Browser reviews: Cultural confusion, human relations and true wit

New novel from Fatima Bhutto, essays from Mary-Kay Wilmers and James Geary on wit

The Runaways by Fatima Bhutto

Viking, £14.99

Fatima Bhutto’s second novel, The Runaways, is a disquieting exploration of how cultural confusion and identity dissonance make impressionable Muslim youth susceptible to embracing radical ideologies. The novel centres around three young Muslims living in an increasingly polarised world who end up rallying for a cause they have little understanding of.

Sunny is a disenchanted second generation British Muslim in Portsmouth, harrowed by his father’s overwhelming expectations of him. Anita Rose and Monty are Karachiites but inhabit opposite spectrums of Karachi’s social strata. Slum bred Anita belongs to a poor Christian family and yearns for a better life for herself while blue-blooded Monty is lured into leaving his golden nest in Karachi for the perilous life of fundamentalism. Their storylines eventually converge in Mosul, Iraq in a violent denouement.

"This city will take your heart... You don't know what Karachi does to people like us." The narrative is peppered with scorching lines like these aided by lucid descriptions of Karachi that effectively evoke the volatile yet homey quintessence of the city. Bhutto provides piercing insight into how racism and social discrimination fuel hatred and perpetuate social alienation. While The Runaways adroitly straddles various complex social and political themes, this capacious novel is eventually bogged down by incoherent narration and a protracted storyline. Rabeea Saleem


Human Relations & Other Difficulties by Mary-Kay Wilmers

Profile Books, £12.99

Most of the essays in this collection by Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, are book reviews. However, with all but three of these being written for the LRB, they are typically long-form, searching and expansive in their style, serving both as introductions and as riveting essays in their own right. Characteristic of Wilmers' skill is her ability to be ambivalent, and to question as she writes. The majority of these 23 essays focus on the lives of women and their work, and in the best longer-pieces Wilmers discusses Marianne Moore, Vita Sackville-West, Joan Didion and Jean Rhys. The book begins with an oddly personal tone, with I Was Dilapidated, a short, honest piece about motherhood which was originally published in The Listener in 1974. Sharp and witty, Wilmers reflects on difficult relations between women and men, on trying to separate their lives. Probing the meta-questions of writing, reviewing and biography, Human Relations & Other Difficulties examines and dissects all the various ways in which we might approach a text, or a life, and how useful these methods are. Can we ever come close to understanding those difficulties? Wilmers essays, in classic form, are ambivalent in their reply. Seán Hewitt

Wit’s End by James Geary

Norton, £14.99

"What oft was thought but ne'er so well express'd" was Alexander Pope's definition of wit and James Geary introduces his exploration of the subject with 64 lines of heroic couplets in Pope's style. He begins with punning, "the essence of all true wit" because it's "the ability to hold in the mind two different ideas about the same thing at the same time". Next is a chapter on witty verbal repartee written in the form of a dialogue between Diderot and Madame de Staël, followed by one on how wit might work on the brain, written as a scientific paper. A Joseph-Addison style essay on how to make perfect witty expressions is followed by a homage to the genius of jive, delivered in rapper style. "Trickster tales from various cultures" exemplifies people who lived by their wits and there's a fascinating exploration of visual wit in the form of an art-history lecture. With humour and verve and by the variety of his style, Geary shows wit to be multifaceted, subtle, ambiguous and akin to wisdom. Brian Maye