‘Ancestors: A History of Britain in Thirteen Burials’ by Alice Roberts

Alice Roberts uses the lens of archaeology to explore British history. In many ways Roberts represents the new wave of historians who are able to approach via multiple disciplines, as Roberts expertly and effortlessly interweaves historical narrative with descriptions of ancient burials, tombs with the biographies of the pioneers who excavated them; under Roberts’s skilful pen myths are transformed into rich historical narratives and, just like the archaeologists she extolls in the book, she is able to gradually chip away at uncertainties and find new and often surprising truths.

Roberts starts with the earliest Britons, the early humans and Neanderthals who migrated here in between Ice Ages, before moving on to the waves of visitors who followed, including the earliest Celts and other peoples who populated Britain in the distant days of pre-history. Along the way Roberts also explores a multitude of subjects, from the white, male dominated history of archaeology which has irrevocably and often incorrectly skewed how we view the past, to the nature and purpose of burials, funerals and trinkets in early human societies.

Although the book is focussed on British History, in many ways it transcends geography as it explores nascent human culture and societies and how these have shaped us.

‘Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life’ by George Monbiot

Monbiot demonstrates a supreme passion for science and nature without the sentimentality which can sometimes blight natural history books. Instead Monbiot explores how we are increasingly losing touch with nature, fencing ourselves off, both figuratively and literally, from the natural world, erecting barriers via nonsensical regulations dressed as ecology or held hostage to the whims and needs of a small set of landowners who stand in the way of progress. That progress is this sense is in fact a reversion to the past is testament to how distant we are from the world which shaped us.

Monbiot instead uses evidence and his insights to look at how we allow nature to claim back what we have taken away. Instead of feeling like we need to actively help nature reclaim farming or other land, we should instead leave it free to do what it is designed to do; one of the root causes of the problems we face is our sense of entitlement, our arrogance in thinking the human intellect is the only solution to any problem. The natural world coped for hundreds of millions of years without us and will flourish when we are long gone.

That being said, Monbiot’s sense of how much humans are willing to change can be unrealistic, if perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, such as his suggestion on rewilding Europe with megafauna such as elephants and lions. Irrespective of this, ‘Feral’ remains vital reading for scientists, politicians and policy makers and offers hope for a world where nature can reclaim its rightful place.

‘Evening Descends Upon The Hills (Stories from Naples)’ by Anna Maria Ortese

Ortese offer snapshots into the world of Naples; heady and hedonistic, Ortese’s Naples draws the reader in with its inimitable cast of characters, from poverty stricken children, to its intelligentsia, Naples comes alive via the pictures Ortese paints, as the reader is dazzled by the panoply of colours and characters who inhabit the stories.

The reader can sense the impact Ortese had on writers such as Elsa Ferrante, as her style is sometimes didactic, almost journalistic in its account of the lives of its characters. So the reader experience the joys and sorrows of a young girl whose partial blindness will be resolved by the purchase of glasses her family can’t afford, a family gathering is punctuated by the death of a neighbour, a young woman takes wonder at the kaleidoscope of colours which glitter on the Neapolitan seascape; these are the quotidian details which help Ortese’s stories come alive. In many ways the stories act as eulogies for times long gone which will never come back, a world hopelessly lost to the vestiges of time. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the latter set stories which explore the lives of Naples intellectuals and artists, who Ortese depicts as a set of characters hopelessly lost in petty squabbles and doomed to obscurity.

‘Evening Descends Upon The Hill’ are a brilliant and evocative set of short stories which deserve to be read more widely, transporting the reader to a long vanished world.

‘The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity’ by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Graeber and Wengrow brilliantly dissect the (often Euro-centric) myths which have perpetuated around human and cultural development. Instead of perpetuating the myth the the slow march to Western democracy was the inevitable culmination of agricultural and cultural progress, they dissect the idea that human progress follows a straight path towards ‘enlightenment’. For Graeber and Wengrow, the idea Progress itself is a loaded word and a simplistic way of describing the development of civilisations and cultures. Societies react not just to the past, but to their environment and, most importantly, the cultures which exist around them and concepts such as inequality often predated agriculture and the creation of property, just as war and violence predated the formation of the state.

Graeber and Wengrow also explore how complex social structures and bureaucracies aren’t solely contingent on the creation of the state, how what we would term ‘inventions’ are really the product of many minds and years as opposed to the sudden realisation of a single person and how monarchies and government were just as likely to be a product of totemic and playful cultural traditions and norms. ‘The Dawn of Everything’ is a brilliant and insightful exploration of human society, culture and civilisations.

‘A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon’ James

Marlon James reimagines the attempted killing of Bob Marley via a conflagration of violence and vituperation, of political conspiracies and gang violence. Stylistically, the world kindled up by James resembles the films of Tarantino and De Palma, a world of hyper-masculinity and hyper-violence, yet one beset with surprises. So one of Kingston’s most notorious gangsters is also a love of Bertrand Russel, so an unhinged woman who is obsessed with Marley after a one night stand is transformed into a fugitive whose sole purpose in life is to escape the past which has irrevocably shaped her and Marley himself, know as ‘Singer’ acts as a shadowy figure whose presence looms large over the lives of the characters, but who is in reality a peripheral figure. The story isn’t so much about Marley as it as about Jamaica just as it entering a period of political turbulence.

The kaleidoscope of character who James portrays can occasionally confuse and disorientate the reader, however they are all inescapably visceral and authentic. This authenticity expands to cover the Jamaica which James depicts, whether it be the chaos of the ghetto, referred to here as ‘Copenhagen City’, or the tedium of the suburbs. Alongside this the political sub-plot of the novel, where several shadowy figures from the CIA or its affiliations are eager to upend the revolutionary message Marley espoused around freedom and compassion. James is able to skilfully use patois to render the inner lives of the characters, as the reader becomes increasingly engrossed and entangled in their lives, the genuineness of their inner monologues makes the reader feel like they can live, breathe and taste the world they inhabit.

Despite it’s highly cinematic nature, ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ has probably found its right medium in the form of literature, as the reader, even if they haven’t enjoyed the novel, will still feel like they have inhabited the world James depicts, whether it be 1970’s Jamaica or 1990’s New York.

‘Sunlight on a Broken Column’ by Attia Hosain

Hosain’s evocative prose captures a lost world, a world of indolence and upheaval, of late imperial India just as the independence movement is starting to gain ground, a world of decadence amidst the delirium of revolutionary politics, as Hosain captures the last gasps of a dying empire and the awakening of a political new reality in the form of Indian and Pakistan.

‘Sunlight on a Broken Column’ ostensibly follows the story of Laila, an orphan who is living with her family in Lucknow. The early chapters are fairly episodic, capturing various important junctures in Laila’s childhood and adolescence. Hosain is able to skilfully recapture the atmosphere of 1930’s India, as Laila’s quiet existence is punctuated by the political upheaval which is overtaking the country, so that whilst the independence movement initially exists on the frays of Laila’s world, she becomes increasingly entangled in its machinations, whether it be via her friendship with her cousin Asad or her conflicts with her uncle. In many ways the tribulations of the independence movement mirror conflicts taking place in Laila’s own personal life, as she feels trapped between modernity and the expectations of her conservative family, which come to a head as she marries Ameer. In many way this clash of cultures is the true theme of the book, as both Indian and Laila’s identities are irrevocably shaped by the British and in many ways the book focuses on them trying to find their place in a world they scarce understand.

‘Sunlight on a Broken Column’ is a brilliant story of pre-partition Punjab, a story which captures the chaos and confusion of an Indian which is just about the emerge from the cocoon of the British Empire.

‘Strange Beasts of China’ by Yan Ge

Part fantasy, part social commentary, ‘Strange Beasts of China’ has an allegorical feel to it, but that should not distract the reader from a book which is febrile with the feverish imagination of a journalist who is caught up in the sinister, yet wonderous world of the ‘strange beats’, quasi-human creatures who inhabit the world the protagonist resides in. The beasts are divided up into different group, some, such as the ‘sorrowful beats’ are unable to smile or laugh otherwise they will die, others are cursed with prescience but without the will to change their futures and others combine with their human masters by literally consuming them.

It is difficult to categorise the beasts as either victims or monsters, instead they just are, sometimes they are nothing more than the playthings of humans, sometimes they are beings of far greater agency and control, they exist on the fringes of human imagination and society and are brought to life by the protagonist, whose curiosity about the beasts eventually leads to a series of shocking self-revelations as the novel concludes. Throughout the story the protagonist it constantly upended by external forces in her investigations, whether it be her malevolent ex-professor, who has a deep-rooted connections with the beasts, or the cast of characters whose relationships with the beasts allows her to unravel the secrets and mysteries which have permeated their very nature in the eyes of humans.

‘Strange Beasts of China’ is a strange and beautiful book, part detective story and part bestiary, which, despite occasional lulls towards the end of the novel, deserves to be read.

‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead

There is something epic, almost Biblical, about the journey of Cora as she escapes the shackles of slavery, only to be pursued by the satanic Ridgeway and his Mephistophelean assistant on the journey to freedom. ‘The Underground Railroad’ is a visceral account of mid-19th century America, as Whitehead captures the colours, sights and sounds of America. The biggest strength of the narrative is how Whitehead draws out how sinister and frightening America was from the perspective of a Black person, where your life is constantly under threat, where you are constantly on edge, teetering on the precipice as you can, at any time, be engulfed and drowned amidst the vast ocean of violence; Cora and the other Black characters feel constantly disorientated by a world which has stripped them of any semblance of humanity.

Whitehead charts Cora’s life from being a slave and life on the plantation, from being abandoned by her mother, to the sense of alienation she feels amongst the other slaves on the plantation who regard her with distrust, to her escape with fellow save Caesar. The reader gradually becomes drawn into the claustrophobic world of the fugitive slave, from the rag-tag group of amateur slave catchers, to the sinister and relentless Ridgeway, who is driven by personal grudge as Cora’s mother was one of the few slaves to escape his grasp. The claustrophobia isn’t a new feeling as it merely magnifies the lack of safety for Black people in America, so Cora is stuck in the basement of an abolitionist, but the genteel world of the town she is trapped and it’s superficial veneer of civility, beneath which lurks a sense of violence on the cusp of being sparked. Likewise the railroad itself has a dream-like, almost nightmarish quality to it, the verisimilitude of safety it offers is frequently punctuated by the encroaching forces of white rage. The key thing Whitehead draws out is that you are never safe if you are Black in America, not even if you are born free, or live in a state where slavery has been banned and this builds up an innate sense of trauma in the psyche of Black people yet, despite all this, Cora emerges triumphant, if scarred, and uncowed.

‘The Underground Railroad’ is a harrowing and powerful exploration of slavery in America just as it is on the cusp of the revolution.

‘Typhoon’ by Qaisra Shahraz

Shahraz captures the sights, smells and sounds of village life in Pakistan, as a scandal rocks the village to its core, shattering the mundane lives of its villagers, who feel hopelessly disorientated by the discovery of the love affair between a married man, Haroon and the glamorous visitor Naghmana. In many ways the novel is about the lives of women, from the outwardly lascivious yet inwardly dignified Naghmana, to the haughty Chaudharani whose superciliousness masks scars from her past, to the innocent and naive Gulshan and her harridanish mother, whose impetuous actions set the wheels of the motion in action, the focus of the story is on the inner lives of an interactions between the various women who populate the novel.

Shahraz is able to skilfully render life in a Pakistani village. From the quietude which permeates its atmosphere, to the dazzling dawns and and stillness of its afternoon, to the lives of its characters, which although in many senses hopelessly narrow in scope, reflect the same deep connections, petty jealousies and conflicts as the lives of city dwellers. Indeed the sense of authenticity which Shahraz is able to imbue the novel with is its greatest, strength as the reader feels drawn in by repercussions from Harron and Naghmana’s liaison, the ripples of which are felt by the village for years afterwards.

‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell

‘Hamnet’ is a singular piece of fiction. Ostensibly about Shakespeare’s family, Shakespeare himself exists on the periphery of the novel, an almost phantasmagorical presence lurking on the edges of the minds of his son, Hamnet, wife Agnes and daughters , ‘Hamnet’ is as much about the tribulations of being the family of a genius as it is about the tragic death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, here reimagined as being the victim of the Black Death whose spectre haunts Shakespeare’s imagination, to the point that he is reimagined in the guise of the tragic prince in ‘Hamlet’.

O’Farrell’s novel is dotted with multiple purple passages of prose, from the descriptions of young Agnes and Shakespeare falling in love amidst the arboreal beauty Warwickshire, and can at sometimes become irreverently directionless, as when it randomly follows the story of the young sailor who causes the spread of plague in Stratford and the death of Hamnet, yet throughout this it remains a brilliant retelling of the past, a re-examination of the life and works of Shakespeare, yet one which is grounded very much in the imagination of the writer than actual history. Yet the details O’Farrell is able to re-create, from the sleepy, almost dour Stratford, to the rambunctious and chaotic London streets or the wonders of the playhouse, imbue the novel with a sense of depth, as the reader feels drawn into the world of 16th century England.

‘Hamnet’ remains a startlingly original piece of storyteller, whose brilliance constantly shines through and which is able to explore the life of Shakespeare via the lens of his family rather than Shakespeare himself, allowing us to glimpse the impact his fame had on his long-suffering wife and children.