What are you reading? – November 2021

A look over the shoulders of our scholar-reviewers

November 8, 2021
Source: istock

Peter J. Smith, professor of Renaissance literature at Nottingham Trent University, is reading Rose Tremain’s Islands of Mercy (Chatto & Windus, 2020). “Set variously in Dublin, Paris, Bath, London and Borneo during the 1860s, this fraught family saga introduces us to a large cast. They include Jane Adeane, ‘the Angel of the Baths’; her physician father, Sir William; Dr Valentine Ross, William’s partner in their medical practice; Emmeline, Jane’s bohemian artist aunt; and Julietta, Jane’s lesbian lover. Ross’ naturalist brother, Edmund, is lost in the forests of Borneo, and after being jilted (as he thinks of it) by Jane, Ross voyages to the Far East in search of his sibling. There he encounters Sir Ralph Savage, the local self-styled rajah, and his gay lover, Leon. It’s an intriguing combination of Dickens’ exhaustive array of character types, Conrad’s trepidation of the unknown and the social heterodoxy of the Bloomsbury set. While the narrative occasionally wanders, the descriptions of settings are pellucid and the concise chapters crisply contained.”

Geoffrey Alderman, principal of Nelson College London, is reading Leslie Turnberg’s Mandate: The Palestine Crucible, 1919-1939 (Vallentine Mitchell, 2021). “The Balfour Declaration of 1917 did not create or even envisage the creation of an independent Jewish state, and it was in any case explicitly repudiated by Neville Chamberlain’s government some 22 years later. Yet the Zionist dream survived, and ultimately triumphed. The paradox is that while successive British governments in the inter-war period did their very best to wriggle out of Arthur Balfour’s commitment, those same governments actually aided and abetted its fulfilment. Leslie Turnberg asks why, and locates the answer within Britain’s post-1919 imperial ambitions, bolstered by a growing if politely expressed discomfort with anti-Jewish racism throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds. His analysis of the massacre of Jews in Hebron in 1929, and its aftermath, is particularly poignant. That said, he offers a dispassionate account, solidly grounded in the evidence and wide-ranging in its use of sources.”

Kalwant Bhopal, professor of education and social justice at the University of Birmingham, is reading John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany (Black Swan, 1990). “Like many of Irving’s books, A Prayer for Owen Meany is about family, friendship, loss and love. It focuses on the friendship between Owen Meany and John Wainwright and can best be described as a religious gospel. Meany – a small, dwarf-like boy with a very high-pitched and distinctive voice – hits the ball that kills Wainwright’s mother while playing a baseball game. Since he does not believe in accidents, he convinces himself that he is the instrument of God. Consequently, he foresees the future – specifically his own death – and how he will die. This marvellous, beautifully written book will make you laugh, cry and break your heart. It also takes you on a journey that ultimately makes you question your own faith.”

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