Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Brian Sewell, Ian Rankin and Chinua Achebe.

Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin

After a six-year hiatus, Ian Rankin’s DI John Rebus is back from retirement. “Admirers of the Rebus books will be relieved the hero has returned with little change except an increase in the severity of warnings from his doctor,” writes Mark Lawson in the Guardian. Rebus comes face-to-face with the hero of Rankin’s two most recent police books: Malcolm Fox. “The sections in which Rankin's two characters find themselves in the same book are fascinating psychologically because the author so clearly lets the older man have the better of the exchanges,” Lawson writes. “When Rebus notes Fox "sliming" around HQ and reflects that he seems more like "middle management in a plastics company", it's clearly what Rebus would think about the interloper, but also usefully channels a resentment that Rankin readers must inevitably feel about the loss of their favourite cop.” The plot revolves around a serial killer’s murders which take place along the A9. This results in Rebus undertaking many journeys around Scotland in his beloved Saab. His traversing of the country is one of several aspects – another being the book on Scottish myths that Rebus is reading – which leads Lawson to view Standing in Another Man’s Grave as a state-of-Scotland novel, a feature of which is the question of independence: “Although this book has only one direct reference to the prospect of independence, it is steeped in the feeling of a country on the cusp of potentially radical change.” Writing in the Sunday Times’ Culture Section, John Dugdale concurs, and adds: “If a statement is being made, though, it is a negative one... Agreeing with Clarke that Scotland is 'hard to fathom', Rebus sceptically calls it 'a nation of 5m huddled together clinging to notions of community and shared history'.” Though he praises the novel for being well-crafted, Dugdale is not excited by it: “Rebus’ thoughts are not just unromantic but humdrum, offering nothing of interest on the places he passes through.” Lawson disagrees however, finding wit and humour in the book: “While some elements of Rebus are generic (troubles with drink and women), he is without doubt the funniest among the classic fictional detectives, and his 19th case features some fine one-liners and a satisfying gag involving a bossy colleague's stapler.”

 

Outsider II: Almost Always: Never Quite by Brian Sewell

After releasing the first part of his autobiography last year, the life of Brian is proving to have no shortage of drama. This sequel includes, amongst other things, spies, stalkers and sex sprees. But is it worth reading? Sporadically so according to the reviews. “The book is of variable quality,” notes Lynn Barber in the Sunday Times, whilst Matthew Bell for the Independent suggests that Sewell is more concerned with marketing tactics than literary quality when he “divided what could have been one volume into two”. The general critical consensus is that the most eagerly anticipated aspect of this book – Sewell’s curious relationship with his Courtauld tutor and Cold-war Spy Anthony Blunt - ends up being the most disappointing: “These chapters don't necessarily make for the most entertaining,” notes Bell. Indeed, Sewell’s career as a whole isn’t the highlight of this memoir, as much of his art historical anecdotes are “too insanely detailed to follow” in Barber's view. A less-than-riveting account of his professional life is, however, more than made up for in his account of his personal life which is “lewd, very funny, not very likeable” according to Philip Hensher in the Guardian: “The joy of the memoir is largely in its filth,” he summarises. Indeed, Outsider II seems to have been written exclusively to the principle that sex sells, albeit not entirely successfully. “Sewell’s obsession with sex…grows wearisome after a while,” comments Barber, in agreement with Bell. “The relentless dishing up of graphic sexual stories becomes a little exhausting.” For those seeking scandal, however, Sewell doesn’t fall short. As well as unremittingly salacious details, his deliciously unrestrained assessment of certain newspaper editors will be “enjoyed by many journalists and possibly by libel lawyers” according to Barber, and, in Bell’s view, “will cause some choking on canapés in London's medialand.” Nonetheless, each reviewer concludes that the “energy” of Sewell’s prose is the redeeming feature of his memoir, transforming it into an undeniably engaging read. “Tremendously enjoyable” praises Hensher, whilst Barber summarises ““there is constant pleasure in Sewell's prose: the elegance of phrase, the wry humour, and the clarity of insight”. After all, as the Independent notes, “what should a memoir be, if not genital warts and all?”

There Was A Country by Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe’s first book in three years richly rewards his admirers’ patience,” writes Chika Unigwe in the New Statesman. “It is the work of a master storyteller, able to combine seriousness with lightness of touch, even when writing about the terrifying events of a war that cost the life of one of his best friends, the poet Christopher Okigbo, and the lives of millions of others.” This war was the Nigerian-Biafran War, which resulted from a failed coup, a coup that was perceived to be plotted by the Igbo, Achebe’s tribe. “Biafra was the world's first properly televised conflict, and millions across the world were appalled by the horrors flickering on their screens,” writes Noo Saro-Wiwa in the Guardian. “Such people as Joan Baez, John Lennon, Martin Luther King and Karl Vonnegut galvanised international responses to the tragedy, in an age before 'Africa fatigue' had set in.” Achebe’s poetry is scattered throughout the book in which memoir becomes neutral historical analysis before reverting to memoir. The end of the book sees Achebe evaluate his country and prescribe recuperative measures: “The final chapter is an exhortation to better governance,” writes Saro-Wiwa, “in which he examines corruption, ethnic bigotry, state failure and the steps Nigeria must take to rehabilitate itself.” “Achebe, as an African intellectual, is perfectly placed to ask the important questions about why so few of the newly independent nations became, by most measures, successful,” writes Tim Ecott in The Telegraph. “Nigeria, he argues, had people of great quality, and its chaotic, shambolic, corrupt society is 'a great disappointment'.”

Ian Rankin in Edinburgh (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/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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