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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis