Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Malala Yousafzai, Hermione Lee and Bridget Jones.

Malala in London
Malala, launching her memoir in London last month (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

By the age of 12 she had already inspired thousands in her courageous fight for the rights of women in her native Pakistan, particularly in her advocacy for the education denied them under the oppression of Taliban rule. But although her voice resonated with and galvanised thousands across the globe, to the fundamentalists who then controlled her home town of Mingora she was nothing but a dangerous, secular apostate. In surviving their vicious assassination attempt just over a year ago, Malala Yousafzai has now been raised to something approaching the powerful, paradoxical status of a living martyr.

I am Malala was jointly written by Malala and the Sunday Times Foreign Correspondent, Christina Lamb. Upon its announcement, the addition of Lamb’s voice to the memoir concerned some commentators, but upon reading the book these fears appear to have been banished.

Novelist and member of Pakistan’s troubled political dynasty Fatima Bhutto reviewed the book for The Guardian. Her approach is philological to begin: “In Arabic,” she writes, “'revolution' is a feminine noun. This is fitting, as without women revolutions are sterile.” She continues “What it means to be from Pakistan – a country of 300 languages, diverse cultures, religions and identities – when real power is restricted to one province is a debate that has always raged in this country.”

Bhutto wholeheartedly champions Malala’s story, and the voice in which it is told, which she hails as ‘fearless’, ‘pure’ and ‘principled’. Her only cause to qualify this advocacy at all is the significance of Lamb’s ‘ghostwritten’ contribution to the book, though this is not seen as a problem, merely an occasionally jarring ambiguity in tone - “in the description, for example, of the scale of Pakistan's devastating 2005 earthquake, the reader is told that the damage 'affected 30,000 square kilometres, an area as big as the American state of Connecticut', and the stiff, know-it-all voice of a foreign correspondent resounds.”

Bhutto’s piece ends as much an exhortation for solidarity as a book review, with Bhutto urging the West to join Malala’s fight in earnest, rather than to take the easy path and ‘paint itself as more righteous, more civilised, than the people they occupy and kill’.

Geoff Barton in the TES, a headteacher, is similarly taken with Malala and Lamb’s effort. He confesses to being skeptical about it before reading, “fearing that it was (how shall I put this?) likely to be a hastily ghostwritten tie-in. Something riding on the coat-tails of a near-tragedy to generate money for the charity she has established and provide a sentimental story for the mawkish.” These fears are dispelled, and indeed he describes being ‘enriched’ and ‘humbled’ by Malala’s story, which he summarises as ‘part memoir, part manifesto’.

The only cynical light cast on Malala this week came from Ed West at The Spectator, with a cynical, clickbait blog entitled “Malala – the girl who hates Britain”. Although presumably triggered by the release of her autobiography, West only mentions the book in passing, mainly citing its descriptions of Malala’s left-wing father Ziauddin Yousafzai. Instead, he mainly uses his blog to draw his readers’ attention to Malala’s socialist convictions and, despite his best efforts, to condescend her too: “But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this remarkable, brave young woman supporting socialism and speaking at Communist events. Children that age should support Marxism, it’s just when they’re in their forties and at marches carrying those ‘BLIAR’ banners that they really need to start thinking about where their life has gone wrong.”

However, he concludes with a rare bipartisan concession, which renders his superior remarks a little moot: “But we should at least give Marxists credit where it’s due, especially in the area of women’s education where they have a very good track record in that part of the world (and elsewhere). You might even say that they’re on the side of the angels – or should that be Engels!”


Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life by Hermione Lee

Hitting the bookshelves at the same time is a new biography of Penelope Fitzgerald: an elusive, complex and virtuoso writer who, as reviewers have not failed to mention, only first published by the age of 58. Hermione Lee has taken up the task of penning Lee’s extraordinary and, to say the least, eventful life after the very successful biography of Virginia Woolf (1996). The critics are generally impressed.

Emma Townshend, writing in The Independent, sees Fitzgerald’s age as the thrust of the biography: “The question of why Penelope Fitzgerald didn’t begin publishing until so late is the most central and interesting of the book.” She finds answers in Lee’s thorough research and great detail into Fitzgerald’s life. The review sees a different path her tragic life could have taken and asks what if Fitzgerald had her most unfulfilled need: “a workroom and time of her own.” Ultimately, although the book “will hold insights and treats for any admirer of her fiction”, Townshend becomes a voyeur feeling both “sorry and intrusive” for this “patron saint of late starters” who “knew bad luck”. As it may be a “terrible experience to have a careless and inaccurate biographer, it might, for a certain kind of person, be even worse to be the subject of a really careful and accurate one.”

Mark Bostridge, in the Literary Review, also finds bad luck and failure as the central tenet in Fitzgerald’s life. He describes Fitzgerald as “long accustomed to humiliation and, far worse, to catastrophe” but, unlike Townshend, he feels overwhelmed by Hermione Lee’s attention to detail where the “early sections of [her] book droop noticeably under their weight of superfluous detail, which she persists in including almost as though she was suffering from a nervous tic”. He finds that this detail invariably causes Lee to state some inaccuracies as fact. However, he is impressed by Lee’s critical reading of Fitzgerald’s books, identifying “Fitzgerald’s achievement as a novelist as essentially un-English and not to be bracketed with superficially similar contemporaries”. The biography impresses overall and Lee captures “not only the asperity in [Fitzgerald’s] character, but also her resilience and hard work.”

Philip Hensher in The Guardian finds both Fitzgerald’s age and calamity-ridden life as fascinating and expertly written in Lee’s biography. He charges Fitzgerald of having the “misfortune of being not only over 45, but in her 70s and 80s when her great masterpieces first appeared” but rewards Hermione Lee for having “unearthed the full story of the catastrophe”. He sees Lee as the perfect biographer for Fitzgerald who has done a “superb job, capturing an elusive personality and a complex, sometimes rather harrowing story.”


Bridget Jones: Mad About The Boy by Helen Fielding

She’s back. Bridget Jones is back and she has sent Twitter into meltdown. Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy follows on from Helen Fielding’s hugely successful prequels: Bridget Jones’ Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason but this Bridget is Mark-less, older and looking for love once again. To the chagrin of many readers and critics, the absence of Mark Darcy in this new edition in the series doesn’t quite meet the standards. Apart from The Daily Mail the critics seem to be quite mad about the book, but not in a good way. 

Sara Lawrence of The Daily Mail kicks of with a rave review as she exclaims “Hurrah! Bridget’s back and its v v good.” Jones’ appeal for Lawrence was the “uncomfortable way in which she felt out of step with her peer group” and she finds continuations of that theme in the latest feature. Moreover, Lawrence feels that this incarnation of Bridget deals with these issues altogether more maturely: “although the laughs are still there aplenty, there is also a sad, bittersweet edge to the novel that makes it feel just, well, a lot more grown up, like our gal herself.” All in all, Lawrence has “laughed”, “cried” and “most of all loved” this book. However, she seems to be alone in how she feels. Other critics have been brought to tears for different reasons entirely.

Sarah Crompton, writing in The Telegraph, finds Bridget’s final outing to be a “clunking disappointment” barely redeemed by its third act. Crompton is disappointed because Bridget simply doesn’t sound like herself: “reading the first two thirds of Mad About the Boy is like listening to someone who once had perfect pitch, but now can’t sing a note. It lies as flat on the page as its heroine’s overcooked spaghetti.” But, she goes on to argue, this apparent problem with tone is actually a structural issue, down to Fielding’s controversial choice to kill off Darcy. “Bridget, now 51, is not struggling with her happy-ever-after with the wonderful Mark – not battling with the transformation of passion into marriage, which might actually have made a brilliant novel ... She is a Born Again Virgin, once more obsessing about weight, looks, sex, and her new toy boy Roxster.” This, Crompton reminds us, is well-worn territory, and the subtleties of later life which can truly be elicted by prose are sidelined in favour of the sassy, repackaged problems of a younger Bridget, with only the gimmicky trappings of the modern age (, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to set them apart.

The Independent’s review, by Boyd Tonkin, takes a slightly softer line, on the basis that Bridget Jones isn’t literature so much as a fairy tale shared by a generation of women, full of “ribald” sexy escapism as well as the classic Bridget comic standbys of “to-do lists, self-reproach, [and] calculated calories.” However, even this forgiving line of inquiry doesn’t absolve some jarring stylistic issues: “you sense that some of this material has strayed in from another novel – just as the movie-biz absurdities, right down to a sulky starlet called Ambergris Bilk, have an almost early-Martin-Amis tinge.”

Not only this, but since becoming the beneficiary of Mr. Darcy’s enormous wealth, Bridget has become less relatable too. “Some readers have already complained about Mrs Darcy’s charmed if desolate life, with the kids’ nits (a running, or rather scratching, joke) more of an anxiety than bills or jobs. You might as well ask to see Sherlock Holmes’s bank statements or check the original Mr Darcy’s grocery budget. Like the Queen, fictional icons and archetypes don’t have to carry cash – but they do have to speak to their readers’ dreams and dreads.” And if Bridget's not relatable ... what is the point in her?