Book reviews: NW by Zadie Smith | An English Affair by Rupert Davenport-Hines | Higher Gossip by John Updike

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Lots of us have heard the story of the Profumo scandal. Half a century ago, the Minister of War was connected, through an exotic dancer, to a Soviet naval attaché; later, there was a show trial, a high-profile death and gossip that lasted for decades.

An English Affair by Rupert Davenport-Hines

Harper Press, £9.99 * * * *

Here, Davenport-Hines shows us, with huge acumen, what the scandal meant, and how it came about. This is a book about a changing world – it’s about power, and sex, and the divorce laws, and prejudice, and property developers, and money … you’ll wince at how old-fashioned people were in those days, and wince again when you see how little has changed. This is a superb book.

NW by Zadie Smith

Penguin, £7.99 * * * * *

As soon as I began reading this book – before the end of the first paragraph, in fact – I felt the rare tingle of knowing I was on to something really good. This is a novel about people living in Willesden, in north-west London. There’s Leah, there’s Shar, there’s Michel. I could tell you that Leah is white and Michel is black; that Shar is an addict; that Leah’s schoolfriend Natalie is richer than Leah; that Leah knows a guy who was good-looking at school and is now falling through the cracks. But what I really must say is that Smith transports you into the minds of these people, and she does it with terrific control, style and zest. NW is a novel of the highest quality.

Higher Gossip by John Updike

Penguin, £10.99 * * * *

EVERY few years, since the mid-1960s and right until his death in 2009, John Updike’s readers looked forward to a special treat – his prose collections. And here’s a final, posthumous volume. Unlike many, he didn’t lose it as he got older – the work here is sharp and engaging. He’s excellent on other writers. He writes about Einstein, dinosaurs, Mars and golf. there’s a lovely poem about looking at a Vermeer, and seeing it again, 16 years later; it is still the same, but he has gone grey.

Come to the Edge by Joanna Kavenna

Quercus, £7.99 * * *

THE narrator of this novel has a tone of voice that grabs you straight away. She tells you about a terrible event and how it came to be. You feel sorry for her. But she’s feisty and doggedly vital. She was in a suburban marriage trying, in vain, to have a baby. then her husband found a younger woman. So she ran off to live in a freezing tumbledown farmhouse with a woman called Cassandra, who hates sanitation, the modern world in general – and bankers, whose property she wants to burn down. This is a fiercely readable book.