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)
Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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