Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Lois Banner, Tom Williams and Nell Freudenberger.

 

Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox by Lois Banner

With last Saturday marking the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death many papers chose to feature a review of the latest Marilyn biography by Lois Banner. The text joins another, estimated, 700 books published on Monroe, numbers that would normally suggest a market long since over-saturated. Yet the icon's variable persona, married with her irresistible aurora of sex, intrigue and powerful associates, still invites a limitless and febrile litany of personality hermeneutics. Since her death, authors have tried to paint Marilyn as everything from a dumb blonde, to an intellectual, to a monster, and her death as anything and everything from an accident, to murder, to suicide. Perhaps Banner, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California, can be excused in her attempt to re-empower Marilyn’s legacy by identifying Monroe as a proto-feminist through Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox.

Zoe Slutzy, writing in the New York Times, identifies the essential problem of Monroe’s confused character. “Marilyn is steeped in paradoxes so profound that, even under the microscope, they stir and shift without ever settling into a singular picture. Such is the premise of Lois Banner’s new biography, 'Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox,' which behaves a little like its subject.” She praises the result, writing that, “by the end, Monroe feels at once like an earthly being — an almost-friend — and an enigma, still slightly out of focus and just beyond reach. That seems right.” Yet it’s not lost on her that feminist writer, Gloria Steinem, has already covered familiar ground and similarly came “to see, in the star’s own sadness, in her winking innocence and complex sexuality, a woman straddling the puritanism of postwar America and its dissolution in the ’60s.”

Joan Smith, whose review was published in the Independent, was also reminded of Steinem’s biography, but remains unconvinced that Monroe's tumultuous and haunted life, “has a positive message for women”. Whilst she admits that Banner's account “dispels some myths”, she argues that “the sheer quantity of detail is daunting, and her prose is sometimes excruciating.”

Susie Boyt’s write up in the Financial Times agrees with this verdict, calling the factual content both a “wealth” and “overwhelming”. She also questions whether Banner is suited to write a text for public consumption, criticising Banner’s prose as both over-reliant on academic discourse and at times patronising to the reader's intelligence. However, she concludes that the project is somewhat vindicated by “Banner’s admiration of, and belief in, her subject", which, "really animate the text".

A Mysterious Something in the Light: Raymond Chandler, a Life by Tom Williams

Banner’s biography wasn’t the only book that last week’s critics claimed shared qualities with its subject. There is a double echo in Williams’ biography of Raymond Chandler, with some reviewers arguing that Chandler perceived qualities of his most famous character, Philip Marlowe, in himself and others criticising Williams' text as sharing some of the unfortunate flaws of Chandler’s own writing.

Jake Kerridge writes in the Telegraph that “one of the most fascinating aspects of Tom Williams’s new biography is that it shows how frequently throughout his life Chandler cast himself as the Marlowe-esque hero-knight.” Indeed, this reflection was so vital to Chandler that he was known to lie about his past. Williams uncovers “evidence that contradicts assertions swallowed by previous biographers,” to Kerridge’s praise. “For example, although he certainly fought bravely in the trenches in France during the First World War, Williams has found documentary evidence disproving his claim that he was concussed in a German shell attack that left all his friends dead.” Despite this discovery, Kerridge concludes that Williams has “unearthed little new material.” He further damns the prose “as pedestrian,” but leavens the criticism by acknowledging that William “knows the value of letting Chandler speak for himself".

Though Chandler fantasised of similarities between his protagonist and himself, Craig Brown in the Daily Mail is struck by the fact that “authors are seldom like their creations, but few are quite so different as Raymond Chandler.” Like Kerridge, he sees the book as somewhat lacking in elegance, though he does recommend it as “a good starting point for those who can’t resist a peek past the glittering stage-set of an author’s work to the tawdry mess that so often lies beyond". He perceives the said "mess" of Chandler’s life to also be present in his corpus, arguing that Chandler’s “plots are all over the place … More often than not, he would end up buried in a hopeless tangle of conflicting plot-lines, with the murderer still not caught for the simple reason that the author had no idea which one he was".

This weakness in story-telling is one that Christopher Bray, of the Financial Times, believes to also be apparent in Williams’ writing, whilst several ugly turns of phrase provoke outright disgust. “'The plan he had outlined in 1939 had not unfolded as planned’ ... How many seconds with a thesaurus would it take to lose that ugly repetition?” Yet Bray’s final hammer blow to the coffin nail is a remark on the inconsistency in the portrait that Williams paints. “A slapdash plotter he might have been, but Chandler would never have dared dream up such a contradictory character."

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

Moving on from biographies, is Nell Freudenberger’s third novel, The Newlyweds, a fictional account inspired by a real Deshi "email bride" that Freudenberger met on a plane. It follows a fictional young Bangladedishian woman, Amina Mazid, from her home country to New York to marry a man she met online, George Stillman. For Amina the marriage offers new opportunities and for George a chance at a meaningful relationship, yet “both conceal more romantic yearnings, in Amina’s case for Nasir, son of her father’s oldest friend; George’s lie closer to home. They have, in a manner at once modern and old-fashioned, relinquished these attachments – for now,” writes Catherine Taylor in the Telegraph. “In the third section, Amina, her marriage suffering its first real crisis, returns to Bangladesh to accompany her parents to the US; immediately the novel deepens in insight and drama.” Taylor is largely admiring of the result. “Freudenberger’s depiction of Bangladesh, the interlocking of country and society, is uncanny." “While lacking the effortless prose style of Jhumpa Lahiri, or the political engagement of Tahmima Anam, the richness and restraint displayed here recall Vikram Seth’s epic of pragmatism, A Suitable Boy.”

Kunal Dutta, meanwhile, is interested in how the differences in their agenda for matrimony lead “George and Amina [to] inhabit different mental spaces, and the author reveals the shades of loneliness and isolation that can colour an outwardly perfect union.” Her review in the Independent is largely glowing. “The chapters zip along with purpose and the novel flits effortlessly between the false intimacy of suburban America and the closely knit gossipy communities of Dhaka where Amina returns in the second half.” Yet the distances covered in the novel are not just geographical and cultural, The Newlyweds is a love story woven around the heterotopias of our technocratic world. “What this book does so well is articulate the challenges of mixed marriages in the digital age.” Though Dutta cannot help but notice that “the homage to Starbucks, intended as a US reference point, reads more like a state-sponsored advertorial".

Dutta’s unease is perhaps a seed of Philip Hensher's, who is more overtly troubled by the sterotypically American perspective of the novel. “Too much relies on the questions of who loves whom, and who finds sexual fulfilment most easily", he writes in the Financial Times. He admits that it is “the work of a writer with strong interests in the non-western world,” but sees it as "limited in its analysis" due to its unconvincing preoccupation with American questions. “Since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism 34 years ago, western writers have become much more wary of treating Asian subjects…. feeling that there are too many ways in which the culture can be mistaken and traduced; knowing, too, that Asia has produced many great novelists of its own.” There is a note of melancholy in his words when he writes that “nearly a century after Forster in A Passage to India regretted that no friendship could exist between east and west – "No, not yet" – it seems as large a challenge as ever for a writer to conceive of a Bengali woman’s thoughts when they are not concerned with western preoccupations.”

Women pose beneath the 'Forever Marilyn' statue in Palm Springs. (Photo: Getty)
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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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