Reviews Round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Alan Hollinghurst, Aravind Adiga and Franny Moyle.

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

"This novel, sleek, seductive and a little sly, appears on first sight to address a bankable, but by now surely rather threadbare, theme: the stately homes, and homos, of England," writes Keith Miller in the Telegraph. "While some passages are so arch you could slip on a toga and process in triumph through them ("They're very fond of each other... in the Cambridge way"), there's also a lot that is purely and simply very funny."

The Guardian's Theo Tait writes that "the new book certainly falls somewhat short of Hollinghurst's best work - The Swimming Pool Library, The Folding Star and The Line of Beauty. Unlike them, it's merely very good: it doesn't leave you dazed, page after page, with the brilliance, wit and subtlety of its perceptions. Is this an ungrateful line of criticism? Probably: The Stranger's Child will no doubt be one of the best novels published this year."

In an enthusiastic review in the Independent, Richard Canning writes: "Throughout The Stranger's Child we are given the thrilling impenetrability and imprecision of lives as they are truly experienced. Nothing falls tidily or neatly into fictional resolution." He concludes that, "The Stranger's Child is a remarkable, unmissable achievement, written with the calm authority of an author who could turn his literary gifts to just about anything."

"The Stranger's Child" will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman.

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga

"Dominating the narrative is Mumbai itself, once again one of the mightiest cities on earth," writes Peter Carty in the Independent. "Adiga lays out this most frenetic of megalopolises before us, by turns fascinating, sensual and horrifying, as his writing takes an impressive step onwards."

Allan Massie writing in the Scotsman says: "This is a very fine novel, wonderfully rich in detail and the evocation of everyday life. It is a social novel full of memorable individuals. It has a range, ambition and humanity which one rarely finds in contemporary British or US fiction: further evidence that the true successors to the European novelists of the 19th century are now to be found in the Indian sub-continent and the Arab world."

The Telegraph's review by Mark Sanderson is equally laudatory; "The end is both savage, sordid and ever so sad. However, Last Man in Tower, in its dizzying portrait of Mumbai, contains plenty of comedy and dark humour. One example will have to suffice. Shah's mistress, Rosie, is summed up thus: "her voice always had its knickers down"."

Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle

"Oscar lay in the gutter and looked at the stars. There weren't many stars bigger than his wife." So says the Spectator. "To the extent that we do consider the question of his wife, we probably imagine a dowdy old boiler (in modern terms a 'beard'), dutifully providing a couple of sons but otherwise keeping well out of the way. The truth was far more complicated. It always is in the best stories, and this is a very good story, very well told."

A firmly engrossed Robert Douglas-Fairhurst writes in the Telegraph: "Constance Wilde has usually been thought of the same way, as the long-suffering wife who remained loyal to her husband Oscar even after he was convicted of "committing acts of gross indecency" (that is, consensual sex) with other men... Fortunately, the evidence of Franny Moyle's fine biography, the first to draw on more than 300 of Constance's unpublished letters, is that she was far more interesting than this."

Claire Harman is less convinced, writing in the Evening Standard: "Despite the access which Franny Moyle has had to stacks of Constance's unpublished letters and other family documents, and the intelligent use she has made of them, the inner workings of the Wildes' relationship remain obscure. At what point did Constance understand what her husband's tastes were and how much did it matter to either of them?"

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.