Book reviews: Fact vs Fiction - which will win this week?
Ed Power pits a novel against a non-fiction each week. Suggestions to email@example.com
Non-fiction: Deep Sea and Foreign Going, Rose George, Portobello Books
We live in a hyper-globalized world and the 40,000 container ships at sea as you read this constitute its connective tissue. No longer a place of swashbuckling romance, increased efficiencies (i.e lower wages) have turned merchant seamanship into a ruthlessly bottom-line affair. Crews are largely drawn from the lowest strata of the developing world, traversing the oceans not for adventure but cold, hard cash.
In her absorbing investigation of commercial shipping, George revels in the absurdities of this new paradigm. It is, she explains, cheaper to send fish from Scotland to China to be filleted, then back to Scotland to be sold.
The ships themselves are dark and dystopian: nobody knows what's inside the containers piled high above and below deck; the crew mostly busy themselves watching DVDs and playing Xbox (the majority of shipping companies have banned alcohol). Even shore-leave - that storied sailorly institution - is a tradition in retreat: thanks to compressed turnaround the most crew can hope for is a quick hop to a dockside bar.
Plus, life on the oceans is increasingly hazardous with piracy running unchecked. The vagaries of international law mean 80 per cent of pirates are released without charge - a contrast with the ordeal of kidnapped sailors, who typically spend months in captivity.
Some 4,000 hostages were taken in the three years to 2007 - little wonder Harvard Business School (with tongue presumably in cheek) voted Somali piracy 'best business model'.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, Adelle Waldman, William Heinemann
Sometimes it feels Brooklyn is not so much a place as a state of mind. From Stoneybatter to Shoreditch, Silverlake to Södermalm, the shabby-chic gentrification pioneered by New York's historically-disdained borough is the urban trend of our time. Thus, Adelle Waldman's debut, though very much a New York novel, feels universal too, a rumination on life as lived by young people in the grey zone between Gens X and Y. Less cynical than those who came of age during grunge, not as shrilly attention-seeking as today's early 20-somethings. While it would be preposterous to describe them as a "lost generation", the way Waldman spins it, they are a long way from finding their moorings.
Nate Piven is a 30-something writer who has just landed a six-figure book deal. Raised to be politically-correct, mild, thoughtful, nice, he is - despite his upbringing - somewhat of a cad (in the very first chapter we meet the young woman he got pregnant and to whom he offered a diffident shoulder shrug when she announced she was having an abortion). This is the great mystery the novel explores: how is it that, after four decades of feminism, modern men and women can still revert to age-old gender roles - in Piven's case that of cold-hearted womaniser? Jittery, intensely self-aware, Nate always recognises the right thing to do - which doesn't necessarily prevent him doing the wrong thing anyway. Alongside this, Waldman delivers a vivid portrait of life in the Brooklyn media swamp. But even if you could care less about struggling New York writers and their disastrous personal doings, as a study of the dynamic between men and women - how it has changed less that we might have wished - this book will smack you right between the eyes.
VERDICT: BOTH WINNERS