Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Colm Tóibín, John Lanchester and Stefan Collini

New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families by Colm Tóibín

In the Financial Times, NS editor Jason Cowley advises caution, lest a brutally honest memoirist be one of our own: "Beware the family that has a writer in its midst, the one who watches, records, remembers and confesses ... those closest to them invariably suffer most". Cowley observes how Tóibín's anthology is semi-autobiographical rather than purely a commentary on the lives of others: "In New Ways to Kill Your Mother, a series of review-essays, he works away at and through his obsessions: family, homosexuality, homeland, the anxiety of influence." Cowley acknowledges Tóibín's "understandable interest" in other Irish writers, but wonders if his essay on Beckett carries either sufficient insight or the scholarly appreciation exhibited by others: "But one has little sense from it of the complexity of Beckett's relationship with his mother; you have only a mild sense of the misunderstanding that existed between them. It was written before the publication of the second volume of The Letters in 2011 (no attempt was made to update the essay or to write a postscript to it, as Martin Amis did to the literary essays collected in The Moronic Inferno: And Other Visits to America)." Cowley notes certain of the book's continuities, but feels the project could have been more tightly executed: "As it is, these review-essays share a family resemblance as themes overlap and interconnect, but the whole turns out to be rather less than the sum of its parts."

John Preston, in the Telegraph, detects a Freudian inevitability in child-maternal acrimony, citing how many writers commit literary matricide: "It comes as no surprise to learn that writers should often have had troubled relationships with their mothers, but as Colm Tóibín points out, the real interest lies in seeing how they exact their revenge. They do so in a lot of cases by murdering them - not in cold blood, but metaphorically, on the page." Citing Tóibín's perceptive solitary essay on a female author, Preston notes Jane Austen's exclusion of a mother figure in the name of a protagonist's burgeoning independence: "There is a long and surprisingly distinguished history of matricide in fiction - especially in the 19th-century novel. Jane Austen's last three novels all have motherless heroines and they do so, Tóibín believes, for a very good reason. "Mothers get in the way in fiction; they take up the space that can be better filled by ... the slow growth of a personality." Without mothers, Austen's heroines are free to grow outside of the family's arena of influence - and to become themselves." For Preston, Tóibín is as able a historian as he is a storyteller: "Delicacy is one of Tóibín's great strengths as a novelist, and it's here in abundance, too."

* Colm Tóibín's New Ways to Kill Your Mother will be reviewed in the next issue of New Statesman.

Capital by John Lanchester

In the Guardian, Theo Tait sees in London-based epic Capital the aspirations of multiculturalism and the cruder reality of financial meltdown: "Roger Yount, an investment banker; Zbiegniew, a Polish builder; Matya, a Hungarian nanny; Freddy Kano, a young Senegalese professional footballer; the Kamals, a British Pakistani family who run the corner shop; Quentina, a Zimbabwean traffic warden; and Petunia, an elderly working-class woman - the last of the aborigines. The story begins just before Roger's bonus is revealed to him in December 2007; it ends in November 2008, with the world economy grinding to a halt." Whilst pointing out that sharp cultural insight is sometimes lacking in a text as sweeping and broad as Capital, Tait acknowldges Lanchester's spirited efforts to achieve a sharper focus: "a decent stab at describing what it must be like to run a corner shop, or to be detained under terrorism laws, or to leave a shack in Senegal to play alongside world-famous footballers". Tait, with cautious praise, notes that Lanchester's slightly flat conclusion is no anti-climax: "All in all, Capital is a diverting read. It holds your attention all the way to its strangely inconsequential ending, and will probably sell well".

