BEST THINGS, WORST PLACES

Six Good Books: Maggie Fergusson recommends heart-rending tales of parental love and family history, and lessons in happiness from Guantánamo

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2013

PSYCHOLOGY

Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon (Chatto, hardback, out now). Victims of discrimination often turn in on themselves, broken and embittered. But years of torment about his sexuality inspired Andrew Solomon to reach out to others in a ten-year labour of empathy, generosity and love. In interviews with parents from across the socio-economic spectrum, he explores the experience of bringing up children who are different from their peerswhether deaf, autistic, schizophrenic, disabled, transgender, criminal or gifted, children with Down’s syndrome or dwarfism, or children born of rape (what the Rwandans call les enfants de mauvais souvenir). The result, while often heart-rending, is a triumphant celebration of the power of parental love. "It would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born," says the mother of a teenage killer. "But I believe it would not have been better for me."

FAMILY HISTORY

She Left Me the Gun by Emma Brockes (Faber, hardback, out now). During Emma Brockes’s conventional home-counties childhood, her mother used to promise, "One day I will tell you the story of my life, and you will be amazed." But she never did, so after her death Emma flew to Johannesburg to discover it for herself. She pieced together a grim tale, revolving around her maternal grandfather, a convicted murderer and paedophile who relentlessly abused his daughters, forcing her mother to take him to court; later, she tried to shoot him. Brockes’s narrative is beautifully paced, infused only gradually with slow-release horror, and her writing is a joy. A prize-winning journalist  from the Guardian, she’s a born story-teller who takes you into her confidence like the perfect travelling companionobservant, faintly satirical, emotionally intelligent and with a gift for metaphor. I was sad when the journey ended.

MEMOIR

The General by Ahmed Errachidi (Chatto, hardback, out now). An account of life in Guantánamo Bay is an unlikely place to turn for a lesson in happiness, but Ahmed Errachidi offers just that. A Moroccan-born chef, he was imprisoned for five years, most of which he spent in solitary confinement. His unsparing descriptions of the abuses he suffered confirm that Guantánamo is a place where democracy has gone "into the deepest of comas". But when he reflects on how he coped, the book sings. Incarcerated for days in a metal "coffin", he studies the behaviour of ants, and his loneliness drops away. Spooling through memories of beautiful sights, sounds and smells, he escapes in his imagination to a place of tranquillity and joy. Now reunited with his wife and children, he relishes every aspect of freedom. Nevertheless, he insists, "the best things can happen in the worst places". 

GENDER

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg (WH Allen, hardback, out now). After a recent talk in London by Margaret Atwood, a woman asked whether feminism was dead. The audience groaned. The F word has become a boreor, as Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, puts it, "our revolution has stalled". This is her gutsy, witty, sympathetic attempt to kick-start it. The barriers women face, she argues, are largely internal: they are excessively prone to guilt, and they believe success is incompatible with being likeable. But while urging women to "lean in" to their careers, she explodes the myth that they can have it all, offering disarming vignettes of herself sobbing at work, or discovering that her children are hopping with headlice while she was aboard eBay’s private plane. She writes with gusto, and every chapter offers a psychological workout. Which is apt, because as well as being a businesswoman, Sandberg is a professional aerobics instructor.

FICTION

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, hardback, out now). Playful but profound, and a far cry from Jackson Brodie, Atkinson’s novel explores possible versions of the life of Ursula Todd, a banker’s daughter born during a snowstorm in 1910. Each version is like a round of bagatelle, and most end in cul-de-sacs: an abusive marriage, a bombed-out cellar, a bleak typing pool. Invariably, Ursula becomes ensnared in war. But she has one opportunity to pull off an act of heroism that could alter the course of history. Brilliant at evoking atmosphere, Atkinson is at her best on the romance of London during the Blitz: fire-watchers perched in the dome of St Paul’s, the sky glowing in the wake of oil bombs, danger as aphrodisiac. She writes in tart, wry, no-flies-on-me prose, without a shred of sentimentality. Her restraint underlines the pity of war, and in response the heart turns back-flips.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton, hardback, out now). Be careful what you wish for: that’s the moral of this bitter-sweet tale of a Pakistani boy’s progress from rural rags to urban riches. Structured, mockingly, like a self-help guide, it has 12 chapters purporting to offer step-by-step pointers to prosperity. "Don’t Fall in Love", one is headed, but it is the nameless hero’s obsession with a "pretty girl" that drives him, like some Bollywood Gatsby, to amass his fortune, and the novel develops into a cautionary reflection on the conflicting lures of love and money. Writing throughout in the second person singular, Hamid creates an illusion of intimacy, making the reader feel not just involved but implicated. If there’s a caveat, it’s that the construction seems sometimes almost too slick, leaving you mentally stimulated, but emotionally unstirred. 

Maggie Fergusson is literary editor of Intelligent Life and director of the Royal Society of Literature