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)
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My first ever vocal performance was singing "Rebel Rebel" inside a wardrobe

Inspirational artists don’t inspire the brave (they’re fine already): they inspire the timid. That's what David Bowie did for me.

I couldn’t write anything the day David Bowie died. Like many people in music, I was asked for a tribute, but despite being a huge fan, I felt unable to strike the right tone. A glance at Twitter showed me how upset people were, and in that immediate aftermath of shock and dismay what was needed was cathartic and expressive writing. Some people took umbrage at the declamatory grieving, but to me it felt appropriate and I never much mind other people saying things I’m too shy or inhibited to say.

The outpouring of love and affection reminded me how personally we respond to artists, how they speak to us and for us. Pop music has its greatest effect on us when we’re young, when our clay is soft and pliable, and we take its imprint and carry it for ever. The songs we hear while our hearts are still wide open to the world make such an impression that it seems reasonable to me that we care more strongly about the people who sang them than, say, casual acquaintances we make later. So we can mourn a singer we never met more than someone we actually knew.

But one thing I thought wasn’t stressed enough in all the tributes and obituaries was simply that none of Bowie’s groundbreaking work with image/gender/sexuality, would have had as much impact without the phenomenal tunes he wrote, which ensured that his records were played to a mainstream audience. Like anyone my age, I came to Bowie not through an underground record shop, or reading about him in the NME, but by hearing him on Radio 1 and seeing him on Top of the Pops. He embedded himself in my consciousness primarily as a pop artist, a writer of songs so packed full of hooks, you were caught on first listen. I loved my brother’s Ziggy Stardust album because it was strange and yet familiar and I could sing along with all of it.

If you’d never heard Bowie, many of the descriptions might make you think that his work was arch, cool and detached. But he was part of the pre-ironic period of pop, not afraid of sincerity, especially in his singing. It surprises me when he is talked about as a kind of alien, because although he often seemed heroic, and immortal, he clearly had a sense of humour, and a family, and by all accounts was witty and charming and friendly to people. A proper human being, in other words.

Through all the tributes and memories, what became clear was that everyone had some recollection that encapsulated his meaning for them. My little story is one I have told before, in Bedsit Disco Queen, of the day when I was rehearsing in someone’s bedroom with my first band, Stern Bops. I was the rhythm guitarist, and that day our singer didn’t turn up, so the boys in the band asked if I could sing. I wasn’t sure – I’d never really tried, certainly not in front of anyone – and so I replied that I would have a go but not if they were all looking at me. Instead, I’d get inside the wardrobe and sing from there. Which is precisely what I did, and once inside the stuffy darkness, out of sight but clutching my microphone, I sang David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”. It was my first ever vocal performance.

How hilarious, you might think, how pitiful even, to sing an anthem to rebelliousness while hiding in a closet. How could you take all the defiance and pride of that song and undermine it with fear? But the more I think about it, the more I realise that this is exactly how inspirational artists work, and why we need them. They don’t inspire the brave (they’re fine already): they inspire the timid.

And you don’t copy people you’re inspired by. Quite often you can’t; you wouldn’t know where to start. You can only stare, open-mouthed in wonder. And yet still something happens, you hear a voice telling you something, a tiny little spark is lit. And you treasure that spark, and add it to others that you’re finding elsewhere, gathering them around you like a protective halo. Until you have just enough courage to take that song you love to dance to and sing those words you love to sing. Even from inside a wardrobe.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle