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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.