Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on J. K. Rowling, Edna O'Brien and David Byrne.

The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

After praising her attempt to overcome the Potter legacy and tackle something new, the New York Times’s notoriously sharp-tongued critic Mitchiko Kakutani gives J. K. Rowling’s new book a signature dressing down: “Unfortunately, the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that The Casual Vacancy is not only disappointing – it’s dull.” Kakutani sees the characters as underdeveloped and the “circumscribed lives” of Pagford’s inhabitants technically weak by comparison to the world of Harry Potter where “identity is as much a product of deliberate choice as it is of fate.” A bit more like America then? If the novel’s grim reality disappointed Kakutani, it positively enraged Jan Moir, who saw it as “nothing more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature crammed down your throat.”

However, Boyd Tonkin sees something liberating in J. K. Rowling’s writing about young people, now it is no longer constrained by the censorship required of literature for children: “Rowling’s writing, which can be long-winded and laborious in the clunkily satirical set-pieces, picks up passion, verve and even magic with Krystal and the other adolescents. Indeed, the teens of Winterdown belong in a bolder, richer book than some of the parental caricatures.” George Eliot is a name being floated (The New Yorker dubbed the book “Mugglemarch”) by way of comparison – a woman with keen moral instincts and sharp insights into small-town life, something which Theo Tait in the Guardian sees as the book’s central achievement. “It’s a book that wrestles honourably and intelligently with big moral and political questions, but does so in a slightly clunky and convention-bound way,” he writes. “If you’re irritated by important episodes being telegraphed with phrases such as ‘But then came the hour that everything changed,’ then this is probably not the novel for you. But equally, it offers something more stylish, highbrow fiction often doesn’t or won’t: a chance to lose yourself in a dense, richly peopled world.” Read Margaret Drabble's review in the New Statesman later this week.

Country Girl by Edna O’Brien

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN Commissioner for Human Rights, remembers as a teenager “reading, hidden under a false cover, a dog-eared copy of The Country Girls,” Edna O’Brien’s controversial breakthrough novel of aspiration and female sexuality, “that one of my schoolfriends had managed to get a hold of and passed around among us, and being astonished that she would write these things, and somehow grateful for the insights and revelations the books held.” Mary Kenny sums up the O’Brien “enchantments” which glisten through the book in the Irish Times: “The lushness about nature; the delicate balance of rapture and rupture in recapturing the experience of love; the feminine eye for clothes; the true ear for a story; the sharpness of specific recollections.” Both note the stars with whom O’Brien spent her time in London, entertaining at her home in Carlyle Square – Robinson finding the name-dropping cloying, Kenny the opposite. Rachel Cooke wrote in yesterday’s Observer that “The book falls away as O’Brien grows older; there are repetitions and the writing becomes gluey, more opaque.” Though she quickly counters, “But this hardly matters. The first half is so wonderful, crystalline and true, it seems churlish to complain.”

How Music Works by David Byrne

In Peter Aspden’s FT review of the former Talking Heads frontman and latter day polymath’s new book How Music Works, emphasis is placed on the pie charts, numbers and fiscal reassessment of an illustrious career in music. “The chapter on the economics of music should be required reading for all 16-year-olds tinkering with their GarageBand software and dreaming of dollar signs,” Aspden writes, “while the section on ‘How to Make a Scene’ is nothing less than a manual for urban regeneration through pop culture.” A sometimes memoir sometimes essay collection, what the book appears to lack in autobiographical insight is supplanted with an unflinchingly anatomisation of the musician’s life: the author as data. “It’s a big undertaking, which Byrne approaches with encyclopoedic zeal, drawing on testimony from historians, neuroscientists, philosophers and, in looking at the industry, managers and executives,” writes Fiona Sturges in The Independent. She praises the book in particular for its focus on the reality of a life spent making music without the domineering pop personalities and rock star posturing, a fascinating hodgepodge of authoritative opinion and fact. “[Byrne’s] book offers a meticulously researched and hugely absorbing history of music, focusing on the practices rather than the personalities that have led it to where it is today.”

Margaret Drabble and Edna O'Brien in 1966.
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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide