Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Geoff Dyer, Jodi Kantor and Roberto Bolaño

Zona by Geoff Dyer

In the Financial Times, Peter Aspden is initially sparing in his praise, noting that, although Dyer's celebration of Andrei Tarkovsky's fim Stalker is patient and straightforward, "it surely deserves more". Yet that expectation, too, is ultimately fulfilled, says Aspden: "[T]here is deft method in Dyer's fluent playfulness," he concedes, with "each scene in the film . . . scrupulously examined". Aspden is likewise taken with Dyer's intellectual integrity - he's an analyst who knows the limits of exegesis: "Describing a magical sequence . . . there is no interpretation offered, no larky digression". Dyer knows the difference between evaluative depth and metaphysical pretension, Aspden admiring him all the more for that intuition.

For Igor Toronyi-Lalic in the Telegraph Dyer's musings are so enchanting that they excite in him unrestrained nostalgia: "Dyer retraces the cinematography faithfully and beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that I found it difficult not to start falling again for Tarkovsky." Toronyi-Lalic is as charmed by Dyer the Polymath as by Dyer the Interpreter: "no other writer can flex and stretch in digressive prose more congenially than Dyer," he says, adding: "The frame-by-frame minute-taking, then, becomes a springboard for an investigation into everything from faith to knapsacks. An investigation that is honest, irreverent, cranky and frequently hysterical." Even Toronyi-Lalic's criticisms of Dyer are tacit, saluting his brilliant rambling rather than aimless pontification: "For he is just as good gibbering on about nothing as he is in full analytical mode". Whatever the aesthetic density of Dyer's subject, Toronyi-Lalic sees in his work an analysis accessible to the layman as well as the informed reader: "Watch the film before you read the book if you like. But it's not compulsory, which says something of Dyer's style."

The Obamas: A Mission, a Marriage by Jodi Kantor

Kate Figes in theTelegraph sees Jodi Kantor's The Obamas: A Mission, a Marriage, not as some charmed account of a Chicago couple's fulfilment of political ambition, but as a portrait of a husband-wife unit as challenged and tense as any other. "It was Michelle," writes Figes, "who worried most about him standing for the top job because of her cynicism about the true power of politics; and it was Michelle who considered not moving into the White House at all to protect their children." Moreover, popular idealising of the Obamas is likewise given short shrift in Kantor's portrayal, Figes notes: "As the recession hit, the First Couple made classic media mistakes, seemingly living the good life - think of the now infamous Alice in Wonderland-themed party at the White House - or using costly security to go home to Chicago or out on a date." Nor, though, says Figes, is Kantor sparing in the superlatives, especially about Mrs Obama: "Her idealism, exactitude, unwillingness to settle for less than what they wanted," she writes, "were qualities on which her husband depended, especially when things were going badly." In charting the lives of two figures about whom so much is hopefully presumed rather than reliably asserted, Figes is impressed with Kantor's research: " [She] talked to some two hundred aides . . . and gives us the fullest picture of this presidency yet."

For Alec MacGillis in New Statesman, it is precisely the shortcomings of Kantor's diagnosis that illuminate the oddities of power: "Her account is imperfect but valuable, for it captures how disorientating has been the transition of this remarkably normal and well-grounded Chicago family into the surreal realm of official Washington". MacGillis locates in Kantor's analysis the political nuances of the President's role and the sometimes rumbustious quality of the First Lady's life behind the North Portico: "[There are] accounts of strife between Michelle and long-time Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett, and, on the other hand, aides such as the former spokesman Robert Gibbs and the former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel." Nonetheless, MacGillis detects a certain contrivance in Kantor's emphasis on Michelle: "[Her] co-starring role, is occasionally strained."

In the Guardian, Sarah Churchwell notes that Kantor's gratitude to her editor at the New York Times for "a four-year conversation about ambition, power, gender and public life" itself constitutes the broader theme and agenda of her book: "The Obamas is not quite a domestic biography, and not quite a political one. It's what might be called a biography of domestic politics: it's about the balance of power in a marriage between two exceptional people; the politics of living in the White House; and the Obamas' efforts to shape US domestic policies." Churchwell finds irony in the White House's keenness to downplay the alleged "contentiousness" of Kantor's account, noting that it is "neither particularly controversial, nor particularly dramatic". Cue further praise for Kantor's "judicious and perceptive book," the conclusion of which, she says, far from leaving important business unfinished, is legitimately breathless: "like this presidency . . . unfinished. That's because it is: we are all awaiting the ending, and the suspense is killing.

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño

For Giles Harvey in theGuardian the fact of Bolaño's mortality is an ideal criterion for our appreciation of his work: "That the anglophone world should experience Bolaño's oeuvre as a posthumous phenomenon is entirely appropriate, for his books are all about the obscure spell cast by the dead over the living." Adulation aside, Harvey notes that "the bottom of a drawer ... would seem to be the ideal place" for this novel. It represents one of the author's first attempts at fiction and "clunks and sputters with all the awkwardness you would expect from an apprentice work." Ultimately, says Harvey, paucity of circumstance and wealth of rhetoric pays off: "From here on in - and we are still not yet halfway through - the book rations incident almost to the point of starvation. As in a film by Antonioni, what we are left with - what we are forced to get by on - is atmosphere, pages and pages of the stuff". Nevertheless, "in its second half that the book starts to repay our attention. With passages that anticipate the dark, chaotic splendour of By Night in Chile, Udo's diary becomes a record of moral and psychological disintegration, swarming with toxic hallucinations and poignant non sequiturs."

Ángel Gurría-Quintana writes in the Financial Times that the curiosities of Bolaño's prose are matched by the odd timing of the novel's publication: "It is worth asking why Bolaño, who finished writing The Third Reich in 1989, did not make any efforts to publish it in his lifetime." That aside, Gurría-Quintana revels in Bolano's love of language: "[The book] is rich in startling images and [is] unapologetically literary."

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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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