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."

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage