Books I Read in November 2023
The Fraud by Zadie Smith weaves together three storylines based on true events in the 19th century. A Cockney butcher arrives in London from Australia claiming to be Sir Roger Tichborne, the heir to a baronetcy and previously thought to have been lost at sea. His sensational fraud trial in London captures everyone’s attention, including Eliza Touchet, the cousin-by-marriage of prolific novelist William Ainsworth who outsold Charles Dickens in his day, and Andrew Bogle, a former Jamaican slave who believes the claimant really is Tichborne despite a considerable amount of evidence that he definitely isn’t. ‘The Fraud’ is Smith’s long-awaited first piece of long-form historical fiction, but ultimately I prefer her contemporary novels. It is an original take on a forgotten case with some humorous dialogue and parallels with more recent events in the US. However, I think it was held back by its overly complex structure scattered across very short chapters, with the three strands never quite hanging together in a coherent or satisfying way (much like my issue with To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara). Many thanks to Penguin UK, Hamish Hamilton for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.
The Dictionary People by Sarah Ogilvie is about the thousands of volunteers around the world who helped compile the first Oxford English Dictionary in the second half of the 19th century. Ogilvie recounts this impressive crowd-sourcing exercise in the most appropriate format: 26 chapters from A for archaeologists to Z for zealots. While some volunteers were from literary or middle-class circles typically associated with compiling a dictionary, others came from more surprising backgrounds, with Ogilvie identifying three murderers, a pornography collector and residents of Broadmoor asylum among the most dedicated to the task. Volunteers would read books around certain subject areas and were asked to send paper slips with “a quotation for every word that strikes you as rare, obsolete, old-fashioned, new, peculiar or used in a peculiar way” to the Dictionary’s editor, James Murray, who worked in his Scriptorium shed in Oxford. ‘The Dictionary People’ is a fascinating blend of social history and lexicographical nerdiness. Many thanks to Penguin Random House, Vintage Books for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.
A Thread of Violence by Mark O’Connell examines one of Ireland’s most notorious murder cases, and is entirely different from the Irish author’s previous books, the Wellcome Prize-winning To Be a Machine and Notes From an Apocalypse. In 1982, a Dublin socialite in financial trouble called Malcolm Macarthur planned to rob a bank and killed two people when his attempts to steal a car and buy a gun did not go to plan. He was arrested at the home of the then-Attorney General, leading to the collapse of the government and Macarthur serving 30 years in prison. O’Connell ultimately places himself in the centre of the narrative through his interviews with Macarthur, but not in the self-indulgent way that might be expected. His approach to true crime is more thoughtful than most, acknowledging the ethical complexities of how victims and perpetrators are portrayed, although his quest for “narrative coherence” is scuppered by Macarthur’s evasive responses about what he detachedly describes as his “criminal episode”. O’Connell’s impressive account offers an original lens through which to see a truly bizarre case, even if it remains short on definitive answers about Macarthur himself.
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2010. Set in a boarding school in Dublin, the titular event takes place in the first chapter when Daniel ‘Skippy’ Juster dies during a doughnut-eating contest. The narrative then rewinds back to the events leading up to his demise followed by a final section set during the aftermath. This is a comic novel packed with ideas and a sprawling cast of characters, and while I could have lived without some of Skippy’s roommate’s digressions on string theory, Murray is very good at dialogue, particularly in depicting how teenagers actually talk to each other. Murray has also been shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year for his latest novel ‘The Bee Sting’ which I will be looking out for.