Home to mother: Long Island, by Colm Toibín, reviewed

Colm Toibin’s new novel starts with a bang – or rather, the results of one. It is only on the second page that an Irishman arrives at Eilis Fiorello’s house and threatens to leave his wife’s love child on her doorstep, it being also the doorstep of the father, Tony. ‘If anyone thinks I am keeping an Italian plumber’s brat in my house and have my own children believe that it came into the world as decently as they did, they can have another think.’ As a sequel to Brooklyn, it makes sense that Long Island is quick out of the blocks. Which is exactly what Eilis and Tony are

Extremes of passion: What Will Survive of Us, by Howard Jacobson, reviewed

There is not going gently into that good night, and then there is teetering into it on spiked-heel boots while strapped into a leather corset in search of clandestine kicks among like-minded fetishists. If it sounds an exhausting and chilly way to spend an evening, well, it is. At least, that’s how it feels to Sam Quaid, the middle-aged playwright who is beset by misgivings – he himself is dressed in ‘the more chicken-hearted guise of a fallen Quaker who had never seen the sun’ – but gamely determined to accompany his lover, Lily. Where is Sam’s obeisance going to lead him, or Lily? Here is where the novel becomes

Dangerous secrets: Verdigris, by Michele Mari, reviewed

In everyday life – on a garden path, flowerpot or lettuce – I back rapidly away from slugs. I didn’t expect to confront them in literature, but in Michele Mari’s Verdigris they are present in abundance, from the first line: Bisected by a precise blow of the spade, the slug writhed a moment longer: then it moved no more… slimy shame transformed into splendid silvery iridescence.  So, not a novel for one who shrinks from gastropod molluscs, you would think. Yet I quickly found myself drawn into a remote corner of rural north Italy in 1969 where a lonely, bookish boy, Michelino, spends long summers with his emotionally unreachable grandparents.

Downhill all the way: the decline of the British Empire after 1923

The British Empire, the East African Chronicle wrote in 1921, was a ‘wonderful conglomeration of races and creeds and nations’. It offered ‘the only solution to the great problem of mankind – the problem of brotherhood. If the British Empire fails, then all else fails.’ Stirring words – and not those of some sentimental Colonel Blimp back in London. They were written by the newspaper’s editor, Manilal A. Desai, a young Nairobi-based lawyer and a prominent figure in the large Indian community in Kenya. But, as Matthew Parker observes in One Fine Day, an ambitious account of the empire at the moment of its territorial zenith on 29 September 1923,

Why did Truman Capote betray his ‘swans’ so cruelly?

The first rule in John Updike’s code of book reviewing is: try to understand what the author wished to do and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt. I should therefore not blame Laurence Leamer for failing to capture in Capote’s Women any sense of what made Truman Capote irresistibly attractive to all sorts of people – rich, poor, male, female and especially to his flock of high-society swans, the women of Leamer’s title. Nor should I blame him for failing to identify what made Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood both beloved by critics and hugely popular. I can’t blame Leamer, because what

A doomed affair: Kairos, by Jenny Erpenbeck, reviewed

We all live with boundaries, but few of us feel that as keenly as Jenny Erpenbeck, who grew up in the Pankow district of East Berlin, a stone’s throw from the Wall. Now a leading novelist of a unified Germany, she explained several years ago that when the Wall came down in 1989 and the East German state collapsed (she was 22 at the time), a ‘border’ was created between two halves of her life. ‘Without this experience of transition, from one world to a very other one, I would probably never have started writing.’ It will never be like this again, thinks Hans. It will always be this way,

Britain’s recent darkest hour: the betrayal of the Chagos Islands

Philippe Sands’s compelling new book opens in 2018 at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where Liseby Elysé – ‘a distinctive lady dressed in black’, who can neither read nor write – is making a video statement before 14 judges. In Creole, she describes how, in 1973, she and the last of her 1,500 fellow islanders from Peros Banhos (part of the Chagos archipelago, south of the Maldives) were forcibly deported to Mauritius. They were herded in the dark onto a boat for a four-day passage, with neither notice nor explanation given, restricted to one wooden trunk of possessions apiece, homes abandoned and all their pets rounded up

