Reviews Round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Beryl Bainbridge and Judy Golding.

The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge

The author's "final book, which was all but finished when she died of cancer in July last year," writes Paul Bailey in the Independent, "ranks among the finest of Bainbridge's fine works of fiction." Fittingly, he adds," The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress reads like a summation of Beryl Bainbridge's art," and as well as being "carefully constructed, as always," the novel gives the impression that "the author is returning to her roots, using the rich material of her early life in wartime Liverpool to devastating effect."

For Melvyn Bragg in the Guardian however it is the character of Rose that really makes the novel shine. "On the way to being one of Beryl Bainbridge's greatest creations," he notes, "she is given an internal life through sentences that are brilliantly elliptical and often very funny," and is central to this "superb and memorable work of fiction."

Mark Bostridge in the Financial Times is equally praiseworthy. Despite the fact that the author "struggled to write this, her final novel," he comments, "TheGirl in the Polka-dot Dress, Bainbridge's 18th work of fiction, emerges as a tour de force, well able to take its place alongside two other books that I judge to be her masterpieces."

The Children of Lovers: A Memoir of William Golding by his daughter

"Judy Golding is a sophisticated and self-conscious memoirist," writes Helen Taylor in the Independent, "flagging delicate evasions and yet having the courage to explore the cruelties, inconsistencies and conflicts within her father as they impacted on family life and her own psyche."

Claire Harman in the Scotsman also admires Judy Golding's ability to write about the complexities of the Golding family. "The result," Harman notes, "is a lyrical meditation on the history of her tight-lipped, clever family, her sad strivings to please and emulate her adored father and 'the many submerged rocks' in the choppy sea of their life together."

"Years in the writing," Kate Kellaway similarly comments in the Guardian, the book "is at pains not to rock the family boat unfairly," but despite this however, she adds, "the darker side of life tends to sidle up on this narrative."

Jane Shilling in the Telegraph, elucidating this bleaker aspect of the book, writes that novel's inside account of the Goldings, for all its interest, "is a moderate, rather restrained account of a relationship that was clearly at times exceptionally painful." She concludes "for both Judy and her brother, taking cover took at various times the extreme form of mental collapse; Judy recovered from a breakdown while she was a teenager, her brother's problems seem to have been more intractable."

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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.