Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on Naomi Alderman, Mick Jackson and Bert Trautmann.

The Lessons by Naomi Alderman

For Alice Fisher in the Guardian, the second novel from Naomi Alderman is "sturdily plotted and hooks you in: it's a good read if not unique". Its plot is reminiscent of Brideshead Revisited, The Line of Beauty or The Secret History, while "if you've read all three you'll find it impossible to read The Lessons without attributing each story development to one of these predecessors". However, "Alderman evokes the shock of the fresh start at university well", and "she's particularly good at describing the arcana and intensity of Oxford life." Amanda Craig in the Independent argues that "Nothing could be more different, superficially, from Alderman's prize-winning debut, Disobedience", and warns that "at times the novel becomes brittle to the point of self-parody, and The Lessons will certainly annoy many who are automatically hostile to Oxbridge and elitism". However, "Alderman's sharpness of observation punctures the parties, sex, drugs, eccentrics and conversation while never quite descending into satire", and she concludes that "this is a second novel from a young writer of huge talent, ambition and energy and, despite falling into an over-familiar genre, it is a pleasure to read." Damian Barr in the Independent on Sunday looks beyond Waugh's influence: "Alderman's book goes far beyond the Brideshead she carefully evokes. For a start, her Mark is ferally and unashamedly gay - lustily cruising fellow students and fusty academics", and "Whereas Brideshead is basically the story of Charles and Sebastian, The Lessons deals with the complex web of relationships spun between all the people under Mark's influence." But "Oxford is the biggest character in The Lessons, and the city, so inextricably bound with the university, is the harshest teacher."

The Lessons will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

 

The Widow's Tale by Mick Jackson

Mick Jackson's third novel is "is tightly packed with explosive emotion", writes Hilary Mantel in theGuardian; however, she finds the central character to be "a stereotype", which is unfortunate because "the book's success as a novel stands or falls by whether the widow convinces us, whether we are motivated to stick close and see her through ... All her opinions are weekend-supplement truisms, and her voice itself is uneven". Mantel's concludes that "Jackson has thought deeply about bereavement, and it seems shabby to dispraise a book so acutely observed", but "you need to pay your dues to fiction's form as well as its content." Of the eponymous widow Lucy Daniel in the Telegraph writes that "her droll monologue plays over a background of muddled grief", though "after a while the book seems to consist of nothing but asides." She feels ultimately that "in keeping with our widow's interest in the ascetic life, the book itself has an ascetic discipline." For Helen Rumbelow in the Times, The Widow's Tale is "spare, short, utterly contemporary", and "very funny". Like the other reviews, Adrian Turpin's recognises that the story is a "pilgrimage", though for him it is a "a writer's commonplace book moonlighting as a novel. For all its aphoristic tartness - which is reminiscent in places of Simon Gray's diaries - it never entirely convinces as fiction."

 

Trautmann's Journey by Catrine Clay

Simon Hattenstone in the Observer asks: "why did Trautmann agree to collaborate with this book? To ease his conscience, get the truth out there, or did he simply feel he had nothing to hide?" Catrine Clay's account of the Manchester City goalkeeper with Nazi origins is "a fascinating if dispiriting read", Hattenstone decides, summing it up thus: "Clay's book is not a conventional biography and it's certainly not a sport book. Rather than using the times to tell the story of Trautmann, she uses Trautmann to tell the story of Nazi Germany. In a way, he becomes an everyman, soaked in the blood and horror of the Holocaust." Miranda Seymour in the Telegraph writes that "much of the poignancy of Trautmann's story derives from the skill with which Clay develops our sense of the discrepancy between his experiences and what was actually going on", and, more sympathetically: "Trautmann's participation in Clay's book fits with his admirable commitment to the promotion, through sport, of Anglo-German relations". She sums it up by saying: "a thoughtful biographer has given depth and substance to the plainly told story of an uncommon life." Roger Moorhouse in the Independent writes that "Trautmann's Journey is a remarkable story, well told", and is keen to stress that "Though it is not short of affection for its subject, this is no hagiography. Trautmann emerges as an often equivocal character; a sport-obsessed curmudgeon with a quick temper and an apparent inability to accept authority."

 

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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder