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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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