Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Charles Moore, David Sedaris and Damian Barr.

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not For Turning by Charles Moore 

Charles Moore’s biography has been 16 years in the making and is based on unrestricted access to all Margaret Thatcher's papers, as well as on  interviews with her and all her major colleagues.

For Anne Applebaum, writing in the Telegraph, Moore’s work is the "definitive account" of Thatcher’s life. She celebrates Moore’s ability to "‘make Thatcher’s story fresh again" and to create a "multi-faceted picture of a compelling and unusual life".

Similarly, Jane Merrick of the Independent claims that Moore’s exhaustive work provides us with "enough new material (including previously unpublished correspondence with her sister, Muriel) to offer a fresh, even vulnerable person behind the mythology". That said, Merrick is wary of the "Establishment-backed and largely uncritical" version of events presented by Moore.

The Guardian’s Andy Beckett is more reserved in his praise. Whilst admiring the book's flashes of "dry wit" and acknowledging the "thoroughness and skill" involved in writing such a large tome, Beckett argues that the writing tends towards hagiography - Moore’s telling of her Grantham upbringing is "reverent" and "sepia tinged". Moreover, Beckett echoes Merrick’s assertion that the biography is lacking in honest criticism - "a sense of the British establishment granting favours to one of its own hangs over this book, and is never quite dispelled".

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

David Sedaris presents his new collection of essays from his journeys around the world. Occasionally, David Shariatmadari of the Guardian writes, Sedaris’s writing can appear "contemptuous" and hard "to like". Nevertheless Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls "also sings about how brilliantly clever, inventive and funny he is, a poet for everyone who wouldn't live the ordinary life if you paid them".

Whilst Max Liu of the Independent praises Sedaris’s humour, he is critical of his forays into fiction, describing them as "clumsy". When writing about his life, Liu argues, Sedaris is "poignant and amusing, but it's hard to recommend a slim volume of autobiography padded with forgettable stories".

This view is shared by Tom Cox, writing in the Daily Express. Cox argues that Let’s Explore Diabetes… gives unfortunate credence to the notion that Sedaris was at his best when writing about the menial jobs he did in his twenties and thirties, and now must resort to wringing comic episodes from his life as a rich author, catching aeroplanes between his multiple residences and spoken word shows. To fans of Sedaris, Cox claims, this may feel "flimsy", but to those new to Sedaris the book will provide "some of your biggest laughs of the decade so far".  

Maggie and Me by Damian Barr

Maggie and Me is Damian Barr’s blackly comic memoir about growing up gay during the Thatcher years. Although critical of the "brassy finale" in which Barr "squanders the subtlety that went before it" by giving in to a "forced Thatcherism", the Observer's Adam Mars-Jones praises Barr’s "shrewdly constructed" memoir. It is, he writes, imbued with a "winning dry humour" and manages a "very sharp control of irony".

In a similarly laudatory review, Andrew Holgate in the Sunday Times praises Maggie and Me as "full to the brim with poignancy, humour, brutality and energetic and sometimes shimmering prose, the book confounds one’s assumptions about those years and drenches the whole era in an emotionally charged comic grandeur. It is hugely affecting."

This view is also shared by Olivia Cole of GQ: "[F]or all the pain, Maggie and Me is a tremendous, surprising read". She is also quick to praise the "honesty" and "difficulty" of Barr’s record of his experiences, praising the author as an "exemplary figure".

Margaret Thatcher on election day in June 1987 (Photo: Getty Images)
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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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