Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Helen Dunmore, Jim Crace and a biography of Syd Barrett.

Helen Dunmore, The Betrayal

Jane Shilling in the Telegraph describes Helen Dunmore's sequel to The Siege as a "lovely, thoughtful novel", which acts for readers of the novels precursor as chance to discover "the fates of the surviving members of the Levin family - Anna, her husband, Andrei, and younger brother, Kolya". She finds that "Dunmore's lyric gift is at its best when describing the domestic minutiae that seem so unspeakably precious in the absence of security", and that "Only when the horrors become real does Dunmore's power to disturb weaken."

For Lucy Daniel in the Sunday Telegraph, this novel is "not just an impressive, enthralling sequel but part of an ongoing saga of ordinary people struggling against a city's beautiful indifference, and clinging on for dear life", and an exercise in "personalising a collective experience of momentous times". Katy Guest in the Independent on Sunday describes Dunmore's prose as "sensuous, physical and almost synaesthetic ... also sparse and elegant when needs be", while her skill as a novelist is "brave, tender and with a unique gift for immersing the reader in the taste, smell and fear of a story." For Scarlett Thomas in the Financial Times, "This is such a page-turner, and is in places so gruesome, that reading it becomes more visceral than intellectual".

Jim Crace, All that Follows

Adam Lively in the Sunday Times describes Crace's new novel as "a book that for all its stylistic precision and intelligence is, as a whole, curiously half-hearted and out of kilter". Lively identifies the influence of other writers on this novel about an ageing jazz musician: Hari Kunzru, and "The real spectre that haunts the pages of All That Follows, however, is not a ghost from the past but Philip Roth. His influence is everywhere", so the novel "suffers from the sense of treading well-worn paths." Lively also finds that "the politics and the futuristic setting remain sketchy in the extreme."

By contrast, Giles Foden in the Guardian writes that "Crace has some satirical fun with this invented but not unlikely landscape", but he agrees that the novel is influenced by predecessors: "Crace isn't just nodding at Ian McEwan's Saturday. At other moments it is Don DeLillo who comes to mind, another writer who has been influenced by jazz and who has written about hostage-taking". He concludes that "Part of the book's attraction is its modesty, the way it gets big ideas down to a small domestic canvas on which individual emotions and family dynamics are authentically realised", and that "All That Follows is both thought-provoking and a delight to read." Ian Thomson in the Financial Times praises Crace's "spare but resonant prose", but finds it "more conventional" than his previous efforts.

Rob Chapman, Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head

Lynn Barber in the Sunday Times writes that "This is a book of two halves, one memorable, one not"; she elaborates: "It is the second half of the book, about the life of Roger Barrett, that is interesting, because we don't often read the life of a recluse." Barber suggests that this may be because writer "Rob Chapman had full co-operation from Barrett's sister Rosemary and other family members, whereas the Floyds refused to talk."

Sean O'Hagan in the Observer describes the book as a "fitfully illuminating biography", finding that "Chapman has unravelled the skeins of rumour, exaggeration and anecdote that have been wound so tightly around Barrett", although he agrees that the book "inevitably suffers from his absence - and that of Pink Floyd, all of whom declined to be interviewed for the book". He concludes: "If Chapman overstates the case for Barrett's songwriting genius and sometimes writes from the point of view of an obsessive on a mission to rehabilitate his hero, A Very Irregular Head is a consistently illuminating, and often surprising, read."

 

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Is there a Guardian bias on Radio 4's Broadcasting House program?

Call me paranoid, but I've long had my suspicions – and this line-up cast all doubts aside.

I’ve long wondered, on and off, whether I was just being paranoid about the flurries of bias on the Sunday-morning magazine programme Broadcasting House in favour of the Guardian Media Group, but in recent weeks I have not been sure I am. Take the edition of 17 April, when the newspaper reviewers were the ­actor Tom Conti, Gareth McLean (the Guardian journalist) and Katharine Whitehorn (the veteran Guardian journalist and Observer columnist).

Conti, talking amusedly about Brexit (“It’s like walking through a forest with a wilderness of tigers”), kicked off the discussion with a tremendous rustling, as though spreading the article across the whole studio. “Well, in the Observer on page five . . .” He was immediately followed by Whitehorn: “That isn’t the only thing in the Observer about this, because my own column in the magazine makes the point that . . .” Changing the subject to the return of Game of Thrones, McLean then said, “There’s a nice piece in the Observer . . . loads of facts and figures, and some nice reporting done.”

I’m sure there was, but if the BBC’s radar remains broadly Guardian-esque in its political direction (and was ever thus), it doesn’t half sound snug.

The following week, the press reviewers were the conservatoire principal Julian Lloyd Webber, the former rear admiral Chris Parry and the journalist Sali Hughes – of the Guardian. Lloyd Webber began the newspaper review, talking down the line from Birmingham about the frustrations of everything being centred around London. “Well, the Observer has three pages on how people living outside London view our capital city . . .” He was followed directly by Hughes, commenting on a story about immunisation: “In the Observer there’s a story about how pro-vaccination campaigns in America . . .” After which Parry recommended: “There’s a very good article by Will Hutton in the Observer.” None of what was discussed was objectionable – but the comfiness was. A creeping insularity being presented as a nice, interesting chat, as even-handedness, when actually it’s what can start to feel like a rock-hard centre-left world-view. An eye must be kept on it, is all I’m saying.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred