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Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Owen Jones, Lila Azam Zanganeh and Ali Smith.

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones

Writing in the Independent, Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, applauds Jones's exploration of prejudice towards the working class, saying: "The book is very easy to read; it moves in and out of postwar British history with great agility, weaving together complex questions of class, culture and identity with a lightness of touch. Jones torches the political class to great effect. Conservative class conflict masquerading as liberalism; New Labour's desiccated notion of aspiration; what we stylise as "Middle England"; the class composition of the commentariat and government: all are pretty easy targets, but the points are well made. Especially strong is his critique of liberal multiculturalism, whereby without the currency of class grievance we balkanise politics through identity and, sure enough, the BNP or English Defence League flourish."

In a similarly sympathetic review in the Guardian, Lynsey Hanley recognises Jones's ability "to reiterate the facts of increasing inequality, which has led British society to become ever more segregated by class, income and neighbourhood. In such circumstances, miscommunication has deepened between the classes; the Conservatives' demeaning of trade unions has helped to strip the working classes of what public voice they had, so that the middle class has effectively become the new decision-making class."

"[An] uneven book", writes John Lloyd in the Financial Times. "Campaigns against sexism and racism have made denigration of ethnic minorities, gays and women impossible in polite society; the working class, in the guise of "chavs", remain a target. It is interesting and depressing to see all this - and though Jones bangs the nail in too hard, it's worth banging."

The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness by Lila Azam Zanganeh

"If the intention is to send the reader back to the works of Vladimir Nabokov with newly polished eyes and an eager appetite, it succeeds without question," writes Stuart Kelly in The Scotsman. "But it is more than a literary springboard from which to launch oneself back to the classics: it is a thing of beauty in its own right."

Nicholas Shakespeare in The Sunday Telegraph, however, is far less flattering: "One cannot help but feel that she is accidentally-on-purpose playing at being Lolita, a literary nymphet with a crush on Nabokov ... But where Lolita is a cliché who seduces ("at 6.15 in the morning, to be precise, at the Enchanted Hunters Hotel"), here the author's excess of self-consciousness is cloying."

Ángel Gurría-Quintana is also unenthusiastic, writing in the Financial Times that this is a "whimsical, intriguing and at times bewildering work," and that the author "omits explicit references to her own back-story, perhaps out of a reasonable desire to avoid comparisons with that other Nabokov-themed memoir by an Iranian expatriate, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Yet her reluctance to explore the connections makes her appear coy, even cagey."

There but for the by Ali Smith

"Before the pudding at a dinner party in Greenwich, a guest slips away upstairs, locks himself into a room and refuses to come out. For months. A clever set-up for a novel," writes Lionel Shriver in the Financial Times, "though it's difficult to imagine where the premise leads, since this slight, offbeat idea seems more intrinsically suited to a short story. In There But For The, Ali Smith spins out this narrow, potentially confining concept into a winsome, compelling read - that is, until the book's last third, at which point you wonder if maybe it should have been a short story after all."

Most other reviewers have been unequivocal in their praise. "Smith's prose is not just supple, it's acrobatic," asserts Lucy Beresford in the Daily Telegraph, " one minute providing crisp realism -- cocky teenagers, unspoken homophobia, university bureaucracy -- the next a hypnotic stream-of-consciousness. Smith can make anything happen, which is why she is one of our most exciting writers today."

Agreeing with these positive sentiments, The Observer's Sarah Churchwell writes that this is "a playfully serious, or seriously playful, novel full of wit and pleasure, with some premeditated frustrations thrown in for good measure." She concedes though, that "some of the set-pieces are less successful than others -- the novel's central dinner party descends from burlesque into caricature, as the guests became increasingly loathsome," but concludes that "there are some wonderful disquisitions on our cultural idiosyncrasies."

 

Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class and The Enchanter:Nabokov and Happiness will be reviewed in next week's New Statesman