Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Rachel Kushner, Iain Banks and Sylvain Tesson.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner’s second novel, mines the rich territories of the New York art world of the 1970s, Brazilian colonial history, Italian activist politics, and motorcycle racing as a dense web of plot entangles unusual characters. “Reno,” for example, a daredevil artist nicknamed after her U.S. hometown, participates in a desert motorcycle race in Utah in order to photograph the resulting cycle-track-on-sand “earth art,” and through her lover Sandro becomes embroiled in Italian radicalism.

Amber Pearson, writing for the Mail Online, calls Rachel Kushner’s second novel The Flamethrowers “not an easy one to pigeonhole.” In a wide-ranging story with multiple threads, “covering the New York art scene of the Seventies, Italian protest movements and the masculine world of the biking community,” Pearson concludes, “Sparky and inventive, this feels like a riot of a novel - although not necessarily one with a particularly focused agenda.”

At The Express, Jake Kerridge singles out Kushner’s inventiveness and audacity: “Short of donning leathers herself and tracing her opening chapter in the sands of the Utah desert with her motorbike, Kushner could hardly have been more daring and ambitious.” Kerridge embraces the book’s sprawling scope as well as its carefully-drawn particulars, noting “Kushner can make each member of her large cast of oddballs come alive in a sentence.”

New Statesman’s own Leo Robson, however, finds the unstructured tale wanting in focus: “Kushner’s taste for trivia, and the lack of a conventional causal plot, put a limit on the novel’s forward movement,” and cites Kazuo Ishiguro, Graham Swift and Don DeLillo as similarly non-linear authors who nevertheless “find it useful to drop the odd clue, as a way of generating suspense.” The Flamethrowers, Robson concludes, is “a paradoxical kind of failure, a blast of talent and ingenuity that makes for heavy reading.”

The Quarry by Iain Banks

The Quarry is a black comedy which follows the character of Guy, a man dying of cancer, as he plays host to old friends in his house which is threatened by an expanding quarry. The bleak novel is narrated by Kit – Guy’s 18-year-old autistic son – who endeavors to find out the identity of his mother before his father’s fast-approaching death. Banks himself died of cancer early this month, giving the novel a genuine, poignant touch which critics agree provides for a powerful last novel, but perhaps not one that matches the quality of his previous works.

Ion Trewin, writing in The Express, tells potential readers not to be “put off by the plethora of characters in the opening chapter” which poses an initial risk of confusion. Although “The Quarry hasn't quite the polished storytelling quality one had become accustomed to in his writing…persevere and you will be rewarded.”

Doug Johnstone of The Independent believes that Banks’ last novel is worthy of his previous works. Banks’ poignant connection to the book has a “profound effect on the content and mood of the novel, which is a quietly incendiary piece of writing, at times heartbreaking, at other times really wonderfully funny”. Overall, it is a “brilliant, piercing depiction of just how funny, stupid, pointless, infuriating, glorious, mind-bending and inane life can be.”

In The Guardian, Alex Preston finds The Quarry to be “a difficult, often distressing read”. It is “a very different novel from those upon which Banks's fame lies. There is barely a plot, little character development, the action almost all takes place in one location”. However, The Quarry’s success is in its “recognition of the power of fiction to fundamentally alter the reader's consciousness”.

Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson

Consolations of the Forest is a written account of the six months that Tesson – a French adventurer – spent living in an isolated log cabin in Siberia. The book strays between politics, philosophy and nature-worship. Although some describe his writing as “pretentious”, the consensus suggests that the book provides an insightful and thought-provoking portrayal of the life of a modern day hermit.

“For anyone who secretly dreams of a life that's both simpler and more physically demanding... Tesson's descriptions of bruised-looking Siberian sunsets and Baikal in the rain ("a coal-black flannel pricked by a deluge of needles") are a draft of cool air,” states Jessica Holland in her review for The Observer. And while the tales of the Parisian adventurer in the Taiga might teeter towards the arrogant, Holland assures us that Tesson is “so unabashed about his soul-searching is what sets the book apart from the typical 21st-century memoir. He seems to belong to an earlier era of swashbuckling adventurers and public intellectuals who were out to change the world.”

William Leith of The Spectator dubs Sylvain Tesson “a modern-day Whitman with the soul of a speculator.” Leith acknowledges the potential in Consolations of the Forest for pretentiousness and self indulgence, nas well as tedium. He observes of Tessain, “He goes for a long walk, in the ice and snow. He’s always going for long walks in the ice and snow.” However, Leith is won over by the book’s elemental meditations, reflecting that Tesson in the wilderness, wrestling with survival as well as with identity, gets down to something important. “What are you, anyway, when you become a hermit? In one way, you’re disengaging from life. But in another, you’re pressing your face deeper into the stuff of life — you become feral, brutal, direct.”

Financial Times Justin Marozzi adds to the praise for Consolations of the Forest, saying of it “No one could accuse Tesson either of leading an impoverished existence or of suffering from an inability to convey life’s joys and wonders. Rich in poetry, charged with intensity, Consolations is magnificent, pretentious, thoroughly French, a hermit’s vodka-tossed paean to retreat and solitude.”

Rachel Kushner's second novel takes us for a ride. Photograph: Getty.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle