Reviews Round-up: Badinter, Moran, Dikötter and de la Pava

The critics' verdicts on new book about TV viewing habits and the Chinese Revolution, as well as the reception of Sergio de la Pava's self-published debut "A Naked Singularity".

The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, by Elizabeth Badinter

First published in 2010 by French historian and philosopher Elizabeth Badinter, The Conflict describes the author’s issues with contemporary maternal culture. Badinter not only disputes the ‘nature-is-best’ attitude at the core of modern parenting advice, but holds that this approach actually has a significantly negative impact on the women who are affected by its fundamental tenets.

Claudia Casper, for The Globe and Mail, gives a good overview of the ‘new maternalism’ that Badinter is so opposed to. Studies from biology, psychology and anthropology converged on the view that mothers should: “breastfeed on demand, be responsive to the child's feelings and every need, and put their own need to succeed, to socialize and have passionate sex lives a distant second to the needs of their children”. Casper draws attention to Badinter’s conclusion that it is “the overwhelmingly intensive demands of this new mothering” that is the “reason women are delaying having children, having fewer, or choosing to have none”.

According to Rachel Hewitt of The Guardian, the book “shows that naturalism is a philosophy, not an objective truth”. Hewitt highlights the domination of the modern maternal culture by naturalism; specifically, the impact that this has on mothers through the mechanism of guilt. This situation “can generate extreme guilt in those who do not, or cannot, live up to its high standards”. The danger is that this “encourages women to equate the extent of their self-sacrifice to their success as mothers”.

Diane Johnson, for the New York Review of Books, notes that part of the naturalism advocated involves: making women feel guilty for choosing work over motherhood; for returning to work post-birth; for using child-care; and for choosing to not breastfeed. These ‘attendant strictures’ have “the effect of controlling women and seeking to reconcile them to their lack of independence and worldly influence, binding them to their place (the home), keeping them economically disadvantaged (out of the workplace), and frustrating their individual talents and ambitions”.

Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV, by Joe Moran

Armchair Nation is a small encyclopaedia of television. It covers a vast range of material and milestones in limited depth, but maintains the reader’s attention. The author, Joe Moran, is a newspaper journalist and professor of English and Cultural History. The depth of research brought from his academic background shows through, but without being overbearing.

Dominic Sandbrook of The Sunday Times, highlights the effort made by Moran to give a balanced view of the impact that television has had on society. Everyone is familiar with the accusations against television. One of the most common of these is it stupefying effect. “Almost from the very first broadcast, high-minded types rushed to dismiss it as the opium of the masses, dulling the senses and debasing the intellect”. However, Sandbrook also notes the positive societal effects of television, such as cultural enrichment. “In rural Worcestershire, one writer overheard farm labourers chatting about Margot Fonteyn and Shakespeare, having come across them by accident after switching on for the boxing”.

Phil Hogan from The Guardian, summarises a variety of anecdotes from the first audibly transmitted airing of the word ‘fuck’ to the reinvention of snooker “with black tie and absurd new rituals”. The rebirth of snooker displays, according to Hogan, the power of television in “its repetition and reach, in its restless urge to replace one novelty with the next – to normalise the unusual and reshape a nation's conventions and tolerances”.

John Van der Kiste, writing for thebookbag.com, applauds Moran’s selection skills: “the author has done a sterling job in paring it down to the essentials”. Kiste highlights the section in which reality television is “castigated”, refering particularly to The X Factor: “a programme which claimed to be empowering but was actually infantilising, and one which flattered viewers by reminding them constantly that the result was in their hands, while getting them to pay to provide free product testing on new artists”.

The Tragedy of Liberation, by Frank Dikötter

After winning the Samuel Johnson Prize for his 2011 book Mao’s Great Famine, a study of the Great Leap Forward, Frank Dikötter tackles the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in his new work The Tragedy of Liberation. Contrary to many historians, Dikötter argues that the foundations of the society were just as disturbing as the subsequent decades, in a system characterised by unrelenting violence and state force.

Rana Mitter, writing for the Guardian, is impressed by this “angry” book, detailing the “violence and used coercion, both psychological and physical” employed by the state during its foundation. He is pleased by the emphasis placed on the rural population, commenting that “the history of China’s urban population has attracted more attention over the years, but Dikötter forces the gaze back to China's peasants, who were promised much from the revolution and often betrayed.” Despite his slight disappointment that “his analysis does leave space for a continuing debate on the reasons for the new regime's stability”, Mitter concludes that “this excellent book is horrific but essential reading for all who want to understand the darkness that lies at the heart of one of the world's most important revolutions.”

TH Barrett of the Independent, however, laments the source difficulties inherent in any research on this period, as “after most foreigners had been removed from China following Liberation, the only English-language commentators left were the handful of "foreign friends" nurtured by the new regime, whose knowledge of events was at best limited.” As such, Barrett notes that “not every detail in this book seems spot-on” and “time and again the footnotes lead back to official Chinese archives, often not readily accessible to foreign historians. The picture is therefore technically only ‘partial’”.

For Michael Sheridan in the Sunday Times, the work is “groundbreaking”, “exhaustive” and “revelatory” as he deems it “unsparing in its detail, relentless in its research, unforgiving in its judgements”. Although the sheer wealth of detail “sometimes becomes overwhelming”, Sheridan concludes that “mainstream academic scholarship must be revised in the light of Dikötter’s work”

A Naked Singularity, by Sergio de la Pava

Sergio de la Pava originally self-published his debut novel A Naked Singularity in 2008, but has only just come to mainstream attention, winning the PEN prize for debut fiction this month. The ambitious novel follows the nervous breakdown of an overworked 24-year-old public defender, Casi, rendered predominantly in dialogue and characterised by long digressions.

The Guardian’s Stuart Kelly gave the debut a positive review, saying he had “yearned for this kind of exuberant, precise fiction”. He calls it a “compelling” but doesn’t by any means claim that it is without fault. But although de la Pava’s “ambition might outweigh execution” and “the shifts in tone between appear awkward”, in the end, Kelly would “rather have the raggedy brilliance of A Naked Singularity over the pursed and smirking lips of much contemporary British fiction any day of the week.” He concludes “A Naked Singularity poses moral questions far more thorny and vexing than most.” Nevertheless, he wished de la Pava “had an editor”.

The Wall Street Journal was similarly taken in by this debut’s raw appeal. Not put off by the lack imperfections, the reviewer declares that “The weird, restless, ungainly structure is the book's greatest asset ... Whatever the book loses in polish it amply repays in its uncompromising originality.” To sum up, the reviewer quotes a line from the book itself, to declare it “beautiful and ugly simultaneously.”

In Slate Magazine, Paul Ford echoes comments about ambition and is also charmed by de la Pava’s humour. He comments that “even while the lives it describes are often bleak, the book is funny, consistently so”. All in all, Ford deems it to be “an explication on the quality of perfection, and more broadly, on the nature of talent.”

Frank Dikötter sheds light on the early years of Maoist China. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution