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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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