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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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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