Book reviews: New titles by Kris Manjapra, Karolina Ramqvist and Emilie Pine

Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation by Kris Manjapra
Allen Lane, 256 pages, £20

According to Kris Manjapra, professor of history at Tufts University, while the period from 1780 to 1880 saw the end of centuries of enslavement of African people, former slaves did not gain any. In many places, captive labor continued for years after the end of slavery was declared, while freed slaves received no reparations or recognition. In Africa, colonial expansion imposed new constraints; in the Caribbean, the apprenticeship system designed to facilitate the passage to freedom could be even harsher than slavery itself; in the northern states of the United States, slaves had to pay for their own freedom. As lofty as the goals of abolitionists are, in practice emancipation “aggravated the historical trauma of slavery and prolonged the reign of white supremacy and anti-blackness,” Manjapra says.

His book, therefore, offers an often unsettling counter-narrative to the glowing strand of abolitionist history. “The story of slavery and emancipation is not a story of endings, but of endless ones” and, he adds, the effects and the lack of meaningful restitutions and reparations still affect today post-slavery societies today.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Reviewed in short: New books from Graham Caveney, Giles Tremlett, Charlotte Van den Broeck and Chitra Ramaswamy]

Bear Woman by Karolina Ramqvist, very Saskia Vogel
Bonnier, 400pp, £16.99

In 1542, a French noblewoman, Marguerite, was abandoned on a remote island for having had a scandalous affair with another passenger while aboard a naval expedition to “New France” (in the Canada of today). Her lover, servant and, later, baby, were stranded with her, but all perished except for Marguerite, who braved the wild animals (hence “bear woman”) and was eventually picked up by fishermen.

Conforming to a boring vogue, Bear Woman doesn’t just reconstruct this sparsely documented historical episode, but embeds Marguerite’s story in a pedestrian memoir about the process of telling it (and googling it – the search engine is mentioned more than 20 times). Details of the narrator’s writing process and research travels are unreliable (“My coffee was still so hot the cup burned my fingers. I had to put it down and blow on it”). This hybrid memoir is weighted with personal directness and immediacy, but these must be deftly deployed and transfigured by style. Ramqvist’s fashionable prose, translated by Saskia Vogel, falls short of the austere sheen it perhaps aspires to.
By Lola Seaton

Deep Deception: The Story of the Spycop Network, by the Women Who Discovered the Shocking Truth by Alison, Belinda, Helen Steel, Lisa and Naomi
Ebury press, 400 pages, £20

This book is not only about deception or state surveillance, but also about misogyny. It’s about law enforcement recklessly trampling on the lives of five innocent women by using them to support the false identities of police officers seeking to infiltrate nonviolent leftist movements. It’s a story about how the state uses and disposes of women, about institutional sexism and corruption at the highest level. In deep deception the women betrayed by the Spycop scandal – many of whom remain anonymous – speak candidly about the men who broke their hearts and lied to them: from the first “I love you” to reflections on moments of suspicion; incriminating photos, credit cards and passports with different names.

But rather than wallowing in pity, their collaborative work claims victory. When women learn about their partners’ alternative lives, they demand legal action, despite the power of the establishment they face. an inspiring read that elucidates the power of justice.
By Zoe Grünewald

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Ruth & Pen by Emilie Pine
Hamish Hamilton, 256 pages, £14.99

Emilie Pine’s first novel is set in Dublin over a single day; comparisons with James Joyce Ulysses are somewhat inevitable. But Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway is clearly the major modernist influence on this story. The two protagonists of Pine are strangers to each other; his prose follows the rhythm of their thoughts throughout their respective days.

Pen is an idealistic, autistic 16-year-old who skips school to attend a climate march with her crush, Alice, and struggles to balance her competing excitement and anxiety. (She recently read “this book” about “the man in shock.”) Ruth is a psychotherapist, reeling from a shock in her marriage. Both are immersed in their own worries, momentarily interrupted by the sensory distractions of the city. “It’s strange, Ruth thinks as she pauses in front of a shop window, how you can smell the smell of olives or spices and the fact that your husband hates you maybe/maybe/probably can be put aside , almost forgotten, at the prospect of food.”

Pine is best known for her collection of essays Personal notes; here she shows promise as a sensitive and empathetic fiction writer.
By Anna Leszkiewicz

[See also: How Sergei Magnitsky paid with his life for exposing Vladimir Putin’s financial corruption]

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This article originally appeared in the May 25, 2022 issue of The New Statesman, Out of control

Alycia R. Lindley