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The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, by Dorian Lynskey, Picador, 368 pp, £16.99, 978-1509890736

“It wouldn’t have been so gloomy if I had not been so ill,” Orwell supposedly said of Nineteen Eighty-Four. And even on the closest reading the novel seems a relentlessly cheerless affair. Airstrip One ‑ previously England ‑ is shabby and neglected, a grim place: “underfed people … in leaky shoes … patched up nineteenth century houses that smelt always of cabbage and bad lavatories”. Winston Smith ends up not so much defeated as effaced. The Party’s rule seems total. It can snoop into your house and scan your face for symptoms of dissent ‑ anything less than the compulsory look of “quiet optimism”. Not only that, it can make you doubt your own memory, question the very evidence of your senses, reject that most basic a priori: 2+2=4. And if it hasn’t got you, chances are it has your child, schooled to dob you in without a second thought.

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