Fact or fiction: battle of the books
Insider pits a novel against a non-fiction each week. Suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Temporary Gentleman, Sebastian Barry, Fiction, Faber and Faber, 3 STARS
Sebastian Barry's 2008 novel, The Secret Scripture, was shortlisted for the Booker and won the Costa Award, a major literary prize in the UK. You can understand why it was received well overseas, delving, as it did, into religion, politics and national identity.
In The Temporary Gentlemen Barry gently wrestles with similar themes, though a chunk of the narrative takes place in West Africa, where Jack, an Irishman demobbed from the British army, lives alone, struggling with malaria and alcoholism.
The book is dominated by his gauzy memories of wife Mai, their life together in Sligo, and the damage wrought by his drinking and gambling.
Barry's prose dances and dazzles – he is a stylist above all else, perhaps second only to John Banville in the domestic canon – but the Irish reader might grow weary of an umpteenth tale of poetic boozers and their drizzle-flecked fatalism. Internationally, however, one imagines Barry's reputation will continue to soar.
Don't be surprised if The Temporary Gentlemen brings another Booker shortlisting: on a technical level his writing is exquisite.
Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals In History
Richard Evans, Non-fiction, Little, Brown, 4 STARS
How would European history have unfolded had Hitler won admission to art school in Vienna as a young man? Could Fidel Castro have become a champion baseball player? Altered Pasts is an engaging delve into the controversial realm of "counterfactual" history by Richard Evans.
Some of the flights of academic whimsy relayed by Evans verge on bizarre: one historian imagines 1930s British fascist Oswald Mosley becoming UK prime minister and going on to found the European Union.
However, the book is ultimately an argument against ivory tower fantasies – rather than positing what might have been, says Evans, far better for historians to explain why things played out as they did.
It can't have escaped Evans' attention that his think-piece arrives as we prepare to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I – an event that poses the ultimate what if: had the assassin's bullet missed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, would an entire Continent have been plunged into conflict, creating aftershocks that resonate to this day? It's a conundrum but one Evans cautions against scrutinising too closely, lest our attempt to untangle a hypothetical past blind us to the real lessons of WWI.
VERDICT - ALTERED PASTS: COUNTERFACTUALS IN HISTORY