Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on John le Carré, Alister McGrath and Granta 123.

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré

A Delicate Truth moves us away from John Le Carré’s previous focus on the post-Soviet capitalist oligarchy to a tale of financial corruption and high-level intrigue on the island of Gibraltar.

Ian Thomson of the Independent is liberal in his praise: "Throughout A Delicate Truth, the tension ratchets up superbly as revelation follows on revelation. Much of what passes these days for literary fiction is mere creative writing; le Carré is one of the great analysts of the contemporary scene, who has a talent to provoke as well as unsettle."

Similarly, to the Observer’s Robert McRum the novel represents a "remarkable return to mid-season form ... he remains as deeply English in nuance, observation and message as ever, and more perceptive about post-'war on terror' Britain than many lesser writers." He also praises the "brilliant climax" and the novel's ability to "pick over the cynicism of the secret state with cold fury".

This view is also shared by Geoffrey Wansell of the Daily Mail: "the bewitching nuances of Le Carré are all there, for this is writing of such quality that – as Robert Harris puts it – it will be read in one hundred years. Le Carré was never a spy- turned-writer; he was a writer who found his canvas in espionage, as Dickens did in other worlds. The two men deserve comparison."

C.S Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath, King's College theologian and author of The Dawkins Delusion, returns with a comprehensive portrait of CS Lewis. For Peter Stanford of the Guardian, McGrath’s work is both "more and less" than a biography ... more in that it weaves in a thoughtful, erudite lit-crit appraisal of the writings, plus an unabashed serenade for Lewis's theology. Less in that, though he covers key episodes familiar from other biographies, McGrath picks and chooses the details that suit his purpose of painting Lewis as a modern prophet. Indeed he seems on occasion to lack a biographer's basic curiosity about the minutiae. That, though, is a minor irritant in what is otherwise a very readable study."

Paul Johnson in the Spectator is quick to acknowledge the "genius" of Lewis. A former pupil of his, Johnson was clearly inspired by the man. However, despite acknowledging the "painstaking" lengths McGrath has gone to, he suggests that the book "lacks charm" and "does not make us warm to the subject". Nevertheless, he concludes that McGrath gives us "much food for thought in this dutiful, sound and worthy book".

Despite minor frustration at McGrath’s lack of exploration of Lewis’s time in the trenches, the Telegraph’s Phillip Womack is extremely positive: "This is a finely balanced book, which allows Lewis’s works to speak for themselves without drawing crude parallels with his life, something that Lewis himself would have admired. And it leaves the reader marvelling at the joy and wonder that inhabit the Narnia books: that enchanted glimpse into something beautiful and eternal."

Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4, edited by John Freeman

Phillip Hensher, writing in the Spectator, laments the absence from the latest Granta list of best of young British novelists of a number of established authors such as Jon McGregor. Moreover, he notes the failure to provide a "flavour of a generation - the sort of thing that the previous lists possessed in spades".

Writing in the Telegraph, Anthony Cummins is similarly critical: "Freeman’s arguments for these and other choices lack the clarity with which he recalls where and what the panel ate as they judged." Nevertheless he praises the ability of the various writers to find "fresh combinations of characters and situations, or [to] cast a torch into worlds that lie hidden in plain sight; more 19th century than 21st".

For the Observer’s Tim Adams, the collection represents key trends in contemporary fiction: "the dominant tone is of poignant uprootedness, anxious displacement".

John Le Carré's latest work is a "return to mid-season form" (Photo by Terry Fincher/Express/Getty Images)
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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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