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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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