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".

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage