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Best of 2020 Books with Paul Simon

MAYBE I’m being too optimistic but I hope, due in part to the restrictions imposed on daily life by Covid,  that Morning Star readers had a little more time than usual for reading.

If you did, then there were plenty of quality left-wing books to savour.

Ken Fuller’s Love and Labour takes in the activities of the “red button” union, the London and Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers, and eventually the wider fissures in society in the years leading up to the first world war.

Fuller successfully juxtaposes the lives of his two principal characters, lovers Mickey Rice and Dorothy Bridgeman, with real individuals on both sides of the class battles, including socialist union organiser and activist George Sanders, Sylvia Pankhurst, Henry Hyndman, Theo Rothstein and Herbert Asquith.

Fuller’s merits as an author are shown in the manner in which he treats the ruling-class opposition and their lackeys not as agitprop archetypes but, through the likes of bus manager James Shilling and owner Albert Stanley, as more complicated, subtle and occasionally endearing actors.

Edward Wilson’s latest outing for his leftist spook William Catesby in Portrait of the Spy as a Young Man is a book of beginnings and endings.

The narrative shifts across the decades as the nonagenarian recalls his early years to his adult granddaughter as a bright Suffolk boy who won a scholarship to Cambridge before leaving early in the 1940s to participate in the fight against nazism.

He is flown into the Massif Central to liaise with and supply weaponry to the communist partisans of the Maquis Rouge who, under the command of the almost legendary Georges Guinguoin — Lo Grand — wage an intensifying war against German and Vichy forces.

What emerges across the undulating Limousin countryside is a complex and shifting conflict, where the boundaries between resistants and “legaux” on the one hand and “collabos” and even some German officers on the other is blurred and inconsistent.

In Red Hands, author Colin Sargent employs a part-autobiographical, part-fictionalised first person account of the troubled life of Iordana Ceauscescu, wife of Valentin, the eldest child of Nicolae and Elena.

Fittingly, haz de necaz — the Romanian term for rueful laughter — appears a number of times in this novel and it pretty much describes Red Hands’s tone, one of tragedy leavened by comedy.

Sargent is at his most skilful and immersive in describing the interior life of Dana as she both seeks to accommodate Elena’s wishes while trying to retain the affections of Valentin.

Sharon Duggal’s second novel, Should We Fall Behind, is set in a nameless but vaguely contemporary city somewhere in England.

With chapter headings named after each of the principal characters, she precisely but without resorting to the hectoring pulpit, demonstrates the linkages that ultimately bind us together, if nothing else, in terms of the external and internal struggles faced by the working class.

Through a penetrating literary lens, analogous to that of Ken Loach, Duggal remorselessly articulates these realities, nowhere more so than when she describes what it feels like to be hungry for days on end.

Virgin and Child describes a brutal war zone of shifting battle lines in a clash between ultramontane theoretical theologising and the messy truths of personal experience.

In it, Pope Patrick is the first Irish-born chief of the Roman Catholic Church. He is a pretty mainstream pontiff and has called a conference to discuss the fate of the souls of foetuses that have been aborted and miscarried.

A few days later he collapses while celebrating Mass, eventually discovering, after consultations with various Vatican doctors, that not only is he biologically intersex but pregnant as well.

From this deliciously and precisely balanced narrative pivot, author Maggie Hamand goes on to tell a tale which is so humane, moving and with such authorial depth and deftness that the reader would have to be a saint not to read it through in one, enormous sitting.

My novel of the year is also set in the decades up to the present. In The Treatment, Michael Nath's main character Carl Hyatt, previously employed as an investigative journalist on a paper waspishly referred to as the G*******, is now working for a far humbler but much braver title.

But he hasn’t let go of his personal and professional absorption in the earlier murder — an extreme expression of the Treatment — of Eldine Matthews, a young black man and the seeming immunity from prosecution granted to his suspected killers from L Troop due to their uncle’s baleful influence.

The telling parallels to the appalling murder of Stephen Lawrence and the resulting police cover-ups are deliberate — and acknowledged so by the author.

 

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