John Stonehouse was a politician who had it all, says Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. The Labour MP was tall, good-looking and fiercely ambitious, “with a high capacity for turning on the charm”. He was also “a liar, a cheat and a fraud”. In John Stonehouse, My Father: The True Story of the Runaway MP (Icon £16.99), his daughter, Julia Stonehouse, “offers us the case for the defence”.
On 20 November, 1974, Stonehouse left a pile of clothes on a Miami beach and faked his own death by drowning, only to resurface within weeks in Australia. He was arrested on Christmas Eve and deported six months later to stand trial on 21 charges of forgery, theft, conspiracy and fraud.
Julia Stonehouse offers a clear, dispassionate and selfless chronicle of her father’s misdemeanours, says Craig Brown in The Spectator, “while simultaneously absolving him of all blame”. The more “devious” his behaviour – he was later revealed as a spy for the Czech intelligence services – the more she finds it “completely out of character”. It was all proof of a mental breakdown, his ideals “crushed by the moral corruption of virtually everyone else”.
But has anyone ever prepared for their own breakdown “with such diligence, such attention to detail”? Inspired by Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, Stonehouse had fake passports made using the names of dead constituents, took out five “last-minute” life insurances and rehearsed his “drowning” in Miami. Following his arrest, he told the BBC: “Lots of MPs go on fact-finding tours overseas. I have been on a fact-finding tour about myself.”
At his trial, he conducted his own defence. His closing statement lasted six days, “the longest in British legal history”. He was sentenced to seven years, but released after three. He married his secretary, Sheila Buckley, with whom he had been having an affair, and “followed Jeffrey Archer into writing thrillers, though without the financial rewards”.
Julia Stonehouse deserves much personal sympathy, says Max Hastings in The Sunday Times, “but her explanations of his behaviour are unlikely to convince many readers”. For all that Stonehouse’s story is “rich in comic moments”, laughter fades “upon reflection about the misery his follies and crimes brought upon others”.
Available as an audiobook on Audible.
Longlisted for the Booker prize, Damon Galgut’s The Promise (Chatto & Windus £16.99) is a family saga that moves from the 1980s to the present. It’s complex, ambitious and brilliant, says William Skidelsky in the FT, providing “Galgut’s fullest exploration yet of the poisonous legacy of apartheid”.
The Swarts are a white family who live on a ramshackle farm outside Pretoria. An “entitled, unreflective clan”, they regard it as the “natural order of things” that they live in a big house while Salome, their black maid, lives with her son in a “cramped dwelling on its fringes”. The novel opens just after the death of the family matriarch. In her final days she made her racist husband promise to make Salome “the legal owner of the tiny house”. It becomes clear that he has “no intention of honouring his pledge”. Nor does any other member of the family. As the decades pass, the broken promise becomes “a kind of curse”.
Galgut is a terrifically agile novelist, says Jon Day in The Guardian, “up there with Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee as a chronicler of his nation’s anguished complexity”. And in trying to “navigate the demands” of being a South African writer and “being a writer who just happens to be South African”, he has written a “fascinating” novel.
Available as an audiobook on Kobo.
The verdict on Fergie’s Mills & Boon debut
Sarah Ferguson’s first novel for adults, a historical romance for Mills & Boon called Her Heart for a Compass, is “amiable tosh”, says Melanie McDonagh in the Evening Standard. She has dug up her great-great-aunt, a Lady Margaret of the Buccleuchs, and given her traits the observant reader might recognise: “flame-haired, freckled, impulsive, besties with a princess, weight issues”. All we know about the real Lady Margaret is that she was a bridesmaid to one of Queen Victoria’s daughters and married late for the era, at 29, says Kat Brown in the I newspaper. So there are “helpful gaps” for Fergie to fill with “a delightful and surprisingly funny period romp” that sees Lady M dodge a dull marriage, fall for a sexy priest and “reinvent” herself in America.
But where’s the romance, asks Hannah Betts in the Telegraph. There’s “a total of three-ish snogs”. And no one will be enlightened to learn that life for women in the 19th century was “a bit rum”. Her Heart for a Compass wears its research lightly, says Alison Flood in The Guardian –it’s a glimpse into the “strictures of life as a pampered, rich, upper-class woman”. But Bridgerton this is not – at one point Ferguson has a man “adjusting his kilt, swearing under his breath”. Sadly, Lady Margaret’s pleasures are “all very much above the waistline”.