This month’s best paperbacks: Maggie Shipstead, Shon Faye and more

Fiction

Parallel lives take flight

Great Circle

Maggie Shipstead

Great Circle Maggie Shipstead

Parallel lives take flight


The early history of aviation is full of courageous, fascinating women: Amy Johnson and Amelia Earhart are probably the best known. With the fictional Marian Graves, Maggie Shipstead creates a compelling, original heroine all her own. In this enthralling novel, which has been shortlisted for both the Booker and the Women’s prize, Graves disappeared in 1950 while attempting to fly around the world – longitudinally, passing over both north and south poles. By that time she was, as the reader will learn, an accomplished aviator, a woman obsessed with flight since her girlhood in the wilds of Montana. She and her navigator, Eddie Bloom, vanished somewhere over the Ross ice shelf, on the very last leg of their journey, heading up towards New Zealand.

Great Circle is peopled by vivid, memorable characters whose fates intersect in ways both inevitable and shocking; whose deaths, when they come, have the blunt, heartbreaking force of truth. The book takes its epigraph from Rilke: “I live my life in widening circles / that reach out across the world.” This is a novel that expands the reader’s horizons, and is moving and surprising at every turn.

£8.36 (RRP £8.99) – Buy from the Guardian Bookshop

Society books

A call for compassion

The Transgender Issue

Shon Faye

The Transgender Issue Shon Faye

A call for compassion


In The Transgender Issue, Faye details the many ways in which society is failing trans people, and it makes for sobering reading. Her reclaiming of the word “issue” is significant. Today’s discourse often presents the question of trans rights as a debate in which there are clear sides, and the trans community as an issue that requires solving. But, as Faye sees it, the issues are plural and connected to the ways trans people are misrepresented, mistreated and discriminated against in terms of employment, access to healthcare, housing, the prison system and so on. She reveals how, proportionally, trans people are more likely to be living in poverty, endure violence and sexual abuse, and to have mental illness problems and suicidal thoughts.

While trans people are a minority in the UK – they account for less than 1% of the population – Faye illustrates how the obstacles they face overlap with other oppressed or minority groups. In doing so, she puts forward a powerful case not of what separates us but what brings us together. Above all, her book is a cry for compassion for an embattled community and a plea to be treated with dignity and fairness. It is, surely, the very least anyone can do.

£9.34 (RRP £10.99) – Buy from the Guardian Bookshop

Fiction

Broken familial bonds

My Phantoms

Gwendoline Riley

My Phantoms Gwendoline Riley

Broken familial bonds


Inter-generational friction is hardly new, but it does feel like the tension between boomers and their millennial children is more fraught than usual. On the one hand, you have a cohort who own their homes and can look back on lives of travel and financial security; their children, however, are perma-renters eking out their existences in precarious jobs and frying their mental health with social media. It’s fertile ground for fiction and few have charted the territory better than Gwendoline Riley.

My Phantoms is Riley’s seventh book in a career that began in her early 20s and has now stretched over almost two decades. Her novels are told in the first person, always from the perspective of an enigmatic, slightly distanced female narrator whose reliability is gradually revealed to be suspect. Here we meet Bridget Grant, daughter of parents who separated long ago but who each maintain a fierce and inexorable hold over her. This is despite the fact that she barely sees her mother, Hen, while her father, the riotously awful Lee, died several years ago.

Riley’s novels get under your skin. My Phantoms is unsettling for many reasons – the way it picks at the scab of unconditional love, the way it interrogates questions of inheritance and influence. More than anything, though, it’s the fact that it chips away at the compact between reader and narrator, asking us to examine the natural bond of sympathy that springs between the storyteller and her audience.

