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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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