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 End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear