Book news

  • We Need New Stories by Nesrine Malik review – challenging today’s toxic myths
    Helen Charman

    How free speech, political correctness, identity politics, empire are misunderstood ... a rigorous study of our predicament

    The idea that the tumultuous political events that occurred in Britain and the US from 2016 onwards were caused by a kind of sudden populist madness has become something of a cultural myth. Invoked by commentators and politicians alike, it recasts in a soft, nostalgic glow the preceding years and decades, turning the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, the election of Barack Obama and the Queen’s golden jubilee into liberal touchstones, ignoring austerity, drone strikes and the legacy of empire.

    “Myth” is a term that has long been used, in cultural studies and elsewhere, to illustrate the ideological uses to which events and images can be put: Roland Barthes called it the system that perpetuated the confusion of “Nature and History”. In We Need New Stories, Nesrine Malik deconstructs the “six key myths” of contemporary western society to contest the idea of exceptionalism that has come to define our current political situation. For Malik, these fictions comprise: the myth of gender equality; the political correctness “crisis”; virtuous origin (the tendency to airbrush history to construct narratives of national pride); the free speech “crisis”; “damaging” identity politics; and the myth of the reliable narrator (voices that refuse to acknowledge their privilege).

    A pattern in the book links each myth together: the vulnerable are consistently represented as the aggressors

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  • Reasons to Stay Alive review – striking staging of Matt Haig depression memoir
    Michael Billington

    Crucible, Sheffield
    This dramatisation of the mental health bestseller takes a step towards removing the stigma from depression – though it’s no substitute for the book

    Depression is “invisible”, says Matt Haig at the start of his best-selling book Reasons to Stay Alive. The theatre, however, deals in the visible and this production – jointly presented by the Crucible and English Touring Theatre – rises to the challenge of capturing the book’s essence by engaging choreographer Jonathan Watkins to stage April De Angelis’s text. The result is theatrically inventive without making me feel, as I did with the book, that I was living inside Haig’s head.

    One of De Angelis’s key ideas is to seize on the book’s spasmodic conversations across time between the younger Matt, who at 24 was almost driven to kill himself while living in Ibiza, and his older self. Two actors embody his contrasting personae but, while it’s a neat solution to a problem, it robs the story of some of its tension. In the book we follow Haig’s hard-won journey from darkness into light. On stage, the older Matt says early on that “you will cry euphoric tears at the Beach Boys”, which provides reassurance that feels premature.

    At the Crucible, Sheffield, until 28 September. Then touring until 16 November.

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  • This is Happiness by Niall Williams review – love and loss in rural Ireland
    Barney Norris

    Rich in sentiment and humour, this evocation of an Irish village in the 1970s examines grief, faith and first love

    Approach with care the book that offers up a tale of Ireland in the old days. Since Patrick Kavanagh published The Great Hunger in 1942, any book about the poetry of rural life and youth’s endless summer must of necessity be acknowledged as sentimental. The best rural writers demolished these cliches long ago, and built in their place a literature that chronicled with unflinching, sorrowful honesty the world we all came from before we moved into the cities.

    One thinks of John McGahern, or RS Thomas’s dismissal of those who idealised Wales: “Too far for you to see / The fluke and the foot-rot and the fat maggot”. Without great skill, the country chronicler’s work will fall into the category of tourist fodder – Scottish shortbread, English ale, Welsh rarebit and tales of green Ireland. Such books only kill the places they claim to love.

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