Review in Brief: New Books by Fernanda Melchor, Francis Young, Colin Barrett and Symeon Brown

Paradise by Fernanda Melchor, very by Sophie Hughes
Fitzcarraldo Publishing, 118 pages, £10.99

“Assault of horror and misery”, “sensory bludgeoning”, “assailing flood”: these are the terms that critics have chosen to characterize the prose of Fernanda Melchor, rendered in brutal and lively English by Sophie Hughes. Like its English debut in 2020 hurricane season, paradise takes place in a poor Mexican village and covers the same grisly ground (rape, incest, murder). A new element is the proximity to wealth in the form of a luxury residential development (“Paradise”), where 16-year-old Polo works as a gardener. A desolate and apathetic dropout, Polo forms a dark alliance with one of Paradise’s residents, the porn-addicted “fatboy” who funds drinking binges that briefly blunt Polo’s furious desperation.

While hurricane season opens on the corpse, the lean paradise pushes towards calamity. But that of Melchor sui generis the prose is just as fascinating here. Disfigured by slang and profanity, his unruly phrases probe the line between the graphic and the pornographic. Like the tough cana Polo downs, it demands unflinching imbibition, tolerating no pause to reflect on its mechanics or to indulge in bothersome doubts as to whether the qualities that fascinate you are purely literary.
By Lola Seaton

Magic in Merlin’s Realm: A History of Occult Politics in Britain by Francis Young
Cambridge University Press, 406 pages, £29.99

In the first century BC, Pliny the Elder reported that the Britons were addicted to magic, and this habit, which persisted for centuries, is the subject of Francis Young’s revealing book. He shows how politics and the occult have been intertwined in these islands: today, government ministers have a cohort of Spads to whisper in their ears; in the past, our rulers often had magicians.

Richard II considered himself a magus, while John Dee and Elias Ashmole presented themselves as latter-day Merlins as they counseled Elizabeth I and Charles II respectively. But monarchs also had reason to fear magic – rumors of supernatural malignity were rife in the downfall of Anne Boleyn, and Elizabeth’s advisers were deeply frightened by the discovery in Islington of wax effigies of the Queen and the Earls of Salisbury and Leicester. Whispers of illicit love potions swirled around the court of James I, and Charles II invoked royal magical powers in his attempts to secure the Restoration. Although the links between politics and the occult were severed with the Witchcraft Act of 1735, Young argues that politicians still fall prey to less literal forms of magical thinking.
By Michael Prodger

Homesickness by Colin Barrett
Cape Jonathan, 224 pages, £14.99

Colin Barrett is a patient soul: he took eight years to collect the eight stories that make up his second book. For the reader, it was worth the wait. The fictional “Glanbeigh” of his debut Young Skins has given way to the real towns of County Mayo, but the west of Ireland remains Barrett’s setting and subject in all but one story. Local color is abundant: a vigilante shooting at a farm; a samurai sword unsheathed in a bar; a failing poet buying weed from his convent schoolgirl merchant. But this is no small-town circus performance: Barrett’s Mayo is a place of coming and going, healing and breaking down, and its stages can open up to existential questions and emotional truths. Then there is the prose that catches the eye and the ear: strong men who breathe “coltishly through their noses”; a “paper-thin racing beat” escaping from an earphone; the Moy River “dark as grease and in murderous flood”.

“The world is full of inexplicable things, if you keep track,” a woman tells her daughter, before tossing her sandwich to the seagulls. Keeping track is a writer’s job, and few do it better than Colin Barrett.
By Tom Gatti

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Get Rich or Try to Lie: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy by Symeon Brown
Atlantic Books, 304pp, £16.99

Ebenezer “Ebz” Lembe lives in Hollywood and works as an “IRL streamer”: he records his daily life as viewers tip him to endure their regular racial abuse. He is one of the “winners and losers of the Internet” that we encounter in Symeon Brown’s first book. For Brown, Ebz’s performance for his followers, mostly young white men, is “the digital equivalent of a modern-day minstrel show, where he shuffles and dances for a dollar.” “Every job is chipping and jiving,” protests Ebz.

In this meticulously researched book, Channel 4 reporter Brown exposes the dishonesty that drives the influencer economy. Each chapter examines a sector of the online economy, from sex workers to cryptocurrency traders. Brown skims through his case studies at the pace he criticizes social media for encouraging, and, disappointingly, he comes back again and again to the same conclusion: “It’s hard to hate the player when the game is patched and we let’s all play into one one way or another.” Social media has quite simply reinvented an old model of exploitative work: that which targets the most precarious.
By Ellys Woodhouse

[See also: Literature under Xi Jinping]

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