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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

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

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