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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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder