Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Kate Atkinson, Shereen El Feki and Aleksandar Hemon.

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Set in wartime Britain, Kate Atkinson’s latest novel explores themes of new beginnings, fate and family life through the inventive manipulation of temporality in her narration of the story of Ursula Todd. The Guardian’s Alex Clark describes Atkinson’s novel as “a marvel… one that invites the reader to take part in the deception”. Clark remarks that “every time you attempt to lose yourself in the story of Ursula Todd, a child born in affluent and comparatively happy circumstances on 11 February 1910, it simply stops.” Atkinson narrates several instances showcasing the protagonist, Ursula, in a different situation whilst simultaneously narrating shifts in British society.

The Independent’s Rachel Hore writes that the reader is compelled “to hold onto his hat” due to the shuffling from one temporal event to another. She notes the tangible narrative tension derived from “seeing how long Ursula will last each time.” Clark notes Atkinson’s skill in cutting “from one war to the next” as an effective means to combine historical events and the twists in Ursula’s life. Hore notes Atkinson’s vivid portrayal of the London Blitz: “Again and again, Ursula experiences one particularly traumatic event: a direct hit on a dozen people sheltering in a cellar in Argyll Road in November 1940. ” The use of repetition in her narrative structure, for Hore, reinforces a salient point in Atkinson’s novel: “the war should not have been allowed to happen.” Clark rightly concludes that Atkinson’s treatment of the protagonist is exceptionally executed, “Life After Life gives us a heroine whose fictional underpinning is permanently exposed, whose artificial status is never in doubt; and yet one who feels painfully, horribly real to us. 

Life after Life will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Sex and The Citadel by Shereen El Feki

Sex and the Citadel reveals diverse attitudes to sexuality in Arab countries through a combination of interviews, polls, statistics and personal accounts. The Independent’s Rachel Halliburton describes Shereen El Feki’s book as “a witty encapsulation of the central difficulty that El Feki has faced in chronicling aspects of sex in the Arab world … yielding an extraordinary collection of opinions on everything from online flirting to female genital mutilation.” She adds that it “provides crucial oxygen for discussions that will need more airing in the long, conflicted years ahead.” El Feki’s re-evaluation of Islamic culture compares 11th-century Islamic sex manuals with the opinions of famous TV sex therapists such as Heba Kotb who advises women not to give their men “a reason to choose between [themselves] and hellfire.”

In the Guardian, Faramherz Dabhoiwala notes how El Feki “makes clear how far most Arab women share the sexist presumptions of their culture, even as they suffer its effects.” He reveals El Feki’s omission of the fact that “as long as the words of the Qur'an and its prophet are treated as infallible, and their exegesis by male clerics remains the ultimate authority in sexual affairs, there can be no proper individual sexual freedom“, adding that this is symptomatic of all fundamentalist interpretations of religion.

Along with statistics detailing the proportion of Egyptian women subjected to genital mutilation (a staggering 80 per cent), El Feki’s accounts of these instances are, as the Telegraph's Richard Davenport Hines describes “too revolting to discuss in a review.” Although he highlights how the book “is full of dismal and upsetting stories of inhumanity and ignorance. It will appal, sadden, and anger Western readers”, he praises the book as a “cogent account of sexual liberty in the Arab world.” He describes El Feki as “a cautious optimist who believes that fairness will yet triumph.” The consensus is that El Feki’s book opens up a much needed debate over sensitive topics.

The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon

Leo Robson provides a critical review in the Guardian of The Book of My Lives, noting that author Aleksandar Hemonhas settled for “compiling a memoir rather than composing one.” Robson focuses on the structural problems of the non-fiction successor to the novels Nowhere Man and The Lazarus Project, explaining that the chapters were not conceived so as to go together and in fact have previously been published elsewhere, without receiving “much retooling”. This causally assembled memoir of Hemon’s journey from Sarajevo to Chicago “is inscrutable and chaotic.” Robson adds that if you, “imagine a jigsaw puzzle with a thousand pieces but no pattern, you begin to understand this book's awesome powers of frustration.” A casual approach means that there is a notable dearth of the kind of basic information that you would typically expect in a memoir – the first mention of his first wife is on page 171. Robson explains that in Hemon’s account, “ordinary human suffering is next to nonexistent: the threat posed by the birth of a younger sister is told as comedy (‘Never again would I have all the chocolate for myself’); life in the Yugoslav People's Army was tough because of the ‘fantastically limited’ menu.” The impact of Hemon’s grief at the death of his younger daughter Isabel is blunted by context. Robson explains that the raw emotion and pain expressed in the original essay, published in the New Yorker in 2011, is “utterly ill-suited to round off a collection of journalism so full of emotional deflection”..  

In contrast, Max Liu doesn’t think that this book is devoid of emotion. Writing in the Independent on Sunday, he argues that it is “wrenching but often very funny and self-deprecating too”. Liu focuses on the way Hemon deals with living in different communities and his interest of using narrative and language to negotiate trauma. Liu explains how the reader “of this extraordinary book” will be rooting for his daughter Isobel as the doctors try to save her. According to Liu, Hermon “invokes W H Auden on pain and indifference, as the rest of humanity continues to move ‘dully along’.”

In the Independent, Mark Thompson gushes that Hermon’s “stories seem to tell themselves, unreeling in verbal felicities that kiss the ear”. Furthermore, he expresses how “contagious energy flows from language that seems to be discovered in the act of composition.” Thompson explores the theme of identity, and writes that Hermon, “bolts semi-academic terms skilfully onto childhood memories and the observation of his parents displaced in Canada”. The key chapter in The Book of my Lives “relates the puppyish avant-garde exploits of Hemon and friends in the 1980s. When they organise a Nazi-themed cocktail party, parodying the jackbooted decadence portrayed in Yugoslav movies, hysterical denunciation follows.” Thompson asks: where does he hail from, as a writer? He answers that the influences are from “all sorts of places, new and old”, and that although Hermon adores Bruno Schulz and Danilo Kiš, his vernacular isn’t wrought with density like their prose, but instead manages “lightness along with word-perfection”.

The Book of My Lives will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Kate Atkinson's novel narrates the life of a woman, Ursula Todd, during British Wartime (Photo: Hulton Archive, Getty Images)
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The Good Lieutenant is a haunting novel by a former war reporter

Whitney Terrell's third novel is a powerful, and sometimes heartbreaking, war story.

Most war stories are about battle plans that don’t survive contact with the enemy. The third novel by the former journalist Whitney Terrell offers a new spin on this gloomy maxim, employing a reverse narrative that pulls back, chapter by chapter, from a military disaster to show the plans and intentions – optimistic, cynical, self-deluding, pragmatic – that led its participants there. As in Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal and Gaspar Noé’s film Irréversible, the backwards chronology has a weird and dizzying effect. The book starts with a bang, and then begins its slow free fall back to boot camp.

The good lieutenant of the title is Emma Fowler, nicknamed “Family Values” by her all-male infantry platoon in a half-grateful, half-exasperated recognition of her desire to play by the rules. Fowler isn’t above using her reputation to her advantage: “Eggleston thinks it’s too dangerous,” she shouts at an uncertain soldier as they embark on a difficult rescue mission, “and I want you to explain to Eggleston that if Family Values Fowler is in on this thing, then there’s no fucking way it could be dangerous.” But the nickname provides a fair description of her doggedly selfless character. “If you’re strong, you help the weak,” she explains bluntly when challenged by a fellow officer.

Moralising place names litter the military landscape of occupied Iraq, with its Camp Tolerances and Patrol Base Fortitudes, but ethics such as Fowler’s are in short ­supply. “Have some fun,” a superior tells her in disgust. “Dislike someone. Find an enemy. All this happy talk about helping the Iraqis stand up and saving them for democracy? Not happening.” Instead, an infantry captain fakes affidavits from Iraqis which allow him to arrest and torture whomever he likes. Fowler’s commander makes her pick out dresses for his wife and disinvites her from an all-male regimental party. Platoon commanders blackmail each other.

In the deepening pit of a dubious war, the military depends less on the chain of command than on the battle for a persuasive argument. “We don’t need any fucking intel, ma’am,” says one soldier. “What I’m saying is we deserve a story that makes sense.”

Making sense of the story is also a task for the reader of Terrell’s narrative, which constructs its mysteries of character and event in reverse order. As the book opens, Fowler and her platoon are combing a field behind a house in search of the body of their platoon sergeant, kidnapped on an earlier engagement. Assisting them is a signals officer, Dixon Pulowski, who presides over a network of surveillance cameras, and an infantry commander Captain Masterson, who we learn has pulled a lot of “illegal crap” to find the location of this property. The mission soon goes wrong: Fowler shoots the house owner, the field turns out to be mined and Pulowski and another soldier are killed.

The subsequent chapters flow backwards to reveal the personalities behind this fatal engagement and their relationships with one another. Pulowski is hiding the truth about the circumstances of the sergeant’s kidnapping. He and Fowler have been having an on-off affair since they met at boot camp in Kansas. Masterson is not the helpful professional he appears to be. Fowler’s nickname twists the knife in her sense of guilt about her own family. The book steadily infuses its characters with depth and humanity and lays out the dubious intelligence and errors that led them to catastrophe.

Moving backwards from Iraq also allows the book to cover a lot of ground. Many novels and films have examined the aftermath of battle and the difficulties of reintegration at home; many more have begun by evoking an American innocence that their war sequences intend to destroy. Terrell’s approach allows him to have much of both cakes and eat them. After 160 pages of The Good Lieutenant, the reader is back with Fowler and Pulowski at Fort Riley in Kansas, but the barbecues and pre-deployment disputes are now tinged with the knowledge of the horrors that await their participants.

The effect is powerful and sometimes heartbreaking. Fowler and Pulowski grow ever closer as time spools backwards, and other characters rise from the dead and cycle through phases of diminishing entanglement with one another.

In the book’s final third, we encounter Fowler’s brother, a small-town slicker who sells sub-prime mortgages to those he calls “our triumvirate of morons”: blacks, Latinos and soldiers. The irony is thick as he mocks his sister – “Hey, I’m going off to war to save my country. Aren’t I awesome? Don’t I deserve to be thanked? No! You volunteered to get screwed” – and is laughed off.

Terrell was an embedded reporter in Iraq, an experience that could make anyone cynical. His achievement here is to keep his faith in those moments when it was still at least possible to imagine a different outcome.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times