Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Jared Diamond, Lara Feigel and Marco Roth.

The Love Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel

Lara Feigel’s reinvention of biographical writing breathes danger, excitement and passion into wartime London. Interweaving letters, diaries, fiction and civil defence records, The Love Charm of Bombs traces the restless, crossing paths of five writers – Graham Green, Rose Macaulay, Henry Yorke, Elizabeth Bowen and Hilde Spiel – as their proximity to death brings with it an aphrodisiacal consciousness of being alive.

Much like the shattering effects of the Blitz, Feigel’s work has divided critics. Nicholas Shakespeare’s review for the Telegraph praises The Love Charm of Bombs as “intelligently written, seamlessly presented and with something of the quality of a tapestry.” Yet he laments its wandering conclusion: “it might have packed more punch had it broken off with the all-clear siren and not followed her disparate group into the slow, grey post-war years.”

Craig Brown applauds the book’s ability to capture the “strange euphoria of war”. Like Shakespeare, however, he criticises its “bitty”, sprawling nature. Writing in the Daily Mail, Brown said that the five writers rarely come together and remain distanced from the public “almost as if they were members of a different race”. Feigel’s diligent provision of lengthy synopses are also “unnecessary to those who have read them and meaningless to those who have not.”

The New Statesman’s John Sutherland welcomes Feigel’s innovative remoulding of biography into “life writing”. The author, a lecturer in English and Medical Humanities at King’s College, London, “has written a wonderful book in a critical genre in which she is a pioneer.” Sutherland’s review focuses on the “metropolitan orgasm” in literary London and the way in which war stimulated culture, as seen among Feigel’s chosen writers. “Like slow bruises, great fiction emerged (love stories, most of them) in the postwar, post coital years.” Remarking on the dawn of “new biography” he adds: “Let’s hope they are as good as this one.”

 
The Scientists by Marco Roth

This memoir by Marco Roth details his adolescence, growing up in New York as the only child of members of the "liberal Jewish elite". But his father, a hematologist, had AIDS; the book charts Roth’s discovery of the real reason for the existence of his "microscopic sibling HIV". The Scientists will be reviewed in a forthcoming edition of the New Statesman.

Tim Adams, writing in the Observer, notes that “The Scientists seems an odd title for such a literary quest”; with connotations of order and process, this book “departs from any such rational scheme in favour of the more chaotic and obsessive, hopelessly self-absorbed stuff of his life”. The author’s prose, he says, is “effortlessly erudite and often startlingly precise. He writes beautifully.” However, this “compulsive memoir” is in Adams’s opinion also tinged with a hint of desperation; perhaps the pressure of success from his social standing, or the urgency with which Roth was “born, or doomed” to write this book.

Publisher’s Weekly also admires Marco Roth for documenting the “silence and shame” he grew up with, having such a socially respected father who suffered from AIDS. The sense of this memoir being a necessary eruption for the author is also captured in this review, with its description as “powerfully forlorn”, it is deemed “a ferocious literary exercise in rage, despair, and artistic self-invention.”

Jessica Winter’s review of The Scientists, in The New York Times, delves into the journey of self-discovery Roth endured whilst writing his memoir. Roth’s aunt, Anne Roiphe, had previously written a book which strongly suggested that Marco’s father has been homosexual, and that he may have contracted AIDS “in the more usual way”. “This quasi revelation," Winter writes, "required a recasting of his own identity - if his aunt’s assumption was correct, he writes, ‘then my own existence was like a prop, a decoy to throw off nosy people like Anne’”. It may be because of this that Winter finds the tone of the book “intensely private” in the sense that Roth does not venture into any of the social, political or cultural debates surrounding the topic of AIDS. Winter notes Roth’s “almost paralytic analysis . . . a compulsion to perform an autopsy on the smallest event, exchange or artefact”. But it might be this, she suggests, that gives The Scientists its peculiar power.


The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

Variously described as a biogeographer, evolutionary biologist, psychologist, ornithologist and physiologist, Jared Diamond bridges the gulf between primitive society and modernity in The World Until Yesterday. Picking up from the theory of environmental determinism he introduced in Guns, Germs and Steel, the author argues that traditional societies still have something to teach us.

Soon to be reviewed by the New Statesman, the book has been both praised and condemned.

The Telegraph’s Tom Payne was “riveted by the thought-provoking study”, though remained unconvinced by the some of its central arguments. “I put this book down not completely convinced that I could incorporate many of its teachings into my life,” he said. “But it did leave me riveted, thinking hard and, I dare say, [commenting on the New Guinean’s child-rearing practices] a bit less begrudging of bed space if someone wakes up crying with a cold tonight.”

In an exhaustive review that surveys anthropological ideas, Wade Davis endorsed the spirit but not the execution and conclusion of The World Until Yesterday. Reviewing the book in the Guardian, Davis argues that Diamond’s narrow focus on environmental determinism overlooks the importance of ideas. The author’s observations are “original” and “wise”, but his conclusions are “uninspired and self-evident”: “One could be forgiven for concluding that traditional societies have little more to teach us save that we should embrace healthier diets, include grandparents in child rearing, learn a second language, seek reconciliation not retribution in divorce proceedings, and eat less salt.” Diamond is praised for his New Guinean studies. However, his “limited” experience and research elsewhere means that “a book of great promise reads as a compendium of the obvious, ethnology by anecdote.”

By contrast, Peter Forbes's review in The Independent praises Diamond’s recalibration of primitive history: “Jared Diamond is one of the few people who have changed the way we see human nature and our history.... he has formulated some very powerful ideas that counter our habitual arrogance.” Forbes, too, remarks Diamond’s bias towards New Guinea, “the region and the people he loves”.

17 August 1939: Members of the 3rd Women's Territorial Service, leaving Croydon station for their fortnight's training under canvas, kiss their husbands and boyfriends goodbye. (Getty Images)
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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