The spycop debacle is another nail in the Met’s coffin

In 2010, Mark Kennedy, a tattooed social justice warrior, was exposed as an undercover police officer. In this guise he infiltrated climate change activist groups and in the meantime formed a number of sexual relationships with fellow activists. Kennedy manipulated and deceived several women, including ‘Lisa’, with whom he formed a particularly close bond, while his wife and children were left in the dark about his exploits. But Kennedy was no lone bad apple. He was part of a group of Metropolitan Police spies deployed to gather intelligence on left-wing protest groups. Deep Deception is the story of these spies, written by five of the eight women who, in 2011,

A late fling: Free Love, by Tessa Hadley, reviewed

Tessa Hadley is the queen of the portentous evening, the pregnant light and the carefully composed life unwittingly waiting to be unravelled. Free Love, like its predecessor Late in the Day, begins on one such evening. The year is 1967 and Phyllis, a suburban housewife, is applying her make-up. She and her husband, a ‘respected Arabist’, are expecting the son of a family friend for dinner. Nicholas arrives, and broods angrily over his resentment of the staid old guard his hosts represent while plotting half-heartedly to seduce Phyllis as vengeance. Hadley is wonderfully wry at undermining the novel’s own urge towards solemnity: He wondered, if he pulled at that ribbon

Emperor for three years: the doomed reign of Maximilian I of Mexico

On 8 April 1864 an Austrian archduke with a penchant for daydreaming agreed to be emperor of Mexico. As Edward Shawcross describes in his majestic history The Last Emperor of Mexico, the process to install Maximilian of Habsburg began two and half years earlier. The plan was proposed by a determined clique of Mexican Conservatives and developed by Napoleon III, the scheming emperor of France. The Conservatives, who had just lost a four-year civil war, wanted to repeal the Liberal constitution that confiscated the assets and privileges of the Catholic church. They saw Maximilian as a symbol of the imperial family that had brought the faith to Mexico. Napoleon III,

Why did the Allies dismiss the idea of a German resistance movement?

In 1928, a modest young lecturer from Wilwaukee, Mildred Harnack, née Fish, arrived in Berlin to begin her PhD in American Literature. In the febrile, polyglot atmosphere in the city at the ‘crossroads of Europe’, the media was still mocking Adolf Hitler and few took him seriously. Mildred saw, close up, the brokenness of American and German capitalism and, distantly, the apparently level playing fields of communist Russia. As the Nazis gained increasing control over the body politic, she taught an overtly socialist syllabus — Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiseret al. When, halfway through her dissertation, the university fired her, she promptly started teaching at a night school for working-class students.

Sleeping with the enemy: the wartime story of ‘La Chatte’

The name ‘Carré’ immediately evokes the shadowy world of espionage. Ironically, however, few people today have heard of the real Carré, also known as ‘Victoire’ and ‘La Chatte’, a female intelligence agent inside Nazi-occupied France whose life had enough plot twists and moral ambiguity to satisfy any spy novelist. Mathilde Carré (1908-2007) had beena clever but rather neglected child. Desperate to give her life meaning, and inspired by the poems of a patriotic aunt, she had romantically decided ‘at all costs, to die as a martyr for France’. Thirty years later, after a number of false starts, the second world war finally presented her with the chance to live a

Betrayal was a routine business for George Blake

Kim Philby once remarked to the journalist Murray Sayle that ‘to betray, you must first belong. I never belonged’. Kim, as usual, was lying. Westminster and Cambridge, the Foreign Office and SIS: for all his attempts to pose as an outsider, Philby was a thorough-paced member of the British Establishment. George Blake — who is quoted using exactly the same phrase about himself in Simon Kuper’s wise, engaging biography The Happy Traitor — was telling the truth. Blake never belonged to a country, and communism was probably the closest thing he ever found to a spiritual home — even if he was deeply disillusioned by the reality of the workers’