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)
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear