Far and Away: Essays from the Brink of Change by Andrew Solomon (Chatto & Windus, £14.99)
Andrew Solomon, the author of superb books on depression and parenting, began his career as a foreign correspondent writing articles for American magazines on a wide variety of countries. This collection begins with his conversations with Russian artists living under Soviet rule. He returned to the country in 1993 and saw the invigorating chaos of the Yeltsin regime, with artists free to embrace previously forbidden lifestyles—from openly gay to openly religious. Still, there were signs of trouble ahead. A mafia contact says if he wants someone killed it will only cost $20. Ten years later, Solomon visited Afghanistan just after the Taliban fell, as the musicians repaired their instruments and women ventured more confidently into public spaces. That, too, would not last.
If there is a unifying theme here, it is Solomon’s ability to make friends in difficult circumstances. His interviews with rape victims in Rwanda and survivors of the Cambodian genocide are sensitively done and extremely moving. Some readers might, however, feel short-changed since versions of these essays have appeared in his previous books. There are also straightforward travel pieces (“Enchanting Zambia”; “All the Food in China”) which don’t carry the weight of the investigative work.
Perhaps most valuable is when Solomon admits the limits of his own understanding. (At one point, he mistakes Mozart’s villa in Prague for the old Jewish ghetto.) In afterwords to each piece, he brings the country’s story up to date and notes where he was excessively naive or mistakenly optimisitc. He is right to do so but that open-heartedness is why he is such a valuable writer.