June was a non-fiction month beginning with A Waiter in Paris: Adventures in the Dark Heart of the City by Edward Chisholm which is an account of the author’s time working as a runner and waiter in a Parisian restaurant. Chisholm moved to Paris in 2012 at the age of 24 to live with his then girlfriend. After she broke up with him, he decided to stay and look for work in the city despite speaking very little French at the time. Hierarchy means everything among restaurant employees and Chisholm paints vivid pen portraits of his colleagues who are all heavily reliant on tips to make ends meet. Chisholm leaves _____ gaps in the dialogue he doesn’t understand, which gradually disappear as he becomes more fluent in French. As a modern-day ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ by George Orwell, ‘A Waiter in Paris’ exposes the cut-throat intensity of long hours behind-the-scenes in the service industry, which doesn’t appear to have changed all that much in the decades since Orwell worked in the city as a plongeur.
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe is a gripping account of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, centred around the abduction and murder in 1972 of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10 children. First published in 2018, it looks at the backgrounds of IRA militants connected to the case, with a particular focus on Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes, and the significance of the tape recordings made by them which are held in Boston College’s Belfast Project archive. While I was aware of many key figures and events related to the Troubles, ‘Say Nothing’ weaves everything together in an impressively panoramic narrative. It truly doesn’t matter if you have a great deal of background knowledge or none at all of the events recounted here in order to appreciate this brilliantly immersive and sensitively handled work. I enjoyed reading Radden Keefe’s account of the Sackler family Empire of Pain earlier this year, and I will also look out for his new book ‘Rogues’, a collection of his New York Times articles.
The Premonitions Bureau by Sam Knight tells the bizarre true story of a Shropshire-based psychiatrist, Dr John Barker, and his work on precognition in the mid-20th century. Having met several people who claimed to have predicted the Aberfan disaster in 1966, Barker set up the Premonitions Bureau with Peter Fairley, a science writer at the Evening Standard, in order to collect predictions and see if anyone was able to accurately predict events and disasters. It didn’t surprise me to learn that ‘The Premonitions Bureau’ is an expansion of Knight’s New York Times article from 2019 on the same topic, as the narrative does feel rather padded out in places even for a relatively short book, but this is a fun and unique account of a distinctly odd story I had never heard about before. Many thanks to Faber and Faber for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.
This Is Not a Pity Memoir by Abi Morgan details what happened when her long-term partner, Jacob, collapsed in summer 2018 and spent seven months in an induced coma and 443 days in hospital where he was eventually diagnosed with a rare form of encephalitis caused by injections he had been taking to treat multiple sclerosis. When he woke up, he no longer recognised Morgan and treated her like an imposter. Morgan is the award-winning playwright and screenwriter of several films and TV series including ‘The Split’ and ‘The Hour’. She is careful to avoid cliches in her writing, wryly noting that if this had been a fictional plot, her subsequent diagnosis of breast cancer in late 2019 would have been criticised for coming too soon after Jacob’s health issues. Instead, while the events in Morgan’s life haven’t always provided optimum narrative convenience, her account is often bleakly funny and demonstrates real resilience. Many thanks to John Murray Press for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.