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”.

Photo: Getty Images
Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496