Friday, 04 September 2015

Book Reviews: 4 September

The Lady reviews of the latest books available to buy or download now


Books-Sept04-MoorsAccount-176THE MOOR’S ACCOUNT by Laila Lalami (Periscope, £9.99; offer price, £9.49)
In the actual surviving account of the 16thcentury Spanish expedition to the New World led by Pánfilo de Narváez, there is a brief reference to Mustafa – the protagonist of Laila Lalami’s novel, which is centred on this adventure. A Moorish merchant-turned-slave, he has gone down in history as one of the few who survived it. Despite this, little is known about him, and the finer detail of this retelling is Lalami’s own.

When the Spanish land in what is now Florida to establish a colony, they face dangerous odds, but struggle on along the Gulf Coast, encountering the might of defiant indigenous tribes.

Mustafa, with his measured but soulful narration, tells how he was a free Moroccan man before selling himself into slavery. His enterprising and creative mind wins him a changed relationship with his Spanish masters. His dreams of regaining his liberty flicker strongly, with the early chapters alternating between his free past and his exotic, pioneering present.

This is a tactful fictionalised account, placing as much value on events as on description and taking few liberties with characterisation. Lalami’s scrupulous research into the era gives credible weight to this long-buried, alternative perspective on the colonial history of the Americas.
Philippa Williams

Books-Sept04-Inspector-Chopra-176THE UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE OF INSPECTOR CHOPRA by Vaseem Khan (Mullholland Books, £12.99; offer price, £11.49)
In this whimsical murder-mystery set in Mumbai, Inspector Chopra is working his last shift. It is an eventful day: the body of a drowned young man is found, and Chopra inherits a baby elephant from his late uncle, Bansi.

As he enters retirement, Inspector Chopra begins to investigate the case, which was abandoned by his colleagues. With his elephant in tow, he searches for clues, but keeps his inquiries a secret from his opinionated wife, because, after all, he is supposed to be retired. The dynamic between the couple is humorous, even if murder is the order of the day.

The first in a series, this is a sparkling debut with a zippy plot and an endearing set of characters. The darker elements of the story are punctuated with light humour – Khan establishes this as his narrative style early on.

A gentle detective story that packs a punch – fans of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency will love this.
Lyndsy Spence


Books-Sept04-BookOfWeek-176Losing it all
DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY by Bill Clegg (Jonathan Cape, £12.99; offer price, £10.99)
On the day that former gallery owner June Reid’s daughter is due to get married, an explosion devastates her Connecticut house. June is the sole survivor: her daughter, her future son-in-law, her ex-husband and her current boyfriend Luke are all killed.

The question of how it is possible to survive such unimaginable loss is at the centre of New York literary agent Bill Clegg’s debut novel, which was longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. June, numb with grief and shock, responds by taking flight. Lydia, Luke’s mother, stays put, despite the gossip that swirls around the town. Her son was much younger than June and had previously served time for drug dealing – could he have been responsible for the disaster?

As Clegg’s novel moves between characters and voices, we are given moving insights into the lives of those affected. We also begin to understand how the roots of the tragedy can be traced back to events that happened many years before.

Although this is at times a harrowing read, the slow and deliberate manner with which connections are revealed and questions answered is genuinely satisfying. By the time Clegg’s narrative strands converge, the glimpse that he grants of a brighter future feels earned.
Stephanie Cross


CARAVAGGIO: The Complete Works by Sebastian Schutze (Taschen, £44.99; offer price, £37.99)
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was as celebrated for his work as he was notorious for his fiery temperament. He lived dangerously on and off the canvas: pushing realism to the limit, he treated Biblical scenes with a sensuality that ruffled ecclesiastical feathers.


Between brawls and brushes with the law, he took chiaroscuro to extremes and became the most famous artist in Rome. This comprehensive study showcases each painting in state-of-the-art photography, with closeups of details, like his ability to capture emotion with the subtlest of facial expressions. The text analyses his career and his riotous life: a rag-to-riches story every bit as dramatic as Caravaggio’s art.
Juanita Coulson


THE BOY WHO STOLE ATTILA’S HORSE by Iván Repila, translated by Sophie Hughes (Pushkin Press, £10; offer price, £9.50)
Two boys are trapped in a well with a small parcel of food – and a mysterious injunction not to eat it. As the weeks go by, their minds and bodies are tested to the limit. Under the strain of hunger, isolation and fear, the younger child’s sanity slips and he bursts into vivid monologues with a Blakeian, visionary quality. Meanwhile, his teenaged brother devises an escape plan, the perverse logic of which is a mystery. There is an explosive contrast between Repila’s exquisite, poetic prose and the horrors – physical but most disturbingly psychological – of the claustrophobic predicament he describes. A deeply unsettling but compelling novella with all the visceral, elemental force of myth and folk tale.
Juanita Coulson

UNDER MAJOR DOMO MINOR by Patrick deWitt (Granta Books, £12.99; offer price, £10.99)
Lucien (Lucy) Minor, an eccentric compulsive liar from Bury, is saved from a fatal illness by his father and sent to work for the Baron von Aux, lately of the Castle Von Aux. Brought in to act as assistant to Mr Olderglough, Lucy is exposed to the female wiles of Klara the Beguiler, the village siren, who is involved with high-ranking military figure Adolphus. As the untoward rituals of life in the castle are revealed, bizarre individuals from inside and outside its walls come together in a sequence of tableaux, which are as grotesque as they are compelling. A strangely seductive fantasy novel that erupts into moments of outrageous violence, it blends an aberrant but engaging take on the European folk tale with knowing glances to Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka. A rollicking good read.
Martyn Colebrook

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