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
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit