Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Siri Hustvedt, Patti Smith and 1930s history.

The Shaking Woman by Siri Hustvedt

Rachel Cooke in the Observer celebrates how Siri Hustvedt's account of her "medical mystery" -- sudden convulsions and emotional hypersensitivity -- eschews the "fetid claustrophobia of the misery memoir". Hustvedt remains coolly intellectual in her approach to an illness whose symptoms have been treated with scepticism: "She is, by trade, a storyteller but she knows that narratives, of the kind that Freud so seductively conjured, can mislead. She is open to science but experience tells her some things cannot, yet, be explained by reference only to neurotransmitters and hemispheres."

In the Guardian, Hilary Mantel finds an insight into the craft of writing: "In part this book is an articulation of her inner process as a writer. When a writer is asked, how do you write, the temptation is to ask a question back: what order of explanation do you require? Mechanical? Mystical?"

Melanie McGrath in the Telegraph agrees that the book raises more questions than it answers: "Is the shaking epilepsy? Some neurological bedfellow to her migraines and earlier childhood febrile convulsions?" But McGrath is not wholly impressed: Hustvedt's "tales of medical appointments, lecture tours and vignettes from the past come over, on the one hand, as oddly detached and on the other as mildly irritating".

 

The Thirties: an Intimate History by Juliet Gardiner

"Though Gardiner is too good a historian to draw glib parallels with the present," writes Dominic Sandbrook in the Telegraph, "one of the achievements of this hugely impressive book is to remind us that behind the clichés about dole queues and hunger marches, the Thirties was the decade of the car, cinema and the suburban semi, an age of self-conscious modernity that laid the foundations for postwar affluence."

Sandbrook has reservations about the book's length: "at nearly 1,000 pages, it is very long. Some readers may find the feast rather too gargantuan, especially as she downplays the kind of political narrative that might keep them turning the pages". But he claims that it is "a quite outstanding work of social history".

For Richard Davenport-Hines in the Sunday Times, Gardiner "has mastered a vast number of written sources, and the resulting synthesis is also a work of graceful, eloquent historical imagination". He admires the book's anecdotal intimacy: "The cinematic clarity of Gardiner's descriptions of accidents and ceremonies tells more about the decade than a page of statistics."

Lara Feigel in the Observer, having deemed it "a book too big to read in bed", determines that "this is history as told through a carefully woven web of stories, relayed by a consummate storyteller. Through these small, juxtaposed tales, a wider economic and political history comes into view."

 

Just Kids by Patti Smith

The long-awaited memoir of Patti Smith's relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe is, for Camilla Long of the Sunday Times, the perfect showcase for Smith's writing, which is "delicate, Gothic, laced with careful poetic references and metaphors . . . At times she is funny . . . At other times, the joke's probably on her."

She sees the book as a way for Smith to honour the luminaries of the day, particularly those who died prematurely: "her deeper theme of young lives needlessly lost, slowly developed through the deaths of Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and Joplin, is ultimately the most powerful". In the Telegraph, Michael Arditti proclaims it to be a "heartfelt, illuminating book".

"Just Kids" will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman.

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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