Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Elias Khoury, Lorna Gibb and Michael Burleigh.

West's World: The Extraordinary Life Of Dame Rebecca West by Lorna Gibb

Cicely Fairfield was born in 1892. As a young woman, she changed her name to Rebecca West and went on to become both a writer and journalist.  She led a tumultuous life, however, and is now remembered more for her dramatic relationships than her writing. But, as John Carey writes in the The Sunday Times, she was a prolific journalist: “In 1946 West was the only woman reporter from Britain to cover the trial and execution of the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.” Although, according to Carey, Lorna Gibb acknowledges West’s achievements as a journalist, she fails to adequately consider her efforts as a writer, which “matters because West did, in fact, produce a literary masterpiece”. Discussing West’s travelogue, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Carey adds, “Gibb warns that it is long and rambling — which is true. But that is all the more reason to quote tempting chunks of it to lure readers, which she does not.”

The Spectator’s Philip Hensher also criticises Gibb’s “treatment of the context”. Citing an example, where she makes reference to West’s lover Max Beaverbrook, Hensher asserts, “If you know who Max Beaverbrook was, and what he meant, fine; if not, he is just a man who lives in Fulham, and it might come as rather a surprise to discover, later on, that he owned some newspapers.”

Meanwhile, The Guardian's Robert McCrum writes a scathing review of Gibb’s treatment of West’s life, asserting that “West's World is really what Auden called ‘a shilling life’, the retelling of a career we love to read about, lazily written and sloppily edited. Anthony West did not write HG Wells in Love. The editor of the TLS in 1970 was Arthur Crook, not Cook. For a fuller understanding of this fascinating woman, we're better off returning to another biography, published as recently as 1987, by Victoria Glendinning.”

 

White Masks by Elias Khoury

White Masks is set against the backdrop of the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War. A journalist embarks on an investigation into the murder of a middle-aged civil servant named Khalil Ahmad Jaber, who is found in a mound of rubbish. Interweaving several other stories including those of a local tradesman, residents and a young militiaman, it underlines the horrors of Lebanon’s bloody civil war. Writing in The Telegraph, Nicholas Blincoe praises Khoury’s “elliptical storytelling”, which he asserts is also evident in Khoury’s 1998 masterpiece Gate of the Sun. “What is even more remarkable,” he adds, “is that White Masks was first published in 1981, making it a contemporary account of one of the most tangled moments in Beirut, a city that is a byword for bewildering complexity.”

The Guardian’s Wayne Gooderham disagrees, however, stating that due to Khoury’s meandering narrative structure, “the overriding impression is of a collection of interconnected short stories being forced into the shape of a rather unsatisfying novel”.

 

Small Wars, Far Away Places: The Genesis of the Modern World by Michael Burleigh

Small Wars, Far Away Places, reveals how the problems we face today may be due to the legacy left by recent wars. Historian Michael Burleigh provides an account of the struggles faced by society in the post-war era, taking the reader on a historical journey through Palestine, Pakistan, Cuba and Indo-China. Writing in The Times, Ben Macintyre praises Burleigh’s examination of history, stating that in focusing on individuals and individual confrontations, he creates a “brilliant, complex, contradictory story, replete with character and incident, pungent and pithy and refreshingly free of preaching”.

George Walden also praises Burleigh's book. Writing in The Telegraph, he calls it both “vividly written” and “stimulating”. Expressing relief that the book is not “suffused with infantile Leftism, patrician liberalism or romantic patriotism”, Walden asserts, “we get the raw truth, conveyed in scintillating language by a master of historical irony”.

Dame Rebecca West speaks to Eric Linklater and Arthur Koestler at a party, 1953. (Photo: Getty/Evening Standard)
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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge