Book reviews: New from Howard Jacobson, Victor Sebestyen, Susan Jonusas and Keiran Goddard
Budapest: Between East and West by Victor Sebestyen
Orion, 432 pages, £25
When Gustav Mahler was appointed conductor of the Royal Opera House in Budapest in 1888, he became so hated that two of the tenors challenged him to a duel. It’s unclear how, if there were two and only one of him, it could be called a duel, but it seems one of Mahler was more than enough for anyone. Sebestyen’s history of Budapest is full of fascinating facts: every other page includes a lengthy sidenote footnote.
The first 60 or so pages are occupied by a brief summary of early Hungarian history; paradoxically, the book only really comes to life with the Battle of Mohács, in 1526, when Budapest was largely destroyed by the Ottoman army. The narrative oscillates between the broad spectrum of Hungary’s past and the almost tangible meaning of the city: its streets, its people and its cafes – where the 1848 revolution began and where the lyrics of the national anthem were written. The book ends with 1989, the fall of communism and the emergence of a young arsonist named Viktor Orbán. For anyone looking for information on Hungary’s recent history, this is a great starting point.
By Alix Kroeger
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Hell’s Half Acre by Susan Jonusas
Simon & Schuster, 368 pages, £16.99
Combining frontier history with true crime, The half acre of hell does not match the literary verve of Truman Capote In cold blood (1965), nor the sinister atmospheres created by Richard Lloyd Parry in People who eat darkness (2010) – the greatest work of true crime since Capote’s classic. But Susan Jonusas has produced a gripping and lively thriller that tells the story of a family of serial killers in 19th century Kansas.
In the early 1870s, as America emerged from the shadow of the Civil War and people crisscrossed the country to settle and earn a living, the Benders, a family of German immigrants, murdered at least ten people in Labette County, Kansas. Drawing on a wealth of archival sources, Jonusas’ book is not just a story of murders and manhunts (the Benders, who killed travelers in their cabin and buried them in the cellar, escaped justice) – it’s also an impressive story of America on the edge of modernity. It also pierces the romanticized view of the outlaw. “Buried under the myth of the outlaw,” writes Jonusas, “are real criminals whose violence has left an indelible mark on communities across the border.”
By Gavin Jacobson
Mother’s Boy: A Writer’s Beginnings by Howard Jacobson
Cape Jonathan, 288 pages, £18.99
mother’s boy is Howard Jacobson’s account of how he got there. The road to becoming a lauded, Man Booker Prize-winning novelist was rocky – largely because he made it that way. “I came out of the womb all over the place in the wrong way,” he claims, and it wasn’t until he hit his 40s and published his first novel that he started to pick himself up. . This memoir, full of bittersweetness and humor, vividly, touchingly and often self-flagellatingly recounts his childhood experiences, high school in Manchester, Cambridge with the English panjandrum FR Leavis, jobs in Cornwall, Australia and Wolverhampton and , along the way, two marriages.
Jewishness is, of course, central; Jacobson is the product of his family structures, his heritage of insider-outsider status, and the traits he saw in his father, who spoke and did, and his mother, who read and thought. Jacobson’s mother died while he was writing this book, and in a late conversation she asked him about it: “’What is it again?’ ‘A memoir.’ ‘What is it about?’ “Me, mom, what do you think? She sounded worried. ‘Is that a good idea?’” Well, yes, it was.
By Michael Prodger
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Keiran Goddard’s Hourglass
Small, Brown, 208pp, £12.99
hourglasspoet Keiran Goddard’s debut novel, isn’t prose, but it’s not exactly not neither does prose. Almost every sentence is followed by a paragraph break, so it reads like free verse or a chain of sayings. Our anonymous protagonist is peculiar, obsessive, a keen observer, and literal insofar as you imagine he can struggle in social situations. The narration is so purely in his head that he is burning with reality, with the other characters only half seen.
It’s a universal story about two people falling in love, one person falling in love and the other coming to terms with their loss – largely by walking until their feet bleed and throwing away the household items that left them. suddenly bother. His observations are beautiful (“Love snuck into town and painted it over when we weren’t paying attention”), funny (“Vests are an aesthetic abomination and an affront to God!”), and quietly deep (“I wonder if it’s possible to learn to love the rain, or to love the dark, or the wind. / If we ever have a child, I’ll take it out in the rain and say things like: What a wonderful rainy day!”) Read it in a glowing session.
By Pippa Bailey
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