Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Madeline Miller, David Lammy and Lévy and Houellebecq.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

In the Telegraph, Stuart Evers writes that "in re-imagining Homer's Iliad, Madeline Miller treads the fine line between the invention of a new work and the desecration of the original with a sure foot, with only occasional missteps along the way." Miller depicts Achilles and his friend Patroclus as lovers. Evers comments: "Sometimes The Song of Achilles reads as part coming-of-age story, part coming-out story and part Hollywood blockbuster - Brokeback Mountain with centaurs and swords."

In the Guardian, Charlotte Higgins writes that "although she is a respectful and clearly loving reader of Homer... where I lose her is when, instead of sticking to prequel, she forges on through the parts of the Trojan war described in the Iliad. Alas, the best of writers will stumble in comparison to the master."

According to Tom Holland in the New Statesman, the novel "demonstrates that it is not always necessary to play tricks with Homer, to recalibrate or reconfigure his epics, to bring him alive for a modern readership." Holland writes: "By fixing on Patroclus, lover of Achilles, Miller is able to bring to her narrative the same golden aura of youth, homoeroticism and aristocratic violence that made Fire from Heaven, Mary Renault's fictionalisation of the early years of Alexander the Great, such a crowd-pleaser."

Viv Groskop in the Independent calls the novel "original, clever and in a class of its own." She writes: "This novel's greatest flaw is also its key strength. It is arguably a book of Greek history for idiots. It's not a pretentious and complicated work... It's an entirely successful piece of writing, sitting comfortably between literary and commercial fiction genres."

Public Enemies by Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy

Tim Adams in the Guardian writes that in this exchange of letters between novelist Michel Houellebecq and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, they dwell "on the trait that seemed to have most united them in the public mind: 'We are,' as Houellebecq acknowledges in his opening letter, 'both rather contemptible individuals.'" Adams observes that "in an effort to explain the masochism of their media identities, they swap confession and scraps of autobiography [and] dwell in detail on the public scrutiny of their parentage".

In the New Statesman, George Walden opines: "Bernard-Henri Lévy and Houellebecq are highly distinct writers and personalities and the idea of an exchange of letters between them is brilliant... Much of the fun of these letters stems from their almost satirically contrasting characters: Lévy, the well-born playboy of the western mind and pocket Apollo, versus Houellebecq, the drunken, ill-favoured, lower-middle-class grouch." Walden writes: "However rich in irritations, this is a book that you don't stop reading... There is fascinating stuff on their childhoods... but it's the free-form rooting around by two un-stereotyped minds that is compelling."

Tim Adams concludes: "What keeps you reading, beyond the confessional drama, is the sheer one-upmanship in the range of reference and playfulness of expression."

In the New York Times, Dwight Garner writes: "Both men delight in being provocative, on the page and off, yet feign shock that anyone has ever been provoked... Theirs is a lonesome, literate, borderline-funny duet."

Out of the Ashes: Britain After the Riots by David Lammy

In the Guardian, Stafford Scott writes that Lammy "has not grasped the scale of the community's mistrust of the police and the judicial system in his analysis of the August riots." Although he "captures well the frustrations of those who became victims during the riots - those whose homes were burnt to the ground and whose businesses went up in flames... There is little sense that he has managed to grasp the scale of disaffection felt by those who participated in the riots."

Mick Brown in the Telegraph praises Out of the Ashes, calling it "an astonishingly thorough and finely nuanced analysis" of the riots. Brown writes that Lammy's book is "instructive and impassioned" and highlights that "government should rebuild a sense of reciprocity between a working class with a stake in capitalism and a middle class with a renewed faith in the welfare state."

According to David Goodhart in the Financial Times: "Instant books by politicians seldom provide intellectual nourishment. David Lammy's Out of the Ashes is a welcome exception." Goodhart calls the book "the first proper manifesto for the relatively new Blue Labour current within Lammy's party" and notes the "author's skill at storytelling". He concludes: "To date Blue Labour has been an intellectual curiosity without much of a political base, indeed with many enemies on the left. Lammy's book for the first time makes it sound like a credible political idea."

In the New Statesman, Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford write that the book "is about more than the English riots, it's about the future of Labour in the country." They comment: "Labour faces the biggest crisis in its history and yet it has not yet begun asking itself these questions. Lammy's book offers a start." Lammy "offers thoughtful arguments about immigration, work, masculinity and crime and punishment. One doesn't have to agree with all his points of view to know that he is in the right place to ask the question of his fellow countrymen and women."

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times