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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Uncommon People sweeps you along as if you were trapped in a mosh pit

Author David Hepworth has acquired deep reservoirs of knowledge, and a towering stack of anecdotes.

First, a warning. It is perhaps best not to tackle David Hepworth’s work if you are the argumentative sort. He presents the central themes of his books in a manner that does not encourage discussion or debate: for maximum enjoyment, you should allow yourself to be swept along as if trapped in a surging, front-of-stage mosh pit.

Having argued persuasively in his last book that 1971 was the definitive year in the history of rock, Hepworth now takes as his theme the death of the rock star, killed off, like so many things that we thought would be part of the landscape for ever, by the arrival of the “mystique-destroying internet”. The end of physical product – Hepworth comes from a generation that spent hours gazing lovingly at album sleeves, seeking clues about the lifestyles and personalities of the performers – and the arrival of social media were the primary factors that led to the extinction of this breed of people whose names once formed the world’s cultural lingua franca. We still have global superstars in pop music but, he argues, the likes of Adele, Justin Bieber and Kanye West are not rock stars, whatever the last of these may think. Music has become “just another branch of the distraction business”.

Starting with the day Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti” in September 1955, Hepworth leads us through the next four decades, choosing one significant day – often only important in retrospect – each year in the life of an artist. Some obvious candidates (Bob Dylan, the Beatles) make more than one appearance, but there are some surprising inclusions, too. It is typically provoking of Hepworth to bring the curtain down on the rock era as early as 1995 and make his last subject not Damon Albarn or Noel Gallagher but an American software nerd. Marc Andreessen, the developer of an early web browser, helped to usher in an age in which “smart young people looked on and dreamed about being tech stars in the way the previous generation had dreamed about being rock stars”.

The last man to measure up to Hepworth’s rock star definition was Kurt Cobain, who killed himself in 1994. Cobain was a fan who unwittingly and unwillingly became an icon and could not cope with the consequences. His suicide note was “like a reader’s letter to a music paper”.

Though Hepworth writes with conviction, his manner is not high-handed or dictatorial. He is not a rock historian in the mould of, say, the Elvis Presley biographer Peter Guralnick or the Beatles chronicler Mark Lewisohn: you are not lost in admiration at the weight and depth of his research. In a lifetime’s devotion to the music and several decades as a journalist and TV presenter, he has acquired deep reservoirs of knowledge and a towering stack of anecdotes. He deploys this weaponry wisely and writes in an easy, fluid style. If he ever turned his hand to thrillers, you can bet they would be page turners.

The best chapters are those in which Hepworth’s choice is surprising, or he approaches it tangentially. His subject for 1978, for instance, is Ian Dury, whose album New Boots and Panties!! sold in its hundreds of thousands, making Dury – disabled after contracting polio as a child – one of the most unlikely success stories in pop. Dury was a complex character who could, like so many of the book’s subjects, be deeply unpleasant. “He had managers,” Hepworth writes, “but he did the manipulation himself.” Earlier in the decade, Hepworth revisits David Bowie’s fabled final Ziggy Stardust show at Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, at which the singer announced, rather prematurely as it turned out, his retirement as a performer. It is a typical Hepworth flourish to reveal that the gig was not sold out and that the tour had been losing money. Occasionally, a chapter works less well because anyone with a reasonable rock library or access to BBC4 will know, for instance, that Bob Dylan was largely a self-created persona, that Brian Wilson had a breakdown under the pressure of sustaining his genius or that the launch of the Apple corporation in 1968 marked the beginning of the end for the Beatles.

But he is adept at identifying a watershed moment: the growth of teenage consumerism in 1950s America being an essential component of the birth of rock’n’roll; the making of the Beatles coming at the moment they recruited Ringo Starr; Live Aid launching the era of the now-ubiquitous outdoor mega-events; rock wrestling with its midlife crisis in the late 1980s.

On the odd occasion, the idea begins to flag in a way that did not happen in Hepworth’s 1971: Never a Dull Moment – 40 years being a trickier time span than 12 months. But you stick with the book because Hepworth is an inspired phrase maker. He is witty on the seamier side of touring (“They say the only touring musician who doesn’t want sex is the touring musician who’s just had some”), wise on Elvis Presley at the time of his death (“Nobody took being the King more seriously than the King”) and wince-inducingly sharp on Madonna in her early-1990s pomp: “Publicity was not a by-product of what Madonna did, it was the product itself.”

Uncommon People: the Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars
David Hepworth
Bantam Press, 368pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder