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)
Hugo Glendinning
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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.