Book news

  • A Revolution of Feeling by Rachel Hewitt review – the anguish of failed utopians
    Kathryn Hughes

    A daring history of Mary Wollstonecraft and other 1790s radicals suggests this was the decade that ‘forged the modern mind’

    In 1794 Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey set out to save the human race. By establishing a small political community in which property was held in common and everyone had a vote, they wanted to create a utopia where “wrath, anger, clamour, and evil speaking” were nothing but a bad memory. The 27 hand-picked communitarians would rub along together comfortably, bound by a sort of sunny reasonableness. Coleridge and Southey, who were still undergraduates when they dreamed up the scheme, were typical of their time in believing that political change went hand in hand with “revolutions of feeling”. To have any hope of achieving one you had to fix the other.

    Naturally it all went wrong. The original idea had been to set up the community in post-revolutionary America, an appropriate place for radical new beginnings. But when that proved to be expensive – Coleridge was already deep in debt as a result of some distinctly unreasonable expenditure on wine and women – someone suggested they scale the scheme back to a “Welch Farm” instead. Then there was the question of sex. In a community where property would be held in common, did that mean wives would be shared, too? Quite aside from the impropriety of the thing, it sounded so cold and calculating, as if sex were a passionless commodity rather than the affective glue that held two loving individuals together. Then Southey, who was always of a pragmatic turn of mind, suggested that perhaps the new community should include some servants. They would eat at the same table as everyone else, of course, but they would spend their days doing the hard labour while the full members of the community thought and wrote about the joys of social equality. Coleridge was appalled – if Southey wanted “slaves” then the game was clearly over.

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  • Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke review – racial tensions in small-town Texas
    Esi Edugyan

    A black investigator’s quest for justice drives this nuanced meditation on race, roots and belonging

    Locke’s mesmerising new novel bears all the hallmarks of modern crime fiction: the alcoholic protagonist with the damaged marriage; the townsfolk who close rank against outsiders; the small-town law enforcement agent with murky loyalties. But Bluebird, Bluebird is a true original in the way it twists these conventions into a narrative of exhilarating immediacy.

    Darren Matthews is a Texas Ranger, working in a division of state law enforcement tasked with investigating everything from political corruption to murder. He is also a black man who must negotiate these two often conflicting identities: “He got confused sometimes, on which side of the law he belonged, couldn’t always remember when it was safe for a black man to follow the rules.” As a native of East Texas, with strong ties to home, Darren offers aid to an old friend, a move that jeopardises both his marriage and the job he loves. It is while on suspension from the force that he learns two bodies have washed up in the bayou in the tiny town of Lark – the first, that of a black male lawyer from Chicago, the second, of a local white waitress. These grisly discoveries lead him into an investigation that ultimately threatens all he holds sacred.

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  • Melville: A Novel by Jean Giono review – a compliment from one author to another
    Peter Beech

    Part biography, part mythic self-portrait, this wildly creative homage to Herman Melville is worth reading for its oddity alone

    French novelist Jean Giono’s homage to Herman Melville, translated by Paul Eprile, is a strange creature: part biography, part Künstlerroman, part mythic self-portrait, it started life as the foreword to an edition of Moby-Dick but assumed monstrous form and sped off into the deep. Giono was obsessed with the story of the white whale, but his vision of the “patrician soul” behind it leans only lightly on the facts. After an idiosyncratic foray through Melville’s early life (“May is blossoming in his eyes. His memories are kings”), we join the author aged 30 in London. He thinks he has written all his books, but the angel who haunts his every stride has other ideas. Melville disguises himself as a sailor, sets out across England and falls for a beautiful revolutionary – who strongly resembles Giono’s own mistress – but the real interest in this wild-eyed adventure of creativity is what happens on the inside. As Giono writes: “You have your own private oceans, and your own personal monsters.” Melville is a unique compliment from one great writer to another, and worth reading for its compass-spinning oddity alone.

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