Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Adam Phillips, Paul Theroux and Dambisa Moyo.

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, by Adam Phillips

Adam Phillips cares about who you want to be. In this collection of five essays, he claims "that our unlived lives – the lives we live in fantasy, the wished-for lives – are often more important to us than our so-called lived lives.” Christina Patterson claims, in the Independent, that the book is “all interesting stuff … peppered with the kind of insights that make you scrawl 'yes!' in the margins on almost every page.” Focused on the fantasy life, this book is, at its core, about “what you can't and shouldn't want to get.” It attacks these intangible but universal truths of the fantasy life and provides the reader with “glimpses of the real, true, messy and never knowable human heart.”

Talitha Stevenson, in this week’s New Statesman, and James Lasdun, in the Guardian, disagree. Far from showing a glimpse of a messy truth, this collection of essays seems to have messed lines of literature and psychiatry to the point of obscurity. Lasdun argues that “the places where Phillips permits himself to write from direct professional experience are incomparably more persuasive and engaging, and I wished there were more of them.” Stevenson echoes this, going so far as to say that although Phillips is “master of the lexical sleight of hand”, his movement between psychoanalyst and literary critic leaves a confused style which “is all so elegant, so intelligent, that to point this out is to call the emperor naked.” Despite the truths which Patterson may have found in this book, it seems that many of the concepts are left to be too abstract, poetical and beautifully obscure. In Stevenson’s words “to favour fantasy-fantasy over reality-fantasy is to fantasise a great deal away”.

The Lower River, by Paul Theroux

The Lower River paints a “savage, sometimes shocking story of love lost and won”, reports Christopher Hope in the Guardian. A story of an American returning to happy memories of being upheld as a hero in an undeveloped African village, Theroux’s novel follows closely the deep disappointment of a man whose hopes are reduced by reality. Touching on truth, both autobiographical and political, The Lower River “is a masterly, moving portrait of how Africa ensnares and enchants and plays merry hell with sentimentalities.” More than that, it manages to depict honestly the impact of the aid which Hock, the main character, so loved providing to this small African village, which left the years later “hungry, desperate and angry”, “unhappier and more dependent than ever”. This book reads true and by that it is “likely to cause some consternation- and so much the better if it does.”

Philip Womack, writing in the Telegraph, argues that novels about Africa are steeped in literary history, from Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, both empowering and constraining the modern writer. Theroux’s writing rises to the challenge and with “solemn, sleek sentences of acute descriptive ability” he is able to “induce a tension of uncanny grip”. With a delicate understanding of the subject matter, both the internal struggle for a return to happiness and the external realities of the difficulties of the villagers, Theroux succeeds in moving beyond the constraints of  the Heart of Darkness. He creates a “tensely woven fiction that is a shocking commentary on human nature, and how it deals, brutally, with what it believes to be “other””.

Winner Take All, by Dambisa Moyo

Dambisa Moyo’s first book, Dead Aid, received widespread accreditation and support. Writing on aid in this week’s issue of the New Statesman, she put forward a debate to rival that of Paddy Ashdown. High hopes, therefore, surrounded the release of Winner Take All. They were hopes which David Blair, writing in the Telegraph, claims were dashed. The issue of the longevity of China’s meteoric growth is increasingly important in an economically uncertain world; “this is just the moment for a good China book, soberly assessing the country’s prospects, refusing to assume that the future must be like the past”. A “good China book” is not, he argues, what Moyo has produced. It is, instead “a flawed and frustrating book, simplistic, poorly written, careless with facts and largely devoid of originality”. Lacking original research, “this book clearly owes much to Google: the author relies entirely on reports downloaded from the United Nations and sundry think tanks.” Worse, though, the book manages to paint a picture of disaster without a focus on the possibility of reduced growth: “Wen Jiabao’s worries about the future viability of China’s model are not even considered.”

John Gapper, at the Financial Times, has more time for Moyo’s book. He argues that “one cannot accuse Moyo of failing to do her homework. So much has been packed into it that her book is impossible to read without learning something. Even asides such as her explanation of the potential and risks of shale gas fracking are replete with numbers and tables.” However, even with this compliment, Gapper admits, that rather than being a measured and considered weighing of arguments, Winner Take All is “a warning of crippling resource scarcity”, “a Malthusian future of shortages of everything from water to food”. Winner Take All appears unbalanced and unconsidered, but above all, when looking at the picture Moyo paints of the future “In the end, we have to hope she’s wrong”.

The mixed impact of international aid and intervention is considered in Theroux's fiction and Moyo's reports. Picture: Getty Images
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis