Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Philip Ball, Sebastian Faulks and Francesca Beauman.

Unnatural: the Heretical Idea of Making People by Philip Ball

In this week's New Statesman, John Gray enjoys Philip Ball's "light and graceful prose", which provides an "absorbing" cultural history of "anthropoeia" -- the project of artificially creating human life. Ultimately though, Gray finds the book's argument "self-defeating" as he attempts to "demythologise our thinking about humankind's place in the scheme of things", replacing one metaphysical myth with another.

Writing in the Guardian, Manjit Kumar praises Ball as a "skilled practitioner of the book-length essay", who can also be "wonderfully succinct". Ball's "thoughtful" book presents the reader with a "fascinating and impressive cultural history of anthropoeia".

Jim Endersby in the Telegraph concludes that the book is both "beautifully written" and "deeply intelligent", tracing a complex subject matter with "exemplary care and clarity."

Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks

In the New Statesman, Leo Robson discusses Sebastian Faulks's examination of literary theory in relation to the novel, which accompanies a new BBC series. Seeking to "kill off" the modern practice of biographical criticism, Faulks falters and merely offers much "bloggish rambling", disastrously mixing "shot-in-the-dark literary history" with "unsubstantiated" critical assertions, so that "the most frequent sight in the book is of an author out of his depth" in this "spirited, if not exactly eloquent" work.

According to Katy Guest in the Independent, the book "works well as a history of the novel and its uneasy relationship with society", but Faulks's attempts to "diagnose characters" are misguided. When Faulks gives a "robust and lengthy legal defence" of Alec d'Urberville against a rape conviction, Guest doubts whether this constitutes a "useful form of literary criticism".

Writing in the Financial Times, John Sutherland finds that, though "Faulks's easy-goingness is one of his book's charms", the unfortunate inclusion of "unnecessary blemishes", "too many bloopers" and authorial "looseness" disfigure it. Drawing attention to a glaring mistake about plot detail made by Faulks in his discussion of Austen's Emma, Sutherland declares that "any A-level candidate committing this kind of elementary error could kiss goodbye to Oxbridge". Nevertheless, he concedes that it remains "readable, entertaining and well conceived".

Shapely Ankle Preferr'd: a History of the Lonely Hearts Ad 1695-2010 by Francesca Beauman

Francesca Beauman's history of matrimonial advertisements fails to live up to its promise, writes Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer. Most enjoyable are the "quirky snippets" from 18th-century pamphlets, some of which show that "the list of desires and requests was dominated by financial rather than romantic considerations". An example from 1759 demonstrates an "extreme" mercenary motive: "A young man wants a wife with two or three hundred pounds; or the money will do without the wife." (Cadwalladr notes that this gambit worked and "he got the money"). However, as Beauman examines the ad in contemporary times, an unsatisfactory "glibness" prevails and the "narrative is patched together."

Contrarily, Melissa Katsoulis in the Telegraph discovers a "perfect little history" of the "surprisingly long story" of the lonely hearts ad, a "lively account" full of "fascinating" detail. Katsoulis notes, however, that as Beauman approaches the present day, she is reluctant to "delve into the twilight world of adult contact mags that many readers would find of considerable academic value, especially if accompanied by illustrations".

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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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