Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Julian Assange, Robert Harris and Richard Beard.

Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography

"Australian WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and part Scottish novelist and ghostwriter Andrew O' Hagan ... [have] given birth to an unfinished draft ... published before its maturity under the wacky title The Unauthorised Autobiography," writes David Leigh in the Guardian's review. "The lack of a final edit does ... disservices to Assange's story. The narrative stops too abruptly ... It's padded out ... with unnecessary chunks of the cables themselves, which can be read elsewhere." Leigh concludes that "These marsupial memoirs of his seem unlikely to increase [Assange's] prospects of becoming the messiah of the information age. Maybe, sadly, even the reverse."

By contrast, Lloyd Evans writes in the Spectator that "the author of this book ... [has] produced a compelling portrait of a brave, complex, difficult, brilliant and essentially humane individual ... Assange is not easy to like but his intellectual gifts, his moral courage and his carelessness of his own physical safety make him impossible not to admire."

James Ball, in the New Statesman's review suggests that Assange's "desire to lash out against his enemies ... drains much of the immediacy from the book." Ball concludes that "this is a flawed and fractured portrait of a flawed and fractured character. That, at least, is fitting."

The Fear Index by Robert Harris

Emmanuel Roman writes in the Guardian that "In ... Harris's latest thriller ... we are cast into the dystopic world of finance where nerdy hedge fund managers and their computers may be the modern embodiment of evil ... Computer programmes predict fear as a motivation, and ... [use] this information to short-sell stocks."

In the Scotsman, Stephen McGinty observes that Harris "calmly [lays] out ... that a man with a knife is ... nothing compared to the terror of knowing the true volatility and cluelessness of the current financial masters of the universe." Roman notes that the novel's "upshot may be about as believable as Jurassic Park but ... I may be overly familiar with what computers can and can't do."

McGinty describes Harris as "our literary Alfred Hitchcock ... Harris is a 'thriller writer', but in time his canon will be viewed as something far greater." Charles Moore, in the Telegraph, is similarly complimentary, finding The Fear Index "hugely enjoyable" and arguing that it has "a Dickensian potential for a great novel, even more thrilling than a thriller, about the way we live now." In the New Statesman's review, Alex Preston finds that The Fear Index delves "into the heart of a complex, abstract world without oversimplifying or seeming clunkingly didactic." Harris has "woven some fascinating subplots into the novel."

Lazarus is Dead by Richard Beard

In the Observer, Tom Lee writes that, "The Bible says almost nothing about the life of Lazarus before and after he was raised from the dead. Richard Beard's fourth novel sets out to elaborate on what we do know from the Gospel of John." Adrian Turpin writes in the Financial Times that the novel "impressively spins an entire life story. Lazarus and Jesus are childhood friends, fellow exiles in Egypt ... Beset by a series of illnesses, [Lazarus] needs a miracle, but Jesus fails to respond."

Lee finds that, "The characters remain more or less the archetypes of biblical tale or myth, without psychological specificity or depth" and "the narration retains a plain, almost remote, quasi-biblical style ... At times, it drops into an essay-like register." For Turpin, although the book is "hardly as 'genre-bending' as the publishers suggest ... [it is] clever and original ... [and] keeps the reader guessing until the death- and beyond."

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear