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Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Catherine O'Flynn, Miguel Syjuco and Jackie Kay's autobiography.

The News Where You Are by Catherine O'Flynn

"Catherine O'Flynn's narratives of urban disenchantment answer the challenge for novelists to take the ordinary and make it compelling," writes Rachel Hore in the Independent on Sunday. "In [this, the author's] second fictional outing, a regional TV studio becomes a symbol of the awfulness of modern mass culture."

Frank Allcroft, a forty-something Birmingham newsreader with a morbid interest in the city's dead, is led on a trail to solve the murder of his predecessor, Phil Smethway. "Grim themes, these," writes Hore, "but they are leavened by a flow of laugh-aloud satire" - as when a carpet showroom advert on the radio is described in meticulous, deadpan detail.

For Olivia Laing, however, writing in the Observer, the Costa First Novel Award-winner's evident gifts "seem to have abandoned her here. The News Where You Are is marred, despite its obsession with graves and subterranean shopping centres, by a strange lack of depth. There's a flimsiness to the characters and the plot is contrived. The narrator seems almost addicted to metaphysical pronouncements, but their baldness diminishes their impact."

Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

"Ilustrado," writes the New York Times' Raymond Bonner of the Man Asian Literary Prize- winning novel, "is being presented as a tracing of 150 years of Philippine history, but it's considerably more than that. Just as the country is searching for its identity, its author seems to be searching for his own."

"In a daring literary performance, Syjuco weaves the invented with the factual, putting himself directly into his own fiction." The author's protagonist shares his own immigrant background and many of own life experiences, not to mention his eagerness to expose the corruption endemic in elite Filipino society.

For Angel Gurria-Quintanam in the Financial Times,"beyond Ilustrado's furious skewering of Filipino elites is writing that bristles with surprising imagery." It is, she opines, "an unruly and energising novel [that] pushes readers into considering matters of authenticity, identity and belonging."

But for Adam Mars-Jones, writing in the Observer, "many if not most of the narrative mechanisms ... don't actually work." For him, none of the book's multiform elements - "pseudo-autobiography, broad comedy [or] standard genre-movie motivation ... begin to mesh.." And neither Salvador, the political writer murdered at the start of the story, nor his student-acolyte Miguel who tells it, ever "comes to life."

Red Dust Road: An Autobiographical Journey by Jackie Kay

"As a gay single mother of mixed race, brought up by communist adoptive parents in Glasgow, who walks with a slight limp when she's tired... Jackie Kay ticks every conceivable box"; so writes Daisy Goodwin in the Sunday Times. "But this is no solemn Roots-style search for identity," Goodwin opines, "but a clear-eyed, witty and unsentimental account of the push and pull between nature and nurture."

"Red Dust Road is a fantastic, probing and heart-warming read," agrees Bernardine Evaristo in the Independent on Sunday; "It opens up the conversation around adoption beyond Kay's own personal narrative." "Like the best memoirs," Evaristo writes, "this one is written with novelistic and poetic flair."

 

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