Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Craig Thompson, Darian Leader and William Nicholson.

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson is back with another graphic novel, Habibi, following his award-winning Blankets. Set in the Middle East, Habibi "follows the fortunes of Dodola, an Arab girl sold into child marriage by her illiterate parents," writes Michel Faber in the Guardian. "Dodola hones a love of numbers and narrative which helps her survive her subsequent adventures." These include "breakneck escapes from a slave market and an execution squad (some of the most thrilling action sequences I've seen in comics for years.) ... At heart, however, Habibi is a love story between Dodola and Zam, a black slave she adopts as an infant."

Faber notes that "Thompson clearly adores the beauty of Arabic calligraphy and is enthralled by the landscape and people of the Arab world." However, "despite its visual splendours and sincere message, Habibi is ultimately wearisome. Part of the problem is its sheer length." It is "an orgy of art for its own sake."

By contrast, Inbali Iserles writes in the Independent that "the book is destined to become an instant classic, confirming the author's position among not only the most masterful of graphic novelists but our finest contemporary writers, regardless of medium."

A interesting illustrated review by M.C.'s Canvas on the Washington Post's entertainment blog is prefaced with this remark: "mere words . . . seemed not enough to even try to convey just how intricate and ornate, lush and seductive, arabesque and sometimes knowingly grotesque this artistic epic is."

What is Madness? by Darian Leader

In the Independent's review, Hanif Kureishi writes that "Darian Leader brilliantly shows [that] ... deciding who the mad actually are ... is quite a job. After a hundred years no one has come up with a diagnosis which most psychiatrists can agree on." Alexander Linklater in the Observer finds that "because [Leader] sees reason in madness [he] ... can ... argue that there is no such thing as 'mental illness' - he views madness as a natural response to unbearable experience."

"Darian Leader belongs to the most endangered clinical world-view of them all: that of the psychoanalyst," suggests Linklater. However, "for every useful criticism, Leader cannot resist the temptation to flip over into shrill condemnation . . .. The suggestion that the medical mainstream is insane puts a huge burden on the author to prove the sanity of his own system - and this will not be entirely evident to the agnostic reader."

Kureishi writes that "Leader reminds us that adults have been vulnerable children for a long time and therefore are difficult to change. They love their symptoms, usually more than they love their lives." In the New Statesman, Lisa Appignanesi describes What Is Madness? as "a humane and timely book ... What Leader does so effectively is to give us a sense of what it might be like to live inside the mind of a psychotic ... [He] teases out ways for the analyst to stay attentive to this inner world and to stabilise it."

The Golden Hour by William Nicholson

In the Observer's review, Viv Groskop reports that in The Golden Hour, Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Nicholson "returns to his stamping ground - angsty, middle-class families in Lewes, East Sussex - but with even more ease and confidence than the previous two books that make up this sort-of trilogy [The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life and All the Hopeful Lovers.]" Jane Shilling explains in the Telegraph that "the novel is loosely linked by character and location to its two predecessors. Laura and Henry Broad [who] reappear, grappling with the problems of middle age."

Groskop comments that "there's so much dialogue it sometimes reads like a screenplay and the quickfire exchanges can distract from the more philosophical asides ... It comes across a bit like Downton Abbey: ... you know that you're going to love it at some point, but you sometimes have to sit through too much well-meaning exposition." Shilling concludes that it is "not a voyage of discovery, exactly [but]an agreeable ramble," a "book with which to fill an idle afternoon".

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge