Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Julian Barnes, Greg Bellow and David Goodhart.

 

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

The three stages of love - euphoria, passion and grief - between two 19th-century balloonists sets the tone for the first two parts of Levels of Life. Barnes lost his wife of 30 years, Pat Kavanagh, to brain cancer in 2008. The third part of the book is an exploration of Barnes’s despair.

Leyla Sanai in the Independent writes that this is “a book whose slimness belies its throbbing emotional power”. She sees the metaphors of flight and open skies standing in for the freedom and love that book details between the two balloonists, but also notices the personal feeling Barnes lets in: “there is no disguising the raw pain that pulses throughout; the solitary heartbeat of the one left behind”.

According to Sam Leith in the Spectator the raw emotion makes it a hard book to read: “There’s a trace of the hesitancy a reviewer feels towards such obviously personal material, but it also seems to reflect something in the book itself. Levels of Life is much more hermetic than it at first appears. You find yourself hazarding guesses at things because — again, to hazard a guess — not all the material you need to decode this book is available to the reader.”

The Guardian’s Blake Morrison, who knew Kavanagh personally for over 30 years describes the themes that run throughout the book: “The themes that preoccupy Barnes – love and ballooning (and grief and photography) – take a little longer to line up but discovering how they do is half the pleasure. We've work to do – not grief‑work such as the author's, but work all the same.”

They come together in the end in a personal outpouring: “Where the first two sections portray life in the air and on the ground, the searing 50-page essay that concludes the book describes descent – no upper air, no perspective, just darkness and despair.”

Saul Bellow’s Heart by Greg Bellow

Reviewing your own father’s life is not an easy task, but for retired psychotherapist Greg Bellow describing Saul Bellow, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, the stakes are higher still. According to the Observer’s Adam Mars-Jones, Greg Bellow doesn't meet the challenge. He criticises the book for “lacking literary weight”, having a “suspect tone from the first paragraph” and showing an “unacknowledged hostility”.

Jeremy Treglown in the Spectator is barely less pessimistic: “It isn’t the son’s fault that his powers of insight and articulation are less than Saul Bellow’s: whose aren’t? And of course if writing this narrative has proved helpful to him, fine. But publishing it wasn’t necessary, and reading it is frankly a struggle.”

In the centenary issue of the New Statesman, Leo Robson takes a less critical stance: “Greg Bellow has quite a monument on his hands and to his credit he refrains from slinging mud or poking warts ... If Greg Bellow conforms to a character type, it isn’t the father-killer but the spurned first-born.”

The British Dream by David Goodhart

Immigration is a touchy subject in British politics. But it's a subject David Goodhart, previously editor of Prospect magazine has tackled full on in his new book The British Dream, reviewed at length by Labour MP Jon Cruddas in the centenary edition of the New Statesman.

Peter Oborne in the Telegraph calls it an “exceptionally important” book in which Goodhart “has helped Britain end our long unhealthy period of silence about a great issue.”

Ian Birrell in the Observer, by contrast, found the book “disappointing” and was surprised to find one of his own articles used as a foundation for one of the its arguments. Birrell says Goodhart “twisted [his] words absurdly".

The work of mourning: Julian Barnes (Photograph: Getty Images)
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At best, The Confession Tapes makes you feel unease. At worst, despair

Netflix billed the show as a true-crime binge-watch – but its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

Would you confess to a crime you hadn’t committed? For some days now, I’ve been asking myself this question. Furious and punchy, my gut tells me immediately that I wouldn’t, not in a million years. But then comes a quieter, less certain voice. Isn’t guilt, for some of us, a near-permanent state? Apt to apologise even when I’m not in the wrong, I cannot believe I’m the only woman alive who tortures herself in the small hours by thinking she has unknowingly done something very bad indeed.

All this was provoked by The Confession Tapes, billed on social media as “our” next Netflix true-crime binge-watch. In this instance, however, the breathless excitement is misplaced: binge-watching would seem to me to amount to a form of self-harm. Yes, it’s compulsive. Stoked by bloody police photographs, the atmosphere can be suspenseful to a queasy-making degree. But like Making a Murderer and The Keepers before it, its prime concern is not with crimes committed so much as with the American justice system, for which reason its narrative arc is the opposite of cathartic.

At best, it will leave you feeling uneasy. At worst, you may find yourself sinking down into something akin to despair.

Director Kelly Loudenberg tells six stories over the course of seven episodes. Each involves a brutal murder (or murders) for which a perpetrator (or perpetrators) has (have) since been safely (unsafely) convicted. All are linked by one factor: the conviction was secured primarily thanks to a confession extracted by the police under extreme circumstances. Lawyers were not present; mind games were played; interviewees were exhausted, unstable, traumatised. In one instance, the authorities took what’s known as the “Mr Big” approach: undercover officers, playing their roles with all the gusto of a local am-dram society, pretended to be gangsters whose criminal networks could save the accused from death row if only they (the accused) would provide them with all the facts.

Why did juries believe these confessions, unaccompanied as they were by forensic evidence? Here, we go back to where we began. “No,” they told themselves. “I would not admit to a crime I had not committed.” Either such citizens have no softer inner voice – or, more likely, the idea of listening to it is simply too terrifying.

Predictably, the majority of the accused are poor and ill-educated, and perhaps this is one reason why the case of Sebastian Burns and Atif Rafay, two articulate middle-class boys from Canada, stood out for me (the pair were found guilty of the 1994 murder in Bellevue, Washington, of Atif’s parents and sister; at the time, they were 19). Or perhaps it is just that I still can’t understand why an American court considered “Mr Big” evidence admissible when the technique is illegal in the US? (The “gangsters” who encouraged Burns and Rafay to indulge in the most pathetic teenage braggadocio I’ve ever witnessed belonged to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.)

The saddest part of this tale: hearing Burns’ father, David, describe his prison visits. (Burns, serving a life sentence without possibility of parole, has exhausted all his appeals.) The strangest part: the way James Jude Konat, like all the prosecutors in this series, was so happy to perform for the camera, more game-show host than lawyer.

It feels obscene to move on, but move on I must. W1A (18 September, 10pm) is enjoying a bewilderingly long life (this is series three). Is the joke still funny? I think it’s wearing thin, though this may be born of my own recent encounter with the BBC’s bizarre machinery (humiliating, in a word).

Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) and her team of media morons have been bought by a Dutch company, Fun, where good ideas are celebrated with silent discos. One idea is a YouTube-style platform, BBC Me. Meanwhile, Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) is helming – nice BBC word – a group that will deliver the corporation’s “More of Less Initiative”, and a cross-dressing footballer has successfully plonked his bum on the Match of the Day sofa. Business as usual, in other words. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left