Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Amos Oz, Charles Emmerson and Michael Burleigh.

Between Friends by Amos Oz

 

In a collection of eight stories, Amos Oz uses his own experience of living on an Israeli kibbutz to explore the difficulties in striving for equality in communal living.

For Lucy Popescu of the Independent, “Oz brilliantly conveys the harsher side of kibbutz life”. Whilst Oz suggests no easy answers to the questions he raises, “he builds an evocative portrait of a 1950s kibbutz, the hopes and dreams of its inhabitants, and the successes and failures of communal living, using beautiful, spare prose”.

Similarly, for Alberto Manguel in the Guardian, the novel is a “lucid and heartbreaking chronicle of [a] well-intentioned and hard-working community of lonely souls”. Manguel argues that the novel makes salient points about the "Middle East conundrum”, as well as “the impossibility of utopia [as] ongoing proof of our determination to keep on trying.”

Although acknowledging that Oz “may have written more dazzling books”, Ben Lawrence in the Telegraph praises this "deeply affecting chamber piece”, suggesting it “draws on… the contradictory urges that lie at the heart of Israel’s psyche”.

All three reviewers praise Sondra Silverstein’s “deft” translation. 

 

1913: The World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson

 

Charles Emmerson’s account paints a strikingly different picture of 1913 to more conventional tales of extravagant social endeavours undertaken in anticipation of looming destruction.

According to Kathryn Hughes writing in  the Guardian, Emmerson wants readers to experience what it felt like to be alive in 1913, “unaware of the coming rip in history”. She sees his work as an “ambitious, subtle account," noting that "Emmerson tries hard not to play the hindsight game. Still, he's honest enough to acknowledge the cheap pleasure that comes from knowing what happens next”.

David Crane, in the Spectator, is even more forthcoming in praise: “this is an immensely impressive book”. Emmerson turns 1913’s lack of headline events into a strength and “gives us a masterful, comprehensive portrait of the world at that last moment in its history when Europe was incontrovertibly ‘the centre of the universe’ and, within it, London ‘the centre of the world’”.

In contrast, Mark Damazer, reviewing the book for the New Statesman, feels Emmerson’s attempt at discussing painting, literature and architecture is “a bit half-hearted”. For Damazer, there are too many long quotations and too many important events that go untouched, although “occasionally, the world of 1913 throws up something satisfyingly contemporary”.

 

Small Wars, Far Away Places by Michael Burleigh

 

The historian Michael Burleigh's Small Wars, Far Away Places, is a document of the national liberation movements which sprang up in the two decades after the Second World War.

Although praising Burleigh’s ability to compose “pungent and pithy prose” and “bring history to life”, David Herman in the New Statesman is critical of some “puzzling absences” in the book, such as the Portugese colonial project. The reliance on Anglophone sources is also criticised, rendering the book “out of date and parochial”.

Historian John Lewis-Stempel, writing in the Express, sees Burleigh as “the don of elegant, historical writing and every vignette in this book is arresting”. However Lewis-Stempel similarly laments the gaps in knowledge and occasional errors, to him a product of Burleigh’s inability to remain a “dispassionate” historian.

Ben Shepard in the Guardian is more positive, arguing that the historical narratives Burleigh composes are “small masterpieces of lucidity and concision with complex political backcloths effortlessly painted in”. Nevertheless, Shepard argues that the “book never quite hangs together and the serial narrative method it uses gradually exhausts both writer and reader”.

The new work by Amos Oz has been praised as "a lucid and heartbreaking chronicle."
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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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