Reviewers: Helen Brown, Jamie Colvin, Peter Phelps
These Precious Days
by Ann Patchett
(336pp, Bloomsbury, £16.99, hb)
The first time Ann Patchett recalls thinking seriously about her own death, she was 26 years old and working on her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars (1992). “No matter where I went,” she recalls, “I carried the entire cast of characters with me – the heroines and heroes and supporting players, as well as the towns they lived in, their houses and cars, all the streets and all the trees and the colour of the light.” If she stepped off a curb at the wrong moment an entire world would be lost. It’s a weight of responsibility she has hoiked around with each successive novel – including the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto (2001) and The Dutch House (2019).
But as the decades rolled by Patchett noticed that “death had no interest in essays”. She’d always written short essays for newspapers and magazines. During the pandemic she enjoyed working on some longer personal pieces, just for herself. We follow her from her childhood as an awkward introvert (slow to read until she discovered Snoopy) through adolescent trips around Europe to her career as a bestselling author. She tackles decluttering, homelessness and the risks of dangerous hobbies (when her husband buys a motorbike she threatens to start smoking again).
There’s a knockout piece on her decision to remain, happily, childless. And a moving tribute to her “Three Fathers”. Each of her mother’s marriages caused dramatic shifts in the household dynamic. Patchett offers a careful evaluation of her relationships with her biological dad (an LA police detective) and her two stepfathers (a rich but erratic doctor and a gentle cleric). Her dad sent back a copy of her first book with all the expletives crossed out. Her first stepfather begged her to read his own awful self-published fiction; the second was content to enjoy her company.
Patchett’s prose is so cosily conversational that her more acute observations can surprise the reader. I often felt a bit like a character in one of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels – startled that the amiable storyteller in the armchair had the whole scene sussed. HB
The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World
by Malcolm Gaskill
(336pp, Allen Lane, £20, hb)
In the mid-seventeenth century, witchcraft was a very real fear. When your cow alarmed you by producing saffron-coloured milk, what else could you blame? You would naturally conclude it must be the result of a spell by that man you declined to sell hay to earlier in the day.
Which is exactly what happened in Springfield, Massachusetts, a small town of fewer than fifty families at that time, culminating in the trial of husband and wife, Hugh and Mary Parsons. These Puritan refugees had left England in search of a better life away from religious persecution but came upon a world of hardship: long, cold winters, intimidating Native Americans and a high infant mortality rate.
Malcolm Gaskill is one of the UK’s leading experts on the history of witchcraft and has painstakingly pieced together four decades of Springfield’s history, starting from the 1640s. Meeting minutes, evidence used in trials and locals’ credit in the general store have all survived, which is astonishing.
Gaskill provides a fascinating account of the theology behind accusations of witchcraft: the subtle differences in denominational beliefs in the crucifixion and the Eucharist. Religion was key: everyone strove to be a good Christian by avoiding the temptations of the Devil, who was believed to recruit witches to do his work. If “odd” things happened, the Devil was to blame according to the “medieval scholasticism” which reached its peak in 1692 at the Salem witch trials.
Back in Springfield, accusations flew over the spoiled milk. Hugh was accused of being a witch by the townspeople; his wife, Mary, was accused of murdering her infant son. Even so, a trial was a rare thing and three quarters of indictments failed. There had to be two witnesses for each supposed act of witchcraft, which was tricky for obscure and elusive crimes like this one. (Read the book to find out what happened.)
In our era of fake news, those real life witch hunts no longer seem so far-fetched. This book is essential reading if you’re interested in how little contemporary America has evolved from its New World incarnation of suspicion and baseless accusations. JC
Riddle, Mystery, and Enigma: Two Hundred Years of British – Russian Relations
by David Owen
(354pp, Haus Publishing, £20, hb)
Best known as foreign secretary under James Callaghan in the 1970s, before going on to co-found and lead the Social Democratic Party, Lord David Owen was also a doctor and businessman, and has now written three histories. This work follows The Hidden Perspective (2014) and Cabinet’s Finest Hour (2016). Riddle, Mystery, and Enigma is a skilfully rendered exploration of the relationship over the past two centuries between Britain and Russia. Its opening salvo extols the strategic cunning and leadership of George Canning, who might be little known today but was a “titan” of the “British political stage” in the early nineteenth century. He served as foreign secretary, then prime minister, and one suspects he’s something of a political pin-up for Owen. He credits Canning for success at the Battle of Navarino in 1827, which secured Greek independence but also proved the possibility of a successful if pragmatic alliance between Britain and Russia. Owen returns to this theme again when reviewing Churchill and Stalin, and British-Soviet relations during the last war. Although this is a history, the primacy of Owen’s political instinct is evident, and it also packs a more contemporary punch. Within fourteen pages, Owen detours to consider the principles governing military intervention, taking the opportunity to eviscerate Bush and Blair’s case for war against Iraq in 2003. Towards the end of the book, he gives as clear an analysis as you’re likely to read of the nature of Putin’s Russia, compares the declining stature of both nations on the world stage, and explores
the difficulties and possibilities facing British-Russian relations post Brexit.
Having spent several years living in Russia and the FSU in the 1990s, my personal highlight is his depiction of the freewheeling, hopeful years under Boris Yeltsin, when the flame of democracy flickered, albeit not long enough for the rule of law to properly establish itself. Owen also had twenty years of commercial experience in Russia, between 2005 and 2015. And that is, above all, what makes this such an enjoyable read: he is writing as someone who has penetrated the steely veneer and experienced the turbulent soul of the real Russia, as a businessman, foreign secretary, and peace negotiator. PP