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)
Photo: NRK
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Skam, interrupted: why is the phenomenally popular teen drama ending before its peak?

The show has been building towards high school graduation – but now it’s ending before its lead characters finish school.

“Have you heard they started their bus already?”
“No!”
“One month into high school – and they started their bus.”

This Skype conversation between Eva and Isak comes early in the first episode of Skam. The phenomenally internationally successful series follows teenagers at a high school in Oslo. The “bus” they're discussing is a key plot point and concern of the students' lives. That’s because, in Norway, graduating high school students participate in “russefeiring” – it’s a rite of passage into adulthood, a celebration of completing high school, and a farewell to friends departing for university or jobs around the country.

Students gather into groups, give their gang a name, wear matching coloured overalls, rent a big car or a van, and spend late April to mid May (17 May – Norwegian Constitution Day) continuously partying. They call it the “three week binge”. It’s a big fucking deal. 

Skam, with its focus on teens in high school, has therefore spent a lot of time thinking about “russ”. The show, which is set at the exact same time it airs, has followed its four main characters Eva, Noora, Isak and Sana (who each have a season of the show written from their perspective, a la Skins), as well as all their friends, from their first few weeks at school in September 2015. In other words, preparations take years, and we’ve heard a lot about the plans for their russ bus.

In season one, Eva has fallen out with her best friend, and is hurt when she hears she is moving on and has formed a new bus, with new friends, called Pepsi Max.

We meet one of the show’s most prominent characters, Vilde, when we see her trying to get a bus of girls together. The show’s five main girl characters, Eva, Noora, Vilde, Chris and Sana, become friends because of her efforts: they bond during their “bus meetings” and fundraising attempts. They flirt with a group of boys on a bus calling themselves “The Penetrators”.

The latest season follows Sana’s struggles to ensure the bus doesn’t fall apart, and an attempt to join buses with rivals Pepsi Max. The joyful climax of season four comes when they finally buy their own bus and stop social-climbing, naming themselves “Los Losers”. Bus drama is the glue that keeps the show together.

But now, in June 2017, a whole year before the characters graduate, Skam is ending. The architect of the girls’ bus, Vilde, has never had her own season, unlike most of her friends. Many assumed that Vilde would have had her own season during her final year at school. Fans insist the show’s creator Julie Andem planned nine seasons in total, yet Skam is ending after just four.

The news that Skam would stop after season four came during the announcement that Sana, a Muslim member of the “girl squad”, would be the next main character. The show’s intense fandom were delighted by the character choice, but devastated at the news that there would only be one more season. “I can’t accept that this is the last season,” one wrote on Reddit.

“I'm so shocked and sad. It’s honestly just...weird. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we’re not getting a Vilde season. Most importantly, it’s not fair that we’ll never get to see them on their russ, see them graduating, nothing. It seems like such an abrupt decision. It doesn’t serve the storyline at all.”

No one has given a concrete reason about why the show ended prematurely. Ina, who plays Chris, said in an interview that “we all need a break”.

Some fans went into denial, starting petitions to encourage Andem to continue with the show, while rumours abound suggesting it will return. 

Many speculated that the show simply became too popular to continue. “I think that the show would have had six seasons and a Vilde season if the show didn’t become popular outside of Scandinavia,” one wrote. “I think the pressure and the large amount of cringy fans (not saying that some Scandinavian fans aren’t cringy) has made making the show less enjoyable for the actors and creators.”

Andem has stayed mostly quiet on her reasons for ending the show, except for a statement made via her Instagram. She recalls how very early on, during a season one shoot, someone first asked her how long the show would last:

“We were standing in the schoolyard at Nissen High School, a small, low-budget production crew, one photographer, the sound engineer and me. ‘Who knows, but I think we should aim for world domination,’ I said. We all laughed, ‘cause I was obviously joking. None of us understood then how big Skam would turn out to be. This experience has been completely unreal, and a joy to be a part of.”

Skam has been a 24/7 job,” she continues. “We recently decided that we won’t be making a new season this fall. I know many of you out there will be upset and disappointed to hear this, but I’m confident this is the right decision.”

Many fans feel that season four has struggled under the burden of ending the show – and divisions and cracks have appeared in the fandom as a result.

Some feel that Sana’s season has been overshadowed by other characters and plotlines, something that is particularly frustrating for those who were keen to see greater Muslim representation in the show. Of a moment in season four involving Noora, the main character from season two, one fan account wrote, “I LOVE season tw- I mean four. That’s Noora’s season right? No wait, is it Willhell’s season??? What’s a Sana.”

Others feel that the subject of Islam hasn’t been tackled well in this season. Some viewers felt one scene, which sees Sana and her white, non-Muslim friend, Isak, discuss Islamophobia, was whitesplainy. 

One popular translation account, that provides a version of the show with English subtitles, wrote of the scene: “A lot of you guys have been disappointed by the latest clip and you’re not the only ones. We do want to finish this project for the fans but we are disappointed with how this season has gone.” They announced they would be translating less as a result.

The final week of the show has been light on Sana. Instead, each character who never received a full season has had a few minutes devoted to their perspective. These are the other girls from the girl squad, Vilde and Chris, and the boyfriends of each main character: Eva’s ex Jonas, Isak’s boyfriend Even, Eva’s current fling “Penetrator Chris” and Noora’s on-off boyfriend William.

It’s understandable to want to cover key perspectives in the show’s final week, but it can feel teasing – we get a short glimpse into characters' home lives, like Vilde struggling to care for her depressed mother, but the scene ends before we can really get into it. And, of course, it takes precious time away from Sana in the show’s final minutes.

Some were frustrated by the characters focused on. “Penetrator Chris” is a particularly minor character – one fan account wrote of his scene: “This is absolutely irrelevant. 1) It sidelines Sana 2) It asks more questions 3) It doesn’t answer shit. This isn’t even Sana’s season anymore and that’s absolutely disgusting. She didn’t even get closure or ten episodes or anything.

“Sana has been disrespected and disregarded and erased and sidelined and that is fucking gross. She deserved better. Yet here we are watching a Penetrator Chris clip. How ironic that it’s not even called just “Christopher” because that’s all he is. “Penetrator Chris”.

It’s been a dramatic close for a usually warm and tight-knit fan community. Of course, many fans are delighted with the final season: their only sadness is there won’t be more. One of the largest fan accounts tried to keep things positive. “I know people have mixed feelings about Skam and who deserves what in terms of screentime this season (etc),” they wrote, “which I totally understand.

"However, everything has already been filmed, so there is nothing we can do about it. I think this last week of Skam will be much more enjoyable for everyone if we focus on the positives in the clips ahead. Skam isn’t perfect. People are allowed to disagree. But let’s go into this week being grateful for everything Skam has given us.”

Some fans choose to look to what the future holds for the show – an American remake. It will keep the same characters and plotlines as the original, and Andem may be involved.

Few think it will be a patch on the current show, but some are excited to have the chance to watch it teasingly as a group regardless. It seems unlikely that the US remake will compare in terms of quality – not least because the original was so heavily researched and tied to Norwegian culture. But for fans struggling to let go of Skam, it can’t come soon enough.

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

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