Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Stephen King, Corey Robin and Condoleezza Rice.

11.22.63 by Stephen King

Roz Kaveney, writing in the Independent, writes that Stephen King's latest novel is "about time-travel, about the attempt to create a new and better world by going back and changing one big thing: in this case, the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy." "Jake Epping, the hero of King's new book 11.22.63, is not a scientist but a divorced high school teacher from Maine" reports Adam LeBor in the Financial Times.

LeBor finds that the novel "marks a definite maturing of literary command and ambition and is a step up from recent, more standard works [by King], such as Cell (2006)." By contrast, Rachel Cooke writes in the Observer that "King has delivered a self-indulgent book that is too long (a whopping 740 pages), too complicated and too barmy for words ... I wouldn't have finished 11.22.63 if I hadn't been reviewing it. Whilst King's novel is "coherent enough to make an intellectual point, [it] seems to be arguing that meddling in history is a bad idea. Things - even awful things - happen for a reason ... I'm not sure I agree."

"The key to any novel set in an alternate reality is credible world-building ... King succeeds in this, partly by drawing on his own memories. He was 11 years old in 1958" writes LeBor. Kaveney comments that, "One of the strengths of the book is King's at once nostalgic and honest view of the end of the Eisenhower era. Jake is conscious that it's quite a nice time for him, but that as a straight white man, it would be."

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin

In a collection of previously published essays "Corey Robin, an American academic of the left, believes that while his ideological enemy adapts to circumstance, it does not change" writes John Kampfner in the Guardian. "The ruling class rests 'its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood ... Failure is its most potent source of inspiration. Loss - real social loss, of power and position, privilege and prestige - is the mustard seed of conservative innovation.'"

Sheri Berman writes in the New York Times that Robin defines conservatism as "an inherently elitist and hierarchical ideology, whose essence is the defense of elite privileges against challenges from below." However, a big problem with Robin's thesis is that: "Fascism and National Socialism ... were anti-elitist and deliberately destroyed the traditional orders in the countries where they gained power. The strongest right-wing movements in the West in more recent decades have been populist as well."

Kampfner comments that, "Perhaps the biggest weakness is Robin's inability to engage with Conservatism's enduring popularity" and concludes that whilst this is "a very readable romp through the evils of Conservatism ... the book would have been more powerful if the author had not allowed his visceral loathing to get the better of him."

No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington by Condoleezza Rice

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff from 1995 to 2007, reviews No Higher Honor in the 14 November issue of the New Statesman. Powell describes the memoir as a "diplomatic tour d'horizon, a canter round the world as Rice rushes from one event to another." It gives "occasional glimpses of her reserve: for instance, when she is required to put on a comic karaoke performance at a retreat of Asean foreign ministers and is told that her predecessor Colin Powell performed a pastiche of the Village People's 'YMCA.'"

Toby Harnden writes in the Telegraph that "there's a saying in Washington that every political memoir can be boiled down to six words: "If Only They'd Listened to Me." ... Condoleezza Rice's weighty and rather ponderous account of her time as President George W Bush's National Security Adviser and Secretary of State is a classic of the genre."

Dissimilarly, Glenn Kessler reports in the Washington Post that "in many ways, this is the first serious memoir of the Bush presidency ... Rice emphasizes that the well-publicized disputes with Cheney and Rumsfeld were (in her mind) not personal, but simply business ... Given how roughly Cheney and Rumsfeld treated her in their accounts of the Bush years, such equanimity is remarkable." Powell concludes that the memoir is "nice, reserved and long. And [Rice] doesn't try to pin the blame on anyone but herself."

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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