Browser: Revisiting the tragedy of Notre-Dame

Brief reviews of Notre-Dame: The Soul of France by Agnès Poirier; Anna K by Jenny Lee; Negative Capability: A Diary of Surviving by Michèle Roberts; You People by Nikita Lalwani; The Future We ChooseChristina Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac; and The Saviours by Maeve Galvin

Notre-Dame: The Soul of France

Agnès Poirier

Oneworld, £16.99

In April 2019 the world watched, aghast, as, in the midst of the gilets jaunes protests, an inferno raged in Paris's Notre-Dame cathedral. Poirier traces the gathering of crowds on the Seine's banks, the execution of emergency plans by teams of firefighters, and the rush to save the antiquities housed in the cathedral. In delving into the history of the cathedral's construction she takes a whistlestop tour of French history, connecting the central figures in the building's story with the development of France's society. Taking care to outline how the worlds of politics and art would eventually determine the shape of the reconstruction effort, this slim volume is full of the reverence for the building that had become an emblem of the country's spirit. Claire Looby


Anna K

Jenny Lee

Penguin, €10.99

At 17, Anna K is the teenage socialite of the moment, the centre of her own entitled universe; until she meets notorious playboy Vronsky and all the rules go out the French windows. Lee's characters are her strength here; Anna is complex and believable, as are the personal and social struggles her peers find themselves coping with. If nothing else, Lee's decision to reimagine Tolstoy's original novel serves to demonstrate how timeless, even relevant, the romantic tragedy can be. With a major television adaptation in the works, Lee has clearly tapped into a zeitgeist moment; who doesn't want to read about the scandalous shenanigans of rich Upper Westside teenagers, in a world where privilege is the only currency that matters? Ridiculously enjoyable and brimming with an arch and sparkly wit, Jenny Lee's YA reimagination of Leo Tolstoy's tragic romance makes for perfect quarantine escapism. Becky Long

Negative Capability: A Diary of Surviving

Michèle Roberts

Sandstone Press

There are copious references to the term flâneur, or (female) flâneuse in Negative Capability. The act of flânerie, is to stroll or wander with no purpose, except to observe society. It is a French word, and connotes a literary type, found idling the streets of Paris. Roberts is the ultimate flâneuse. Her text, "a diary of surviving" is a litany of intellectual musings, personal reflections, professional encounters, that meander through a period of rejection in the author's life. Traversing contemporary London and rural France, Roberts indulges in detail. Her descriptions of food and art, border on the erotic. There is attention given to names of artists, some of whom are her friends. Romantic poet, John Keats, has a significant presence in the book. It is indeed from his theory of "Negative Capability", of persevering through intellectual uncertainty, that the book was furnished its title. Brigid O'Dea

You People

Nikita Lalwani

Viking, £14.99

Tuli, the owner of the Pizzeria Vesuvio is a self-made Robin Hood, peopling his business with illegal immigrants who need a chance for a fresh start in a new country. Nia and Shan are soon drawn into the heart of his mysterious endeavours, looking for answers and redemption. In one sense the novel is a compelling thriller, drawing the reader into a world that exists alongside our own, yet one that is shadowy and secretive. But in another sense, the emotional heart of the novel offers a genuinely affecting narrative of love, trauma and humanity. Lalwani's language is rich and sonorous, interwoven with vivid images that convey the depth of her characters' lives and emotions with arresting clarity. This is a visceral, even essential chronicle of a modern-day Britain that so many refuse to believe exists. Becky Long

The Future We Choose

Christina Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac

Manilla Press, £12.99

The authors are the principal architects of the 2015 Paris Agreement, so they carry authority. They discern three climate-change mentalities: the deniers at one extreme; the despairers at the other; and in between the majority who accept the evidence but don't know what to do. Their book is aimed at the latter. Part one presents two possible scenarios for Earth's future: one is what life will be like by 2050 if we fail to meet the Paris targets and the other is a vision of what it could be like if we do. Part two looks at three fundamental mindsets, "stubborn optimism", "endless abundance" and "radical regeneration", that must become prevalent among us all. Part three advances 10 actions to pursue. A practical, optimistic, empowering and, above all, readable book. Brian Maye

The Saviours

By Maeve Galvin

Merdog Books, £12

The world of international aid work is rich with surprising details and moral complexity, which Maeve Galvin sets out to explore in her debut novel. Set mainly in contemporary Phnomh Penh, The Saviours emphasizes the hedonistic lifestyles of over-educated, over-paid aid workers. There are a few well-deserved swipes at the UN and international NGOs, but the focus barely shifts away from the antics of young professionals in ex-pat bars and luxury resorts, or back home in Sacramento and Galway. A throwaway domestic violence sub-plot is resolved as predictably as if it were in an NGO's annual report. The contrast between contemporary aid workers and the eponymous "white saviours" of the 1980s and 1990s (mavericks who sacrificed much but sometimes did unacknowledged harm) goes sadly unexplored. Carol Ballantine