£7.64 (RRP £8.99) – Buy from the Guardian Bookshop

Essays

The power of the written word

Things I have Withheld

Kei Miller

Things I have Withheld Kei Miller

The power of the written word


Looking back on his relationships and family history, the Jamaican-born poet and novelist Kei Miller realises how hard it has often been to trust raw, honest feelings to “something so unsafe as words”. In this wonderfully intimate, even confessional, series of meditations, Miller explores how we often suppress our true feelings rather than giving voice to them: “the moments when I am most in need of words are exactly the moments when I lose faith in them and when I fall back into silence”.

Miller begins and ends with a series of imaginary letters to James Baldwin (“I think everything of your essays”), and indeed underlying all these hauntingly beautiful pieces on the failure of communication is the core theme of the book – that Black people do not tell white people the truth, and white people don’t want to hear the truth: “how so often between us, between our love, is this black and white world”.

He writes movingly about how, as a black man, he is always being questioned by the police: “in New Zealand, in Dubai, in France, in Miami, I am stopped … assessing me, sizing me up, and my body”. And indeed, his body – that “arouses suspicion, and in other contexts, lust, in others anger, in others curiosity” – forms a powerful thread running through the essays: “I must talk about my body as black, and my body as male, and my body as queer”.

The silences in his own family history are also something about which Miller writes eloquently. How, for example, his grandmother married in Jamaica aged 17 without realising that her husband already had four children with another woman. Although she accepted the children into her family as her own, it was a subject the family never discussed, even with the grandchildren. As Miller says, “the past is such an uncomfortable place”.

A lyrical and heartfelt collection that celebrates the power of the written word to address the silences that accumulate in our relationships and poison our societies: “we write because there are always things we have withheld. We die because things have been withheld from us, which is to say, respect; which is to say, dignity; which is to say, love.”

£9.29 (RRP £9.99) – Buy from the Guardian Bookshop

History books

Challenging the stereotype

Essex Girls

Sarah Perry

Essex Girls Sarah Perry

Challenging the stereotype


While studying English in Cambridge in the 1990s, when asked where she came from Sarah Perry’s response was usually met with a knowing smile: “An Essex girl, they’d say, laughing, and look me up and down for evidence, in the manner of a witch-finder seeking a suspicious wart: I see.”

It was taken for granted that an Essex girl was “a contemptible thing”: blonde (but not naturally so), typically attired in leopard print, stiletto heels, clutching a white patent leather handbag, and probably named Tracy or Sharon.

The Essex girl has become the focus of a multitude of social anxieties. She is “an irredeemably vulgar, plump, sexually threatening, feckless and indolent woman, an affront to morality and a threat to the values of sobriety, industry and obedience that prop up the ruling class”.

At school, the Chelmsford-born author of The Essex Serpent hadn’t thought much about the label, which she admits was always “part joke, part myth”. But now she realises that it reveals a profound level of misogyny and snobbery.

Indeed, in this slim but passionately argued volume, Perry claims that the Essex girl should be celebrated not scorned, as she embodies admirably anti-establishment qualities. In this delightfully subversive attempt to redefine the Essex girl, Perry briefly explores the lives of women who stood up for what they believed, regardless of the cost to their reputations. After all, as Mary Wollestonecraft said, a good reputation is merely “specious poison”.

They include the 16th-century Protestant martyr Rose Allin, who was barely out of her teens when she was burned at the stake in Colchester. According to Perry, her example shows “one need not be particularly equipped with education or status to set one’s face against injustice”. Then there was Anne Knight, born in Chelmsford in 1786, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights, and is believed to be the author of the first pamphlet on women’s suffrage in 1847.

According to Perry, the essence of the Essex girl is to laugh in the face of authority and to speak out when others want you to be silent; to be disrespectful and disobedient, “to be a thorn in the flesh of the establishment and the ruling classes”. To be an Essex girl is to be free to speak your mind and to live your life as you want to be – a radical identity that should be admired not despised.

£5.57 (RRP £5.99) – Buy from the Guardian Bookshop

Health, mind & body books

A book about freedom

Everybody

Olivia Laing

Everybody Olivia Laing

A book about freedom


Right at the end of this exhilarating journey through a century’s struggles over the human body, Olivia Laing invites her reader to “imagine, for a minute, what it would be like to inhabit a body without fear”. This simple hope comes to sound like a radical demand for the impossible; after such a vivid catalogue of the many humiliations and cruelties a body can be made to bear, it isn’t easy to imagine.

Laing’s central character is Wilhelm Reich, disciple of and eventual dissenter against Sigmund Freud, visionary theorist-activist of sexual politics in the Viennese 1920s and hapless, delusional inventor of the orgone accumulator in the American 1940s.

It can seem as though all the great victories and tragic failures of modern sexual politics are concentrated in the figure of Reich. For Laing, his supreme insight – that the true source of the body’s power is the vulnerability we prefer to conceal – has never been more valid. In shutting down our vulnerability, we block access to the full range of our feelings, giving rise to the kind of mechanistic compliance favoured by fascism.

This is an expansive book, bold in scope and speculative range, an invitation to ongoing conversation rather than bland assent. Laing’s Reichian utopianism, with its ultimate horizon of a body without fear, coexists with a clear-eyed sense, at work in all its granular explorations of sexual politics, art and ideas, of how and why that horizon seems always to be vanishing. And this tension, between defiant hope and sober realism, only enriches her intensely moving, vital and artful book.

£9.56 (RRP £10.99) – Buy from the Guardian Bookshop

Essays

The politics of sexual attraction

The Right to Sex

Amia Srinivasan

The Right to Sex Amia Srinivasan

The politics of sexual attraction


In The Right to Sex Amia Srinivasan, a professor of social and political theory at Oxford University, tells the story of a black friend who, “despite being beautiful and otherwise popular”, was “off the table” when it came to dating in her mostly white private school. The reason, Srinivasan tells us, is because it is the “hot blonde sluts” and east Asian women who are “supremely fuckable” in our society. By “fuckability” Srinivasan is not referring to the sexual availability of these bodies but rather to their ability to “confer status to those who have sex with them”. In her theory, there is no “fuckability” in its general sense, as in a pre-political, pre-social desirability; it is constructed by our sexual politics. And it is something her black friend did not have.

Fuckability is of central importance in The Right to Sex, a collection of essays about “the politics and ethics of sex in this world animated by the hope of a different world”, which draws on “an older feminist tradition that was unafraid to think of sex as a political phenomenon – as something squarely within the bounds of social critique”. For Srinivasan, differences in fuckability, reproduced as they are in pornography, exist because sex is subject to the “distortions of oppression”; there is a case to be made for removing the stranglehold these oppressive and discriminatory patterns have on our sexual desires.

And what is “The Right to Sex”? For the most part, in this book, it concerns the crazed justifications men offer to claim rights over another’s body.. The simplest explanation of the title is that “no one is obliged to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also who is desired and who isn’t is a political question”. The book effectively highlights how sexual desire – who we are and are not attracted to – is political and affected by the prevalent injustices in society and relevant to their elimination.

£8.49 (RRP £9.99) – Buy from the Guardian Bookshop

Fiction

Love, loss and longing

The Earthspinner

Anuradha Roy

The Earthspinner Anuradha Roy

Love, loss and longing


Now at university in England, Sara looks back on her hometown in southern India. “This is the west,” where almost everything is within reach, but where she comes from, people have always known that “ordinary days can explode without warning, leaving us broken, collecting the scattered pieces of our lives”. Anuradha Roy’s carefully crafted fifth novel shows how, in such a place, things can change in extraordinary ways, even if new beginnings and worlds are hard to come by.

Elango is a Hindu potter. His dream is to create a terracotta horse; his crime is falling in love with a Muslim girl, Zohra, and wanting the “unbridgeable crevasse” between them to close (“the space between the two was a charnel house of burnt and bloodied human flesh, a giant crack through the earth that was like an open mouth waiting to swallow him”). What follows is a story of love, loss and longing; tradition, creation and destruction; and the invisible lines that divide humans, animals and the divine.

