From Claire Horn to Benjamin Myers: new books reviewed in brief

Eve: The Disobedient Future of Birth by Claire Horn
Profile, 224 pages, £14.99

In 2017, American researchers succeeded in impregnating a premature lamb fetus in an artificial womb, managing what scientists had been trying to do for decades: partial exogenesis, or pregnancy outside the womb. The researchers were clear that their goal was to create life-saving technology for extremely premature babies, who have about a 10 percent chance of survival if born before 24 weeks’ gestation. But in Eve, Canadian academic Claire Horn uses it as a spring-off point to explore the history and future of exogenesis – from the “incubator baby shows” of the late Victorian era, to the idea’s roots in eugenics, to the possibility of future artificial womb technology being used either as a tool to free women from what one feminist described as the “barbaric” pregnancy process—or a dystopian means of controlling who can procreate.

Horn’s book, written while pregnant herself, offers a riveting look at the future of childbirth through the lenses of the most pressing women’s health issues of our time, from abortion to gender identity. It’s a sobering reminder that wherever technology promises to improve women’s lives, there also exists the threat that someone somewhere will try to co-opt it to control their bodies instead.
By Emma Haslett

(See also: Who is criticism for?)

Homelands: A Personal History of Europe by Timothy Garton Ash
Bodley Head, 384 pages, £22

There are historians of Europe who remain detached from the messy realities of the continent’s present. And there are commentators who are immersed in this present but lack the historical knowledge to really understand it. No figure unites both disciplines better than the British historian and public intellectual Timothy Garton Ash. His history of the continent’s “overlapping post-war and post-wall time frames” is rich in originality and memoiristic detail.

He takes us from the “broken” Europe of 1945, through a continent “divided” during the Cold War, to a Europe that “wins” and then “totters” over the past three decades. His is a perspective that combines the Anglophone tendency to see the continent from the outside in with the deep local knowledge and Carolingian sensibility of a life criss-crossing its Rhenish and Danubian heartland. A Remainer, the author resists the temptation to score Brexit points and presents the continent warts and all – but nonetheless “worthy of hope” for it.
By Jeremy Cliffe

(See also: The new politics of the time)

A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
Hutchinson Heinemann, 480 pages, £25

There have been numerous accounts of the Iraq War and the bloody upheaval of its aftermath from soldiers, historians and commentators, but fewer from the Iraqis caught up in its succession of tragedies. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad grew up in Baghdad and his early memories centered around the Iran-Iraq War and later the Gulf War. After the American-led invasion, he was hired as a translator/go-between by a British reporter and found himself traveling around a country he had never known well. The experience turned him into a journalist himself, and this book – part memoir, part reportage – tells the story of his fellow citizens, warriors and civilians’ reactions to being confronted by a changing crowd of adversaries. Under Saddam Hussein, “we knew the parameters of fear”, but with the arrival of foreign soldiers, Shia and Sunni rebels and Isis, even that certainty disappeared.

His interviewees variously describe corruption, brutality, torture, fanaticism, nihilism and fatalism. The invasion meant confusion for some and opportunity for others. Abdul-Ahad tells it all in evocative prose that makes the indictment that underlies not only his words, but those of his co-accused all the more potent.
By Michael Prodger

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Cuddy by Benjamin Myers
Bloomsbury, 464 pages, £20

“Every stone tells a story,” says Ediva, an Anglo-Saxon woman, as she describes her visions of Durham Cathedral. It is the basis of Cuddy, Benjamin Myers’ polyphonic ninth novel. Its four parts (plus a prologue and interlude), covering 1,300 years, are told in prose, poetry, drama, first person, second person and third person – and are linked by the cathedral and St. Cuthbert (alias Cuddy), who is buried inside.

Characters and stories recur as if they are archetypes produced by the place – or as if the story is a haunting. In a tale set in 1827, a snobbish professor is confronted by an apparition, a boy with owlish eyes. He feels as if their two hearts “fell in unison, and time stretched into a warped moment that felt as if it could be endless”. Cuddy likewise synthesizes aspects of Myer’s earlier work: the rural outsiders in The Gallows Pole; the way Under the Rock sees so much through the filter of one place. In the final, contemporary part, a young worker (with owlish eyes) is overwhelmed by the history of the cathedral and the stories in each stone, while his mother disappears from life. It is a sublime conclusion.
By Matthew Gilley

(See also: Jeanette Winterson wants more life)

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