Reviews Round-Up

The critic's verdicts on Nate Silver, Alice Munro and Ben Thompson's Mary Whitehouse biography

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

Ever since Nate Silver induced global jaw-dropping when he correctly predicted 50 out of 50 states for the US election last week, his revered status in the field of psephology has been guaranteed. With his new book, however, his ranking on the bestsellers chart will surely rest on another question – can he make statistics sexy?

Just about so, according to Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times, "'Fascinating' is perhaps not a word you associate with statistics," he begins. "Well, get used to it." This "fat and fascinating book" succeeds in its aim of explaining a niche subject lucidly to a broad audience. Sophisticated mathematical models may not be the stuff of great literature, but Appleyard insitsts that Silver’s book is "full of satisfying facts", and "a useful attempt to explain a complicated and dynamic field".

If the reader is expecting a detective-style work in the genre of Freakonomics, or a "classic underdog tale" like Moneyball,  however, The Signal and the Noise may dissapoint, warns Noam Scheiber writing in the New York Times. "This one isn’t so much about his [Silver's] rise to statistical godliness, though it includes a smidgen of back story. It’s largely about evaluating predictions in a variety of fields, from finance to weather to epidemiology." Silver’s book, he goes on, "is more like an engagingly written user’s manual, with forays into topics like dynamic nonlinear systems". Ruth Scurr, reviewing for the Guardian agrees that the book is, in essence, "a lucid explanation of how to think probabilistically", rather than a populist work.

Still, these are the only criticism in what is otherwise a sea of praise, and you can see why. The recent election success has donated an awe of the modern-day oracle to Silver, and its no surprise he’s captured the public imagination. As Schieber notes, it’s as if there’s "no question he couldn’t answer with a big enough spreadsheet".

Dear Life by Alice Munro

The literary world has long been lacking a high enough hyperbole for Alice Munro. Can this – her latest collection of stories, published as the writer just turned 81 - maintain that same inimitable standard? Carrie Synder, writing for the Canadian National Post, doesn’t beat about the bush; “These stories are perfect. Of course they are”.

All the critics are unanimous that Dear Life, offers exactly what we would expect from Munro, and we’ve come to expect nothing less than linguistic and structural flawlessness. Each aspects of a Munro story are there, her characters are ‘bare and true’ according to Anne Enright in the Guardian. Her prose is "piercingly clear'"and "brisk - moving" notes Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times. But most pressingly, what we reputedly turn to Munro for is her devastating emotional resonance, and once again, Dear Life doesn’t disappoint; "You can't get away from people, in these stories. Even the ones you thought had wandered off show up again, if only to be avoided, if only as a voice in the next room".

In fact, critics have started to take it to so far for granted that a Munro collection will deliver the goods that much of the reviews are concerned not with weighing up her quality, but with deconstructing her literary techniques so as to explore exactly how she achieves her effects. Kemp delves into the mechanics of her technique, noting that "a perfectly chosen word crisps up a phrase" and "points of view are switched at just the right moment not only to prolong suspense but to deepen complication", whilst Synder examines how "even at the sentence level, she constructs fascinating conflict and unexpected oppositions".

The fact of Munro entering her octogenariancy with this collection has lead to speculation on how her writing style has altered, if at all, with age. "The timelines in her stories have become longer, and the sense of fatedness has stretched to match," notes Enright, although the general consensus is that age hasn't affected the writer other than to make her even - if that's possible - better.

Not one of the critics has a complaint of the collection, other than the minor note that Munro has chosen a new approach with the final four works, writing autobiographically in pieces that she herself concedes are "not quite stories". "Though I count myself as one of the people most interested in this writer on planet Earth, I find, to my surprise that they do not hold me in the same way – it is Munro's stories that I want; not her, after all" notes Enright of these works.

Look out for the review of Dear Life in the next issue of the New Statesman.

 

BAN THIS FILTH! Letter from the Mary Whitehouse Archive edited by Ben Thompson

Mary Whitehouse is, in many ways, the dream subject for a new biography. On the one hand, her entire character was something of "a gift to the satirist", and secondly, her persistent complaints at the moral demise of the BBC are oddly prophetic, given that the Newsnight omnishambles saga continues to dominate headlines this week. Critics of Ben Thompson’s book universally praise the poignant insights it lends into the very current question of morality and the media, "a fascinating book" amounting to "a net-curtain-twitching cultural history" says William Cook in this week’s New Statesman.

Cook notes that Thompson made a positive decision to veer away from the structural hallmarks of biography, “rather than writing a standard biography…Ben Thompson has hit upon the bright idea of annotating the letters...from her extensive archive”.

The highlight of the book, critics agree, is its humour. Cook is impressed by the ‘good jokes’, whilst Dominic Sandbrook in the Sunday Times goes further, citing a "hilarious book" with "comic gems on almost every page".

Critics are similarly united at Thompson’s  decision to respectfully portray Whitehouse as an intelligent woman with strong logic behind her actions, rather than ridiculing her endlessly. "To his credit, the author resists the temptation to sneer too much at ­Whitehouse," notes Sandbrook, whilst Andew Anthony, writing in the Guardian elaborates "he respects Whitehouse as a cultural phenomenon but is also archly drawn to her value as a social joke".

Martin Fletcher in the Independent goes on to conclude, "Ben Thompson's witty and engaging commentary is admirably even-handed: 'we complained about her when she was alive, we sort of miss her now she's gone.'"

Alice Munro in 2009 (Photo credit: PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images)
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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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