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.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times