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)
MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad