Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on A M Homes, Jack Straw and Robert Peston.

May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes.

“A M Homes is a masterful dissector of modern American life,” writes Viv Groskop in the Guardian. “She excels in portraying the minutiae of a dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?), creating characters who are both repellent and magnetic. Her writing exerts a push-pull that feels like being in a hall of mirrors. You want to run away but you find yourself compelled to look at the reflection.” The novel, which revolves around two brothers, George and Harry, respectively a TV executive and a Nixon scholar, has been called “a hand-wringing examination of the American dream” by Tim Auld in the Telegraph, with “Nixon and the legacy of his corruption cast as a symbol of the nation’s current dark night of the soul”. In her essay in this week’s New Statesman, Homes remembers how “The 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters ordered by President Nixon and the subsequent Watergate scandal had a big impact in confirming my sense of what was right and wrong”. May We Be Forgiven, which begins with George mowing down a family in his car before escaping from a psychiatric unit to find his brother Harry in bed with his wife, is darkly aware of the full-scale havoc abuses of power can produce. Homes continues: “It was at that moment I realised that Washington was not just an oddly old-fashioned swampy southern town but that the decisions made there, the reverberations of one man’s behaviour, were not just local, but national and even global.” A review of Homes’s novel will feature in next week’s issue of the New Statesman.

Last Man Standing by Jack Straw.

The Daily Mail’s Craig Brown compliments Straw’s “unexpectedly interesting” autobiography, stating “The capacity in politics to bore others without boring yourself is much underrated, and it is probably the reason why Jack Straw was, as the title has it, the Last Man Standing”. Straw, in fact, boasts of his anorak status and capacity to filibuster controversy into submission. “On another occasion, chairing discussions about Turkey’s entry into the EU, he purposely kept delegates talking until two in the morning. ‘I judged that if I could get most delegates to a state of catatonic exhaustion then a consensus might follow.’” And yet the Telegraph’s Parliamentary Sketchwriter Michael Deacon finds fault in the idea that this quality will transmute into entertaining prose. “For most of the book,” Deacon writes, “Straw makes the number one error of political memoirists: he writes about politics.” “With books of this type you mainly want to know what the memoirist is like, and ideally you want to learn that he’s some kind of monster. We’ve paid our £20 – now give us scandal, bitching, affairs. But Straw is frustratingly reasonable and, worse, reserved. He suffered ‘serious depression’ - yet devotes three paragraphs to it, compared with pages lavished on ruminations for the need for a Cabinet Government Act ‘prescribing the duties of the prime minister.’” As if reviewing an entirely different book, Peter Hain praises “a tour de force through the fluctuating fortunes of the Labour party from the mid-1960s to the 2010 election defeat.” With perhaps an interest in bolstering the political memoir (his own was recently released in paperback), the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales emphasises the personal, Straw’s attention to detail, experiences that accompany an undoubtedly prodigious political career. “Some memoirs by former Labour politicians generated headlines and big serialisation fees – promptly to disappear, quickly remaindered.” I wonder who he has in mind. “This book will stand the test of time.”

How Do We Fix This Mess? By Robert Peston and Laurence Knight.

The BBC’s business editor has written a book fully titled How Do We Fix This Mess?: The Economic Price of Having It All, and the Route to Lasting Prosperity, from which The Economist, in a largely dismissive review, proceeds: “As the convoluted title of this books suggests, Robert Peston struggles to focus on one topic.” Picking out a handful of facts which underline the powerlessness of anyone at all to call the financial industry to order – for example the report by Bank of England economist Andrew Haldane which estimated the implicit subsidy British taxpayers provided to banks during the crisis at £57 billion (or £914 per person), or the study by consultancy firm Obermatt which argued there is “no correlation between pay for senior executives and stock performance on the FTSE 100” - still, Peston’s grand-narrative of collapse mainly incites opprobrium. “The author’s ability to decipher what went wrong at British banks does not translate into how to fix them,” the review concludes. Former Guardian editor Peter Preston agrees with this sentiment - “now conventional calls for more rigid regulation, more visionary leadership, more public acceptance of hardship and toil” are not “overwhelmingly convincing” - yet allows for more than a few sentences to talk about the book’s achievements. He writes that Peston (and his quiet accomplice Laurence Knight) were “utterly right” to turn “some of the fire on journalists themselves, on the dogs that didn’t bark.” He defends Peston’s credibility and lauds the scope of his outlook, as does Mark Damazer in the New Statesman: “If, every few years, he needs to breathe out and write a long book, we should encourage it.” Preston expands the jaunty title to five sentences which deftly supply the overriding question driving the book: “Peston, from his earlier stints on the Investors Chronicle and the FT, was more up to speed than most. He’d followed the mushroom growth of foreign exchange trading, bond markets, the whole derivatives industry offering you a speculative punt-cum-malign insurance hedge bet on ‘the weather in the Caribbean, the unemployment rate in Japan, the risk of political unrest in China’. Make that $43 trillion of unallocated loans, around 61% of global GDP. Set these swirling currents of funny money flowing across the world each morning against the shrinking reserves that banks were required to keep liquid and guard against very rainy days, and anyone who understood the true situation could see big, big trouble building. But who, in reality, spotted such looming peril?”

Straw's memoir joins the ranks at the conference bookstall. Photo: Getty Images.
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In Kid Gloves, Knausgaardian style provides a route through a writer's grief

Adam Mars-Jones has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism