It’s about time we had a cynical biography of Cromwell, says Jessie Childs in the Telegraph. In The Making of Oliver Cromwell (Yale £25), historian Ronald Hutton portrays him as “sly, vindictive, glory-guzzling and ruthless”. He manipulates the press, lies in the House of Commons and “destroys erstwhile allies with relish”. He is also an “outstanding tactician and an inspired leader of men”, who never lost an important battle.
Little is known about the first four decades of Cromwell’s life – even his baptism record has been “tampered with” – but he turned to Puritanism in the early 1630s, when he suffered “a loss of status… and possibly also a breakdown”. His religiosity was extreme, “even by the standards of his age”. But as MP for Cambridge, his speeches “rode the populist wave”, and when war came he rose to the rank of lieutenant-general of the cavalry in the New Model Army within the space of three years, despite having no previous military experience,
Hutton shows the flipside of Cromwell’s bellicosity, says Marcus Nevitt in The Spectator, “complicating any image of him as simply a ruthless killing machine”. He took great care of the soldiers under his command, “regardless of their rank”, making sure all were properly paid and regularly supplied.
The strength of this book, in concentrating on six climatic years from 1640 to 1646, is its inevitable limitation, says Jerry Brotton in the FT. We are left “anticipating Cromwell’s involvement in Charles I’s execution… and his controversial rule as Lord Protector”. Perhaps Hutton’s publisher could “now convince him to finish the job”.
Available as an audiobook on Audible from 7 September
War and its traumatic effect on ordinary people are something of a speciality for Pat Barker, says Catherine Taylor in the FT. While her Regeneration trilogy was about shell-shocked soldiers in the First World War, she has lately been reaching “far back into history, into myth, to explore classical atrocities” and “hold a mirror to the ancient world’s parallels with the 21st century”. The Women of Troy (Hamish Hamilton £18.99) is her “compulsively readable” sequel to The Silence of the Girls, a subversive reimagining of Homer’s Iliad.
The Women of Troy is thick with paranoia and intrigue, says Johanna Thomas-Corr in the Sunday Times. The Greeks have finally won the war and “are preparing to sail home with their stolen loot and stolen women”. But the “angry gods” are denying them the weather to do so. We witness their “festering anxiety”, mostly through the “unblinking eyes” of Briseis. Aged just 19, she has gone from former queen to sex slave of Achilles to the pregnant, hastily married wife of his associate, Alcius. Barker is “particularly shrewd about male insecurity”, as Briseis sees all too clearly that “the only thing that mattered in this camp was power”.
Available as an audiobook on Kobo from 26 August.