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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage