Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Carole King, Tom Holland and Tim Lott.

A Natural Woman by Carole King

Writing in the Independent Fiona Sturgiss praises Carole King whose “elegant and “evocative” memoirs not only recount her Brooklyn childhood but also describe the social and political changes that took place during the fifties and sixties. As Sturgiss points out, King’s autobiography may be “one of the more reliable accounts of the era”. Unlike many of her contemporaries, King drank only in moderation and completely abstained from drugs: “Any decadence detailed in her memoir is other people's, and even then she is unfailingly discreet”. Indeed, King’s modest autobiography is a far cry from the rock ‘n’ roll memoirs of Keith Richards or Sammy Hagar. Sturgiss describes her life story as “one of resourcefulness, ambition and unfathomable strength. For the most part, King conveys the impression of an artist operating in isolation, impervious to the music world's extra-curricular activities and forever out of step with the cool kids”, concluding, “her independence and fierce protection of her values gives her the space to blaze a trail all of her own”.

In the Guardian Carole Sullivan likewise enthuses over King’s modesty. However, she is more critical of her “prim” style. She describes the book as “cosy and comforting”. From her review, you can’t help but read Sullivan’s disappointment at the lack of insight into King’s show-biz experiences: “It must have been life-changing, yet she skims over what it felt like suddenly to be America's biggest-selling singer”. Indeed, she continues, “towards the end of the story [] is clogged by a dull account of her legal fight to stop the public accessing a road running through her ranch; this is where her earnestness becomes tedious rather than charming”. However, she ends warmly, “her generosity, towards [her late husband] and almost everyone else, lights up A Natural Woman. This is a pop icon you'd (probably) like to have as a friend".

In The Shadow Of The Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World by Tom Holland

Tom Holland is widely congratulated for his brave grand tour of history and religion. His new novel covers a substantial stretch of the later Roman Empire, the last years of the Persian empire, the conversion of the Arabs, the spread of Christianity and what happened to Judaism, but, centrally, the establishment of Islam and its political and martial setting and the possibility that the Qu’ran that has evolved and developed over time. Here lies Holland’s bravery, as Philip Hensher notes in the Spectator, “suggesting anything remotely similar about the Qu’ran is to condemn you to an existence where the gendarmerie have to accompany your children to school every day”. Certainly, his subject matter is, as Heshner describes, “colossal”. He goes on to describe Holland as, “a writer of clarity and expertise… a confident historian who is able to explain where this great religion came from without illusion or dissimulation has us greatly in his debt”.

Anthony Sattin, writing in the Guardian, agrees, enthusing, “The life of Muhammad and the rise of Islam are boldly re-examined in this brilliantly provocative history”. Again, Satin is awed by Holland’s courageous choice of subject matter, “Christians have choked on the notion that many of their rituals were borrowed from pagan rites. And heaven help the historian who dares to suggest that Islam might be a product of earlier religions and not, as the faithful insist, a revelation direct from God. Tom Holland has done exactly this in his brilliantly provocative new book – and we must hope that heaven is smiling on him now”.

In the Shadow of the Sword will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman.

Under the Same Stars by Tim Lott

In the Guardian Alex Clark is ambivalent about Tim Lott’s tale of two brother’s search for their estranged father: “It's a relatively complicated set-up, and Lott has his work cut out juggling the frequently comic tone of the brothers' road-trip – from Christian bumper stickers to hokey tourist attractions to mammoth portions of food – and the more sombre working-out of a buried family trauma”. Clark is critical of Lott’s somewhat fraught style, his use of aphorism and clunky phrases. “Lott,” he notes, “is not great, for instance, at getting people in and out of rooms, "They made their way happily into the hotel lobby" and his writing can strain a bit for no apparent reason, a “lacuna” in the traffic might more naturally be a “gap’”. Clark is less critical when it comes to the grander themes of the novel. He praises Lott’s exploration of cultural and geographical contrasts between Britain and America, which often acts to represent his character’s mental landscapes. He goes on, “his real talent lies [] in a willingness to allow emotional rawness and confusion to remain unfinessed, the loose ends to stay frayed”.

The Telegraph’s John Preston is more complimentary. He ponders whether the novel’s long gestation can be attributed to “the fact that it’s so close to the bone. The book is based on a road trip across America that Lott took with his brother, Jeff. Lott was estranged from his brother at the time, just as his main character, Salinger Nash, is estranged from his”. Preston describes the novel as “a clever take on brotherly relations”. Though he recognises that Lott’s subject is “well-worn as it is potentially corny”, he praises Lott as, “far too sharp a writer to topple into sentimentality”.

Similarly, Sean O’Hagan’s interview with Lott for the the Observer reveals the strong autobiographical element of the novel: “At the heart of the book, is a very English protagonist, whose constant tendency to scratch away at the deeper meaning of things is, I suspect, an urge Lott knows all too well. At the end of the interview, Lott concedes, "I guess I do hang on to a lot of stuff”.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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