Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Julie Otsuka, Ahdaf Soueif, and Susannah Clapp.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Lucy Scholes, in the Independent, sees in Julie Otsuka's novel a "rhythmic, repetitive flow of collective experience, combined with the sparseness of the descriptions, [which] means her intensely lyrical prose verges on the edge of poetry". Distinctive personalities and circumstances are at the heart of her prose: "A host of individual characters and experiences crystallise as families and communities take root."

In the New York Times, Alida Becker reads Otsuka's playfully obscure representation of her characters as in fact the source of their intense feeling: "While it appears to hold the characters at a formal distance, that reticence infuses their stories with powerful emotion." For Becker, Otsuka's work is full of powerful anecdotes and cautiously inflated explorations of identity: "Otsuka's novel is filled with evocative descriptive sketches (farm women with their children sleeping 'like puppies, on wooden boards covered with hay') and hesitantly revelatory confessions (domestic servants who 'felt, for once, like ourselves when "the whole house was empty. Quiet. Ours.')..."

Michael Prodger, in theFinancial Times, notes Otsuka's earlier concern with global conflict, and sees here a more localised consciousness as horror approaches: "Her previous novel, When the Emperor was Divine, was about one Japanese-American family during the years of internment that followed Pearl Harbor. Here, her subject is the whole Japanese immigrant experience in the years that led up to the war." Ultimately, says Prodger, Otsuka seeks to accomplish too much, with pretensions to grand scale stifled by the absence of a specific, identifiable character: "This is a sad tale - unremittingly so - but because there is no single figure to stand as an emblem of the communal travails she can't interest the reader in the addictive vicissitudes of an individual life. The result is a book that aims for the epic but only reaches the intermittently affecting."

Cairo: My City, Our Revolution by Ahdaf Soueif

Tom Porteous, in the Evening Standard, sees qualities in Soueif's reporting that one also finds in Carlyle or Churchill - accounts of humanity within an ambitious but focused narrative sweep: "Ahdaf Soueif ... has produced a chronicle - heartfelt, courageous, and hopeful - of the 18 days that launched Egypt's revolution and shook the world. This short, urgent, beautifully written book, rich in texture and atmosphere, is a timely reminder of the idealism, humanism, optimism and sacrifice of those first weeks of the revolution." Porteous sees in Soueif an author given to reflection but not to empty idealising: "Cairo is a hopeful book but it's not naive. Sitting on a kerb in Tahrir Square, Soueif imagines what her beloved aunt Toufi, now dead, would make of the revolutionary scene in front of her."

In The Guardian, Yasmine El Rashidi notes the creative delays experienced by Soueif, the way she wanted her work to be realistic rather than sentimental: "[S]he begins this new book with an almost chilling admission of such: 'Many years ago I signed a contract to write a book about Cairo; my Cairo. But the years passed, and I could not write it. When I tried it read like an elegy; and I would not write an elegy for my city.'" El Rashidi observes how, amid the wealth of literature covering historical and social aspects of the uprising, Soueif adds a more personal touch: "There are many records of the Egyptian revolution, but Cairo takes us on a more intimate journey; one that goes far beyond the 18 days of Tahrir Square, to the places in her memory: her aunt's flat in Lazoghli, now the centre of the battle with state security; Maspero, where she had her first job, and now the mouthpiece of Mubarak's regime; and the many rooms and views and places that bring back memories of her mother ('I cannot tell you how many people in the Square have said to me, can you imagine if your mother were alive today? How she would have enjoyed this?')."

Louisa Young, in The Independent, highlights Soueif's fusion of the savage and the benign: "The title, My City, Our Revolution, reflects the book's dual personality. One moment we are in the Revolution, haring chronologically through a cloud of tear gas ... next we are in Soueif's heart and past: standing on a palm roof looking out over an orchard to the pyramids beyond, remembering her parents, her childhood, her own love affair with her city."

A Card from Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp

Jenny Turner, in the Guardian, emphasises the importance of biography in any estimation of Angela Carter's work: "Carter was very much part of that postwar non-posh lefty-bookshop culture - 'the children of Nescafé and the welfare state, as she once put it." Turner goes on: "And although it's not wrong to admire Carter's work for its many sophistications, it also partakes of that satirical-postcard roughness." This is not to say, though, that Turner dismisses the presentation of Clapp's memoir, noting how it is is playful yet deferential: "There's something nicely ceremonial about this little book. Its endpapers reproduce the invitation sent out to Carter's memorial gathering in Brixton - 'an onstage menagerie' featuring a parrot, a champagne glass, a zebra, drawn by Corinna Sargood, an old friend. Clapp's text is warm and loyal, funny and yet formal."

In the Independent, Paul Barker recognises the formative influence on Carter of film: "As Clapp notes, in this charming personal memoir published to mark the 20th anniversary of Carter's all-too-early death, at 51, Angela was enamoured of film. The passion was nurtured by cinema visits with her journalist father." Barker notes how Clapp's memoir resembles Carter's chosen mode of correspondence with her: "Clapp became close to Carter - who wrote a dozen or so reviews for the LRB - and is her literary executor. She builds this very short but very evocative book around postcards Carter sent her. The book reprints them; its own format is not much taller or wider than a postcard."

In the Financial Times, Emily Stokes admires the way Clapp rejects sentimental philosophising, but nonetheless makes way for genuine feeling: "Far from being a confessional memoir about friendship, this book is poised and elegant, and conspicuously slender - as if it has shed everything but its most presentable self."

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge