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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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood