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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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