Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Martin Amis, Natasha Walter and Andrea Levy.

 

The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis

Reviews of the much-hyped new Amis novel comment on its preoccupation with sex, coupled with multiple allusions to literary classics. Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times and Leo Robson in the New Statesman are in agreement over the decline of Amis's high stylisation, which has lost its "scabrous zest" (Kemp), while his "voice . . . lacks the power it had in earlier works" (Robson). The structure is also "ramshackle" (Kemp) and "ill-shapen, lopsided, rough-hewn" (Robson).

What comes out of all reviews of this novel is its place in the Amis canon: "The set-up, a house party in well-heeled surroundings, recalls the one in his second novel, Dead Babies (1975)," writes Kemp. Robson places the style and subject matter of the book in a continuum with Amis's previous novels: "The book represents a return to the social and psychological territory of The Rachel Papers (1973), Dead Babies (1975) and Success (1978) -- pitiless comic novels about youthful hedonism and self-loathing, suffused with what the latter two books called 'street sadness'."

Meanwhile, Tim Adams in the Observer describes the book as "a flashy Decameron of the sexual revolution". Tom Chatfield in Prospect sums up the plot and premise thus: "It is 1970, and we are holidaying in Italy in the company of an attractive and improbably named young cast." For both Adams and Chatfield, the novel is a "comedy of manners", and the overall consensus is that it is entertaining but highly flawed. Chatfield: "As ever, it is brilliantly done; as ever, it can be wearing."

 

Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter

Much is made of Natasha Walter's latest work being partly a retraction of her earlier book The New Feminism.

Cassandra Jardine in the Telegraph announces that "a recantation is always delicious", while Jessica Valenti in the Observer praises its return to the "personal". Valenti is impressed by Walter's dealings with sex workers and by her lack of judgement towards the young women she interviews. She stops short of an unqualified rave by suggesting that the book itself stops short: "The book's set-up and subtitle promise something that isn't delivered: the full story."

In the Sunday Times, Camilla Long berates Walter's lack of conclusion-drawing: "Half Grazia, half felt-knickered left-wing women's page, the book's biggest problem is its lack of solutions, or any prescriptive thinking."

"Living Dolls: the Return of Sexism" will be reviewed in Thursday's New Statesman.

 

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy's follow-up to the Orange Prize-winning Small Island has provoked diametrically opposed opinions.

Holly Kyte in the Telegraph deems it "a masterclass in storytelling". Kyte finds the subject matter -- in this tale of "a slave girl living on a sugar plantation in 1830s Jamaica just as emancipation is juddering into action" -- sensitively handled: "Slavery is a grim subject indeed, but the wonder of Levy's writing is that she can confront such things and somehow derive deeply life-affirming entertainment from them."

Conversely, Tom Deveson in the Times finds the novel unconvincing: "It's difficult to sustain an antique narrative mode while keeping it plausible . . . Invocations to the reader amount to little more than pointless postmodern padding." He finds that "the book's language falls short of its admirable ambitions".

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.