Perspective recommends

“Sun Damage” By Sabine Durrant, this month’s thriller. “Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change and Pandemics”, “Twelve Months and A Day” and “Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne”

THRILLER OF THE MONTH

Sun Damage
By Sabine Durrant
(400pp, Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99, hb)
Reviewed by SJ Watson

In 2013 journalist Durrant – who had hitherto written bestselling contemporary fiction, plus a couple of books aimed at teenagers – turned her hand to psychological thrillers with the delightfully dark Under Your Skin. Since then, she has written a series of increasingly gripping and unsettling books, including, in 2016, the Richard and Judy pick, Lie With Me. It’s no surprise, then, that her latest novel is a masterclass of slow-burning psychological suspense, packed with intrigue and full of the most delightfully unreliable narrators one could ever wish to meet.

Ali has had a rough background. Raised in the care system, estranged from her sister, and scraping a living from odd jobs, when we meet her she has fallen under the thrall of scam artist Sean. Together, they drift from one holiday resort to another in search of gullible tourists with money to burn. When Ali spies Lulu sitting on the beach with her designer luggage, she thinks she’s found their next mark, good for a quick buck that’ll see them to their next destination, but nothing more. Sean has bigger ideas, however. Ideas that lead him to get greedy and make mistakes, leading to a tragedy that sends the book in an entirely unexpected and wonderfully intriguing direction.

A sequence of events is set in train that sees Ali forced to survive alone and on the run from her ex-partner-in-crime. She cannot run from herself, however, and soon infiltrates a group of wealthy holidaymakers in a remote villa in the South of France. This is when things really get interesting, and Durrant toys as skilfully with the reader’s expectations as Ali does with her latest targets.

This is a psychologically astute novel populated with nuanced and fascinating characters and in Ali, Durrant has created a flawed protagonist about whom we’re never quite sure how to feel. It is an intricately woven book of many layers, in which Durrant ponders questions around the nature of guilt, culpability and coercive control, all wrapped up in a wonderfully addictive story. It should come with a warning, since believe me, once you start, you’ll resent everyone and anything that drags you away from reading it.

S J Watson is the award winning author of the bestselling psychological thrillers Before I Go To Sleep, Second Life and Final Cut. Follow him on Twitter at @sj_watson

Half-Earth Socialism:
A Plan to Save the Future
from Extinction, Climate Change and Pandemics

By Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass
(240pp, Verso, £14.99, hb)
Reviewed by Peter Phelps

To be fair to the authors of this addition to the recent avalanche of texts on how to fix the impending climate and environmental crisis (and in doing so, save ourselves), they state upfront it’s meant to be read as a utopian manifesto in the tradition of William Morris. Without this disclaimer, it would be easy to dismiss all of this book – and not just its final chapter – as a work of fantasy fiction.

The premise is fairly straightforward. Taking their cue from the great biologist EO Wilson’s work, Half-Earth, which posited that half the planet needs to be rewilded and returned to its human-free glory, they argue that the only possible way that this can be achieved is through a global socialist model of central planning.

As someone who has witnessed first-hand the Mordor-like industrial wastelands of post-Soviet cities, I can’t help feeling their prescription engenders a vision almost as dystopian as that of the ravaged planet they’re trying to avoid. Karl Marx’s revolutionary philosophy was also meant to deliver world society into the sunlit uplands of a workers’ paradise, but the horrors unfolding in Ukraine are testament enough to where that eventually ends up. Vettese and Pendergrass also suggest a “revolution” will be required, although they don’t dwell on the social or political upheaval – or violence – this might involve. You can acknowledge the complete failings of global capitalism, and the fact we’re on course for ecological meltdown without radical rewilding and decarbonisation, without charging off towards a totalitarian Shangri-La. Especially as their vision of us all engaged in daily manual labour on vegan rations has more than a whiff of Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

It’s not that the Half-Earth vision isn’t beguiling, and there’s an underlying truth to the notion we must return to a simpler life, ceasing the corporate tyranny and consumerist slavery that is trashing our planetary home. It’s just that setting up an Eco-Politburo is not the way we are going to get there.

Twelve Months and A Day
By Louisa Young
(368pp, £14.99, HarperCollins, £14.99, hb)
Reviewed by Christobel Kent

Opening a novel about love with what should, in the banal cold light of day mean the most brutal termination of relationships, namely death, and then adding the afterlife into the equation, is a risk. But then Louisa Young, author of work as brave and various as My Dear I Wanted to Tell You (2012) and You Left Early (2019) has no time for the banal or the chilly, nor is she much afraid of risk.

