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The best new books released in September as selected by avid readers and critics

Welcome to ABC Arts' monthly book column. Each month, we present a shortlist of new releases read and recommended by The Bookshelf's Kate Evans and The Book Show's Claire Nichols and Sarah L'Estrange — alongside recommendations from freelance writer and critic Declan Fry.

All four read voraciously and widely, and the only guidelines we give them are: make it a new release; make it something you think is great.

The resulting list features a melodrama inspired by the the real-life maybe-murder of teenage duchess Lucrezia de' Medici; a romp through the illegal dance halls of 20s London with a gangster queen; a revelatory novel inspired by Virginia's husband Leonard Woolf; "biting and gloriously satirical" fiction set in colonial Rwanda; and a sharp, funny collection of essays about late capitalism's cultural offspring — from polyamory to cryptocurrency and secret societies.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell

Tinder Press (Hachette)

Lucrezia di Cosimo de' Medici was a duchess in 16th-century Italy. At the age of 15, she went to live with her new husband in Ferrara. A year later she was dead. Did she die of "putrid fever" as officially reported, or was she – as was rumoured – murdered by her husband?

This latest novel from Northern Irish author Maggie O'Farrell is true crime, Italian Renaissance style. O'Farrell has written about mistreated 16th-century women before – her heartbreaking novel Hamnet, about the wife and children of William Shakespeare, won the Women's Prize for Fiction in 2020.

As her new book opens, 16-year-old Lucrezia realises that her life may be in danger. Her husband, Alfonso II d'Este, has taken her to a secluded stone fortress and treated her to a lavish dinner. Does he plan to poison her?

From there, we go back to the beginning. From the moment she is born, Lucrezia is different from the other children in the family. There is something wild about her. As a baby she "roars and writhes", and is banished to the basement kitchen where she is raised by a wet-nurse for the first year of her life. She eventually returns to her family in the upstairs nursery, but that wild spirit remains.

As a child of the Medici family, Lucrezia is incredibly privileged. Her parents are in favour of educating girls as well as boys, and she has access to some of the best teachers in Italy, who recognise her incredible skill at painting. But the fact remains: Lucrezia is being raised in order to be married. At the tender age of 13, she is promised to Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara.

The Marriage Portrait doesn't pack the same emotional punch as Hamnet, but it will have you crying out over the injustice inflicted on this brave young woman, who yearns for freedom beyond the palace walls. CN

People Who Lunch: Essays on Work, Leisure and Loose Living by Sally Olds

Upswell

A remarkable debut, Sally Olds's People Who Lunch is a collection of essays that delves into secret societies, clubbing, polyamory, the possibility of universal basic income, post-work futures, the perils of half-baked literary criticism, and cryptocurrency – all brilliantly tied together by Olds's humour, intelligence and energy.

The overriding theme is flux: Olds explores the kinds of social expressions we are seeing, and will continue to see, as capitalism and the Fordist compact – patriarchal nuclear families, middle-class rights and care, infrastructure – continue to decay, forcing experimentation with new forms of politics.

The book is anchored by Olds's incisive sense of the times we're living in, combined with a shrewd critical sensibility. As she writes in a chapter exploring polyamory and the end of 9-to-5 work structures:

"Polyamory, as one common critique goes, is made possible by a life of relative structural ease. You need the time and energy to do it; you need support systems, which usually form within progressive urban centres; you need access to contraception and healthcare; you need a decent-paying job, or a financial safety net, to facilitate all of the above."

I laughed at this, as I did also when she writes:

"There's always a question about jealousy to which the poly person submits the standard response: 'Of course I still get jealous. But when I do I work through it.'"

By analysing these attempts to move away from the structures preferred by capitalism – all of which involve so much work! — Olds is warning us, presciently, about how popular contemporary discourses negate Audre Lorde's concept of self-care, replacing it with endless labour and an individualised focus.

As Olds points out, this only serves to banalise the political potential of self-care.

I am inexpressibly happy this book exists in the world; it is a great book. Why? Because it is written in a register many great authors write in: one that does not worry about the industry, about the audience, about the bullshit; one that cares only about the book itself. The result is miraculous. DF

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday (Penguin)

This mix of historical and crime fiction from English writer Kate Atkinson (Life After Life) is a romp: set in and around the illegal dance halls of 20s Soho, London, it is entertaining, vivid, and full of chancers, cops, showgirls, runaways, librarians, and underworld madams. It's also more than that, as she shows every nightclub both in its glittering promise and in its morning-after melancholia.

The story opens in 1926 as Nellie Coker is released from six months in London's Holloway Prison, into a throng of admirers, family and press — as a detective watches on, desperate to get to the bottom of her illegal empire of dance halls and the rest.

The hot breath of the recent war can still be felt, whether it's through the loss of brothers, the trauma of sniper fire, the experience of nursing at the front, or a marriage to a woman from France who had lost everything but a bulb of garlic.

The story is told through multiple perspectives across many characters, with each life partly revealed initially, then followed through later. The characters are intertwined, but for all the urgency of the writing, there's something leisurely about the way revelations are made. A more conventional novel might have revealed the librarian waiting in the detective's car more quickly, told us who she was and why she was looking for two lost girls; and then there's a connection back to Nellie's son, and a corrupt cop, and an old friend, and a series of deaths, and a ghost or two, and on and on.

Atkinson is an assured writer. She has written historical fiction before, and turned it upside down (as she did, for example, in Life After Life – and many of her other books); she has written crime fiction before (the Jackson Brodie series); and there are elements of both these genres in this one, but she's joyfully, cleverly, making a style all her own. KE

Kibogo by Scholastique Mukasonga

Archipelago Books

Born in Rwanda in 1956 and settling in France in 1992, two years before the genocide of the Tutsi swept her home country, Scholastique Mukasonga – who was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award in 2016 – has been publishing for nearly 17 years.

Her latest novel, Kibogo, translated by Mark Polizzotti, is a triumph. Told in four interwoven parts, it is set in a small village in Rwanda colonised by Belgian missionaries. The village faces drought, along with the interventions of the Europeans, who have forced the villagers to give up their crops and local farming techniques in favour of coffee plantations.

The first section, Ruzugayura, follows the 1943 Rwandan famine, which the colonial administration blames on Hitler, and the missionaries blame on paganism (some of the locals, on the other hand, blame the missionaries). A priest urges the villagers to pray for rain, but five elders consult Mukamwezi, a pagan priestess who has been disowned by the community for her faithfulness to Kibogo, a prince said to have sacrificed himself and become a rain-making god. This deified figure, which serves as a connecting thread throughout the novel, is one the missionaries cannot entirely disavow or strip the villagers of their faith in.

In the novel's indelible final section, an elderly White anthropologist arrives to record the stories of Kibogo told by two village men. As the men compete in their storytelling, others join in, and the professor eventually hears the story he wants them to tell – a move that speaks to the opening section, where the French priest, when rain does arrive, gives praise to the Virgin Mary.

As the publisher's note remarks, Kibogo "ingeniously undermines hackneyed notions of cultural inheritance, revealing the kinetic force that narratives take in our lives". It offers up a world in which Christianity exists alongside traditional belief, the ostensibly disparate traditions syncretised in a form of resistance — as when Akayezu (whose name translates to "Little Jesus") is kicked out of a seminary for heresy after linking the story of Kibogo with that of Jesus and Elijah. Later, Akayezu attempts to baptise a pagan woman; the two end up joining forces to fight the White folk.

In Mukasonga's Rwanda, Christianity may seem to take root, satisfying the colonisers, yet it has also become part of local traditions, helping to disguise the cultures that predate colonisation.

Biting and gloriously satirical, Mukasonga's novel shows how stories can wield a power that is greater than the sword, resisting ownership by any one person or authority. It is a rich and hilarious work. DF

This Devastating Fever by Sophie Cunningham

Ultimo Press

This is the second meta-fictional novel I've read this year featuring Virginia and Leonard Woolf. The first was Daisy and Woolf by Michelle Cahill, a postcolonial critique of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.

This Devastating Fever, by Melbourne writer Sophie Cunningham, is dedicated to the lesser-known Leonard Woolf, his literary output and his relationship with Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as he knew it). It's a playful and inventive story that toggles between the early 20th century and the present; there's even an apparition of Leonard who converses with Alice, the main protagonist: a Melbourne writer who has been working on a novel about him for more than 20 years.

Within Cunningham's novel there are numerous soul-destroying encounters with Alice's displeased agent, who has been waiting a long time for the book. The agent questions Alice's liberal use of footnotes in the book (I like them) and bitterly reminds Alice that the only thing readers are interested in when it comes to the Bloomsbury Set (the influential artistic circle to which the Woolfs belonged) is their sex life (it's complicated).

Alice is "haunted" by Leonard: "She had undertaken the task of restoring Leonard Woolf to a level of complexity that history had denied him," Cunningham writes. To understand her response to his life, Alice delves into his archives, reads his books and travels to Sri Lanka. It's a fascinating exploration of Leonard's contribution to literature, and his troubled and troubling role as a colonial administrator in Ceylon.

The real joy of this book, however, is Cunningham's prowess in bringing the complicated act of writing to life. I read the character of Alice as a proxy for Cunningham (who also spent a long time on this novel — around 16 years); it's a narrative conceit that can be a tricky balancing act for an author, but this novel offers an enlightening encounter with a literary titan of the past, while also providing insight into the struggles of being a writer of literary fiction today. SL

Tune in to ABC RN at 10am Mondays for The Book Show and 10am Saturdays for The Bookshelf.

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