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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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