Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Hilary Mantel, Tom Watson and Toni Morrison.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel 

High praise this week for Mantel’s sequel to the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, which tells a rapturous historical account of Thomas Cromwell’s power games and the demise of Anne Boleyn under Henry VIII’s tumultuous regime. Not often does well-trodden historical territory elicit such excitement among readers and critics alike, and this second instalment in Mantel’s Tudor trilogy seems to have done the trick again.  The New York Times's Janet Maslin calls the novel “beautifully constructed” and “gracefully” executed, noting that “the wonder of Ms Mantel’s retelling is that she makes these events fresh and terrifying all over again.” 
The New Yorker’s James Wood playfully credits Mantel’s novelist’s sensibilities with her success in a genre notorious for its rare successes, writing that “Mantel seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties.” Wood recognises that it's the “universality” and “timelessness” of Mantel’s storytelling which lend the book its liveliness - that historical accuracy, though we trust Mantel to stick to the record, are in some sense joyfully irrelevant: “the writer has made a third category of the reality, the plausibly hypothetical… Mantel knows what to select, how to make her scenes vivid, how to kindle her characters. In short, this novelist has the maddeningly unteachable gift of being interesting.”
Margaret Atwood, writing in the Guardian, similarly applauds Mantel’s vivid and sympathetic characterizations – most notably those of the easily vilified Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell. “The ambiguous Cromwell is a character who fits Mantel's particular strengths. She's never gone for the sweet people, and is no stranger to dark purposes … But he [Henry VIII] also has corners of tenderness, and sees these in others: he's deep, not merely dark. And through him we experience the texture of how it feels to be sliding into a perilous dictatorship, where power is arbitrary, spies are everywhere, and one wrong word can mean your death." Atwood acknowledges the descriptive pitfalls of historical fiction and lauds Mantel’s tactics, though perhaps longing for a touch more restraint. “Mantel generally answers the same kinds of question that interest readers in court reports of murder trials or coverage of royal weddings. Who really went to bed with whom? Mantel sometimes overshares, but literary invention does not fail her: she's as deft and verbally adroit as ever.” High praise indeed. 
A review of Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel will appear in next week’s issue of the New Statesman

Dial M for Murdoch by Tom Watson and Martin Hickman

Peter Wilby was “gobsmacked” by this Hitchcockian account of last summer’s phone hacking scandal that shut down the 168-year-old News of the World. “Constructed like a thriller” and full of “vivid characters” and “cliffhanging chapter endings”, Wilby praises Labour MP Tom Watson and his journalist co-author for their efforts in bringing this “tale of stupidity, incompetence, fear, intimidation, lying, downright wickedness and corruption” to the public. “What stands out from this book is the lengths to which NI went to bury the hacking scandal,” writes Wilby in the Guardian, “and how, before the revelations in July 2011 that Millie Dowler’s phone was hacked, the company nearly got away with it.” More praise comes from the Telegraph's Jonathan Heawood, who calls it “an impressive piece of journalism” that  “weaves the events of the past decade into a compulsive narrative.” 
But a book tackling this (in many respects unresolved) issue is bound to elicit mixed responses. The Independent’s Joy Lo Dico calls the book a “well-written and, at turns, devastating” account, but she also identifies two problems. The first is Tom Watson – while his “dogged work with freedom of information requests” is amirable, it’s the level of personal details he peppers throughout his prose that bothers her: “it comes across as an authorial indulgence.” The second is an issue of redundancy; Lo Dico rightly highlights that retelling a tale which “is now a central part of the British news agenda” whose “every new detail is raked over” is bit like writing “a history that has already been written multiple times.” 
Neville Thurlbeck, the former chief news editor of News of the World and recipient of the “now infamous For Neville email” writes a slightly tetchy review for the New Statesman, asserting that “The incendiary claim that News International had ordered News of the World reporters to spy on MPs in order to dredge up unsavoury facts about their private lives is one of the few new revelations in this book.” He also claims the book is “littered with inaccuracies” including assertions about Thurlbeck’s alleged ménage-à-trois with a Dorset couple. And while such issues are perhaps too close to home, he does concede that “for the moment, Dial M for Murdoch is the only cogent book available on the most important media story since the birth of newspapers and has every chance of becoming a bestseller.”

Home by Toni Morrison

This is the Nobel-prize winning author’s tenth in a long line of novels exploring themes of race, love, redemption and the weight of history in black America. Home is a slender volume that tells the story of Frank Money, a traumatized and lackluster Korean War veteran who returns home to small-town Georgia to save his sister, the victim of eugenics experiments inflicted upon her by a white employer. The New York Times's Michiko Kakutani calls Morrison’s latest “a kind of tiny Rosetta Stone to Toni Morrison’s entire oeuvre,” noting that author “eschews the fierce Faulknerian prose and García Márquez-like flights of surrealism that animated some of her earlier novels, adopting a new, pared-down style that enables her to map the day-to-day lives of her characters with lyrical precision.”
Leslie McDowell, writing for the Independent, duly notes Morrison’s unarguable talent, asserting that “like the best writers, Morrison has politics underpinning her prose… Only Morrison can take the human soul down into its darkest parts, yet somehow let it flourish.” The Guardian's Sarah Curchwell, on the other hand, finds Morrison’s storytelling familiar if not slightly tired, pointing out that “after nearly half a century, denouncing brutality becomes a fairly circular enterprise.” She found Home got off to a “very promising” start but expressed disappointment with the end result. "If Morrison had finished writing the novel she so carefully began, it might have been one of her best in years. But at well under 200 pages with wide margins, Home barely begins before it ends; just when the reader expects the story to kick in to gear, as Frank arrives back in Georgia and finds Cee, Morrison seems to lose interest… Home should be relentless, unsparing, but Morrison relents halfway through, and spares everyone – most of all herself.”
Hilary Mantel with her Booker Prize-Winning novel Wolf Hall (photo: Getty Images)
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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood