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Books

What the critics liked

The Passenger (Pushkin £14.99) is a brilliant novel, says David Mills in The Times. The “existential crisis” that overtook Jews in Nazi Germany “is rivetingly caught” by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz in a “tense, fluent thriller [that] takes place over a handful of restless, remorseless days.” Berlin businessman Otto Silbermann is forced to escape his house one night in November 1938, when a group of Nazis knock on his door. He starts travelling the rail network “in a series of fruitless journeys… trapped, condemned to go nowhere”. He exists under the “terrifying absurdity of being a criminal on the run who hasn’t committed a crime”.

What makes this novel “even more extraordinary” is that it was written in four weeks after the events of Kristallnacht “by a 23-year-old writer who wasn’t even in Germany at the time”. Boschwitz left for Sweden in 1935, but his novel “reverberates with prophetic resonances”, chilling in their prescience: “They’ll slowly undress us first and then kill us. So our clothes won’t get bloody and our banknotes won’t get damaged.”

The result is a story that is part John Buchan, part Franz Kafka, says Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian, “and wholly riveting”. Its author was killed in 1942, aged 27. Considered an “enemy alien” on his arrival in England in 1939, he was sent to Australia for internment. On his release, the troop ship on which he was travelling back to Britain was torpedoed by a German submarine, killing all 362 people on board. More than 70 years later, the original manuscript turned up in a Frankfurt archive, “allowing an editor to revise the novel in line with instructions Boschwitz had conveyed in letters to his mother”.

If there is one thing this newly discovered classic makes clear, says Bryan Karetnyk in The Spectator, “it is that its vision of the barbarism about to take place was no prophecy”. The writing was already on the wall, “if only one dared to read it”.

Available as an audiobook on Kobo.

The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England (Hutchinson £25) takes us through seven centuries of great political change, says Eleanor Parker in the FT. Marc Morris’s lively book tells how, between the 5th and 11th centuries, an assortment of settler communities arrived in Britain from northern Europe and, “via generations of warfare”, turned a “post-Roman wasteland” into “an administratively sophisticated, cultured and unified kingdom”.

Morris is an accomplished guide to the tricksy Anglo-Saxon world, says Dan Jones in The Sunday Times. He has not been defeated by “the scarcity of… written accounts, nor by the need to rely on fragmentary archaeology”. Rather, he “leans enthusiastically into uncertainty, inviting the reader to figure out the puzzles with him”.

Each chapter focuses on a person or group, and Morris does not neglect the period’s “greatest hits”. There is Raedwald, the East Anglian ruler thought to have been entombed in the burial ship at Sutton Hoo. He “epitomised the clash of cultures” in early Anglo-Saxon England, keeping “two altars in his temple: one for celebrating the Christian rite, and another on which he continued to offer pagan sacrifices”. Or Bishop Wilfrid, who battled pagans in Sussex and “did more [than anyone else] to shape the course of Christianity in Britain during its first century”. Alfred is “treated cautiously”; Aethelred the Unready “defecated in the font” during his baptism, revealing himself to be “a wrong ’un”.

This is also a story about England and Englishness, says Pippa Bailey in the New Statesman: “The shires drawn up by the Anglo-Saxons remain almost unchanged today.” It was in this period that the first king of England was crowned and “the idea of an English race entered common usage”. Given the scale of his subject and, in places, “the paucity of evidence”, Morris “emphasises early that ‘a definitive history of this history is impossible’, but this colossal book comes close”.

Available as an audiobook on Kobo.

Vintage fiction: The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini was the first Afghan novelist to fictionalise his culture for a western readership, said Amelia Hill in The Observer in 2003. The Kite Runner is a “shattering” debut novel in which “two motherless boys who learn to crawl and walk side by side are destined to destroy each other across the gulf of their tribal difference”.

It is a story of fierce cruelty and fierce yet redeeming love, said Edward Hower in The New York Times in 2003. Both “transform the life” of Amir, a privileged child growing up in affluent Kabul in the 1970s, who is close friends with Hassan, the son of his father’s servant. During a kite-flying tournament that “should be the triumph of Amir’s young life”, he fails to defend Hassan in a brutal scene. The consequences “will haunt him” for decades.

Available as an audiobook on Audible, narrated by the author.