Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Maya Angelou, Charles Glass and Eric Hobsbawm.

Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou

In the latest instalment of her memoirs, Maya Angelou tackles her tumultuous relationship with her mother. Miserable in her marriage and unable to cope with motherhood, Vivien Baxter sent Angelou and her brother Bailey to live with their grandmother in Arkansas, where they remained for ten years. The Washington Post’s Valerie Sayers describes Mom & Me & Mom both as a storyof how [Angelou] came to love the woman who had sent her away” and “of a dangerous time when she struggled as an unwed mother”. Although she acknowledges a lack of detail in some instances, Sayers says it takes little away from the overall design: “As an account of reconciliation, this little book is just revealing enough, and pretty irresistible.”

Writing about Angelou’s style, the Independent’s Fiona Sturges praises the way in which some of the more harrowing incidents in the book are presented. “Angelou has never been one for florid prose, and here she maintains a precise and economical style which makes these bleak moments more vivid, like a film from which you can't look away.” Both critics praise Angelou’s perpetual optimism. Sayers describes Mom & Me & Mom as a book delivered with Angelou’s “trademark good humour and fierce optimism”, while Sturges describes it as a “profoundly moving tale of separation and reunion, and an ultimately optimistic portrait of the maternal bond”.

Deserter by Charles Glass

The latest book by journalist, broadcaster and author Charles Glass provides accounts of three young men who were drafted into the infantry during the Second World War. As its title suggests, Deserter explores what motivated a group of British and American soldiers to make the decision to run away. While the Guardian’s Neal Ascherson notes that not much of the book is actually about deserting – “most of it consists of the three men’s own narratives of ‘their war’” – he nonetheless regards the accounts as important contributions to the historical narrative of war: “Because they are the stories of individual human beings who eventually cracked under the strain of hardly imaginable fear and misery, they are wonderful, unforgettable acts of witness, something salvaged from a time already sinking into the black mud of the past.”

The Telegraph’s Keith Lowe describes Glass’s book as “sensitive and thought-provoking”. Focusing on the story of an American coal miner’s son called Alfred T Whitehead, who wrote a war-time diary riddled with lies, Lowe praises Glass for his nuanced approach: “Most historians would probably have abandoned it as a source. For Glass, however, this is exactly the point: why did this man tell such tall tales?” Simultaneously appalled and moved by the witness accounts in Deserters, both critics conclude with the same the same question: confronted with such horrific conditions, who wouldn’t also have considered running away?

Fractured Times by Eric Hobsbawm

Writing in the Observer, Nick Cohen has high praise for Eric Hobsbawm’s posthumously published collection of essays. This book, Cohen argues, “shows this revolutionary traditionalist at his best”. Cohen praises the revered Marxist historian and asserts that none of his contemporaries was “better at deploying a killer fact to make an argument stick in your mind”. The Telegraph’s Alex Massie is careful to warn readers that anyone “hoping for the final showdown between Hobsbawm’s unabashed communism and the reality of the Soviet Union’s own failure will be disappointed”, suggesting that although the articles may have been published at different times, the common thread throughout is “a nagging crisis of identity and a parallel fear of redundancy” as the author explores the evaporation of classical music and elitist high culture.

This reading is echoed by the New Statesman’s own Jonathan Derbyshire, who notes that Hobsbawm “evinces melancholy empathy .  . . for the art and culture of the ‘bourgeois society’ that disappeared after the outbreak of the First World War”. It was, Derbyshire argues, Hobsbawm's interest in “the social and historical significance of high culture marked him out from his distinguished colleagues" in the Communist Party Historians Group in the mid-1950s. Perhaps the highest praise for Hobsbawm comes from Richard J Evans, in the Guardian, who says his “pessimism comes through in many of the essays in this book more clearly than in any other work he published after the fall of communism”. Despite teaching and writing modern European history for 40 years, Evans says that he “learned an enormous amount that I didn't know before”.

The late Eric Hobsbawm in 1976 (photograph: 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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