a possible changeling

Plus: Female emancipation behind the Iron Curtain; and a second chance at love

Lafcadio Hearn and his wife, Koizumi Setsu

Lafcadio Hearn and his wife, Koizumi Setsu


Black Dragonfly
Jean Pasley
Balestier Press
Lafcadio Hearn is the 19th-century writer, half-Irish, half-Greek, who in his books about Japan revealed its still-hidden world to western readers. Assimilated into its culture as far as a westerner was able, he had a Japanese family and took a Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo. In screenwriter Jean Pasley’s first novel, she explores the pathos of Hearn’s restless and yearning nature as he veers from infatuation to disillusion with his adopted country. Pasley too has lived in Japan, and it shows. With empathy and passion she illuminates the enigmas of this charming, often grimly coercive civilisation, devoted to appearances, harmony and nature on the one hand, and tyrannical ancestral spirits on the other. Black Dragonfly offers a delightful introduction to an older Japan and a half-forgotten writer. ANNE HAVERTY

The Union of Synchronised Swimmers
Cristina Sandu
Scribe, £9.99
A tale of female emancipation from behind the Iron Curtain, this second novel by Romanian-Finnish writer Cristina Sandu is her first published in English. Six women unite in their attempt to leave their dead-end hometown. They self-train as synchronised swimmers in the hope that they will compete in the Olympics. In elegant, thrifty prose, Sandu introduces each woman and her new life after escaping the Eastern Bloc – beyond when the women’s narratives have separated. Though the stories offered about each are slender, ending before truly beginning, Sandu’s novel strikes home. This is a timely and lyrical musing on the troubles waiting across the border: racism and xenophobia, the gendered nature of independent life, and the unexpected loneliness of no longer speaking in one’s mother tongue. MIRIAM BALANESCU

Are You Enjoying?
Mira Sethi
Set behind closed doors, in corridors of lavish homes, and in the overexposed world of showbiz and high-society, the seven stories in this debut collection take turns to zoom in and out of multiple cities in contemporary Pakistan. Sethi writes about class mobility, sexuality, and gender inequality with care and complexity, and characters who want to move onwards and upwards – aspiring actresses and aspiring politicians, divorcees and disillusioned lovers. The first story begins with a foreign presence – Marianne the diplomat from Minneapolis – and by the fifth story, Sethi writes of Pakistan as “a country whose only identity is not being the neighbouring country [India]”. Here, Pakistan is not a set of binaries seen under western eyes; it holds its own place in the world. SANA GOYAL

Every Breath You Take: China’s New Tyranny
Ian Williams
Birlinn, £16.99
China is constructing the world’s first digital totalitarian state, a joint venture between the Communist Party (CCP) and China’s big-tech companies, but western companies and institutions have aided and abetted. Ian Williams, who’s reported from China for 25 years, traces deep and growing ties between Britain’s elite universities and China’s surveillance state, arguing that UK academia has been greedy and naive and has become very dependent on Chinese money and students, often curbing academic debate. He further evidences intimidation of Hong Kong students on British campuses, orchestrated by Chinese diplomats and students, while the university authorities look the other way. Sensitive parts of the UK economy use Chinese tech companies closely linked to the CCP; Hikvision cameras are used by airports, local councils and NHS trusts. A persuasive, alarming wake-up call. BRIAN MAYE

Another Life
Jodie Chapman
Penguin, £12.99
Nick and Anna were in the kind of love that follows you around for decades. For years Nick has revisited the syrup and sting of those heady days with Anna, a relationship truncated because of her religious hard-wiring and her ultimate inability to walk away from her upbringing. Nick’s life, already shadowed with loss when they first met, has now been plunged into further tragedy, bringing Anna back into his world all these years later. They are faced again with another fork in the road: whether to take this second chance to be together, or to keep the promises they have made to others. Teeming with acute observations, and wired with suspense, the novel explores how we are the architects of our own lives: “We remember how we want to remember.” RUTH McKEE

Dreaming in Quantum
Lynda Clark
Fairlight Books, £8.99
The stories in this collection are inventive and surprising, with delicious bite and disarming unpredictability. “First time you see yourself die, it’s like being punched in the heart.” Dreaming in Quantum is a trip to parallel worlds; here the narrator can see her alternate realities through dreamscapes. As she watches herself enact different variations of how she might have lived, a murder story unfolds. Some stories are entirely speculative, others a blend of the real and fantastic; some mine folklore, such as Sídhe Wood, which has an exhausted mother’s reaction to rumours of a changeling. There is a slowly disappearing woman, clones, and shapeshifting in a collection that is a little Black Mirror, a little Brothers Grimm. It’s not a grim read, however; it’s leavened with a good dose of humour, ringing out in the dark. RUTH McKEE

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