For Keith Miller, in the Telegraph, Lanchester heeds William James's advice that we must intuit what to leave out: "Capital attempts an allegorical portrait of the Smoke during those turbulent times. Squeezing a bafflingly diverse city of more than seven million inhabitants into even quite a thick book without letting a good portion of the diversity slide is a tall order: to pluck a few examples out of the air, there are no Brazilians, intellectuals, charity muggers, public-sector employees, gangsters, media workers or entertainers in these pages. But the book is a more or less unimpeachably plausible portrait of one (fictional) street in Clapham, a popular south London 'village' where a spacious but fairly hideous Victorian house can command a price approaching a hundred times the UK's median annual income." To the purported truth that deft characterisations are key to a sound narrative, Lanchester, says Miller, was long ago converted: "Gently and slowly, Lanchester tightens the screws, alternating hope and despair, flitting between protagonists neatly and dexterously. New characters are introduced: a successful, terrible street artist (all street artists are terrible, though not all, significantly, are successful) called Smitty, the newsagent's brothers Usman and the hapless jihadi-turned-web designer Shahid." Though the scope of Lanchester's ambition here is daunting, Miller identifies an attractively costive, nuanced style: "There is a reticence, an austerity - to use a modish term - about the book that I very much liked."

* John Lanchester's Capital will be reviewed in the next issue of New Statesman.

What Are Universities For? by Stefan Collini

In the New Statesman, Alan Ryan sees two disciplines fusing in Stefan Collini's timely primer on the current state of higher education: "It is really two books, the second half more polemical and the first half an essay in cultural criticism", merging Collini's contribution to an ongoing dialogue with a series of pieces he has published in different journals. Not, says Ryan, that the two styles don't fit together: "The two halves of the book hang together because Collini has a very definite vision of what universities can contribute to the welfare of societies that shelter them and pay for them, and an equally definite vision of the ways in which the higher education policies of successive UK governments since 1980 have made it hard for them to do it." Whilst echoing Collini's advocacy of learning for its own sake, Ryan worries the liberal ideal will be entirely subservient to corporate dogma: "Not that I imagine that the new breed of CEO vice-chancellor, let alone a government that parks universities under the umbrella of "business, innovation and science", will understand the point of even take any notice of it."

Sir Howard Newby, in the Independent, wonders whether this volume's inclusion of Collini's articles from the London Review of Books and elsewhere, supposedly to make them more widely accessible, is entirely valid: "Their inclusion is justified on the grounds that they are thereby made more available. In reality, they serve to demonstrate how much Collini's thinking has matured and moved on." Yet, these fragments are not without their value, observes Newby: "It does, though, focus on some easy targets - the depressing utilitarianism of the debate over the past 30 years; the decline of trust in professional judgments and the rise of egregious audit; the conflation of quality and standards." Ultimately, then, Newby, like Collini, condemns the bureaucracy to which higher education is increasingly vulnerable, and says that, if nothing else, the book does what it says on the tin: "Collini's book, I hope, will kick-start a serious debate. As a precursor, he has successfully reminded us what, indeed, universities are for."

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A powerful portrait of the Bangladeshi textiles industry

Jeremy Seabrook's The Song of the Shirt goes beyond hand-wringing to investigate the true cost of cheap labour.

On 24 April 2013, an eight-storey commercial building called Rana Plaza in the Bangladeshi capital city, Dhaka, collapsed. Hundreds of bodies were buried in the rubble. The search for the dead went on for weeks. More than 1,000 people lost their lives; 2,500 were injured. The deadliest ­accident at a garment factory in history, the incident shone a light on the dire conditions endured by those who produce cheap clothing for the west.

In a cramped and unstable building, the workers – many of whom were women – stitched clothes for international brands such as Benetton and Primark. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of what happened was the wanton disregard for human life shown by the bosses. The building was clearly structurally unsound. The day before the disaster, cracks had appeared in the walls. But many workers were ordered to return the next day. Some of those who died had yet to receive their first pay cheque.

While the international firms that sold clothes made at Rana Plaza have offered ­financial compensation to the survivors and to families of the victims, not much has happened to improve working conditions in Bangladesh. This is not surprising. Numerous factory fires in recent years, cumulatively resulting in the deaths of hundreds of workers, have also failed to trigger any systemic change.

In his book The Song of the Shirt, Jeremy Seabrook goes beyond the all-too-transient hand-wringing about sweatshops that has typified much of the media coverage of the Rana Plaza collapse and other disasters. Seabrook is nothing if not prolific. He has written about forty books over the course of five decades, many of them focusing on poverty and development, both in the UK and on the Indian subcontinent. For several years he was a columnist for the New Statesman in Kolkata.

The richness of that experience is evident in this book. Researched over the course of many years, it stitches together history, folklore and hundreds of encounters with individual Bangladeshis to give a thorough picture of the structural injustices that have led to the present situation.

“The position of Bangladesh in the division of labour of globalism today is not to clothe the nakedness of the world but to provide it with limitless, cheap garments,” he writes. “The workers are disposable, rags of humanity, as it were, used up like any other raw material in the cause of production for export.”

In lyrical prose, Seabrook places the personal stories of garment workers and their families in a broader context, showing them as dots in a bigger picture of the destructive effects of British colonisation and the injustices of modern globalisation, but also as the inheritors of their history: a people who have long been associated with weaving, in a country at the mercy of the ­elements, where riverbanks break and ­water consumes whatever scant resources the poor have.

The stories of the people Seabrook meets often extend to just a few paragraphs and the chapters, too, are short, sometimes just a couple of pages. Yet this fragmentary approach never feels disjointed. Rather, each small section layers on the last, gradually building up a complex and textured whole that illustrates the ways in which big ideas – colonisation, industrialisation and deindustrialisation – play out on the smallest of levels.

What distinguishes this book is its deep historical consciousness. Quietly outraged, Seabrook sets out in detail how in the 18th century the East India Company deliberately destroyed the long-established weaving industry in Bengal in order to promote British textiles. At times, he makes specific comparisons, noting that the workers of Bengal were forced to produce opium, which was then used for sedatives and medicines that made things “less harsh for the disaffected and sometimes mutinous workers of industrial Britain”.

He also applies these contrasts, which illustrate relative privilege, to the present day, describing children at a factory in Dhaka who stitch clothes together for the lower end of the European and North American markets. “The children of the poor in Bangladesh are making clothes for the children of the poor in the west,” he writes. Elsewhere, he makes a cross-historical comparison between workers in the north of England in the 19th century and today’s Bangladeshi garment workers. Both groups are casualties of unjust capitalism.

Seabrook travels outside Dhaka, notably to Barisal, a city where poverty is so deep that families – many of which have lost what scant land they had to flooding – have no option but to send their daughters to work in the capital’s garment factories. These brief stories are woven into a fabric that displays the relentlessness of poverty in places hardly touched by modernity and the claustrophobic pressing-inwards of structural inequality.

Seabrook is at his best outlining the living conditions of the poor. He tells their stories dispassionately but vividly, always according his subjects dignity. These are people with the odds stacked against them. Lima, a garment worker who has migrated from Barisal to Dhaka, dreams of earning enough money to purchase land in her village and become self-sufficient. Seabrook explains to readers that it would take her 13 years to earn enough to buy a tenth of the land required for self-sufficiency. “Still, she goes about her daily work meekly obedient; her trust is absolute, both in the future and the grace of a God who will not fail her.”

There is not much hope in The Song of the Shirt but, sadly, that is a realistic representation of the situation. At present, for all the moments of collective outrage, there remains a huge demand in the west for cheap clothing, which is met by the supply of cheap labour in southern Asia. And if cheaper labour appears elsewhere, this industry that has sprung up so quickly that its buildings are hardly fit for purpose will instantly relocate.

Fittingly for what begins as a study of mutability, Seabrook ends with a question: “Will the resourcefulness of humanity demand a new and more ample relationship with material resources, one that does not continuously deplete the reservoirs of human energy, nor exhaust the limited treasures of a wasting planet?” We do not yet have an answer.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism