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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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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