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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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution