Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Chinua Achebe, Alastair Campbell and the science of music.

The Education of a British-Protected Child by Chinua Achebe

John Sutherland in the Times expresses some reservations about Chinua Achebe's collection of essays, stating that of late he has produced "too many lectures and not enough novels . . . one would give the whole 172 pages of The Education of a British-Protected Child for the first paragraph of Things Fall Apart".

Helon Habila in the Guardian is more impressed: "It is a mark of Achebe's genius as a narrator that one could hear him many times on the same subject and never grow bored -- a reminder that in the art of the storyteller, it is not content alone that matters, it is also the performance, the presentation and the passion."

Jonathan Bate in the Telegraph suggests that what was promised is not delivered: "the blurb on the dust jacket reveals that it is really a 'volume of autobiographical essays, many of which have never been published before'. These are weasel words on the part of the publisher. Most of the pieces are not essays. They are lectures and addresses, often rambling, unstructured, tailored to particular occasions."

 

Maya by Alastair Campbell

"The basic plot is borrowed from Othello . . . and the tone and prose style from the novels of Tony Parsons." That is how Mark Lawson, writing in the Guardian, sums up Alastair Campbell's second novel. "Although it will pain large numbers of people to hear this, Campbell has written a book which is well plotted and suspenseful. Few who can bring themselves to start will be able to force themselves not to finish."

Others were less keen. "The problem with Campbell's novel," writes Joan Smith in the Sunday Times, "is that it has few likeable characters." She warns: "If you've set out to write an excoriating exposé of celebrity culture, maybe it's not such a smart idea to have a gushing endorsement from Piers Morgan on the cover."

Anthony Horowitz in the Telegraph is succinct and brutal: "If you were to sum up this grim, rather bitter book in one sentence, it would be this. He who lives by the media, dies by the media (and then comes back to life . . . and then quite possibly dies again)."

 

The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It by Philip Ball

Bee Wilson in the Sunday Times cannot praise this book highly enough: "Ball, a keen musician himself who has a PhD in physics . . . covers everything from tonality and scales to the question of whether music can be a language. I defy anyone to read this book without coming away better informed about why music affects us in such a profound way."

Wilson admires his sensitivity as a writer: "Ball never presumes that music can be reduced to some kind of scientific formula . . . His passion for music is evident on every page, and his enthusiasms (whether for gamelan or Glenn Gould) are infectious."

Steven Poole in the Guardian is slightly more qualifying in his analysis, describing it as a "flawed but fascinating work". He concludes: "It will be the rare music-lover who does not come away without having learned many interesting things; but aesthetics cannot be replaced wholesale by bean-counting analysis."

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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