Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Mendelson, Hawi and Peace.

Almost English, by Charlotte Mendelson

Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson has piqued the interests of several broadsheets, keen to weigh in on the Booker-longlisted and Orange-shortlisted title. It is her fourth book.

The novel is about a sixteen-year-old girl, Marina, and her mother Laura who are forced to move into a London flat with weird female relatives. Mendelson writes about the bond which mother and daughter share, while their lives change through new schools and relationships respectively.

The Daily Mail’s John Harding calls it an “entertaining read, but surely not one of the best 13 books of the year,” and is critical of the disjointed story. Conversely, in the Guardian, Alex Clark reckons the episodes do indeed cohere to give Almost English “considerable energy”; it teaches the reader “how hard we will fight to escape what we love most; how we jeopardise it even when we want to protect it more than anything.”

Johanna Thomas-Corr reviewed the book for The Scotsman, introducing it as “an English boarding school farce” fused with “a Chekhovian tragicomedy” with a “fairytale” element. Marina learns that “Englishness is a slippery concept. And narcissistic middle-aged men,” in the shape of her boyfriend, are “slipperier still”. The book as a whole, however, leaves Thomas-Corr wishing for “a richer, more tantalising story of family strife.”

Nisha Lilia Diu, in the Telegraph, welcomes the book as a “very funny novel, dancing close to farce without ever mistreating its characters.” Echoing Clark, the prose makes one “almost sigh with pleasure” even as the mood shifts between shock and comedy. For a book with female protagonists, she goes on, the male characters are “just ciphers” mostly, but Diu encourages readers “simply to sit back and enjoy it.”

Carnival, by Rawi Hage

Another fiction title, Carnival by Rawi Hage, finds favour with both the Guardian and The Telegraph. Andrew Marszal, in the latter, calls it “a spellbinding success”, and Edward Docx begins his piece by telling readers to ignore his review, which is critical of the “self-consciousness” of the author. Instead they should “download [Carnival] immediately or set off for the nearest decent bookshop, however many hundreds of miles that may now be.”

Fly is the protagonist of Hage’s third book, a cab driver in anonymous North America whom both reviewers liken to Travis Bickle, if not for the allusion conjured by Hage’s debut De Niro’s Game. The title of this book refers to the setting, festivities in an unnamed city, around which Fly ferries the merrymakers while sitting apart. He is, to Marszal, “a sweet and innocent – if narcissistic and confused – young man who never quite seems to grasp the decadence and immorality surrounding him.” He tells stories himself, with Hage finding the intersection of Rabelais, Hrabel and Bolano in his literary allusions.

For most of the book Fly is, to quote Leo Robson in his New Statesman review, “a pair of eyeballs on wheels” and a “salivating autodidact”. Hage uses his own taxi-driving experience to inform his anti-hero and prose which reflects “the superiority of secular knowledge to nationalist and religious dogma.” Ultimately, to Robson, the vignettes drawn by the author do not have a unifying thread; Docx, however, is far kinder to the “compassion ... lyricism and ... great human spirit” of the story.

Red or Dead, by David Peace

Finally, and also reviewed in this week’s edition of the New Statesman, David Peace returns with another story of a football manager from the near-distant past. Red or Dead is the 700-page fictionalised story of Bill Shankly, the quotable Liverpool boss who presided over the first recent Golden Era of the football club. Jonathan Wilson writes that “football just goes on”, with no room for the individual stories of hirings and firings. Both Wilson and Mark Lawson, reviewing for the Guardian, pause on the pages in the book of the retired manager in the domestic environment, away from his players and being a man about the house.

Lawson makes more of the meetings Shankly has with Harold Wilson, “a powerful presence” in the book, both men having stopped their pressured jobs and finding common ground as they attend TV interviews. “Redundancy,” Mark Lawson writes, “is a recurrent theme of the book.”

Peace’s prose fits the “numbing circularity” of football’s weekly grind, Wilson writes, highlighting the opening of the novel: “Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.” Lawson concurs, writing of Shankly as a “monomaniac” and of Peace as the ideal writer whose “echo-chamber style” denotes a mind in “a shallow groove, seeing no other routes.” Fans of Peace will quickly pick up that the “rule of elegant variation” is once again ignored, even as Lawson is concerned that the book does not make things easy for its intended audiences.

Bill Shankly, pictured after a 1974 Charity Shield win at Wembley, is subject of "Red or Dead" by David Peace. Images: Getty Images.
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era