Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Susan Hill, Philip Mansel and Linda Grant.

A Kind Man by Susan Hill

In the Telegraph, Lucy Beresford is profoundly moved by Susan Hill's tale of a ordinary man who becomes possessed with extraordinary healing powers: "Sometimes a piece of writing is so pure, so true, it is almost painful to read ... it was hard to read this story without regular recourse to tissues."

Matthew Dennison, writing in the Independent, concurs pointing out that whilst "Hill's justice is tough and unrelenting, the sort of harsh predeterminism once attributed to pagan deities" what remains for the reader is "the warmth and humanity of her writing ... with the result that, despite its shortness, this is a novel of huge emotional impact and moments of immense poignancy."

The one dissenting critical voice in an otherwise uniform cacophony of praise is that of Charlotte Moore in the Spectator, who finds the simplicity of Hill's narrative voice slightly wearisome and open to precise questioning: "The tale is so clean and spare that every detail is telling, or feels as if it ought to be. The problem is that when a false note is struck, it resonates."

Levant: Splendor and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean by Philip Mansel

From the Guardian, Norman Stone is impressed by Mansel's new account of the complex history of the Levant, weaving delicately through Alexandria, Beirut and Smyrna as it does with historiographical panache. The sheer size of "the vast amounts of memoirs and official documentation" involved in such a task would intimidate even the most accomplished historian yet Mansel dexterously deals with them "with his usual elegance and skill."

Moris Farhi, writing in the Independent, salutes this "masterly work" in which Mansel "exposes the problems of achieving coexistence in a world fragmented by disunion ... Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut stand as unique symbols of achievable utopias."

Jason Goodwin, reviewing Mansel's book in the Spectator, thinks that Mansel's reveals the Levant to have always been a precarious notion, constantly seesawing from enlightened cosmopolitanism to demagogic nationalism: "Harmony held for certain places at certain times; just as often, Mansel describes a city sitting on a volcano of communalism, or foreign intervention. Time and again, Levantines crowded on to ships in the harbour, waiting for a signal to flee, or to return." Mansel's work is, however, an "impressive return to the eastern Mediterranean."

We Had It So Good by Linda Grant

Lesley McDowell, writing in the Financial Times, gives Grant's factual based novel a highly laudatory write-up, suggesting that by incorporating fact into her literary fiction she has managed to trump all her previous efforts in the latter genre: "Grant's reliance of reportage in fiction finally produces what for me is her best novel so far."

In the Telegraph, Jane Shilling is lukewarm without being fully persuaded by Grant's grant narrative for the baby boomer generation. "Her delineation of character is judicious rather than passionate - so that even characters in extremis live out their dramas at a safe distance from the reader's heart" writes Shilling, adding that the novel relies "for its emotional impact on the painstaking accumulation of detail rather than a driving narrative."

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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