Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Richard Davenport-Hines, Mark Binelli and George Saunders.

The Tenth of December by George Saunders

Acclaimed short-story writer George Saunders darkly satirises modern life in his fourth anthology, The Tenth of December..Through the eyes and minds of ten characters, it envisages the gulf between dreams and reality in suburban America.

For Joel Lovell, of the New York Times, it is the “best book you’ll read this year”. Other critics’ praise is more reserved.

David Wolf, writing in The Observer, applauds the author’s skillful storytelling and “the exhilirating explosion of slang, neologisms and fake product names”. Saunders’ writing is at once comparable to Kurt Vonnegut’s “deadpan absurdism” and The Simpsons with his mix of “crude and sophisticated satire” and warm optimism. Nevertheless, Wolf criticises the inability of the MacArthur Genius Award winner to develop his writing style: “Saunders’ first collection for six years delivers all we expect but nothing new.” He added: “It seems like he’s stuck.”

In a review that charts Saunders’ backlash against his former idol and arch-rationalist Ayn Rand, Ludovic Hunter-Tilney welcomes the “sustained attack on the ideology of individualism.” For the Financial Times writer, it “overturns the belief that altruism is evil and instead suggests that helping others is the core component of our being”. The “blackly comic” book is only criticised for the tendency of the ten stories to seem formulaic because of Saunders’ distinctive style.

Alice Charles’ review for the Huffington Post UK, while commending The Tenth of December for its insight into characters’ minds, similarly criticises its repetitiveness. The habit of revisiting characters, themes and ideas “in a collection of just ten stories, feels like a bit of a cheat.”

 

The Last Days of Detroit by Mark Binelli

Mark Binelli’s Last days of Detroit, soon to be reviewed in the New Statesman, tells the story of the boom and bust of what was once America’s fourth largest city. A former Detroit-native himself, the critics are divided on the perspective this brings for Binelli’s telling book.

Andy Beckett writes for the Guardian, and points to the author’s “busy, knowing prose” as the cause for the frequently quick and flippant tone; highlighted on one occasion where Binelli heedlessly skims over three decades of history exclaiming that “nothing much interesting happened in Detroit for the next thirty or so years …". Beckett is more critical of the beginning of the book, where he claims it reads more like a book proposal than a book itself, “authoritative but self-conscious, switching restlessly between past and present”, however he praises Binelli on his subsequent coverage of Detroit’s decline.

Rose Jacobs of the Financial Times finds that Binelli provides a charming narrative, managing to associate with the reader through personal asides and footnotes that show him to be “playing the tongue-tied non-expert”. As amiable as this may be at times, asserts Jacobs, the “ingenue’s approach” was also occasionally irksome. She concludes that the success of the book waivers, completely relying upon the subjects interviewed in each chapter.

Mick Brown’s review for The Telegraph commends Mark Binelli, deeming him “an assiduous reporter” and credits him with avoiding making the book an epitaph of Detroit. He identifies Binelli’s optimism amongst the ‘devastation porn’ that was the decline, but does query the lack of photographs that would have been so fitting in what is “otherwise an excellent book”.

 

An English Affair by Richard Davenport Hines

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Profumo affair, Richard Davenport-Hines bawdily retells how the war minister romanced the reputed mistress of a Soviet spy, Christine Keeler. In the throes of Cold War fever, politicians and the media convulsed at the idea of high-risk “pillow talk” that, followed by lying in the commons, forced resignation and framing, purportedly sowed the seeds of Macmillan’s demise.

The English Affair: Sex Class and Power in the Age of Profumo has divided critics who draw different lessons from the 1963 event.

Susan Elkin, writing in The Independent, praises Davenport-Hines as a “sparkling and compelling writer” and meticulous researcher. She draws parallels with the present: “it is hard to read his book without reflecting that we are still agonising over press freedom and the extent to which private lives are relevant to public office.”

By contrast, Vernon Bogdanor craves more context in the “racy read”. An English Affair re-runs a widely-told old story; “It is not entirely clear what purpose is served by further exhumation.” The New Statesman writer speculates that the affair thwarted chances of a Conservative election victory in 1964 that may have forced Labour to modernise 30 years before Blair. “The consequences are far more important than the cultural implications that Davenport-Hines analyses.”

The Guardian’s Blake Morrison nonetheless welcomes An English Affair as “an antidote to the current nostalgia for the period”. It exposes the “double standards of the early 60s” in which the welfare state, far from banishing spivs, encouraged a new generation of merchant adventurers who “transformed the capital with brutal phallic modernity”.

“For anyone who imagines things were better in the age of ‘never had it so good’,” writes Morrisson, “this book should be compulsory reading.”

Detroit River during a race, the Detroit skyline in the background. (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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