The month in books

From the future of America's economy to the rise of China, January's books shine a light on the human lives behind geopolitical debates
December 12, 2012

The Danish physicist Niels Bohr famously noted, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” But with 2013 upon us, readers will be understandably keen to prophesy about the year ahead. If January’s books are anything to go by, we should expect to see the next 12 months dominated by such weighty issues as the rise of China, ideological schisms in Britain and the nature of American economic renewal, but we may also see welcome attention paid to the human lives that are often forgotten amidst lofty geopolitical and economic debates.

This is certainly the case with China’s Silent Army (Allen Lane, £25), a breathless journalistic dash around the world, taking in Congo, Kazakhstan, Cape Verde and everywhere in between to tell the story of the millions of Chinese emigrants who are braving hardship, prejudice and poverty in the hope of a better life abroad. The book, by Spanish journalists Juan Pablo Cardenal and Heriberto Araújo, contains some excellent macro-economic insights, such as the fact that Beijing has now overtaken the World Bank as the biggest lender on the planet. But ultimately the human stories are what make it so compelling—with tales of Chinese entrepreneurs creating wealth in the most unlikely circumstances, thanks to business acumen, self-sacrifice and thrift. By shining a light on the industriousness of Chinese citizens around the world, China’s Silent Army helps us understand why the chairman of China’s sovereign wealth fund recently criticised Europe’s welfare system and employment laws for inducing “sloth and indolence, rather than hard work.” It ought to be required reading for all EU bureaucrats.

There are more tales of Chinese industry in Pow!, (Seagull Books, £18) the new novel from Mo Yan, the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel prize in literature. Pow! tells the story of Luo Xiaotong, a young man training to become a monk, looking back on his earlier life as a child living in a rural Chinese village. While it is possible to discern subversive political messages in the depiction of political corruption and corporate malfeasance (the village butchers are quietly pumping their meat full of formaldehyde), Mo Yan’s novel is another case where human narratives offer infinitely more insight than abstract technocratic discourse. With its evocation of profound childhood trauma married with dreamy magical realism, Pow! reads like a sumptuous blend of Arundhati Roy and Gabriel García Márquez.

Since market reforms began in China in 1978, millions have been able to escape poverty. A similarly uplifting narrative about the demise of state socialism can be found in Graham Stewart’s Bang! (Atlantic, £25). Billed as “a history of Britain in the 1980s,” the book focuses on Margaret Thatcher, whose government was the first to straddle an entire decade since Pitt the Younger in the 1790s. Bang! chronicles the intellectual and political insurgency that transformed the British economy and which continues to be relevant today, given the ideological arguments over the current government’s economic agenda. In the words of Thatcher herself, “The heresies of one period became, as they always do, the orthodoxies of the next.”

Moving from Britain’s past to America’s future, Mark Binelli’s The Last Days of Detroit (Bodley Head, £20) delves into the derelict tenement blocks and abandoned streets of one of America’s great cities. Binelli sketches out a positive vision of Detroit’s—and potentially America’s—economic renaissance, driven not by the top-down schemes favoured by politicians, but through the bottom-up “DIY ethic” of the local civic groups and entrepreneurs that are banding together to rebuild their ruined city. By describing the bravery and creativity of the urban farmers, voluntary demolition squads and citizen crime fighters, Binelli shows us that a brighter economic future may be possible even in the most benighted of cities.

If Detroit has problems, so too does Anthony, the narrator of Gavin Corbett’s sparkling second novel This Is The Way (4th Estate, £14.99). Anthony (named after the “saint of lost things”) is a traveller, lying low in Dublin to escape decades of murderous feuding between rival Irish clans. However much he tries to escape his roots, Anthony cannot break free from “the people that been here before us.” The novel’s artfully childish language, with its “childer” in place of “children,” and so on, is reminiscent of the early passages of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, while the glancing references to quotidian violence have a hint of Cormac McCarthy. This gloriously humane novel is a healthy reminder that whatever changes 2013 may bring, for millions of people around the world life will carry on, much as it always has.