Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Jonathan Sacks, Simon Mawer and Andrew Blum.

The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning by Jonathan Sacks

The purpose of Jonathan Sacks’s book is not to prove the existence of God, writes Ziauddin Sardar in the Independent, but to demonstrate that it is “quite possible for a rational person to hold religious beliefs”. With “extensive erudition”, Sacks tours the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity and addresses the thoughts of atheists and philosophers in his quest to promote tolerance and challenge religious dogma, which he sees as a primary cause of evil in the world.

Sack’s central argument, that the meaning of a system must lie outside that system, is problematic, says Sardar: “It is easier to argue for the need for something beyond, more difficult to argue for a deity… It would have been more original to argue why God is needed in the first place.” The message that science and religion, explanation and meaning, are complementary is also unoriginal: “Sacks is rather unfamiliar with the rich heritage of Islamic discourse on reason and revelation,” says Sardar.

The exploration of classical Greek and Hebrew thought, though, is “quite brilliant”. Sacks makes “mincemeat” of the “primary school” arguments of militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, says Sardar. And he shows “courage and integrity” on the problems of institutionalised religion: “the warning about the entrapments of power and the need for humility will not sit easily with his colleagues – here in Britain and in Israel. That, in my opinion, only enhances his stature.”

Writing in the Guardian, Richard Holloway agrees: “The compelling thing about Sacks is the passion with which he insists that only God can save us from the tragedy of nothingness.”

The book’s Wittgensteinian argument that “the universe cannot mean itself, only that which lies outside it” leads to an “awkward place”, admits Holloway. For Sacks, the fate of civilization lies in its answer to the God question: while "individuals can live without meaning, societies in the long run cannot". He thus makes the “large claim” that only God can supply the meaning we need. But “what makes Sacks such an attractive combatant in today's wars of religion is the passion with which he engages in the conflict,” says Holloway. “His argument may not persuade, but his passion almost does.”

 

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Simon Mawer

Simon Mawer’s novel about a bilingual girl recruited into the Special Operations Executive, the Second World War European spy network in which 39 women operated, is not without precedent, writes Alex Preston in last week’s New Statesman. Echoes of Sebastian Faulks’s Charlotte Gray abound as Marian Sutro, Mawer’s heroine, leaves her francophone childhood and embarks on a life of danger and excitement as “Alice”, a secret agent dropped into south-western France. The “conceit of nomenclature males the reading of what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward book more difficult and interesting,” says Preston. It forces us to “think about our own role, as readers, in the construction of these simulcra of real people.”

Writing in the Telegraph, Philip Womack calls the book “slick and thrilling and grown-up, like a slightly seedy uncle who smokes, drinks whisky and is always off seeing a man about a dog.” A spy is not necessarily an attractive protagonist, he says, but Mawer “gives us some compelling insights into Sutro – above all, her bravery, and her almost elemental need for risk, as when she jumps out of the plane.” The writing is “smoothly sophisticated” and “full of well-observed phrases,” he says.

“Mawer's wartime textures are extraordinary,” agrees Rachel Cooke in the Guardian: “no page ever reeks of the library; his set pieces are so beautiful you want to read them two or three times over.” While The Girl Who Fell from the Sky cannot match Mawer’s Man Booker-nominated novel The Glass Room, it is “beautifully done”, the precision at times rendering the author “more cartographer than novelist”. The heroine would have been more interesting had she not been “predictably beautiful”, says Cooke. But the overriding message is one of hope: “as numinous as faith, and twice as powerful… you apprehend its loss even as the strange ecstasy of it drives you on.”

 

Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet by Andrew Blum

“The answer to what the internet is,” writes Helen Lewis in last week’s New Statesman, “is cables – and what’s inside them, which is pulses of light flashing a million times a second.” In Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet Andrew Blum journeys across Milwaukee, Texas, Wisconsin, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and even Cornwall to satisfy his curiosity about the internet after a squirrel chewed through his broadband cable, slowing his connection. He wants to know: what happens when you send an email? Where is your Facebook page when you’re not looking at it? What exactly is the world wide web?

Blum sees cables that join together, speeding up the US internet by a fraction, cables that run under the sea, cables in underground hoses in New York. We “occasionally stray close to a good anecdote,” says Lewis. The “sloppily dressed” man who sparked terrorism fears when he appeared at a data centre in Oregon in 2004 requesting huge amounts of data turned out to be an employee from Google. The company is fiercely private as rivals are desperate for information about its engineering.

The most important question raised by the book, though, is never asked, says Lewis. There are mentions of the precariousness of the internet – an engineer from Texas-based Nanog (North American Network Operators’ Group) admits he once cut off Australia because it didn’t pay its phone bill. But if the web is so fragile and so vital, are we doing enough to protect it? “As we put ever more of our lives into ‘the cloud’,” she asks, “are we sure it’s safe there?”

Google's computer centre in the Dalles, Oregon (Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer/Getty Images)
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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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