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.
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The marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle