Book of the week: Letters to Camondo

Edmund de Waal pens a unique companion volume to his 2010 bestseller The Hare with Amber Eyes

Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal

Craig Taylor is an “endlessly curious Canadian” journalist who is best known for his works of oral history, said Laura Pullman in The Sunday Times. In Return to Akenfield (2009), he captured the life of a Suffolk village, and two years later, in the widely praised Londoners, he did the same for the UK capital. And he interviewed more than 180 people, over six years, for this “beautifully woven tapestry” of New York. Spanning the city’s social pecking order, his subjects range from bankers and lawyers to a homeless man who “recycles cans to scrape by”. Along with uplifting accounts by artists and activists there are stories that highlight the city’s darker side: a car thief spills the secrets of his profession; a therapist reveals that “every client fantasises about escaping”. You are forced to conclude that for many New Yorkers, life there is unbearably relentless. If I’d read this book “before moving here, I’d have been more hesitant to get on the plane”.

Some of its most fascinating sections are about the super-rich, said Craig Brown in The Mail on Sunday. A nanny describes working for families where the children have their own chefs. “If you are nine and cavalier about having your own private jet, nothing is ever going to be exciting for you,” she notes. We learn of other children who lock themselves in the bathroom “because it’s the only place where there are no housekeepers, parents, tutors, drivers”. And there’s a dentist whose bond trader client was so stressed by his job that he’d ground his teeth into pegs. Seventy years ago, in a letter from New York, Dylan Thomas wrote that behind its “facade of speed and efficiency”, it contained “millions of little individuals... wrestling, in vain, with their own anxieties”. Taylor’s “amazing book” suggests that some things have not changed.

John Murray 432pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

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New Yorkers by Craig Taylor

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