The art of pottery is one of the most ancient human inventions, handed down from generation to generation. The Earthspinner also advocates for a gift: a harmonious sense of humanity. When forged with fire, both stand the test of time.

£9.29 (RRP £9.99) – Buy from the Guardian Bookshop

Short stories

A dazzling debut

The End of the World is a Cul de Sac

Louise Kennedy

The End of the World is a Cul de Sac Louise Kennedy

A dazzling debut


Marriage, children, mortality and memory are the principal concerns of Louise Kennedy’s dazzling debut collection, and she finds truth in the tiniest details, connections and observations. In “Hunter-Gatherers”, Siobhan and Sid live in the lodge of a grand house in which England’s colonial influence still lingers. When Siobhan blots condensation from the windows with an old towel, the symbolism is clear: it’s the Irish who are left to mop up the mess. In “Silhouette”, a sister is haunted for decades by a murder committed by her brother during the Troubles, his shoes caked with mud as well as the victim’s blood and hair. “It’s grass, you tell yourself. Just grass.”

In many stories the natural world, with its animal appetites and feral, sexual energy, impinges on the urban. A pregnant woman accidentally witnesses her husband commit adultery with an agricultural science student in the lambing shed, shattering her sense of self-worth; while in another story a man shoots a hare that he knows his partner adores: “There was a treacly hole at the front of his head, his eyes were hazel and still.”

With their sensitivity to people’s vulnerabilities and failings, and their sharpness of imagery, these 15 taut tales recall Annie Proulx at her best: salty, wise, droll and keen to share the lessons of a lifetime.

£7.64 (RRP £8.99) – Buy from the Guardian Bookshop

Fiction in translation

A compelling exploration of the past

The Country of Others

Leïla Slimani

The Country of Others Leïla Slimani

A compelling exploration of the past


In an interview with the New Yorker, about a short story she wrote from a rapist’s point of view, French-Moroccan author Leïla Slimani said: “I write about the things I am most afraid of.” She does have an instinct for whichever detail will deliver the strongest electric shock, but her effort doesn’t always feel directed inwards, towards the truth of her own fear; it can feel more like display, playing to the response – shock, fear, arousal – of her reader. (This is even more true for her first novel Adèle, about a female sex addict.) But from the first page of her third novel, Le pays des autres – translated by Sam Taylor as The Country of Others – something feels different. This new book draws significantly on the history of Slimani’s own family, and it’s as if some positioning has shifted, deep inside her writing.

The Country of Others begins in 1944 when Mathilde, a passionate young Frenchwoman from Alsace, falls in love with Amine, a handsome Moroccan soldier fighting for the French. She marries him and after the war they go together to live in Morocco, first with his mother and siblings in the city of Meknes, and then to the hectares of stony countryside that Amine has inherited from his father, who wanted to build a farm there and grow fruit and almond trees. When his father spoke about “Our land!”, “he uttered these words not in the way of nationalists or colonialists – in the name of moral principles or an ideal – but simply as a landowner who was happy to own land”. Slimani’s grandmother was in fact an Alsatian girl, Anne Dhobb, who married a Moroccan soldier; together they built up a fruit farm near Meknes. Dhobb published her own memoir in Morocco in 2004, and presumably Slimani was able to draw on this in writing her novel. Nothing feels in the least dutiful or cautious, however, in her creation of her fictional characters; she still works her dangerous magic and delivers shocks, imagining the violence of their desires and rages.

This story of class and race and nation is the first part of a planned trilogy; it will be fascinating to see how the rest unfolds.

£7.64 (RRP £8.99) – Buy from the Guardian Bookshop

Autobiography & memoir

A sister’s story

Consumed

Arifa Akbar

Consumed Arifa Akbar

A sister’s story


Arifa Akbar’s memoir begins with the death of her sister from a mysterious illness. Before she died in 2016, aged 45, Fauzia had already been rushed to hospital twice, the cause of her symptoms unknown. She had complained of chest pains, shortness of breath and night sweats. Her face began to swell and her lungs became inflamed, but still doctors were clueless. Later, as her speech started to slur and her behaviour became erratic, she was put in an induced coma and subsequently had a brain haemorrhage. Eventually there was a diagnosis: she had died of tuberculosis.

