Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Roddy Doyle, D J Taylor and a history of the Caucasus.

The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle

Nick Rennison in the Sunday Times finds problems with the structure of The Dead Republic: "The two halves of the novel, divided by 20 years, seem almost to belong in different books and perfunctory attempts to yoke them together towards the end fail to persuade." The book "skilfully weaves together its facts and its fiction", yet as the end of a trilogy, it "suffers from Doyle's determination to cram so much significance into the trajectory of his antihero's life". Tim Adams in the Observer wonders "when exactly does a novel become a yarn?" "Over the course of the three books," he complains, "reality becomes slowly diluted." He writes that this is the result of "the engine of plot" that runs insistently beneath the surface, and "by which he has to get through years and decades", rushing him into "a less satisfying fast-forward". For Cole Moreton in the Financial Times: "There is lovely, brutal detail, as well as a grand swoop over the timeline of Ireland and America, just like the kind of film they just don't make any more." He insists that a reader must "suspend disbelief . . . Go with the story. It's magnificent."

Let Our Fame Be Great by Oliver Bullough

Wendell Steavenson in the Sunday Times admits that this history of the peoples of the north Caucasus is "a complicated tale", but finds that Bullough is "perfectly adept at reconstituting history from second-hand sources". For Steavenson, "the book really comes to life in the final section on the Chechen wars of the past 20 years", where there are "several wonderfully told, bitter stories". He is most impressed that: "This is the first attempt to put together the history of the lost Circassians in any whole account." Iain Finlayson in the Times agrees. Bullough, he says, "brings us exciting news, presented as short, gripping stories that tell of the terrible things that happen to people caught up in constant warfare". Justin Marozzi in the Financial Times declares that the book has "struck a blow for the glory of the Caucasus and helped to give voice to the voiceless". He writes that "while sensitive as a historian, Bullough is also deft as a reporter", describing the volume as "impassioned". To George Walden in the New Statesman, the book is "part historical travelogue and part journalistic reflection on the past and present-day sufferings of the region's peoples". He asserts that: "There are moments when it might have been preferable to allow the facts to speak for themselves, without an occasionally sentimentalising authorial commentary. The hint of Rousseau-esque noble savagery does no service to their cause. At some points in the Chechen story, a more critical eye is needed."

At the Chime of a City Clock by D J Taylor

In the Independent, Jonathan Gibbs writes that At the Chime . . . should be subtitled "a thriller . . . for bookish types", finding that "Taylor paces his story brilliantly, but it is a gentle Sunday trot through his chosen genre, rather than a breakneck race". The novle is "a carefully wrought, warm and inoffensive sort of fun". Leo Robson in the New Statesman, on the other hand, sees the book as "pastiche", requiring "sleuthing or guesswork on the part of the reader". He concludes that "one's enjoyment of the novel does not depend on unpicking its complicated ancestry", and that: "The book provides a fine exhibition of this writer's unusual speciality -- parochialism with panache." David Grylls in the Sunday Times concurs: "Taylor's latest novel is a pastiche period thriller -- but one in which pastiche and period elements loom larger than the thrills". "Taylor constructs a crime novel," he writes, "but one that largely lacks suspense or excitement or any real sense of mystery. Not so much film noir as Ealing comedy, less Double Indemnity than The Lavender Hill Mob, the novel is essentially social history filtered through popular culture."

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Commons Confidential: Herod in the House

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

The spell cast over Theresa May by the youthful Gavin Williamson and Cronus, his pet tarantula, leaves envious Tory rivals accusing him of plotting to succeed the Stand-In Prime Minister. The wily Chief Whip is eyed suspiciously as a baby-faced assassin waiting to pounce.

My tearoom snout whispers that May is more dependent on the fresh-faced schemer (he also served as David Cameron’s PPS) who signed a survival deal bunging the DUP £1bn protection money than she is on David Davis, Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd or Boris Johnson. She delegated the reshuffle’s middle and lower ranks to Williamson, but his nous is questioned after he appointed Pudsey’s Stuart Andrew (majority: 331) and Calder Valley’s Craig Whittaker (609) as henchmen. Vulnerable seats are dangerously unprotected when whips don’t speak in the House of Commons.

Left-wing Labour MPs mutter that Jeremy Corbyn is implementing a “King Herod strategy” to prevent the birth of rival messiahs. A former shadow cabinet member insisted that any display of ambition would be fatal. The punishment snubbings of Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna, who had expressed a willingness to serve, were intended to intimidate others into obedience. The assertion was reinforced by an influential apparatchik musing: “John [McDonnell] is looking for a bag carrier, so Chuka could apply for that.” The election has laced the boot tightly on the left foot.

The military career of Barnsley’s Major Dan Jarvis included service in Northern Ireland. Perhaps old acquaintances will be renewed with the allocation to Sinn Fein’s seven MPs of a meeting room next to the Labour squaddie’s office.

Ian Lavery, the burly ex-miner appointed as Labour’s new chair by Jeremy Corbyn, disclosed that he was bombarded with messages urging him to “nut” – that is, headbutt – Boris Johnson when he faced down the Foreign Secretary on TV during the election. I suspect that even Trembling BoJo’s money would be on the Ashington lad in a class war with the Old Etonian.

Campaign tales continue to be swapped. Labour’s victorious Sharon Hodgson helped a family put up a tent. The defeated Lib Dem Sarah Olney was heckled through a letter box by a senior Labour adviser’s five-year-old son: “What’s that silly woman saying? Vote Labour!” Oddest of all was the Tory minister James Wharton informing his opponent Paul Williams that he’d put in a good word for him with Labour HQ. There was no need – Williams won.

The Tory injustice minister Dominic Raab is advertising for an unpaid Westminster “volunteer”, covering only “commuting expenses”. Does he expect them to eat at food banks?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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