Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Seb Coe, Oliver Sacks and Sara Maitland

Running My Life by Seb Coe

Seldom does an autobiography polarise opinion as Seb Coe’s latest offering does. On the one hand, there is glowing praise from Rod Liddle and Paul Hayward in the Sunday Times and the Telegraph respectively. Running My Life is a "fascinating" and "singularly well-written" autobiography according to Liddle. At the opposite end of the spectrum, it is difficult to envisage a more damning review than that proffered by Decca Aitkenhead in the Guardian: "how the author got through [his book] without boring himself to death is a mystery".

How does Coe manage to divide opinion like this? A pre-existing interest in the author and his sporting career seem mandatory for appreciating Running My Life. Hayward is appreciative of the fact that Coe is "a good anecdotalist" and his "cinematic" life provides a wealth of fascinating details. Liddle similarly praises the surprising insights this book reveals: "As it happened, Coe was not posh at all — and not quite so clean-cut as we thought. We may have to re-evaluate, then, all these years later."

However, both reviewers notice that the books is slanted towards the most successful portions of Coe’s life. "Coe does not dwell too long on defeats," notes Liddle, whilst Hayward suggests "the reader risks backache picking up all the names Coe drops".

Aitkenhead's frank review begins thus: “Seeing as the London Olympics were such a hit, you would think that he must be a brilliant communicator. I did – until I picked up his autobiography.” The writer, she establishes is "a crashing bore" and his book falls short on almost every account one expects of an autobiography. "Seldom can a memoir have revealed less about its author," she observes, before lamenting that the book consists of "interminable minutiae of obscure athletics meetings," whilst being “bleached of all emotional meaning”. Furthermore, the text is full of baffling omissions: "Only… by the bye, does he mention his extra-marital affair. Even then he makes it sound pretty unimportant, when in fact it went on for a decade. He doesn't even mention his mother's death except as a belated afterthought."

The jury, it seems, is still very much out.

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

It is difficult to review or comment on any Oliver Sacks book without first acknowledging his supreme status in the genre of popular science: "Sacks may be the world’s most well-known neurologist," Adam Higginbotham writes in his review for the Telegraph. "His four decades of writing have brought popular illumination to areas of brain science once confined to the arcane corners of specialist literature…and elevated the medical case history to an art form".

The trouble, of course, with setting the bar so high, is that it’s a difficult standard to replicate. Has Sacks achieved this with Hallucinations? The subject matter of his latest work is one "that has long fascinated him, but also one he believes deserves wider attention, in the hope that it can be defused".

What is most successful about this book, according to Higginbotham, is that "the most interesting case that he describes is his own". Indeed, there is an autobiographical dimension to this book which is new for Sacks.

James McConnachie, writing in the Sunday Times, agrees that this "startling" book uses a tried-and-tested formula - it seeks to surprise and amaze the reader by revealing the mechanics of the mysterious workings of the mind. In this case, the aim is to prove that "Hallucinations…are not just for drug-addled neurologists, the mentally ill or writers".

Sacks has not messed with that winning formula here: "[T]his book is at root a compilation of case studies drawn from a lifetime career as a physician and neurologist". McConnachie says that Hallucinations is "hugely satisfying book" which leaves the reader contemplating questions of a decidedly metaphysical kind. "The big question regarding hallucinations remains this: how can we be sure they are not real?"

Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of our Forests and Fairytales by Sara Maitland

This book is the record of journeysthrough 12 different woods that Sarah Maitland took over the course of a year. Lucy Popescu, writing in the Independent on Sunday, says it is Maitland's personal reflections which are the highlight: "[I]t is Maitland's meditations on nature and the human responses to our changing landscape that are most memorable."

Jane Shilling, writing in the Telegraph, also praises Maitland's "richly digressive" text and approves of her "mildly subversive retellings of familiar fairy tales". Suzie Feay, writing in the Financial Times, is more critical, however. Her main gripes are structural: "Gossip from the Forest is really a book of two distinct halves that are hard to reconcile," she complains. "If you want to read about the development of forests from a historical, geographical and ecological perspective, the details are all here, but they sit oddly with Maitland's more creative musings about the roots of storytelling. The book doesn’t quite gel, in other words, but nevertheless offers much pleasure and instruction."

Lord Sebastican Coe (Photo by Scott Heavey/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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