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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism