Becoming, Michelle Obama: At Dusk, Hwang Sok-yong

Jane Graham enjoys the barbs and brio of a First Lady who doesn’t pull any punches

Official biographies from political figures whose profile remains vertiginously high are rarely compelling. You usually have to wait until they’re powerless for the good stuff. And even then, you only get the juice if they’re either jaded and bitter, or old and satisfied. Michelle Obama, however, is not your average political bear. She stepped into the spotlight already a very different kind of celebrity; a First Lady from a very modest background who seemed as tough as she was warm, as intelligent as she was playful. More than a match for her brilliant, brainy husband, and with an even easier charm. And, as she puts it herself, ‘black through and through, as black as we come in America.’ 

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Early news leaks about the frankness with which Obama writes about her miscarriage and subsequent IVF treatment made it clear that this would not be the usual folksy whitewash full of innocuous platitudes about love of family and country (thought of course, there are a few of those). But even when you’re ready for revelations and insights, there are a number of real surprises in this engaging biography.

Her husband – a kind, sexy, funny geek who gazes dreamily at the ceiling thinking about.. ‘income inequality’ – sounds like a keeper

Most notable is how often this warm, tactile and naturally charismatic woman has been riven with suspicion, impatience, and anger. From the moment she describes how, as a raging ten year old, she landed a confident solar-plexus punch on an enemy classmate (throwing new light on ‘when they go low, we go high’), it’s clear Michelle Robinson is not a woman to mess with. From an early age, she has been argumentative and confrontational, often frustrated by the laid back breeziness emanating from her chilled, Hawaiian-bred boyfriend/husband. 

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She bristles when contemplating how greedily the political world has stolen family time, how unhesitatingly it has reduced her, a staunchly independent, Princeton/Harvard-educated high achiever, to a powerful man’s wife. (She only agreed to back Obama’s Presidential run because she didn’t  think he could win.) She riles against the low blows – usually borne of puerile anti-intellectualism or blatant racism – both she and her husband have to deflect. She flips a few potshots at Hillary Clinton and Cindy McCain, and doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the ‘lewd’, ‘vulgar’ ‘misogynist’ Donald Trump. And she doesn’t avoid the big questions; she definitely has no ambitions to be President. 

Also – she can really write. Whether conjuring up the first throes of winter on a frosty Chicago morning, the slow, agonising demise of her beloved MS-afflicted father, or the thudding shock of breaking news from Sandy Hook, her prose is unpretentious, evocative, and elegant. 

The portrait which emerges is that of a highly accomplished perfectionist who takes motherhood, marriage and her privileged platform extremely seriously. Passionate and empathetic, she really is rather inspiring. And for those readers looking for a fairytale love story – despite the long weeks apart, the brutal demands of public office, and the very different personalities involved, there really is one. Her husband – a kind, sexy, funny geek who gazes dreamily at the ceiling thinking about.. ‘income inequality’ – sounds like a keeper.

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Novelist Hwang Sok-yong is a star of the South Korean literary scene, often celebrated for giving the forgotten and marginalised a voice. In his latest book, At Dusk, he does this in a particularly thoughtful and affecting way, through the eyes of a powerful man forced to reconnect with his own humble beginnings through stirred memories of old friends and lovers. The hollow ring of success achieved by withdrawal from one’s own past, and a denial of those left behind to carry on in sufferance, makes for an emotionally and politically poignant metaphor. 

Becoming, Michelle Obama (Viking) from £12.50

At Dusk, Hwang Sok-yong (Scribe) £12.99