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Spectator books of the year: Michela Wrong discovered a real-life picaresque tale

14 November 2015

10:00 AM

14 November 2015

10:00 AM

The highlight for me this year was the South African writer Jonny Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope (Cape, £18.99), hugely topical at a time when Europe is contemplating what it means to be a refugee. I’ve repeatedly found myself recommending it to friends. Steinberg is a novelist camouflaging himself as a non-fiction writer, and his story of Somali tradesman Asad’s meandering journey across Africa — from the clan violence of Mogadishu via the slums of Nairobi and Addis Ababa to the townships of Cape Town and their vindictive, xenophobic attacks — is extraordinarily poignant. A real-life picaresque tale, it doesn’t contain a single dull sentence.

Shame (Weidenfeld, £14.99), a second novel by Melanie Finn, deserved more recognition than it received. The story of a young woman who exiles herself to a remote village in Tanzania after an accidental killing in Switzerland, only to be tracked down by a former neighbour bent on revenge, it’s both disturbing and ultimately uplifting. Her Africa is one I recognise, neither sentimental nor sensationalised. Finn has a light, deft touch as a writer, but the images she conjures up are so subversively creepy they haunt you for days.


Morten Jerven, author of the iconoclastic Poor Numbers in 2013 — a book which argued that not a single GDP statistic in Africa could be trusted — continued his assault on economic shibboleths with the publication of Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong (Zed Books, £14.99), which argues that the ‘Africa Rising’ mantra chanted by would-be investors in the continent has been built on a foundation of false assumptions.

Tom Burgis’s The Looting Machine (William Collins, £16), the first book by this Financial Times journalist, offers another corrective to current obligatory optimism about the continent. It’s a bleak account of the resource smash-and-grab being staged by corrupt political elites and their corporate raider friends. China comes out of this account particularly poorly. An important book with a disconcertingly grim message.


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