Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Stephen King, Robin Harris and Charles Shields.

11.22.63 by Stephen King

In the Telegraph, Tim Martin writes that "although the awkwardness of this overlong and overstuffed book is not confined to its title, it also delivers a lot to praise and enjoy... King's minute attention to detail and ear for language, as well as his evident relish for a juicy pulp premise, carry this 700-page book through its welter of red herrings and soap-operatic longueurs."

According to Rachel Cooke in the Observer: "In love with his conceit - he has written a time-travel story in which a man can move between 2011 and 1958 at will - King has delivered a self-indulgent book that is too long (a whopping 740 pages), too complicated and too barmy for words."

Martin writes that "King does eventually take an attractively unhinged stab at answering the question [of whether America would be better if JFK had lived], even if it boils down to the sage genre commonplace that the past doesn't like to be messed with."

In the Independent, James Kidd comments that the novel "is arguably literature's first romantic-time-travelling-conspiracy-thriller." It is "an exciting, intelligent if overlong book that underlines all King's powers as a novelist while exposing some of his flaws. Twenty-first-century King is a strange beast: populist and high-minded, artless and self-conscious."

The Conservatives: A History by Robin Harris

In the Spectator, Andrew Gimson writes that "If David Cameron and his friends wish to know why they and their policies are so despised by some Conservatives of high intellect and principle, they should read Robin Harris. His book is a marvel of concision, lucidity and scholarship, with penetrating things to say about Peel, Disraeli, Salisbury, Baldwin, Churchill, Macmillan and the rest."

Kwasi Kwarteng in the Telegraph calls the book "incisive and entertaining". He writes that although it struggles with the party's origins, "naive enthusiasm is an attractive feature of this lively book. Harris makes no secret of his preferences. Peel is castigated as a disastrous leader who was aloof from his party."

Gimson comments that "much of its savour derives from Harris's disgust - the word is not too strong - with the various forms of bogusness, including intellectual cowardice veiled by complacent politeness, which recur so often in the history of the Conservative party."

According to Douglas Hurd in the New Statesman: "Robin Harris starts out confidently enough, gliding skilfully through the history of the Tories in the 18th century... But the pace and mood alter as Harris nears modern times. He begins to show the colour of his own opinions. This, surely, is a pity. The first half of the book is historical analysis, often shrewd; but then the author becomes a polemicist and casts aside any pretence of objectivity."

Hurd concludes that "Harris writes well and with considerable force, but there are two books here in one cover. The first is a decent account of Conservative origins; the second is a warning of trouble ahead. These are both legitimate subjects for argument, but they should not be confused."

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles Shields

In the Boston Globe Steve Almond writes that the biography "provides a definitive and disturbing account of the late author... Shields is an exhaustive researcher with a knack for prose that is absorbing without being flamboyant."

David Ulin in the LA Times writes that the biography "is a problematic portrait, sketchy and pedantic by turns. Even without Vonnegut, Shields has done a lot of research, but although he loads the book with information, he never develops an integrated overview."

Ulin notes that Shields only met Vonnegut twice, thus the biography "steers clear of any real sense of who Vonnegut was."

In the New York Times Christopher Buckley observes that "Shields has a deep affection for his subject and does what he can to rebut charges of hypocrisy, but in this he is not entirely convincing. Vonnegut the staunch anti-Vietnam War spokesman couldn't be bothered to help his wife campaign for Eugene McCarthy... The champion of saving the planet and the Common Man also, we learn, owned shares in strip mining companies, malls and corporations with antiunion views."

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

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 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism