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)
Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
Show Hide image

The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.