Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Junot Diaz, Naomi Wolf and Pat Barker.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

“Junot Díaz’s short story collection is so sharp, so bawdy, so raw with emotion, and so steeped in the lingo and rhythms of working-class Latino life that it makes most writing that crosses the Atlantic seem hopelessly desiccated by comparison,” effuses Sukhdev Sandhu in the Telegraph. “This Is How You Lose Her could have been an exercise in ghetto picaresque, a kind of Latino Shameless… But Díaz – so acute, so dexterous – is more ambitious than that. He has the ability not only to make you laugh, but to wince with pain, to feel that you’re being offered tender X-rays into social worlds that are too often ignored by the gatekeepers of mass media.” Sandhu makes sure to emphasise the key role that language plays in the book: “Díaz is both a minimalist – scraping, chiselling, honing his prose into its flinty essence – and a maximalist who’s capable of code switching, flipping between the colloquial and the highbrow, creating a taut lexical calabash made up of Caribbean phrases, black American vernacular and the playful pugilism of urban street banter.”

Sarah Hall’s review in the Guardian also picks out the language as the defining characteristic of This is How You Lose Her, in particular the narrative style of Yunior, the protagonist, which she calls “a mixture of identities and languages, Spanish slang, English slang, sci-fi, highbrow, street, Ameri-vario-cana. He's also extremely funny,” she adds “and, though frequently pitiful, is not self-pitying.” Hall believes that the most affecting narratives in the collection are those told in the second person, which she acknowledges might have been “a potentially overpowering device in the hands of a lesser writer,” but in the capable hands of Díaz become “a masterpiece of skill and sensitivity, which makes full use of this mode's fascinating inside-out quality.”

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Toby’s Room, the latest novel from Pat Barker, has been largely praised by the critics. “Her prose remains fresh, humanely business-like, crisp and unsentimental,” writes Freya Johnston in the Telegraph. “Images are scrupulously vivid, and the plot has real momentum. One strength of her writing, suggested by her title, is the description of spaces and buildings – including the cathedral-like structures of the dissected human body.”

Leyla Sanai at the Independent thinks that the value of Toby’s Room lies in Barker’s ability to convincingly depict plausibly flawed characters, as well as her refusal to paint situations as black and white. “As well as the more monumental themes, Barker conveys ordinary lives with skill,” she says, before going on to write that “in Barker's fiction, nothing is clear-cut – people are a mix of good and bad; destructive wars are fought for laudable aims. And facts… are multi-faceted and eroded by recall and subjectivity.”

The book follows on from 2007’s Life Class, giving the reader a chance to follow the fortunes of the young artists that Barker portrayed so vividly then. But Hermione Lee, writing in the Guardian, thinks that “Toby's Room is not treated as a sequel, and the connection between the two novels is a bit awkward, with earlier relationships and events having to be clumsily back-filled. Barker has never been a thrilling stylist, and can often sound ordinary… But you don't go to her for fine language, you go to her for plain truths, a driving storyline and a clear eye, steadily facing the history of our world. In these respects, Toby's Room doesn't disappoint.”

Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf

In the New Statesman’s review of Naomi Wolf’s latest offering, Helen Lewis discovers that Wolf’s return to feminism is not much more than a combination of pseudoscience and psychobabble that doesn’t quite work together. “The frontiers of western science are represented as underscoring the ancient insights of mystics, preferably eastern ones,” she explains. “Although it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to suggest that a chronically bad sex life can affect your overall mood, often the science and self-help make uncomfortable bedfellows.” Lewis concedes that Wolf does have some valid points to make: “the section on the use of mass rape in war zones to dispirit and control the female population is both tragic and insightful… It’s a more sympathetic view than the 'all men have the potential to be rapists' approach and seems more likely to be true.” Ultimately, however, she remains unimpressed and disappointed with the direction Naomi Wolf has decided to take in this latest work. “Reading this book left me downcast. Has the Naomi Wolf I loved in The Beauty Myth really drowned in a soup of psychobabble about 'energies' and 'activating the Goddess array'? It seems so.”

Melanie McGrath’s review in the Telegraph picks out a further problem with the book. “Vagina is to be admired for its clear-minded and persuasive synthesis of new research on female sexuality, but by dividing the book into sections dealing, respectively, with 'misunderstandings', 'social control' and “the modern pressures desensitising men and women to the vagina”, Wolf sets up the vagina as essentially problematic and by pointing the finger at those of us with 'unliberated vaginas' she introduces yet another standard against which we women are judged and exhaustingly judge ourselves.”

Junot Diaz's short story collection has been well received by critics. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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