Roisin and Nico, laughing over Sunday brunch in the sun, Rasmus dozing by Jay’s bedside in hospital: a filmmaker and a paramedic, a musician and his singer, these are ordinary love stories with all their attendant hesitations, fears and failures: strangers thrust into the commonplace tragedy that is bereavement. For one couple death comes out of a clear blue sky, for the other it has been a gruelling journey to a known destination: what the relationships have in common is the intensity of their feeling, and the corresponding unmanageability of their grief.

But for Young as for every bereaved lover, however pragmatic, death is not the end of feeling. And by way of illustration – possibly taking a deep breath – she exercises her prerogative as a novelist and magician, and gives us ghosts. The dead lovers circle the living, as anxious and loving and flawed as they were in life, tripping over the obstacles and trying to calculate the implications and possibilities of their strange new existence and at the same time trying to steer the living back to happiness.

And – startlingly, beautifully, touchingly – it works. Its tone delicately balanced between wry and tender, Twelve Months and A Day is both an exorcism of the most brutal pain of final separation and a way of managing the stubborn refusal of the mind to accept absolute absence. Thoughtful, philosophical and clever, it is also funny, and full of poetry, and powered by an unflagging and irresistible belief in the redemptive power of love.

Super-Infinite:
The Transformations of John Donne

By Katherine Rundell
(352pp, Faber & Faber, £16.99)
Reviewed by Clare Conville

Let’s get metaphysical! Is Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne actually biography at all? I would suggest it’s a different order, in that it seeks to answer the two key questions of metaphysical philosophy: what is there? what is it like? In this case, how did John Donne exist? What was that existence like?

This superlative account breaks the conventions of writing about the past, blowing the cover on the type of grandiose biography that’s reliant on exhaustive research but lacks feeling and panache. Rundell, of course, has panache in spades and rather like her subject the ability to shape-shift with ease. She marshalls the narrative in less than 300 pages, for which relief, much thanks – it gives the reader a chance to relish (and finish) it for once. How many crisp-paged biographies have you got lying abandoned by your bed? I admit, in my case, a fair few.

Super-Infinite reads like a duel between two brilliant minds, exploring concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time and space. It’s not just a retrospective account of someone who lived 400 years ago, and Rundell achieves this by allowing herself to be physically present in the narrative. Her responses, her voice, her feelings, her cool, amused humour. Everything we were told not do in English class. And she makes it work. Her vitality pours into the pages. She summons Donne back from the dead and interacts with him. It would go too far to say this has a sexual aspect, but certainly it is dynamic, energetic, occasionally argumentative, sometimes with the sharpness of a lover’s tongue, and above all alive. We feel we are in Donne’s presence and what a compelling, charming and attractive man he turns out to be.

En garde, touché! While we marvel at Rundell’s fencing skills, she pierces the heart with a careful imagination. Aside from the work itself – poems, letters, meditations, religious tracts – there’s not a huge amount of primary source material. Rundell’s deep, critical and loving insight illuminates the difficult conditions of Donne’s life: early imprisonment, the death of an adored older brother, a passionate love match which became a hasty marriage, years of poverty, the death of children (some cherished, some not), severe depression, his certain death-wish and the difficulties he must have encountered in the labyrinthian complexity of navigating the royal courts and his own religious faith.

The use of language is important, too – hers, other people’s and her metatextual stance. “Language makes demands. It is an excavator skill; each word needs to have its surface dusted, to see if below there is gold or snakes,” is as much a description of her own writing practice as it is a demand of the reader.

Thanks to Rundell’s critical reading, the complex puns and triple meanings of the poems become clearer to us. For example, “But of this med’cine, love, which cures all sorrow/ With more”, is surely a private gift to Anne More, his wife.

She dissects with forensic care the best and worst of his work, taking no prisoners on either side. And as she contextualises the response of later critics, she despatches poor benighted Thomas Parnell, born some hundred years after Donne, from the poetic canon with a lethal cut: “a man unafraid to rhyme love with dove.”

The book ends with a typically Rundellian (is that an adjective? it is now) conclusion. Without giving too much away, she draws on her own interest in natural history to make a deft and surprising conclusion. As we close one door another one opens. If you enjoy this one, look out for The Golden Mole: And Other Living Treasure, published by Faber in October and described as a fascinating bestiary of the world’s most endangered animals. Just a hint.

Meanwhile ALL POWER, and I use capital letters advisedly, to the awesome and SUPER-INFINITE Katherine Rundell.

Arts & Culture

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