Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Ian McEwan, Andrew Rawnsley and Hanif Kureishi.

Solar by Ian McEwan

A chorus of praise for McEwan's latest novel: Solar, writes Tibor Fischer in the Telegraph, which "is chiefly a mash-up of the Hampstead adultery novel and a conflation of the Bradbury/Lodge academic satire". Bringing climate change to the fore in its focus on a junketing physicist, the novel had Fischer rapt: "I was reading Solar while waiting for a delayed flight at Gatwick and the power of Beard's misadventures was such that I didn't mind at all."

In the Financial Times, William Sutcliffe notes the book's advance "to comic territory that is new to McEwan: out-and-out farce, complete with penis-stuck-in-zip jokes and moments that come close to slapstick", concluding that "it is a stunningly accomplished work, possibly his best yet". For Peter Kemp at the Sunday Times, "the book opens up another dimension of McEwan's genius as a novelist . . . Right up to its final moment . . . scarcely a page fails to dazzle with some wittily caught perception about contemporary life."

 

The End of the Party by Andrew Rawnsley

"No dispassionate reader of Andrew Rawnsley's thumping 800 pages could doubt that we have lived through a strange and fascinating passage of British history which is still obscure," writes David Hare in the Guardian. He calls Rawnsley's account "the most thorough, the most enjoyable and the most original book yet written about New Labour".

In the Telegraph, Andrew Gimson proves harder to impress: "there are passages where [Rawnsley] appears with some skill to be parodying the style of an airport thriller". Andy McSmith of the Independent continues: "This is politics reinvented as show business"; the book boasts "questionable accuracy".

Writing for the Observer, the former diplomat Chris Patten splits the difference: this "important if depressing book", he predicts, "will be a bestseller. But I doubt whether it will encourage many people to go into politics."

 

Collected Stories by Hanif Kureishi

" 'I've been thinking a lot lately,' he announces, 'about what a waste of time it is.' The 'it' in question is writing." So Kureishi confided to the Independent last month. His reviewers aren't quite in step: according to Adam Mars-Jones in the Observer, this new collection "shows how useful the [short story] form has been to Hanif Kureishi as a way of thinking against himself"; though "if you know Gogol's 'The Nose' then you're unlikely to be impressed by Kureishi's 'The Penis'."

In the Guardian, Christopher Tayler rules that, if the stories "evince a limited range of character types", then "the book's sustained immersion in middle-aged misery is scarily convincing . . . In spite of the sexual charge to many of the stories, Kureishi's past as a greedy celebrant of urban transgression is mostly a rueful memory."

"The End of the Party" will be reviewed by Roy Hattersley in Thursday's New Statesman. Leo Robson will review "Solar" in a forthcoming issue.

Peter Kay's Car Share. BBC
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Peter Kay's Car Share will restore your faith in human beings

 I clutch at John and Kayleigh's potential for happiness as if at straws. 

I discovered Peter Kay’s Car Share about a year ago, by accident. BBC News at Ten had finished and there we were, slumped in our seats, despondent, unable to move. It came on, by my memory, immediately afterwards, and we zombies stared at it unthinkingly at first, unaware that we were in the presence of greatness. But it didn’t take long for the penny to drop and we’ve been obsessed ever since. A year on a, I am convinced – forgive the mild pomposity – that this is one of the most inspired and culturally significant television shows of our age.

Have you seen it? Perhaps you have: the first series, which was originally broadcast in 2015, won a couple of Baftas and was the most popular “box set” ever to be released on BBC iPlayer. The second – too short – series (Tuesdays, 9pm) concludes on BBC1 on 2 May. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. For one thing, it will make you smile. It is very funny, but it is also tender; its unstated subject being kindness, it has the ability briefly to restore one’s faith in human beings.

For another, it is rooted in provincial reality in a way no other television programme is right now. Try as I might to resist using the words “metropolitan bubble”, I can’t help but feel that those columnists who persist, post-Brexit vote, in trotting out every demeaning cliché it’s possible to imagine about the north and its apparently uniform population of “ordinary people” should be force-fed it. What Kay and his co-writers understand better than they do is that no one is “ordinary”. Every life comes with its kinks and idiosyncrasies, its survival mechanisms, its share of demented dreams.

John (Kay) and Kayleigh (Sian Gibson, utterly endearing and giving the performance of a lifetime) work in a supermarket somewhere in the environs of Bolton. He’s management; she works on the shopfloor in promotions. They share a car – he drives – to and from work. In the first series, this was an arrangement they had reached reluctantly, as a result of a work-sanctioned scheme. In the second, they’re doing it by choice. In short, they love each other, though as yet this is unspoken, at least on his part. As they travel, they listen to a cheesy radio station, Forever FM, which plays old hits, mostly from the 1980s (they’re in their forties, so this suits). Meanwhile, the world goes by: traffic jams and roundabouts, out-of-town superstores and suburban cul-de-sacs. It sounds bleak, and perhaps it is, in a way. You can’t ever see the horizon. But it’s summer, and the evenings are long, and everything is suffused with a soft light. Somehow, it takes you back.

They sing, they gossip, they tease, they reminisce, they laugh at one another’s jokes, and sometimes they have small battles, miniature fallings-out. In one episode – the finest of them all so far – they go to their work party dressed as Harry Potter (him) and Hagrid (her) and return home in the company of a Smurfette, also known as Elsie from the deli counter (a comic turn of cast-iron genius by Conleth Hill, the classical actor currently playing George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the West End of London).

Less accomplished writers than Kay, Gibson and Paul Coleman would have had the trio making gags about her blue face paint or singing the annoying Smurfs theme. But the show being truly brilliant, for the next 20 minutes no one mentions that there’s a huge, flirtatious Smurfette with a Northern Irish accent and an air that is at once vulnerable and slightly menacing in the front seat of John’s red Mini.

In this episode, loneliness – another of the themes in this series – threatens to rise up out of the drunken, early-hours darkness. But in the end they send it on its way. John and Kayleigh roll their eyes at Elsie’s vulgar antics but ultimately they’re glad of her, just as they’re glad of each other. John is a man who draws his neighbours’ curtains for them while they’re away; Kayleigh is a woman who can squeeze intense pleasure from almost anything, up to and including a two-for-one offer on tickets for a moderately rubbish safari park. I want them to be together so much. I clutch at their potential for happiness as if at straws. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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