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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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser