The Ghost Map by Steve Johnson:
This one’s been out for awhile, but it’s got everything to please a nonfiction reader: Titillating details about the filth and oddities of Victorian London, a real understanding of science and the history of science, and relevance to amateur or professional students of contemporary city life, epidemiology, public health, and even counterterrorism. It details how a doctor and a minister teamed up to figure out that cholera was spread by contaminated water, and how they convinced others of the fact with what is now an iconic map of deaths and proximity to one particular well. A word of warning: If you’re prone to hypochondria, don’t read this while you’re sick at home with a stomach bug.
King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher:
The new effort from Philip Hensher is not perfect, but it’s pretty close. Like his previous novel, it follows a circuitous path through the lives of small-town England. Unlike The Northern Clemency, which chronicled a family in a dying coal city in the seventies and eighties, this one is set in a small but prosperous community in contemporary Devon, with an even wider range of characters.
There’s hardly any point in outlining the plot of the book, which meanders the way the life of the town does: A young girl goes missing, and the town gossips and worries; a college professor fights with her department head; a couple of men plan an orgy; a couple of teenagers fall in love; the neighborhood watch requests additional closed-circuit cameras.
The real point of the book is the way that privacy, and personal lives, intersect and are interrupted. Some of these interruptions are invited, when people meet, and get to know each other, and become friends. Others are annoying but inevitable in a small town: The neighbors know a great deal about each other, so gossip spreads quickly, and for the most part, harmlessly. But Hensher focuses as well on the way that surveillance and suspicion tend to drive a wedge into the heart of communities. Importantly, he does it with a linguistic style that is unmatched for beauty and grace in contemporary writing.
While almost all of the characters–even the most horrible ones–are well-rounded, the Neighborhood Watch leader is disappointingly one-dimensional. The closing vignette of the novel, in which several characters share a convivial epiphany about closed-circuit cameras, also falls kind of flat. And, OK, there are a couple places where the style goes from baroque to overblown. I could imagine that Hemingway fans would not appreciate all the adjectives Hensher uses.
Still, this is handily the best novel I’ve read in a long time. Start reading. Don’t worry about the circuitous route the plot is taking. You’re in the hands of a master stylist, and you’re going to be shown beautifully rendered portraits of people, their town, and their nation at the beginning of the 21st century.