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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Only Drake could wow the O2 by pointing out random audience members' clothing

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through.

On the last London night of his Boy Meets World tour (20 March), Drake doesn’t come on stage until 10pm, which is enough to kill off most gigs at the O2 Arena (hello, Bieber), as people are worried about getting the Tube home. The amount of rum and Coke in the room – a steaming, unrecognisable space with a false ceiling of globular lights and a stampeding crowd split in half by a fence – certainly helps keep the buzz. But who’d have thought that a man standing onstage diligently pointing at audience members and saying what they’re wearing (“You in the blue dress shirt with the ­lager!”) would constitute one of the most exciting nights the O2 has seen in a while?

“Tonight is not a show, not a concert, not about me,” says Drake, who runs an annual “Drake Night” in Toronto and once visited Drake University in Iowa.

So far, the world’s favourite rapper – his latest album, More Life, recently got 90 million streams on its first day of release on Apple Music alone – has had a shifting identity. His songs capture a new strain of emotionally literate but solipsistic hip-hop, which can feel intense or whiny depending on how you look at it. His offstage behaviour is Type-A rapper – he has been accused of throwing beer bottles at Chris Brown, he has been punched by Diddy and he has had altercations with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Ludacris.

But Aubrey Drake Graham, the son of a white, Jewish mother and an African-American father who once played drums alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, does skits about his petulance on Saturday Night Live (see “Drake’s Beef”). Emotionally demonstrative, openly dysfunctional, a bit of a bruiser, with an ability to flit between a dozen styles of music while expressing a desire for crowd participation that borders on the needy . . . Could this man be the ­Michael Bublé of hip-hop?

Drake’s sprawling two-hour roadshow is held back from chaos by the force of his physical presence. Blunt-headed with muscular, sloping shoulders and mesmerising, nimble feet, he prowls the edge of the stage. He has had so many hits (and has so many guest stars tonight) that he is not interested in playing them all the way through. Instead, recalling Prince in the same venue ten years ago, the show becomes a series of medleys. With just a drummer and a synth player at the back of the stage, he demonstrates an invisible, physical control over the music, operating it like a string puppet, stopping or starting songs with the drop of a foot or the shrug of a shoulder, so they collapse in the middle and are gone.

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through. Pointing at people in the audience, real or imaginary, is a music hall thing. Bruce Dickinson and Metallica’s James Hetfield do it too. Amid a hokey message to follow your dreams, he recalls his time spent singing for $200 a night as a John Legend tribute act. Cue a perfect demonstration of Legend-style singing – before he suddenly sloughs off “all this bathrobe-and-candle-sexy acoustic Ed Sheeran shit”, while huge columns of flame engulf the stage.

Drake is still at his best with blue, slinky songs of alienation – “9”, “Over”, “Feel No Ways” and “Hotline Bling”, which doubles up as make-out music for the couples in the crowd. One pair of lovers, Drake establishes during one of his crowd surveys, have been together for ten years. “I can’t even make a relationship last ten days,” he laments. In 2012, he told the Guardian, “I’ve had too many girls to ever feel uncomfortable about the man that I am.” An old-school boast from a modern man.

The guest stars serve to highlight Drake’s variety, rather than shine on their own. Their songs, too, are started, suspended, chopped and screwed. Drake is more macho when there’s another guy onstage with him – doing “Successful”, with the literally named Trey Songz, or dueling with thefrenetic Skepta, who sounds so much tougher (maybe because he’s a Londoner). The two whirl around the stage like helicopter seeds.

Nicki Minaj, apparently Drake’s one-time lover, rises fembotishly from a hole in the stage and says in a London accent, “I want some fucking crumpets and tea.”

She adds, of her host, “This nigga single-handedly changed the game.” Minaj sings her song “Moment 4 Life”: “I call the shots, I am the umpire . . .” But she doesn’t really. Even her presence flares up quickly and is gone.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution