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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit