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)
My Scientology Movie
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Is Louis Theroux’s new film, My Scientology Movie, “banned” in Ireland?

The film isn’t getting an Irish release – could the country's blasphemy and defamation laws be to blame?

The Church of Scientology is a touchy subject. So touchy, in fact, that the plot of Louis Theroux’s new documentary, My Scientology Movie, revolves around the controversial church’s refusal to appear in on camera. As the institution becomes more and more impenetrable, Theroux’s film uses dramatic readings and re-enactments (alongside more traditional methods like interviews with former Scientologists and scenes showing their attempts at access) to get to the heart of the subject.

Now, Theroux is discovering new complications as his film approaches release. As the buzz around the feature grew, Irish entertainment sites began to notice that although a UK distributor, Altitude, was attached to the project, there was no release date listed for Irish cinemas, nor an Irish distributor. This sparked concern among those familiar with Irish blasphemy and defamation laws – Alex Gibney’s 2015 Scientology documentary, Going Clear, did not secure an Irish theatrical release over libel claims.

The 2009 Defamation Act states that any “person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €25,000”. Blasphemous matter is defined as anything that is “insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion”, and that intends to cause outrage.

There is a loophole in the law, if it can be proved that “a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value” in the work. The law also states that blaspemhy laws do not apply to an organisation or “cult” that prioritises making financial profit or manipulates followers and new recruits. Scientology isn’t officially recognised as a church in Ireland, but it’s unclear whether or not it counts as a religion under the acts definitions.

It’s important to note that the decision not to show the film in Ireland lies with the distributors – this is not a case of the Irish government banning the film from cinemas, as many have been keen to point out on Twitter. As this is at their discretion, it also means we might never know for sure why they decided not to go for an Irish release.

Altitude had this to say in a statement:

Altitude Film Distribution currently has no plans for a theatrical release of My Scientology Movie in Ireland, and has no further comment to make at this time.

Informative, GRMA guys!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.