HIGH TENSION, QUIET PLOT

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Six Good Books: Maggie Fergusson is surprised by a raffish king, a contemporary urban gang and Alison Moore's Booker prize-listed debut...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2012

FICTION

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt, paperback, out now). Rarely can so much tension have been packed into so quiet a plot. Futh, manufacturer of synthetic smells, takes a walking holiday in Germany after the breakdown of his marriage. His walk is circular, and so are his thoughts, revolving relentlessly round his unfaithful wife, abandonment by his mother, the childhood abuse he suffered from his father. One longs for him to lose his grip and so break the cycle. Instead, helplessly tossed on waves of memory and inarticulated anxiety, he combats mental collapse with nerdish, cagoule-wearing precision, regularly itemising his luggage, carefully masticating his food. He is trapped, and the reader feels trapped with him. Moore works in miniature, layering tiny details—greasy croissant flakes, stubble clinging to a hotel bath—to build an atmosphere of foreboding as she inches towards the point where "Psycho" meets "Barton Fink".

A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson, hardback, out now). Victorian workhouse boy, 1930s schoolmaster, neuroscientist, French peasant, musician: the life stories explored here diverge so widely in time, place and circumstance that to jam them together and call them "A Novel in Five Parts" seems, at first, perverse. But it's precisely this fragmentary structure that enables Faulks to enact and interrogate his themes, and bind the book into a coherent whole. Does human identity end with death? Are we essentially alone, or intimately linked in a web of connection transcending time and space? The stories vary greatly in quality, at worst verging on the banal, but by the end of the fifth—a heartfelt tale of love, loss and the price of creativity—it's clear that they add up to something considerably more moving and thought-provoking than the sum of their parts.

One Hundred Days by Lukas Bärfuss, translated by Tess Lewis (Granta, paperback, out now). Set in Rwanda in the early 1990s, this restrained, disturbing novel exposes the deficiencies and dangers of international aid. David Hohl, an idealistic Swiss aid worker, is shocked to find his colleagues chiefly engaged in drinking beer and trading gossip. Worse, by channelling money through established political structures, they are supporting a racist power and unwittingly preparing the way for genocide. But as Hohl discovers, slowly and painfully, his own motivation is far from pure. Bärfuss explains the politics concisely, engaging the reader without oversimplifying. He has a knack for homing in on detail—a Donald Duck tie, for example—to suggest character; and he recognises that, in evoking atrocity, less horror is more. But his greatest strength is psychological acuity, and an understanding that altruism is invariably infused with self-interest. 

BIOGRAPHY

Bertie by Jane Ridley (Chatto, hardback, out now). "Totally unfit" ever to be king was Queen Victoria's assessment of her son, the future Edward VII, at 21, and she and Prince Albert had made him so. Forget the blissful couple rearing their royal brood in bourgeois domesticity: as this deeply researched, eye-opening biography shows, Albert was a monstrous control freak, Victoria a hysterical bully. For Bertie, considered an imbecile, they prescribed rigid timetables, regular thrashings and isolation. He grew, as a result, into what they dreaded most: a raffish, debauched playboy, serially unfaithful to his wife. Yet, when his mother finally died, he became, at 59, a good king—visible, politically astute, charismatic, so well loved that the queue for his lying-in-state stretched seven miles. Ridley's reassessment of this largely forgotten monarch is scholarly, sprightly and ironic, and brims with infectious enthusiasm.

REPORTAGE

Among the Hoods by Harriet Sergeant (Faber, hardback, out now). Don't be put off by the bodice-ripper cover: this is a gripping tale of an extraordinary friendship. In 2008, researching educational underperformance for a right-wing think-tank, Harriet Sergeant was introduced to a south London teenage gang. "Unprepared to find goodness in criminals", she became, in spite of herself, drawn into their lives. She fed them, took them to museums, bought them football boots, fought to lure them away from crime. But when she tried to help them engage with schemes for NEETs (those not in education, employment or training), she found herself mired in bureaucracy, lethargy and corruption. Sergeant writes with pugnacious vivacity, and her prose simmers with rage. Four years after that first meeting, three of "her" boys are in prison, one is in psychiatric care, and another is dead.

PHILOSOPHY

Unapologetic by Francis Spufford (Faber, hardback, out now). At a time when the "New Atheists" appear to hold the intellectual high ground, it's exhilarating to discover such a zesty and companionable dissenter as Francis Spufford. This rattling defence of Christian belief is both a challenge to those for whom faith consists of little more than "the liquidised content of a primary-school nativity play", and a riposte to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Dawkins, Hitchens and their followers are guilty of "category errors", he argues. Of course one cannot know for sure whether God exists: it's not a reasonable question. But to Spufford it has made "emotional sense" to behave as if He does—to "dare the conditional". Written in a Costa coffee bar, unburdened by research, this "report from the inside of my head" is witty, bracing and boldly personal.

Maggie Fergusson is literary editor of Intelligent Life, the director of the Royal Society of Literature and the biographer of Michael Morpurgo