Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Christopher Adrian, Katherine Frank and Ed: the Milibands and the Making of

The Great Night by Christopher Adrian

"In this mesmerising reworking of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the action is transposed from a wood near Athens to 21st century San Francisco's Buena Vista Park," writes Olivia Laing in the Observer. "One wonders whether he took Bottom the Weaver's final admonishment - 'Rehearse most obscenely and courageously. Take pains; be perfect' - to heart, for this magical and fearless work is a near-blueprint of what a novel ought to be."

Keith Donohue in the Washington Post highlights the difference in direction caused by Adrian's plot twists, writing: "That dissonance with the original undermines Adrian's considerable powers. Moments of comedy -- from slapstick to farce -- exist in the novel, but they are mixed with graphic violence and anonymous sex. Rather than ending upon a dream, 'The Great Night' aches with lost love and the torturous ordeal of childhood caught between innocence and awakening. For a novel based upon a classic comedy, it's devastating."

Jake Wallis Simons remains unconvinced by Shakespeare's real role in the book, writing in the Independent: "From the start, it is clear that Adrian is bending Shakespeare's template to his own purposes...His writing is evocative and unsettling in equal measure, yet this seems to be more about the author exploring his own feelings about child mortality than creating anything truly new from the materials of one of the Bard's most popular plays."

Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox and the Creation of a Myth by Katherine Frank

This book proposes that Defoe based his survival story on the life of a Mr Robert Knox, keeps Jonathan Sale interested, as he writes in the Telegraph: "The enthralling Crusoe earns its keep as it weaves together the twin biographies of Knox and Defoe, two extraordinary lives which spiral round like the double helix to produce the DNA of the iconic character in goatskin garments."

The Observer's Peter Conrad gives a very terse review however, writing: "Although Knox and Defoe lived within a few miles of each other in London, they never met; Defoe read Knox's book, though the novel in which he makes use of it was not Crusoe but Captain Singleton...Given the lack of any further connection between the two men, how can Frank justify forcibly coupling them in this dual biography? Only, I'm afraid, by over-stretched analogies and questionable metaphors."

Andrew Robinson writing in the Independent is not wholly convinced either: "Frank points to many similarities between Robinson Crusoe and Knox's Relation. Some are easy to spot, for instance the Bible both Knox and Crusoe stumble upon, and their method of baking bread. Others are more debatable."

Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader by Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre

TheTelegraph's Peter Oborne writes: "Their book is shrewd, scrupulously researched and provides revelations on every page: for instance, the fact that Gordon Brown adores Ed Miliband 'like a son'; the strength of the collusion between Ed and the trade unions; the decisive role played by Neil Kinnock in persuading him to run against his brother. It provides the basis for any serious understanding both of Ed Miliband and the modern Labour Party."

"Political journalists Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre are by instinct sympathetic to their main subject," says Sunder Katwala, writing in the Observer. "But they take care to do a straight reporting job, painstakingly comparing the accounts of sources from all sides to unpack the history of what they call the "fratricide" of Miliband v Miliband."

John Kampfner in the Sunday Times is less enthralled, writing: "The book comes into its own with its blow-by-blow account of the leadership contest. Yet, no matter how hard the authors try, The Brothers Miliband is not the stuff of Dostoevsky. Their lives simply do not provide interesting enough material for all but the political geek."

Roy Hattersley will review "Ed" in Thursday's New Statesman

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism