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Reviews Round-Up

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

Zadie Smith's latest novel NW comes under review (Photograph: Getty Images)

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.”