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 lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

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