Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Deborah Levy, Maggie O' Farrell and Harry Wallop.

Black Vodka by Deborah Levy

Alex Clark has high praise for Deborah Levy in the Guardian. She urges the reader not only to explore this “powerful...fragmentary...elliptical” collection of stories, but the rest of its author’s work, which includes the Booker short-listed novel Swimming Home, and offers a “strange, unpredictable journey”. Black Vodka contains a compendium of Levy’s distinctive traits. In "Cave Girl", Cass undergoes a successful sex change from male to female. "[The surgeon] really fiddled with my controls”, she says, and her brother finds himself entranced by the result. In ‘Pillow Talk’, (Clark summarises) “a Czech man living in London is interviewed in Dublin by a Japanese man, before having casual sex with a woman from Cork and then flying home to his Jamaican-born girlfriend.” Clark is continually impressed by these provocative identity games in which “national and cultural identity is used as a prism through which to explore shifts of attachment and belonging”. Even “what constitutes a person” becomes difficult to determine. Clark concludes by noting that “like their protagonists, these stories do not give up their secrets easily”, before assuring us that they are nonetheless “by no means difficult to understand”. Ought we to detect a hint of damning with faint praise here? Perhaps so, but the thrust of Clark’s review is clear nonetheless: this collection comes highly recommended.

In the Independent, Lucy Popescu identifies love as a key theme. In Black Vodka, she writes, love “is mystifying, at worst illusive”. The title story involves a relationship which cannot last, yet its mere “promise of love” unsettles the protagonist, who wakes after a fantastical though personal dream with tears on his cheeks, “transparent as vodka but warm as rain”. But whether depicting love, grief or the collision of cultures, Levy’s “elegantly conceived and executed stories” create “an array of intense emotions and moods in precise, controlled prose”, economic and imaginative enough to propel this hypnagogic collection toward nightmare. Popescu cannot help note a particularly farcical topicality which creeps into one of the stories: “one character recalls eating horse steaks in Paris: ‘It was like eating a unicorn in the 21st century’”.

Black Vodka was reviewed by Catherine Taylor in the New Statesman earlier this year.

Instructions for a Heat Wave by Maggie O'Farrell

“Strange weather brings out strange behaviour...” Maggie O’ Farrell’s latest novel addresses the issue of brittle family structures through a captivating story centered on an Irish family, the Riordans, in London enduring the heat wave of summer 1976. 

O'Farrell examines a family structure that is fragmented by tradition and rebellion, narrating the complex lives lead by each of its members. The Guardian’s Lucy Briscoe describes this as “a brilliant dissection of different generation’s attitudes towards the same predicament”. Charlotte Heathcote, in the Express writes that “weaving through all of these life stories is Gretta [Riordan]'s obsessive Catholicism. None of her three children are religious, much to her despair, but it turns out that she is less ‘holier-than-thou’ than she can even admit to herself.”

Heathcote elaborates on the effect of the heat wave upon the Riordans as they console Gretta. “As Gretta's three children congregate at their childhood home…skeletons are dragged out of cupboards, festering wounds are exposed to the air and the job of Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife is not made easier by a mother who likes her truth whitewashed and sanitised.”

Whilst Heathcote and Briscoe concur in their verdict that the novel does not disappoint, the Independent’s Leyla Sanai is somewhat bemused by O’Farrell’s conclusion, which she describes as a “Hollywood ending.” She does, however, praise O’Farrell’s writing as “deliciously insightful,” acknowledging her abilities in “observing the dynamics of relationships and astutely filleting them to the bone.”

Consumed: How Shopping Fed the Class System by Harry Wallop

Harry Wallop’s humourously written study into British consumer habits reveals the correlation between these choices and the construction of our identities. The Guardian’s Ben East states: “It might be obvious, but buying a 'fabulously British' Jack Wills polo shirt in Southwold immediately marks you out as different from the bling-obsessed young mum who frequents a retail park to buy a bright pink Paul's Boutique purse.”

With labels like “The Asda Mum,” The Middleton Classes” or “The Portland Privateer” (the latter used to describe the wealthy banking population’s preference to give birth to their in this prestigious private hospital), it is no wonder East is quick to conclude that, despite the ”achingly true observations,” Wallop’s book “serves only to reinforce existing stereotypes.”

The Telegraph’s Toby Clements writes that Wallop’s designations have evolved as sub-groups of the older upper, middle and working classes. Clements finds Wallop’s study a “breezy, enjoyable study” reinforced by “arresting research into our shopping habits”.

Deborah Levy with her Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel Swimming Home (Photo: Getty Images)
JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.