Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on André Brink, Artur Domoslawski and Claire Kilroy.

With the Man Booker shortlist scheduled to be announced in under a month the review columns are still busily ingurgitating the long list. Last week many of the papers focused André Brink’s Philida, named after its protagonist, a black slave who decides to lodge a complaint against her lover after he reneges on his promise to free her.

Peter Kemp’s review in the Sunday Times was less than adulatory. Recurrent references to tight-knit artistry can’t conceal the fact that Brink gets himself into a hapless ­tangle” he writes, appearing actively affronted by the fact that “the obscene maltreatments of slaves are regularly mentioned but seem to exist in a different realm from the one in which she [Philida] dauntlessly overrides menace”, as a result of which the book “nullifies any sense of the danger and terror her real-life counterpart must have suffered.”

Other reviewers were more positive. Alex Clark writes in the Guardian that it is “an impressively nuanced and ambiguous piece of work” whose “strength lies in the delicate understanding of subtle shifts in power in the Cape Colony's teetering ecosystem”. With these shifts come similarly subtle plays on the reader’s affections: “Brink's achievement is to invoke a measure of sympathy for the fading Dutch colonialists as well” that for their slaves. Yet this doesn’t challenge Philida’s position as the heroine and whilst she “can occasionally feel like a mouthpiece for a rather overworked metaphor … she can also be brilliantly irreverent and almost ribald”. This playfulness acts as a good contrast against the book’s more haunting moments, and these elements of “light and shade that Brink has skillfully introduced into his augmented family history make for a compelling and memorable novel.”

Patrick Flanery, writing in the Telegraph, called it “moving story” that “vividly dramatises the courage required to lay claim to the protections of the law.” “Slaves – both male and female – are repeatedly reminded in Philida that their bodies are not their own”, yet “this is not to suggest that Philida is a passive victim. If she lacks the physical strength to repel unwanted attention from her owners, her command of language becomes ever more defiant.” Whilst it is “familiar territory for Brink”, whose earlier novel Chain of Voices explored a slave rebellion that is also referenced in Philida, and “a familiar story, it is one that must continue to be told, not least by white writers willing, as Brink is, to disinter the histories of complicity buried in their own ancestries.” For it turns out that Philida's "owner" Cornelis, is the brother of one of Brink's ancestors.

The marriage of fact and fiction also occurs in the work of Ryszard Kapuscinski, though somewhat more unfortunately considering his position as a journalist. As such, one of the primary concerns of Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life, biography by Artur Domoslawski, is to chart these inaccuracies.

Ian Birrell remarks in the Guardian that though “as a reporter, his actions were indefensible”, one cannot overlook “the brilliance with which he turned frontline journalism into a form of literature.” Thus, by the end of his “masterful” and “inquisitive” biography, “Domoslawski finally understands his friend and mentor: ‘Ryszard Kapuscinski – the hero of Ryszard Kapuscinski books – is also a fictional character.’” As a result of the the controversies unearthed, the biography “caused a furore when published in Poland two years ago” gripping the country with the “confirmation of collusion with the communist authorities. But what makes it so interesting is that the author does not shred Kapuscinki's reputation, not does he ignore the mounds of uncomfortable evidence. Instead, he peels away and probes with understanding, producing not just a fascinating biography of an important writer but also a subtle study of life under authoritarianism”. Though “at times Domoslawski's style, possibly due to its translation from Polish, seems almost self–consciously to echo its subject's writing”.

Marek Kohn’s review in the Independent, however, sees more of a contrast between the work and its subject. "It refuses to adopt the strategy favored by its author's friend and mentor", for whom the "harmony of the composition counters the disturbance aroused by his accounts of war and the physiology of power." Domoslawski "never spares his readers his discomfort and dismay … He is dedicated in pursuit of evidence… [and] leaves the surfaces unsmoothed and the edges jagged.” Though Kohn does note that “both the text and its subject are tissues of complexes, striving to construct themselves out of their own insecurities.” Despite this shortcoming, he calls the result the “first comprehensive reckoning” with Kapuscinski.

Though Claire Kilroy's The Devil I Know, the fictional testimony of an Irish moneylender named Tristram, isn't poised to court controversy in the way that Domoslawski's book does, Sheena Joughin notes in the Telegraph that “the cover of [her] fourth novel declares her 'a writer unafraid to take risks', which is undeniably true.” What she is doubtful about is whether the risks always pay off, pulling out one of the protagonist's quotes "what precisely the whole sorry mess goes to show – I cannot yet say” with the wry comment that “Kilroy’s greatest risk is perhaps that readers may feel the same way.” "The prose is peppered with puns, sub-Beckettian deadpan, and much inscrutable free-association" and "lacks drama, since Tristram is never excited by the boom his company facilitates, as he would have to be for his oddly insubstantial story to engage us."

Amber Pearson's review in the Daily Mail is less damning, calling the satire “energetic” and “at times genuinely creepy”. The novel “takes delight in literary allusions and diabolical puns, but despite the humour there’s real fury in her portrayal of the casual greed, corruption and wilful delusion that pervaded society ‘like the pox’, creating a belief in a kind of modern alchemy: the conviction that Ireland’s soil could be turned to gold.”

Polish author Ryszard Kapuscinski is the subject of Domoslawski's biography (Photo: Getty Images)
Show Hide image

Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.