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."

Getty
Show Hide image

The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage