Perspective Recommends

Bill Browder’s “Freezing Order”, “The Breakup Monologues”, “Unfolding the Past” and this month’s thriller “Wrong Place Wrong Time”

Freezing Order
By Bill Browder
(336 pp, Simon & Schuster, £20.00, hb)
Reviewed by Peter Phelps

Firstly, two confessions. I first encountered Bill Browder in Moscow in the early 1990s, when he set up Hermitage Capital Management. Like the rest of us, he’d headed to the Wild East seeking his fortune, seduced by the possibilities offered by the end of the Cold War – a true believer in Russia as a prosperous new partner in the global market economy. Hell, there was even heady talk of Russia joining NATO. The second confession is that we recently met again for a more sobering chat about Freezing Order, a tale of how all this came unstuck, and how Browder himself ended up on Vladimir Putin’s list of Most Wanted.

But even without such first-hand knowledge and attendant nostalgia, this book is as gripping as any spy thriller. It comes complete with state-sponsored murders, dramatic escapes and even a honey trap. Browder launches straight in, describing in pacy detail his brief arrest by Interpol in Madrid in 2018, and his narrow escape from meeting the same fate as his former Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, falsely imprisoned and then murdered for exposing corruption in 2009. Later, he describes the terror he felt that same year, when Donald Trump considered handing Browder over to Putin in return for some intelligence agents.

Browder’s previous book, Red Notice, was equally enthralling on the rise of the oligarchy, which had made Browder initially welcome Putin’s rise. Like others, he’d believed the future dictator was just the technocrat needed to stamp down on corruption and usher in reforms. Hermitage, then the largest foreign portfolio investor in Russia, played its part, creating shareholder wealth by agitating for corporates to clean up their acts. But it soon became clear that Putin was intent on becoming the richest oligarch of all. Browder soon fell foul of the regime. He was deported in 2005 and his personal war with Putin began. It’s a war he’s somehow survived, but which has seen several witnesses to Russian corruption die in mysterious circumstances.

Ultimately, this book is a tribute to them, particularly Magnitsky. Browder devoted time and money to lobbying for the Magnitsky Act, passed in 2016 in the US and 33 other countries, which authorises the freezing of assets belonging to human rights offenders. But this legislation has rarely been called upon until recently, and the book details the complacency and even complicity of many western lawyers, bankers and politicians in the oligarchs’ money laundering, especially here in Britain. Few westerners have seen inside Putin’s mind as Browder has, and for that alone you should read this book.

 

The Breakup Monologues
By Rosie Wilby
(208pp, Bloomsbury, £16.99, hb, pub. 27 May)
Reviewed by Anouchka Grose


The Break-up Monologues, subtitled “The Unexpected Joy of Heartbreak”, sets out from an excellent premise. According to statistics, lesbians go through more break-ups in a lifetime than anyone else. They’re also the most likely to stay friends with an ex. Therefore, if you need advice on making the best of a break-up, ask a lesbian. And Wilby herself proves the most reliable and philosophical of lesbians when it comes to dishing out advice about everything from micro-cheating to the effects of post-break-up brain chemistry. 

It follows Wilby’s hugely successful podcast of the same name, in which guests are invited to discuss the grisly details of their relationship meltdowns and share whatever wisdom they’ve gleaned. A warm and skilful host, Wilby manages to extract the gore and glory from a starry array of writers, actors, podcasters and fellow comedians, without seeming
either maudlin or prurient. (Or not much; who doesn’t love a glimpse into other people’s misery?) 

The book brings together science, pop culture, friends’ misfortunes (which can be blessings in disguise, as the subtitle suggests) and the author’s own experiences. Sometimes science and personal experience elide, as when Wilby intrepidly offers herself as a subject for research into sexual preference and arousal, and is informed that she actually quite likes men. 

Ultimately, it’s a love story. We hear early on that Wilby has finally met a woman she’d like to stick with. Using her enormous database of romantic disasters, can she work out what makes people come unstuck? And will this help her to stay stuck, in a good way? 

Like any great romantic heroine, you find yourself rooting for Rosie. (By the end of the book I felt I’d made a great buddy – to the point where it seems wrong to call her Wilby in a review.) Rosie is the most amiable, trustworthy, and soul-searching of narrators. Anyone in need of supportive hand-holding in the love department should read this. Still, it’s far more than a self-help book. The Break-up Monologues is a bittersweet laugh from start to finish – my new literary best friend. 