Akbar was left with questions, among them: why hadn’t Fauzia been diagnosed earlier? How, in 2016, does a person contract TB? Her sister’s death also prompted a broader reflection on her life and the ways she had been failed by others. Along with telling the story of a sibling, Consumed is also a candid dissection of family with its complex bonds and rifts, and an acute portrait of grief and mental illness. “Life brought Fauzia pain,” Akbar writes.

Through an artistic lens Akbar seeks to understand herself and her sister, locating similarities in their relationship to Amy and Jo in Little Women and, as adults, in the two warring sisters in the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? She is transfixed by the film version of Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Launderette, by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Puccini’s La Bohème, and the ways they throw light on the world and her family’s place in it.

Despite the themes of grief, trauma and illness, Consumed is far from a misery memoir. It is, rather, an insightful and often lyrical study of siblings and the story of a troubled life cut short. Akbar is wise enough to understand that much of her sister’s inner life will remain unknowable. Nonetheless, as Fauzia immortalised her sister in art, she has done the same, vividly and wonderfully, in prose.

£9.56 (RRP £10.99) – Buy from the Guardian Bookshop

Fiction

A modern Mrs Dalloway

Assembly

Natasha Brown

Assembly Natasha Brown

A modern Mrs Dalloway


Natasha Brown’s virtuosic debut follows a British woman who is preparing to attend a party, and who is musing about her life and her place in the world as she does. Comparisons with Mrs Dalloway would be neither unwarranted nor, I suspect, unwelcome. Assembly fulfils, with exquisite precision, Virginia Woolf’s exhortation to “record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall”, even though Brown has restricted herself to an astonishingly small quota of words in doing so. To say that Assembly is slight would be an understatement: not only is it barely even novella-sized, it is also organised into vignettes, so that its already meagre portion of language is threaded through what seems comparatively like acres of space. The effect is to require readers to supply the connective tissue necessary to turn it into narrative – text that is sparse on the page expands on consumption; it swells like a sponge in the mind.

£7.64 (RRP £8.99) – Buy from the Guardian Bookshop

Fiction

From northern England to Punjab

China Room

Sunjeev Sahota

China Room Sunjeev Sahota

From northern England to Punjab


It’s a decade since Sunjeev Sahota published his debut novel, Ours Are the Streets, a bravura piece of imaginative intensity that took the form of a journal written by a would-be suicide bomber, a British Muslim of Pakistani descent, for his wife, a white British woman, and their child. The reader never discovered whether the planned explosion in a Sheffield shopping centre took place; that was peripheral to Sahota’s primary aim of exploring the cultural alienation and isolation that, in this instance, led his protagonist to radicalisation and violence.

The occasional narrator of Sahota’s third novel, China Room, is also alienated and isolated, though his response is to turn his violent unhappiness inward; at 18, he is in the throes of heroin addiction. His account of a summer spent in rural Punjab is interspersed with the more substantial third-person story of a young woman in 1929, whom we later learn was his great-grandmother.

Sahota has said that China Room has its seed in his own family history, and a photograph at the end of the book, of an elderly woman cradling a baby, the surroundings suggestive of a few decades ago rather than a century, confirms an element of documentary about the novel. But rather than feeling confined by whatever real-life elements informed its creation, it exists in a far more indeterminate, diffuse dimension, at times taking on an almost fairytale quality. In his three novels, Sahota has demonstrated an ambitious need to adapt the specific and concrete to something less easy to pin down, complete with all the gaps and ruptures that life provides and art makes, even for a moment, tangible.

£9.29 (RRP £9.99) – Buy from the Guardian Bookshop

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