Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on David Remnick's Obama biography, David Mitchell and Helen Simpson.

The Bridge: the Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick

"Remnick's book is not impartial", writes Robert Harris in the Times, "The editor of The New Yorker, [Remnick] is overwhelmingly sympathetic to his subject. But then, in the context of the wider story of the black struggle for equality in America, how could he not be?"

Gwen Ifill, writing for the Washington Post, says: "Remnick efficiently strips some of the gloss off the version Obama offered in his best-selling 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father. [He] deserves credit for telling Obama's story more completely than others, for lending a reporter's zeal to the task, for not ducking the discussion of race and for peeling back several layers of the onion that is Barack Obama."

"The great achievement of The Bridge is the sheer voluminousness of its coverage", writes Patricia Williams in the Guardian."The structure of the book resembles nothing less than an epic, like the Aeneid, or a morality tale, like Pilgrim's Progress."

"The Bridge" will be reviewed in the forthcoming New Statesman.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

This "accomplished and thrillingly suspenseful new novel travels back more than 200 years", writes Peter Kemp in The Times. Dejima is an artificial island offshore from Nagasaki, "a place where two empires chafe against each other." Kemp continues: "As his earlier works have shown, Mitchell is restless with genres . . . Switching style, mood and tone, while continuing to deal with the same themes, is a hallmark of his fiction. Here, this is adroitly effected." In the Telegraph, Holly Kyte says it will "doubtless earn Mitchell his fourth Man Booker nomination, and, if there's any justice, his first win."

Elsewhere, Henry Hitchings argues in the Financial Times that for all its "moments of brilliance" Mitchell's rich imagery occasionally borders on the "self-indulgent", whilst in the New Statesman, Leo Robson calls the book "a disappointment." "The basic narrative grammar is treated as a succession of boxes to be ticked, or hoops to be jumped through", he writes. "The juggling of divergent perspectives in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, the adolescent solipsism of number9dream and Black Swan Green, have ill-equipped [Mitchell] for the challenges of the multi-character set-piece novel."

In-Flight Entertainment by Helen Simpson

"Simpson's talent for compression, and for working first-person perceptions seamlessly into a third-person narrative serves her well", writes the Guardian's Christopher Tayler of this short story collection loosely themed on climate change. For him Simpson "brings together an impressive number of micro-strands - parents, children, adultery, gardening, the Tudors - without becoming jumbled, congested or hard to follow, and comes to a sharp point." In the Times, Kate Webb agrees: "it is packaged with Simpson's deadpan wit - she is one of the most sharply funny writers in England today."

In the Independent, James Urquhart disagrees: "despite the muscular strength and succinct entertainment of the stories, the doomish density of her headline theme somehow dissipates the pithy attack that is the hallmark of Simpson's style." Likewise, Lorna Bradbury in the Telegraph argues: "the problem with the collection is that though the title story is well observed, the references to climate change elsewhere feel forced . . . It's difficult to believe that this issue drives relationships, and one wonders whether Simpson is straining for coherence in the collection."

Despite these criticisms, however, Amanda Craig in the New Statesman writes that at her best, Simpson can "easily beat other admired authors such as Lorrie Moore and Carol Shields."

Special offer: get 12 issues of the New Statesman for just £5.99 plus a free copy of "Liberty in the Age of Terror" by A C Grayling.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear