Reviews round-up | 14 January

The best of the critics this week on Helen Dunmore's war novel The Lie, philosopher-scientist Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes and Jack El-Hai's foray into criminal minds in The Nazi and the Psychiatrist.

The Lie by Helen Dunmore

"While The Lie may be the first literary reimagining of the First World War in this centenary year, it will undoubtedly prove one of the most subtle and enduring," writes an enchanted Stephanie Merritt in the Observer. Written with a "poet's feeling for language", Helen Dunmore's latest novel is a "quiet tragedy". It depicts the troubled return home of a shell-shocked young soldier, Daniel, to "a village full of absences and the news his mother is dead."  Merritt praises the author for offering "glimpses of hope and redemption, even as the inevitable consequences of Daniel's life begin to close in on him."

"Dunmore's is a very good novel. 2014 is a very good year to read it", writes John Sutherland in the Times as the political row over the memory of the war escalates. The author's "imagination and research" shines through, particularly in its "vivid", first-person flashbacks to the "horrors of the trenches".  She teases out the tensions of class and sexuality, with Daniel and a soon-to-die officer realising "in the mud, blood and filth of the trenches, that they're not just pals." Sutherland's only criticism is that Dunmore was not there - "The best novels about the conflict are by those who spilt blood."

Boyd Tonkin at the Independent disagrees, congratulating Dunmore as one of an "admirable group of modern women writers who have kept faith with the scarred victims". This "hallucinatory novel of survivor-guilt, delayed trauma and the loving cross-class friendships war made and broke" is a must-read for the young, Tonkin writes. The war's horrors may be "familiar", but there is nothing formulaic in Dunmore's powerful renditions of the "hellish texture of the trench mud, 'thick, almost oily, full of shit and rotten flesh, cordite and chlorite of lime'". Essential reading for new generations to "learn these truths again".

 

Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene

We are programmed to be moral only towards our own tribes, philosopher-scientist Joshua Greene argues in his new book. For the Guardian's Salley Vickers, "Greene's radical contention is that the world will only be saved if we transcend our intuitive responses in favour of ... utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number." Vickers is persuaded our group biases are at the root of "racism, sexism, class war ... and countless conflicts and atrocities", but finds Greene's solutions "inoperable". Utilitarianism fails as a basis for agreement between groups  because "it leaves unanswered the problem of who decides the general 'good'". 

Sceptics about utilitarianism "will not be persuaded", Natalie Gold agrees in the Times Higher Education Supplement, but Harvard professor Greene still has "something new to bring to the debate". Drawing on thought experiments carried out by the author, the work is "particularly strong on the psychology of moral judgment". Gold takes issue with Greene's treatment of "manual" versus "automatic" responses, however, unconvinced that our "manual" reasoning is always utilitarian and always better than following your gut.

Utilitarian decision-making demands an "absolutely impartial perspective" that even the author lacks in dedicating the book to his wife, Julian Baggini observes in the Financial Times.  But moral philosophy must "put our particular attachments at its core, not view them as "species-typical moral limitations to be overcome", Baggini argues. He nonetheless hails Green's achievements in a valuable "synthesising work that nails what is centrally important, such as the observation that 'We've been looking for universal moral principles that feel right, and there may be no such thing'".

 

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist by Jack El-Hai

"Were the Nazis mad, or bad? That question still hangs over the history of the Second World War, and perhaps explains our enduring cultural fascination with the meaning of Nazism," Ben Macintyre writes in the Times. American army psychiatrist Douglas Kelley had the chance to find out for himself after the war when he was selected to analyse the captive criminals at Nuremberg. El-Hai recounts Kelley's forensic probing into their brains, revealing "narcissism, self-delusion, and indifference" - but not madness. Sadly the "markedly less enthralling" personal life of the psychiatrist dominates the book's second half, but its central thrust is an important one. Finding Nazis "perfectly sane" may be medically frustrating, but it is "morally satisfying to leave the perpetrators of the worst crime in history entirely responsible for their own actions".

Leyla Sanai in the Independent is more disturbed by the book's conclusions. "The finding that relatively normal men could enact such crimes led Kelley to fear that similar barbaric atrocities could arise elsewhere," Sanai writes. She highlights Kelley's prediction that "workaholics with strong convictions might elsewhere show similar disregard for the lives of others". The insights into Hitler's leading henchmen are fascinating, revealing the "ruthless" Goering as a "sociable, loving family man who had adored animals" and Streicher as owner of "the largest pornography collection ever seen." A "detailed, meticulously-researched book" , exploring the minds of these "relatively" normal men.

Peter Lewis in the Daily Mail is more reluctant to accept "current majority opinion that the Nazi mind was a myth", in a review entitled "A joke-cracking, hymn-singing, wife-loving psycho". The reviewer finds Kelley's bizarre behaviour almost as enthralling as Goering's, arguing the psychiatrist  "had in some ways a similar personality" to his subject. Both were  "ambitious, go-getting, workaholics", and both used cyanide to take their own lives. According to Lewis, "psychiatrists have continued to debate the 'Nazi mind'". Kelley's fellow interrogator "published his own book saying all the Nazis had been psychopaths." On the evidence of Goering's extraordinary comments on Auschwitz - "Well, it was good propaganda" - Lewis concludes Kelley's work was "hardly an exact science". 

 

Helen Dunmore paints the horrors of the trenches in The Lie. Photograph: Getty Images
THOM ATKINSON
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Lionel Shriver's new novel creates a whole world – but can't quite grasp its inhabitats

Like Shriver's previous offerings, The Mandibles: a Family – 2029-2047 takes on a difficult topic: this time, American debt.

If your son takes a bow-and-arrow set to school and kills nine of his classmates, how do you know how much responsibility you bear for his actions, if any? If you have been living frugally for decades so that you can retire early to a tropical island and, just before you do so, your wife is diagnosed with aggressive and terminal cancer, do you have an obligation to spend your entire savings to prolong her life by a couple of months? If your brother is morbidly obese and the best chance he has of losing the 200-odd pounds that will save his life is for you to leave your husband and teenage stepchildren and to live with him, monitoring every calorie he ingests, should you do so?

These questions are at the centre of three of Lionel Shriver’s previous novels, namely: We Need to Talk About Kevin (her eighth, which brought her worldwide fame in 2003 after nearly two decades of writing in obscurity), So Much for That (2010) and Big Brother (2013). Shriver is fascinated by how we make sense of our responsibilities to and for those around us. She explores this theme through the psyches of her main characters as they confront extreme personal circumstances that chime with contemporary American socio-political issues: mass shootings, the health-care system, the obesity epidemic.

In The Mandibles, she takes on the US economy (Shriver is an American, although she lives in England). The book opens 13 years in the future, with the collapse of the dollar and America defaulting on its national debt. The president – the country’s first Latino head of state – forbids capital over $100 leaving the country and citizens are required to hand over to the government any gold they own, down to their wedding rings. This all takes place against a background of environmental change, an ageing population, racial tension and widespread unemployment, which is caused, in part, by the ability of robots to do what used to be human work.

Shriver’s powers of invention are considerable and, combined with a dark sense of humour, have often provided relief from the bleak subjects to which she is drawn. In So Much for That, for example, the cancer-battling wife renames the drugs she is prescribed: marzipan for lorazepam, Attaboy for Ativan, and so on.

The future setting of The Mandibles allows Shriver’s inventiveness full rein. “Awesome” and “cool” are out of date; the kids say “malicious” and “careless” instead. No one uses smartphones any more; they use “fleXes”, a device that can be folded to any size and is “so thin that, before the distinctive bright colours of its second generation, some folks had thrown theirs away, mistaking the wads in their pockets for tissues”. No one reads novels any more, either, but a post-crisis economic treatise called The Corrections gets a lot of attention. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the state of the publishing industry is one of the most fully imagined aspects of Shriver’s future.)

Most members of the Mandible family aren’t prepared for how quickly – and how much – the economic crisis will change their lives. They have all been assuming that when their 97-year-old patriarch, Douglas, dies, the family fortune would filter down to his son and daughter and then to his son’s children and grandchildren. But the crisis wipes out the Mandible money and Douglas and his dementia-suffering second wife are forced to move out of their high-end care home and in with his son, Carter.

Carter’s two daughters struggle with the situation in their own ways. The richer of the two, Avery, has to adjust to no longer being able to afford extra-virgin olive oil, while Florence, for whom olive oil has long been a luxury, resigns herself to feeding her family cabbage and rice for every meal. She does the weekly shopping as soon as she is paid: as a result of hyperinflation, prices can rise steeply in a single day. When both Avery and her husband lose their jobs, they have to leave their house and take up residence with their teenage children in Florence’s already overcrowded home.

The Mandibles asks us to consider how we know what we owe to our family and our community and what counts as fair when all of the structures around which we have built our lives become unstable. There is an impressive thoroughness to Shriver’s imagining of the consequences of full-scale economic collapse. This thoroughness, however, makes the novel feel psychologically flat.

The character to whom she devotes most time is Florence’s son Willing, a teenager at the beginning of the book. An economics autodidact, he has a preternatural ability to judge just how things will get worse and to prepare accordingly.

Another Mandible insists that things will get back to normal. Another gets involved in the black market. Another reinvents herself as a model of altruism. Different characters react to catastrophe differently but the way in which Shriver moves between so many of them and has them make so many difficult decisions in difficult circumstances makes her engagement with each feel cursory. She creates a whole world but not quite whole human beings. 

The Mandibles: a Family – 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver is published by Borough Press (400pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster