Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on Philip Pullman, Hilary Spurling and James Kelman.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
by Philip Pullman

For Archbishop Rowan Williams in the Guardian, this book is a "very bold and deliberately outrageous fable" that represents "Pullman at his very impressive best, limpid and economical, though one or two passages feel like easy point-scoring -- the annunciation story told as a seduction, or the mechanics of a fraudulent resurrection".

Nick Rennison in the Sunday Times finds that Pullman "traces the familiar journey towards the cross and makes it fresh", and that his "retelling of the central story in western civilisation provides a brilliant new interpretation that is also a thought-provoking reflection on the process of how stories come into existence and accrue their meanings".

Salley Vickers in the Telegraph declares that "Pullman has done the story a service by reminding us of its extraordinary power to provoke and disturb", while Richard Holloway in the Observer describes the book as "powerful", and agrees with the other critics that the book has hints of Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov.

Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck's Life in China
by Hilary Spurling

In the Guardian, Isabel Hilton enthuses: "Hilary Spurling has written an elegant and sympathetic portrait of one of the most extraordinary Americans of the 20th century." Pearl Buck was a woman who did an "immense service . . . in presenting Chinese people as sentient human beings, individuals even, to the American reading public". For Hilton, Spurling's biography is "illuminating and compelling", and gives the impression "that Pearl Buck had the last laugh".

To Claudia FitzHerbert in the Telegraph, "Spurling describes a writer who delivers both halves of the injunction to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar". Moreover, Spurling "examines the meaning of this divided inheritance, where home is always elsewhere and familiarity replaces belonging".

Frances Wilson in the Sunday Times writes that "what interests Spurling is the source of her subject's 'magic power' as a writer", and how she could "tap directly into currents of memory and dream secreted deep within the popular imagination". She concludes that Spurling "has never written a dull sentence" and that she, too, "has magic power as a writer".

If It Is Your Life by James Kelman

Mike Wade in the Times writes of James Kelman and his new collection of short stories: "For readers accustomed to thinking of him as a dour writer, the happy surprises here are the love stories, recounted by Kelman's male narrators as they try to make sense of the women in their lives."

He decides that Kelman is "rescued by his black humour", which owes something to "the verbal comedy of Flann O'Brien", and concludes: "It is certainly never difficult to distinguish between this Scotsman and a ray of sunshine. But If It Is Your Life is a fine collection and an excellent window on Kelman's brooding world."

Anthony Cummins in the Telegraph is similarly impressed: "Kelman takes us inside his characters' heads, replicating the rhythm and tics of Glasgow talk by means of a demanding, highly crafted prose style that flits between thought and speech." He concludes: "Certain pieces are as good as anything Kelman has done . . . Like Kelman's best work, it is tender and funny in a way that may surprise those who know him only by reputation."

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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