Book Stack

Le Carre's last stand

In this monthly feature, The Sunday Times picks out 10 books from around the world that have just hit shelves

Top Of The Stack

1 FICTION

SILVERVIEW

By John le Carre

Viking/Paperback/208pages/$34.24/ Major bookstores

4/5

A young man gives up his trading career to sell books in a sleepy seaside town. Little does he know that his bookshop is embroiled in an espionage breach.

Such a premise would be delightful in itself. That it belongs to the last complete novel left behind by spy fiction grandmaster John le Carre, who died last year aged 89, is nothing short of a wonder.

Julian Lawndsley, 33, has escaped London's rat race to run a bookshop in a small East Anglian town. Unfortunately, he is neither well-read nor possessed of any book-selling experience. "How's custom, darling," a neighbour asks mordantly, "or should I not speak ill of the dead?"

Enter Edward Avon, a charismatic, eccentric retiree who seems keen to impart literary wisdom to Julian. "Rings Of Saturn is a literary sleight of hand of the first water," he enthuses of the 1995 novel, also set in East Anglia, by the German writer W. G. Sebald, "a depressive like the best of us, now, alas, dead. Weep for Sebald".

Edward lives with his sickly wife, Deborah, and prickly daughter, Lily, across town in a house called Silverview. He claims an old friendship with Julian's late father and, before long, has charmed his way into the bookshop's operations.

At the same time, another strand of the tale is unfolding in London, where Stewart Proctor, the secret service's "bloodhound", is investigating what has been euphemistically dubbed a "technical failure".

The world of the bookshop and its provincial neighbourhood is sketched in marvellous detail; so, too, is the world of the Proctors, an upper-class family of spies in whose household domesticity and tradecraft nestle comfortably.

They keep their secure line, "the green phone", in the scullery under a tea cosy. "So are we all to be blown up?" Mrs Proctor inquires casually of her husband before bed. "Is it one of those again?"

If one were looking for the perfect novel with which to send off le Carre, Silverview is not it. It is weighted in favour of its front half and comes up light at the end.

Yet, it contains moments of such brilliance, such displays of le Carre's signature wit and nuance, that you want to put it down with a wry chuckle and say: "There he is."

Compared with the last two novels he published before his death - the bleak closure of A Legacy Of Spies (2017) and the bitter fury of Agent Running In The Field (2019) - Silverview is, to borrow a line from its ending, "content, if not radiant".

Here, too, are the ageing, embittered spies of old wars, asking themselves what a lifetime of subterfuge and amorality was all in aid of. But this is no raging against the dying of the light.

Le Carre may be off the top of his game here, but one is still reminded how splendid a player he was. His novels were just as much about critical reading as they were about espionage. What Edward says of Sebald also applies to him: His literary sleight of hand was of the first water. Weep for le Carre.

If you like this, read: Transcription by Kate Atkinson (Transworld, 2018, $17.12, Books Kinokuniya). In 1940, orphan Juliet Armstrong, 18, is hired to do transcription for MI5 and later recruited to spy on Nazi sympathisers.

2 FICTION

THE CAT WHO SAVED BOOKS

By Sosuke Natsukawa, translated by Louise Heal

Kawai/Picador/ Paperback/ 224 pages/$15.84/ Books Kinokuniya

In this bestseller translated from Japanese, a grieving young man worries that he will have to close the beloved second-hand bookshop his late grandfather left him.

Then, he is approached by a talking cat which asks for his help in going on magical missions to save books from people who have mistreated or abused them.

3 NON-FICTION

CHRONICLES OF A CAIRO BOOKSELLER

By Nadia Wassef

Corsair/Paperback/225 pages/ $30.90/Major bookstores

In 2002, three young Egyptian women - sisters Nadia and Hind, along with their friend Nihal - decided to found an independent bookstore.

Diwan, which opened its flagship store in Cairo's Zamalek district, changed the local book-selling scene. Nadia Wassef describes the bookshops of her student days as "tomb-like shops lined with books encrusted in dust", run by men. For Diwan, she and her co-founders envisioned a bookstore with a cafe that would provide a safe space for women to browse and read.

In a narrative structured around the various areas of the shop, she recounts Diwan's growth into a successful chain with 10 locations and takes readers through a history of Cairo book-selling.

4 NON-FICTION

1000 YEARS OF JOYS AND SORROWS

By Ai Weiwei, translated by Allan H. Barr

The Bodley Head/ Paperback/383 pages/ $26.36/Books Kinokuniya

In his first memoir, the iconoclastic Chinese artist and dissident recounts a life of challenging the authorities through art, from his harsh childhood in exile with his father - poet Ai Qing, who was sentenced to reform labour in 1967 during the Cultural Revolution - to his own detention for 81 days in 2011 by Beijing's secret police.

It was during his detention, Ai writes, that he decided to write this book, both for his late father and his son, who was two at the time of his arrest.

5 NON-FICTION

AI 2041

By Kai-fu Lee and Chen Qiufan

W. H. Allen/ Paperback/ 451 pages/$24.72/ Books Kinokuniya

Computer scientist Lee, former president of Google China who wrote the best-selling AI Superpowers (2018), teams up with science-fiction writer Chen in this unusual project to parse the future of artificial intelligence.

In 10 short stories supplemented by analysis, they envision how technologies and trends from autonomous vehicles to AI job displacement might unfold.

6 FICTION

CROSSROADS

By Jonathan Franzen

4th Estate/ Paperback/ 592 pages/$34.24/ Major bookstores

In this first instalment of a trilogy, Franzen sets off in 1970s Chicago, where the Hildebrandt family is falling apart. Russ, an associate pastor at a suburban church, is about to leave his wife Marion - unless she leaves him first.

Eldest child Clem has returned from college, disillusioned; his sister Becky, once socially popular, has veered into counterculture; and their precocious younger brother Perry is trying to get over his drug habit to become a better person.

7 FANTASY

A MARVELLOUS LIGHT

By Freya Marske

Tor/Paperback/ 372 pages/$32.95/ Books Kinokuniya

In this crackling debut from Australian author Marske, set in Edwardian England, baronet Robin Blyth is accidentally appointed the liaison to a hidden magical society, which is shocking to him, since he had no idea magic existed.

Not only has his predecessor mysteriously vanished, Robin is now also being cursed by strange attackers in alleys and plagued by inexplicable visions. To solve all this, he must work together with Edwin Courcey, his standoffish counterpart in the magical bureaucracy who is also the scion of a powerful but amoral family.

8 FICTION

THE LOVE SONGS OF W. E. B. DU BOIS

By Honoree Fanonne Jeffers

4th Estate/Paperback/816 pages/ $34.24/Major bookstores

Jeffers, an acclaimed American poet, goes big with her debut novel, a sweeping epic grounded in the narrative of Ailey Pearl Garfield, a young black woman in the late 20th century.

Ailey, descended from enslaved Georgians and tenant farmers, grapples with the complexities of her heritage in this novel that draws on the work of African-American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois, who pioneered the idea of the "double consciousness" that African-Americans experience by having to regard themselves through the eyes of white society.

9 NON-FICTION

LOVE OF MY LIFE: THE LIFE AND LOVES OF FREDDIE MERCURY

By Lesley-Ann Jones

Coronet/Paperback/ 294 pages/$32.95/ Books Kinokuniya

The Oscar-winning film Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) depicted a compact, tidy version of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury's colourful life.

Music journalist Jones, who was Mercury's biographer, seeks to fill in the gaps.

She explores the various relationships that Mercury - whose 30th death anniversary was last Wednesday - had.

They include those with his established partners Mary Austin and Jim Hutton, as well as lesser-known lovers such as actress Barbara Valentin.

10 NON-FICTION

RENEGADES: BORN IN THE USA

By Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen

Crown/Hardcover/ 304 pages/ $63.78/Major bookstores

The former United States president and the rock star, who became friends on Mr Obama's campaign trail in 2008, collaborated earlier this year on a podcast of the same name.

This coffee-table book expands on their conversations on racial tensions, masculinity and, of course, music.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 28, 2021, with the headline Le Carre's last stand. Subscribe