Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Zadie Smith, Jeanette Winterson and Pankaj Mishra.

Ever since her debut, White Teeth, Zadie Smith has been the darling of the British literary scene. It therefore came as of something of a surprise when her latest novel, NW, a tragi-comic examination of a small patch of north-west London, was omitted from the Man Booker Prize longlist. Other eminent authors such as McEwan and Amis were also passed over, but in his review of NW for the Scotsman, Stuart Kelly writes that “it is a shame that one of the year’s most delightful, intelligent and fundamentally grown-up novels should be thus overlooked.” “Perhaps some judges winced at a book which manages to include both Kierkegaard and vibrators.” There is little that Kelly finds amiss with it, however, calling it “a triumph, a big social novel that shows that experimental techniques can be deployed to forge memorable and affecting human beings while still knowing a thousand things.” “There are moments that turn into scattered snatches of poetry, interlapping instant messages, McSweeney-ish typographies where the words are arranged into the image of what they represent. The division of the narratives creates a form of ironic, deferred backstory, in each case rendering judgement more rather than less complex.” “A book about connection and disconnection, what binds and what severs, ought to be as subtly discontinuous and cunningly interwoven as this.”

Yet Kelly is alone in full-throated praise. Michiko Kakutani, reviewing it for the New York Times, finds it “clunky”. Despite Smith's “often magical prose” and “radar-sharp ear for dialogue, her visceral sense of place and the rhythms of the London streets [which] make for some animated and memorable scenes in this book”, Kakutani states that “NW and its paper-doll-like characters do a disservice to this hugely talented author and her copious gifts.” “The real problem with NW has less to do with ambition than with vision, energy and generosity of spirit.” “Ms Smith’s attempts at satire — sending up snooty dinner parties and yuppie child care — are predictable in the extreme, as are her efforts to examine the psychological hold that class and money exert on rich and poor alike.” “The ghost of Virginia Woolf’s 'Mrs. Dalloway' haunts NW. Not only does Ms Smith employ a Woolf-like, stream-of-consciousness technique … The death of another 30-something Londoner will intrude upon these women’s lives, much the way the suicide of a stranger intrudes upon a day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway."

Rachael Cooke is somewhat in disagreement with both reviewers, writing in the Observer that “Smith deals in character, not stereotypes; she couldn't give a fig for box-ticking, for the neatness that publishers, and some readers, seem to crave.” But she does note that there are “quite serious flaws” and that “no one is talking it up as the great metropolitan novel we are all (supposedly) waiting for.” NW is a “universe away from the roaring, schematic books of her male counterparts… the main, events, in the biggest sense of the word, are far away. NW's interest is at once more quotidian and more vital.” “Of the literary sketches of which the novel is comprised, she argues that “pretty much every one is brilliantly written. Her sentences are truly, distractingly ace; she has all of the sass of the young Martin Amis, and none of the swagger. But I worried, sometimes, about form… it felt desultory, sometimes.” Though she concludes that “that the wonderful bits more than make up for the less wonderful, and that you should rush to buy this book before the summer is out”. (NW will be reviewed in next week's New Statesman.)

“Were Shakespeare’s three witches simply malign “midnight hags’’ casting spells? Or were they instead social outcasts, women who could see most clearly the truth of the violent male world in which they lived, and who offered not prophecies, but sharp insights?” Sinclair McKay asks in the Telegraph’s review of The Daylight Gate, “Jeanette Winterson’s fictionalised account of a real case – the 1612 trial of the Lancashire “Pendle Witches’’. Noting that the novella is published under the imprint of Hammer, the horror studio, his next question is to ask whether "this be finely wrought fiction or full-throated Grand Guignol? The answer is that it somehow manages to be both.” It is “a book worth reading – utterly compulsive, thick with atmosphere and dread, but sharp intelligence too.” “Winterson makes plain that it is natural for such oppressed women to crave at least an illusion of some power. Funnily enough, class injustice was always deliberately at the root of the old Hammer horror films too; monstrous aristocrats exploiting poor villagers and sucking them dry. Here the theme is at once more direct but rather more subtle. And laced in with this are echoes from Winterson’s own past works – not least this idea of a lurking sense of abuse behind religious fervour.”

Jen Bowden, writing in the Scotsman, believes that “The Daylight Gate is a fast-paced, vivid novella that is every bit as dark, dangerous and sexually charged as one might expect from a storyteller of Winterson’s calibre.” “Part history, part legend, part fairy tale, Winterson’s writing is vivacious and energetic”, and “in Alice, Winterson has crafted a protagonist who is heroic and admirable but uncertain of her own destiny.”

Jane Shilling, in her New Statesman review, agrees that Alice has “Shakespearean qualities” “witty, strong-minded, sexy, clever and resolute” and that "there are high spirits and some real tenderness, often where least expected”. Yet she states reseverations, “this dark story with its fantastical trappings of magick and mysticism, its strong women and wild, Lancastrian setting is Winterson’s natural vigorous as it is, and filled with Winterson’s characteristic intel­ligence and energy, something about the writing feels slightly out of true." "There is a certain two-dimensional or second-hand quality to Alice’s encounters with the real figures of Nowell and Shakespeare.” Though “if it bears signs of having been written to commission, it is still lively and enjoyable: as entertainment, it is entirely satisfactory.”

Pankaj Mishra's From the Ruins of Empire aims to show how China, India and the Muslim world are resisting Western pressure and making their own mark on the world. Jennifer Schuessler interviews Mishra in the New York Times, noting that “Mr Mishra’s flair for the grace note is matched by a sometimes ferocious instinct for the jugular” and that his latest work From the Ruins of Empire, “has already been greeted by some in Britain as a fuller, footnoted riposte to [Niall] Ferguson’s sunny view of Western imperialism”.

Richard Overy's review in the latest issue of the New Statesman, finds the result to be a “intelligent and thought-provoking” boo that draws on a “rich haul of quotations”, yet is “not . . . without problems.” “The path to a modern Asia is potholed by paradox. The idea that Asia represents some kind of alternative to the west is difficult to reconcile with an aggressive Asian capitalism and the vulgar global consumer culture to which it contributes. There is not enough sense here of what is still particular to Asian values and attitudes and how that might be mobilised to contest the competitive, materialist and always potentially violent legacy of the west.” “As one reads this account, one applauds the effort to remind western readers that Asia was never merely a passive recipient of western trespass and at the same time reflects on what is still needed if the new east is not to become a patchwork of comprises with the old west.”

Zadie Smith's latest novel NW comes under review (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

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