 

Unfolding the Past
By Elizabeth Wilson
(285pp, Bloomsbury, £20, hb)
Reviewed by Belinda Bamber

Is it true of every “bookish” type that our love of stories stems from feeling an outsider at an early age? It’s impossible not to warm instantly to Elizabeth Wilson when she describes her own solitary childhood, in which she sought solace in books. “Reading was my cloak of invisibility,” she writes. “By reading I escaped into an imaginary world where I did not live in an embarrassingly shabby and eccentric house and my mother wasn’t so awkwardly different from all the other parents.”

Nominally examining why and how we wear clothes, “Unfolding the Past” is so packed with Wilson’s literary allusions, as well as her observations about life, sex, film and fashion over the centuries, it’s like dipping into the anecdotes of a clever salonnière, peopled with Djuna Barnes, Proust and Marlene Dietrich. Wilson weaves a memoir in which the uniting thread is how clothing trends reflect changing mores as well as creating new cultural norms.

Regarded with suspicion by fellow academics for being a polymath in her enthusiasms, Wilson started out as a political writer who moved into “the surfaces of life, fashion, spectacle and entertainment, urban social life, countercultures, art, film.”

An early feminist and member of Spare Rib, her interest in fashion was seen as suspect, she says, partly “because it prioritised pleasure and was often associated with sexual display – although it is just as often concerned with rules and conformity.” For her, “Dress was a key that unlocked this spectacle of modern life.”

In the chapter, “What does a lesbian look like?”, Wilson mentions the Ladies of Llangollen two celebrated Anglo-Irish aristocrats in the 1780s who eloped from their marriages. Visited by Byron, Wordsworth and the Duke of Wellington, they habitually dressed in “masculine” riding habits and their disruption of gender norms was commented on in contemporary journals. Wilson notes that they “costumed their difference and their specificity” through male dress and examines how fashion was judged to be “false”, just as “queerness” or “tainted love” was “linked to theatricality and sinister forms of make-believe.” Heterosexual desire, on the other hand, was, and is “oversimplified as a spontaneous inclination, as nature not culture,” a distinction she richly skewers.

Wilson’s exploration of “gender as performance” leads into the socio-linguistics of the twenty-first century, in which “‘queer’, ‘gender-fluid’ and non-binary’ can express an embodiment in practice of transgression and subversion.”

Freed from the “invisible cloak” of her childhood, Wilson’s fascinating text shows how fashion can be the opposite of frivolity. Ultimately, she says, it’s the “search for personal identity through aesthetic experience.” 

THRILLER OF THE MONTH

Wrong Place Wrong Time
By Gillian McAllister
(416pp, Michael Joseph, £14.99, hb)
Reviewed by SJ Watson

One of the tricky things when writing the type of psychological thriller that McAllister excels in (and excel she does, with several bestsellers already under her belt), is that so often the really interesting question is not the “who?” or even the “how?” of the crime, but the “why?”. The author’s challenge is to foreground the motive while ensuring the crime takes place early enough in the narrative to provide the necessary thrills.

In this, her seventh book, McAllister has solved that problem beautifully. The crime is right there in chapter one, when solicitor Jen witnesses Todd, her teenage son – her happy, geeky, funny son – stab a stranger in the early hours, right outside their home. With him under arrest, his bright future ruined, a tearful Jen eventually falls asleep on the sofa. The twist is that when she wakes, desperate to understand why her son committed such a crime, it’s Groundhog Day: time has wound back to the day before and Todd lies asleep in his bedroom, hours away from becoming a murderer. She has her longed-for chance to understand what led to the killing… and yet it happens again that night, and again, and again. Each time she sleeps Jen slips back further in time, giving her yet another chance to understand what triggered the murder, and hopefully to save Todd, by preventing the sequence of events.

The set-up is beautiful, and there’s no sense that this time-shifting is mere gimmickry. McAllister is far too clever a writer for that – and here she’s at the top of her game. As we slip down the rabbit-hole of discovery, revelations come at a satisfying pace in this smart, compelling thriller. And as desperate Jen slides further back in time – days, weeks, eventually years – McAllister gets to ask some important questions. How culpable is Jen in her son becoming a killer? Could she have changed the outcome? Does every action a child performs really begin with their mother? 

While giving nothing away, I can tell you the solution to the puzzle is nuanced and elegant, and will leave you hungry for more. It’s the book we’ll all be talking about this summer, so you might as well get ahead of the game and read it now.

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

Arts & Culture

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