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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit