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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit