Two books our Life editor, Sarah Buitendach, recommends

Nonfiction: The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold (Penguin Random House)

If there’s a reminder that history is a moving, changing and breathing thing, at the mercy of its tellers, it’s this fantastic, extremely readable work of research by historian Rubenhold.

As the name indicates, the book is centred on the five women murdered by the infamous anonymous Victorian serial killer, Jack the Ripper. But this is not another one of those whodunnits that hypothesises over who the murderer was. On the contrary, it hardly mentions him at all.

Rather, it is a spectacularly rich look at the five victims and their lives, from birth to death. It shows them to have been nuanced humans with stories and hopes and sadnesses miles beyond the accepted narrative that they were just washed-out prostitutes hanging about Whitehall in the East End of London. In fact, Rubenhold puts paid to that theory entirely.

Her revelatory historical sleuthing is one thing, but the pictures she paints of the Victorian age and society are equally enthralling. From the horrific treatment of the poor in the late 19th century to the impact of social housing and alcoholism, this is a fascinating glimpse at a tiny slice of the past. No wonder it scooped the Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction.

Fiction: A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom, by John Boyne (Doubleday)

Boyne is a prolific writer. Finish one of his books and inevitably there’ll be a new one for you to pick up. The Irishman’s mind must be a constant swirl of stories and imagined lives and literary magic. This new offering is a definite manifestation of this.

While a saga that stretches over centuries and cultures might sound daunting and dry, Boyne manages to make it one that is human and relatable. And enjoyable. He must have done a mountain of historical and anthropological research on this expansive subject matter. And sure, there might be some heavy artistic licence in parts, but that’s the magic of fiction, after all.

I’d wager that this is going to be cracker of a success in book clubs, and if you loved A Ladder to the Sky and The Heart’s Invisible Furies, then get ready to queue up when it’s released shortly.

It’s a reminder how ultimately we are pretty much the same, no matter where we come from and what our beliefs are.

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