Books in brief: From the ‘basket of deplorables’ to a 1950s Irish childhood
Tim Moore drives around Trump country; Édouard Louis finds out who killed his father
Édouard Louis: his villain here is the banker Macron. Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
Who Killed My Father
By Édouard Louis
Harvill Secker, £10.99
The title is not a question, as Édouard Louis leaves us in no doubt as to who the guilty men are: Chirac, Sarkozy, Holland. The French wunderkind, already a global literary sensation for his novel The End of Eddy, here analyses his difficult relationship with his uneducated, homophobic, working-class father, crippled by an industrial accident. As a child he suffered from his father’s toxic masculinity, but through studying Bourdieu, Sartre and Radkine, comes to understand him as a victim of a malign system, being one “one of those human beings for whom politics has reserved an early death”.
But the final villain here is the banker Macron, with his sneering dismissal of the fainéants, the wasters, the people who, like Eddy’s father, simply don’t count. At the end of this short memoir, father are son are touchingly reconciled. Fittingly, Eddy leaves the last words to his dying father: “I think we need a proper revolution.” To understand what is happening now in France, or indeed, all over Europe, this is an essential text.
The Frank Business
By Olivia Glazebrook
John Murray, £12.99
Frank drops dead in Heathrow Airport on Christmas Eve. His estranged daughter, Jem, must identify his body, which resurrects painful childhood memories, and leads to the revelation that she has a brother in London. She has to find him, since Frank died of a congenital heart defect and they are both at risk, but in doing so she unstitches the ties that have kept her newfound family together: Jem’s half-brother, Sonny, isn’t who he always thought he was, his mother Kathleen is forced to admit a secret she has kept for decades, and the whole family unravels.
Secrets and lies work well in stories of family fractures and affairs of the heart, and Glazebrook extends this to the false narratives we often need to tell ourselves to make our actions more palatable – truths we bury or expunge from our memories. There are some gleaming moments of dark humour and droll dialogue, with an undercurrent of fatalism like an invisible director, as characters are forced into certain roles: an absorbing, psychologically agile novel.
The Red Address Book
By Sofia Lundberg
Borough Press, £12.99
Doris (96) writes the story of her life for her grandniece, Jenny, in the US, inspired to do so by the names in the leather-covered address book given to her as a childhood birthday present by her father. His is the first name in it and his tragic death leads to her leaving home at 13 to work as a servant. An action-packed life follows: working as a department-store model in Paris; falling in love with Allan, who disappears suddenly; looking after her little sister when their mother dies; going to America as war breaks out following a letter from Allan; brief union with him before he goes to war; her sister marries but dies in childbirth; back to Europe in search of Allan; travelling between Sweden and America, looking after Jenny as her mother is a drug addict. Jenny comes from America to be with her as she lies dying, finds what she has written and acts on it. It’s a bitter-sweet story with the loose ends tied up a bit too neatly in the end.
Essential Essays: Culture, Politics and the Art of Poetry
By Adrienne Rich. Edited by Sandra M Gilbert
WW Norton, $27.95
Adrienne Rich is largely known as a poet – she published numerous collections in the late 20th century – yet this collection of her writings reminds us that she was also an ardent and erudite feminist who wrote seminal essays such as Motherhood and Daughter and urged women to challenge political institutions.
The array of essays, literary criticism and speeches provide a multifaceted understanding of Rich; here the personal mingles with the political, each strengthening the other. Topics such as poetry, motherhood and religion are prised apart and freshly configured under the poet’s razor sharp gaze, leaving the reader with just as many questions as answers upon finishing. Her writing incites action and sparks hope: “Art is a way of melting out through one’s own skin” as she so delicately muses.
Rich urges us to stand up, look around and question outdated politics in a startlingly modern flourish. These essays are aptly named; they are indeed essential.
Another Fine Mess: Across Trumpland in a Model T Ford
By Tim Moore
Yellow Jersey Press, €16.99
It’s a nice wheeze: drive a 1924 Ford Model T 6,000 miles across, up and down the US, through flyover country and the rust belt and the badlands, to investigate how the current incumbent got into the White House. That was the idea. In fact, and fortunately, there’s relatively little in here about Trump. Instead the hero of the piece is Mike, as Moore names his Model T: hard to control, indomitable, prone to breakdown, a relic of a distant US that serves perhaps as a metaphor of the present version. To be frank, Moore has little insight to offer, but he writes well, and constant car trouble allows him to meet a great many decent people among the “basket of deplorables”. Inexplicably, it is illustrated by black and white photos so extraordinarily badly reproduced in an inky murk it must have been a deliberate design feature that backfires as spectacularly as does Mike as he nears journey’s end.
A 1950s Irish Childhood
By Ruth Illingworth
History Press, €11.70
The book’s subtitle, “from catapults to Communion medals”, reminds us how different childhood was in the pre-technology Ireland of the 1950s; not only was there no technology, but in parts of rural Ireland there was no electricity or running water either. It was a decade of economic stagnation, political instability, huge emigration and strict religious observance. Children suffered from poverty and sometimes harsh corporal punishment in school and at home, but it wasn’t all bad. With few cars on the road and little crime, children could play safely outdoors. Leisure time was spent making your own fun rather than watching or playing with screens. Three chapters are devoted to infancy, primary schools and secondary schools (only a privileged minority attended the latter), followed by five thematic chapters on childhood: toys and games; comics, cinemas and circuses; religion; the world of work, and those existing on the fringes of society. For some readers, this book will be a pleasant stroll down memory lane; for others, it will be an introduction to a world gone forever.