Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Jon McGregor, Tony Judt and Faramerz Dabhoiwala.

This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You by Jon McGregor

In the Telegraph, Catherine Taylor notes the historically and geographically specific settings of the stories in Jon McGregor's debut collection: "[They are set] mostly around the sparsely populated flatlands of eastern England ... like all his work, precisely of [their] place and time". Taylor admires the specificities of character and situation: "The pivotal moments appear almost insignificant, but brim with drama and import - the dangerous listlessness of a couple of baleful ex-cons living in a caravan on a wealthy eccentric's estate; a harassed vicar's wife's angry, helpless acceptance of a mysterious uninvited guest". Though these stories can sometimes seem like "exercises in the limitations of the form," Taylor argues, "empathy remain[s] intact".

Linda Grant wonders, in the Financial Times, whether McGregor will commit himself to prose or aphorism: "One story is no longer than a two-sentence joke: 'Chinese restaurants, launderettes, baked potato vans. These are a few of my favourite extractor-fans.' " But, Grant goes on, debates about how to categorise the work would be a distraction: "Must we rummage around for new definitions of fiction? To do so would be to limit the pleasure for most readers of this evocation of the fenlands and towns of Lincolnshire, a place apart, the sky criss-crossed by military aircraft and the sounds of practice bombing." For Grant, McGregor's strengths lie not in structured eloquence but in explorations of the rugged: "The lyrical is not present in 'fine writing' but in the evocation of the feeling on your face of damp air and the sight of abandoned telephone boxes, soggy fields and the conical chimneys of power stations."

The NS published a story from This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You earlier this year.

Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt, with Timothy Snyder

Tony Barber, in the Financial Times, notes that Thinking the Twentieth Century, a series of interviews Timothy Snyder conducted with the late historian Tony Judt, is as much biography as it is historical analysis: "It escorts the reader through nine dimensions of Judt's life, each given its own chapter heading: Jewish questioner, English writer, political Marxist, Cambridge Zionist, French intellectual, east European liberal, European historian, American moralist and, finally, social democrat. As these labels indicate, Judt was no inhabitant of an ivory tower but an adventurous, restless man who rarely stayed in the same city or academic post for long."

But for all Judt's wit and spontaneity, a coherent outlook emerges here: "The central message of Thinking the Twentieth Century is what Judt calls 'the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it'. If Lenin, Hitler, Stalin and Mao were abominable gangsters and tyrants, the intellectuals who defended them were also culpable." Barber concludes: "He is right: knowledge of history, though no guarantee against abuses of power, contributes something to sustaining freedom. Tony Judt's life was a brave and vibrant tribute to this truth."

In the Guardian, Neal Ascherson is struck by the improvised quality of the Judt-Snyder dialogue: "The two are talking without notes, references or inhibitions. As they grow excited, one thing leads off into another, and Snyder - as editor - hasn't made the mistake of imposing too much thematic order. He did, however, persuade Judt that he ought to talk about himself and his personal life as well as his opinions." For Ascherson, there is a defining paradox in the book : "[Judt is] right, surely, that we should remember th[e 20th] century not only for war and Holocaust, but for the most magnificent humane achievement in history. Judt and Snyder ask each other if it would take disaster, even wars, to retrieve that spirit."

The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution by Faramerz Dabhoiwala

Germaine Greer, in the Guardian, takes issue with apparent holes in Dabhoiwala's scholarship: "It is not enough to show that somebody somewhere was thinking thoughts that we might think of as amazingly progressive, without investigating whether those ideas were leavening public discourse or changing the attitudes of the multitude" she complains. She prods affectionately at Dabhoiwala rather than sternly upbraiding him: "Perhaps because he is a member of the other place, Dabhoiwala ignores the kinds of economic, social and demographic history that were systematised at Cambridge" . But soon she is back engaging in more abrasive critique, noting "He nowhere tests his basic assumptions against actual behaviour." Also missing is that essential historical tool, a grasp of chronology: "For Dabhoiwala, the whole of western history begins somewhere in the middle ages".

In the Financial Times, Lucy Worsley argues that looks can be deceptive: "The beautiful cover of The Origins of Sex shows a lady with an enigmatic smile, hiding her breast beneath a shawl. She's serene and lovely but there's nothing overtly sexy about her. You'll need to read what's inside to discover that she was the celebrity Georgian prostitute Kitty Fisher." Worsley wonders if Dahboiwala's overview of medical and theoretical thinking on sex, and his "laudable" inclusion of philosophical and literary sources, irnores more general questions of instinct and feeling: "Just occasionally", she allows, "there's a glimpse of them ... But this is a brief flash of colour amid a lot of grey."

The Origins of Sex will be reviewed in a future issue of NS.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis