Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdict on Kate Summerscale, Mark Haddon and Dominic Sandbrook.

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

Critics this weekend were enamoured with Kate Summerscale’s true tale of one Victorian woman’s diary and the matrimonial inequalities that led to “the original” divorce. Mrs Isabella Robinson - an intellectual cloistered in her marriage to adultering husband Henry - becomes infatuated with a young doctor, recording her fantasies in a diary that is to be her eventual downfall. 

Summerscale’s previous book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, won her acclaim for her astute historical storytelling and engaging use of narrative. Afika Akbar of the Independent calls Mrs Robinson “every bit as captivating as her award-winning bestseller … Summerscale has a gift for historical excavation and reconstruction”.

Alexandra Harris of the Guardian echoes this praise, writing: “As a guide to mid-Victorian cultural life… Summerscale is simply superb, and she sets a fine example of what cultural history can do.” She also enjoyed the author’s instinctive handling of specific historical details – she writes: “In other hands, admittedly, this might become tiresome. But Summerscale has a knack of judging just how much we want to know. So she keeps adding strands to the web: divorce law, diary-writing, Victorian dream theory, gentlemen's advice on the advantages of erotic encounters in bumpy carriages.”

She lightly criticises Summerscale’s right to reconstructing a story from often patchy evidence. “Summerscale might have been more upfront about her own methods of narration in a book so concerned with reading, writing and the interpretation of documents,” writes Harris. “There are potentially significant gaps and doubts in a story she strives hard to render as a polished whole. It comes as a surprise, for example, late in the day that Summerscale has not read Isabella's diary, the fateful book having been lost or, more likely, destroyed…I couldn't help feeling that discussion of these matters would have left us better equipped to read Isabella and her times.”

Philip Hensher of the Spectator found a small fault with the book’s structure, writing: “Perhaps there is a problem with the shape of the story — with Constance Kent [of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher], the tale had the natural, conventional framework of mystery, solution, confession and redemption. The Robinson divorce circles around fiction and its fantasies”. Although overall he finds the book “absorbing”, congratulating Summerscale on tackling a more “important” historical case with this text than with her last: “The Robinson divorce is a much more important subject, and yet much less familiar. I’m not sure that there has ever been a full-dress telling of it before. Summerscale’s book is detailed, expansive, and well-informed…”


The Red House by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon’s third novel seems - for most - to have put him further up the literary ladder. Carol Birch writes for the Guardian: “Mark Haddon's second book, A Spot of Bother, made it clear he was becoming a master of the excruciating family set-piece. The Red House confirms it. Family… has become his speciality”. It’s a novel with a conventional conceit, a dysfunctional family unit trapped in a holiday cottage for a week of “bonding”, told through less conventional prose: the text is narrated by the rapidly shifting viewpoints of its eight characters, with dialogue italicised.

It’s a technique that works for some. Birch writes: “Haddon achieves a remarkable mélange of streams of consciousness, snatches of books, music, TV, private thoughts, lists, letters, all intertwined with sharply observed vignettes of everyday banality, soaring flights of description and odd bursts of heavy-handed portentousness”. She continues, “The viewpoint changes constantly, sometimes three or four times in a page. Mostly this works. Gradually, the characters come into focus, some more so than others… It's the young people who steal the book: Alex, lusting after both Melissa and her mother, despising his father and locking horns with alpha male Richard; Daisy seeking meaning in the mess around her, earnestly trying to be good; and selfish Melissa, whose sense of self "depended so much on other people being in the wrong".

Amanda Criag, writing for the Independent, agrees with the strength of Haddon’s youthful characters, writing “Alex is one of the best portraits of a teenage boy I've read for some time. His obsessive masturbation gives the novel its moments of hilarity…”, though she concedes that “he [Haddon] does not give us the profound insights into human nature that this kind of novel needs to make it great”.

Lionel Shriver, in her review for the Financial Times, finds the novel altogether less inspiring.  “Haddon is a gifted writer and lifts the tone above soap opera,” she notes.  “Nevertheless, there is a soporific mildness to this book – to the characters, the plot, and even the writing.” She is wary of his avant-garde literary devises, which “some will see as perfectly agreeable and others will perceive as affected.” (Though of her personal take on italicized dialogue, she bemoans: “I yearn for a single literary writer to rediscover the quotation mark, in all its unpretentious glory.”).

Her final critique sums it up: “In the main this novel fails to meet its flap copy’s promise to explore ‘the extraordinariness of the ordinary’ and instead merely explores the ordinariness of the ordinary. There’s only so much of a frisson of recognition to be garnered from reading about another oral hygiene obsessive who uses the interdental tip on his electric toothbrush.”


Seasons in the Sun: the Battle for Britain, 1974–1979 by Dominic Sandbrook

Seasons in the Sun is Sandbrook’s latest of four large volumes recounting British history from 1956 onwards. The product of prodigious research, the author here tackles the period 1974 – 1979. It was an era the included the Winter of Discontent, the comodification of 1960s radicalism, soaring inflation and a glorification of the individual which set the stage for Thatcherism. Vernon Bogdanor, writing for the New Statesman, calls the book “a remarkable achievement”.

He goes on to praise Sandbrook’s thorough analysis of important social and cultural junctures, especially the political. He writes: “Seasons in the Sun shows convincingly how contingent Thatcher’s triumph actually was. Indeed, she would not even have competed for the Conservative Party leadership had her ally, Sir Keith Joseph, not insisted, in a speech in Birmingham in 1974, that many of Britain’s problems arose from how too many children were being born to young women in social classes four and five, and that “our human stock is threatened”. He questions the freshness of the text, pointing out the narrative “contains little that is new”, but overall calls it “highly enjoyable to read”.

David Edgar of the Guardian calls Seasons in the Sun “a more conservative book than State of Emergency [its predecessor]… partly because Sandbrook has dealt with environmentalism and feminism already”. A thorough examination of the issues examined by the author seems to leave him overall impressed, closing with this: “Sandbrook is right to argue that the 1970s was the moment when our century arrived.”

Keith Lowe reviews most effusively for the Telegraph, agreeing with one book club founder’s assertion that reading Sandbrook “is like stroking yourself”. He continues, “It is not only that this author knows how to tell a good story, it is the subject matter itself that is comforting. It is both long enough ago to be considered history, but recent enough for many of us to have experienced it. Sandbrook is giving us the chance not only to evaluate historical events, but also to reminisce. For those of us who grew up in the Seventies, it’s like sitting down with a friend to talk about old times.”

He applauds the books ability “to show us another side of the Seventies”, here meaning optimism and a thriving culture, rather than political woes. He goes on to note the books timeliness and contemporary relevance. He writes: “Considering the austerity we are experiencing today – and there are many echoes of the Seventies in our present situation – this charming, insightful and thoroughly compelling book is very timely indeed.”

Marraige in the Victorian era could be dissolved only if adultery was proven. (Photo: Getty Images)
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era