Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics on Craig Raine, Bret Easton Ellis and Louise Doughty.

Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty

"Whatever You Love is an incident-packed, emotionally fraught revenge tragedy," writes Susanna Rustin in the Observer. "Set at the English seaside and narrated by a divorced single mother who has just lost her nine-year-old daughter in a traffic accident... Doughty has crafted a subtle thriller." Rustin concludes, "her novel is emotionally raw, sexually frank, psychologically unpredictable."

For Jane Jakeman, writing in the Independent, "Doughty is a courageous writer, willing to explore deeper territory with each book." As with her previous works (Fires in the Dark, 2003; Stone Cradle, 2006) the testing of family relationships "lies at the heart of [the book], but her focus has intensified from group dynamics to the individual psyche."

"Extraordinary events in the final chapters work less well," opines Ophelia Field in the Sunday Telegraph, "forfeiting the reader's empathy both in terms of Laura's likeability and the plot's plausibility." Nonetheless, she concludes "Doughty is masterful at combining the texture of ordinary, smugly middle-class, contemporary life with the hidden cliff edges of violence and hatred."

Heartbreak by Craig Raine

"Based mostly in Oxford and London and in the worlds of academia and media", writes Edmund Gordon in this week's New Statesman of Raine's first novel, this diffuse story of 30 separate narratives "portrays a narrow cross-section of middle-class English society." A poet and critic, "Raine presumably hoped to fashion out of this material something like the free-form, philosophical novels of Milan Kundera", Gordon continues, but, to little success. "Raine appears to be indifferent as to whether the stories in Heartbreak work as fiction; their main purpose is to provide a supporting framework for his thoughts on various subjects."

"Like Kundera... the text is laconic and disjointed, structurally as well as semantically terse, made up of episodes that travel no more than a few pages," writes Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books. But "what can seem to be genuine wisdom in the case of Kundera, however, is too often either smartass or banal in the case of Raine."

For Tim Martin, writing in The Telegraph, Raine's approach "is wholly excruciating... [featuring] frequent textual hijacks by tipped-in lit-crit essays, as well as authorial intrusions that veer between mock concern for the reader ("Am I going too fast for you?"), high-table daftness ("Crying has its own rhetoric. We need a poetics of crying") and a welter of passive-aggressive pointers on how to read."

"Compression of metaphor, the gift for seeing unexpected things in other things, is Raine's strong suit... It is what he has always been best at, [but] in an ill-judged moment, it breaks Heartbreak."

You can read Jonathan Derbyshire's interview with Craig Raine here.

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis

Imperial Bedrooms is for Nick Garrard, writing in the Independent, "a kind of modern noir... Atmosphere is king. Paranoia prevails." A return to the disaffected, amoral Los Angeles characters introduced in his first novel Less Than Zero, Ellis's seventh work is another "dissection of the idle American rich."

"Clay [the protagonist of Less Than Zero] has doubled in age but voice-recognition software would have little trouble picking up his tense present," writes Mark Lawson in the Observer. "He now possesses not only money but a sort of influence, having become an outwardly successful screenwriter."

For Lawson, Ellis "has very much found his rhythm" in a dark and seedy tale of "sex... booze and junk." "In terms of American literary inheritance, [the author] adds the playful self-advertisements of Philip Roth to the ambiguously complicit social reportage of F Scott Fitzgerald; Imperial Bedrooms ranks with his best in the latter register, teeming with sharp details of a narcissistic generation."

For Erica Wagner however, writing in The New York Times, Ellis has "fallen flat" with this novel. "What starts off neat swiftly becomes pat, lazy and effortful all at once" she argues. "Like Martin Amis, Ellis still has a flair for such perfect, surreal description. But, again like Amis, he can struggle to set it in an effective context."


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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood