Enemies Within by Richard Davenport-Hines review – the Cambridge spies and distrust of the elite

Did Burgess, Philby and Maclean wreak more damage to the British establishment following their exposure than they had while they were actually spying?

Before Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean disappeared in 1951, both were disarmingly open in admitting to spying. “I work for Uncle Joe,” Maclean had announced drunkenly at the Gargoyle club to anyone who wanted to listen. Nonetheless, westerners found it almost inconceivable that they had actually defected to Russia, so they focused on their sexuality rather than their politics. “The frog papers are quite sure it is sex,” wrote Nancy Mitford from Paris, while half-aware that “if they were just bouncing about on some double bed they would have been found by now”. TS Eliot was sure that the mystery would soon be solved and the “denouement will be undramatic and quite unconnected with anything to do with communism or the Iron Curtain”.

Almost 70 years later, the ...

As a God Might Be by Neil Griffiths review – midlife crisis or the voice of God?

A man turns his life upside down in an ambitious, generous novel about the limits of faith and love

In an insistently rational, middle-class world, how do you respond if God appears unexpectedly in your life? Proctor McCullough is a successful professional, albeit in an unusual field – an “atrociologist”, he advises the government on probable mass behaviour amid disaster. He is unusually happy with his partner, Holly, and is a devoted father to their six-year-old twins. He has never been interested in religion before, preferring to channel his spirituality into the appreciation of art: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Wallace Stevens, Mark Rothko, JS Bach. But suddenly he experiences an unmistakable call to ready himself for God. “He was being presented with a rent in the world’s fabric and needed to make himself available for a gift that might be passed through.”

Abandoning his London home, McCullough decamps ...

Mischka’s War by Sheila Fitzpatrick review – my husband in Nazi Germany

The renowned historian of the Soviet Union recounts the early life of her late husband, including his unforgettable story of the bombing of Dresden

Show yourself as you are, make the readers like you,” Fitzpatrick pleads with Mischka, the subject of her new biographical-historical investigation. It’s an unusual situation for any writer to be in. Mischka is her dead husband, yet she’s telling his story as a historian, reconstructing his early life from largely written sources.

Theirs was a late marriage. She was successful, known for her revisionist work on the Soviet Union; he was a successful physicist. They met on a plane in 1989, when she was 48 and he 67. “Five years if you must, but please, if you possibly can, 10 years,” she pleaded at the time. He died 10 years later. Now Fitzpatrick has decided to make the most of “the power to bring the ...

The Ghost: A Cultural History by Susan Owens review – spectres hold a mirror to society

This intriguing account of how the spirit world has changed with the times tells us a lot about ourselves

As Halloween approaches, we prepare to confront our ghosts. Soon we’ll be used to ghoulish children leaping out of shadows in the street. Meanwhile in churches, for the three days of Allhallowtide, Christians will remember the faithful dead.

But ghosts aren’t always as recognisable as they are now in the guise of trick-or-treaters. “Ghosts have grown up,” Elizabeth Bowen wrote in a preface to a new book of ghost stories in 1952. They had laid aside their original bag of tricks – “bleeding hands, luminous skulls and so on” – and were now more likely to be found in a prosaic scene. “Today’s haunted room has a rosy wallpaper.” Most frighteningly, “contemporary ghosts are credible”. They lurked at the border of known reality, just believable enough to unnerve those who ...

I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice review – when the sea is your saviour

A writer’s moving tale of how she found solace from family trauma in the cold waters of the Irish SeaRuth Fitzmaurice was 32 when her husband, the film-maker Simon Fitzmaurice, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2008. She had put her own writing ambitions on hold to look after three small children; his career was just taking off. Suddenly, he was given four years to live and far less time to function normally. They survived by insisting on their capacity for creative and procreative life. They conceived twins; he began work on his first feature film, I Love Emily; she started, tentatively, to write about their life – and she swam. Almost every day since that time, Fitzmaurice has congregated with two friends, Michelle (whose husband, Galen, is also in a wheelchair, following an accident) and Aifric, to swim at their local cove near her house ...

The Idiot by Elif Batuman review – life lived through a Russian novel

A young woman discovers the difference between life and literature in a warm, funny portrayal of university life in the 90sDo events matter more when witnessed in real life than in books? Does language necessarily render experience second-hand? In her first book, The Possessed, New Yorker journalist Elif Batuman complained that as an incipient novelist she was always being told to eschew books and focus on life. Literature since Don Quixote had been seen as false and sterile; disconnected from lived experience. After years as a graduate student of Russian literature, she decided to challenge this by writing an account of her own haphazard attempt to live with and through books. Now she’s continued this project in a long and enjoyably literary novel, The Idiot. At the start of the book, the autobiographical heroine Selin has just arrived as an undergraduate at Harvard and is worrying about how to live. ...

The Good Bohemian: The Letters of Ida John review – making the best of a menage a trois

The wife of the painter Augustus John adapted to his mistress moving in, as she was herself stultified by conventional domesticity
In 1901 the 24-year-old Ida Nettleship shocked her respectable parents by announcing that she had secretly married an artist called Augustus John. They had met while studying at the Slade. Driven by a mixture of curiosity, love and lust, Augustus had pursued Ida temptingly, but she had resisted sex outside wedlock while knowing that her parents would refuse to allow her to marry this penniless, unkempt man, who wore earrings and befriended Gypsies. Forty years ago, Michael Holroyd revived Augustus John’s reputation with one of his wryly empathetic two‑volume biographies. This was an account frequently narrated from Ida’s point of view, thanks to the vividness and copiousness of her correspondence. Now he has joined forces with Ida’s granddaughter to publish her letters, and they offer a compelling glimpse of ...