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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit