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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The reason chicken is a popular British food? Because we started factory farming

In the 1950s, chicken was seen as an elite food and was expensive.

Chlorine-washed chickens, hormone-fed beef and pork raised on growth-promoting antibiotics. It doesn’t sound very tasty – but this is what could be lining our supermarket shelves after Brexit. Trade deals could allow an influx of meat into Britain from the US, where lower animal welfare standards mean it can be produced more cheaply. A House of Lords report this week warned this could spark a change in our farming. The high animal welfare and environmental standards we have in the UK (set by EU law) could be eroded to allow British meat to compete with cheaper imports.

Last week, Michael Gove, Defra secretary, reassured parliament he was committed to maintaining current standards after Brexit. "One thing is clear: I do not want to see, and we will not have, US-style farming in this country," he said. Yet some argue US-style farms have already taken over British agriculture, largely under the radar and without a national debate.

Gove was reacting to last week’s report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which revealed there are now 800 “mega-farms” in the UK, huge industrial units mimicking the feedlots of California or Texas. The biggest can house more than a million chickens, 20,000 pigs or 2,000 cattle. Their emergence is part of a 26 per cent rise in intensive farming in the UK in the last six years.

This rise is mainly due to Britain’s insatiable appetite for chicken. In the 1950s, it was seen as an elite food and was expensive. Just a million were produced a year. Then, intensive farming methods were imported from the US. In 1959, the first fast-processing "poultry factory" was opened in Aldershot. By 1965, the price of poultry had fallen by nearly a third, causing demand to soar. By 1990, almost a quarter of the meat eaten in Britain was chicken or turkey. As birds can be brought to slaughter much more quickly than cows or sheep, it remained cheaper than beef or lamb.

People also began to change their meat-eating habits for health reasons. From the 1970s, government campaigns advised people to eat less fatty red meat. Chicken was seen as a leaner, healthier, alternative.

Now, it is the nation’s favourite meat. Last year, nearly a billion birds were slaughtered and another 400 million imported. Five companies – two of which are owned by multinationals - control most of the poultry production in the UK. Industrial farms are clustered in pockets of the country near their abattoirs and factories. It is causing conflict in the countryside, as local people and campaign groups say they are a blight on the landscape and complain of the smells and disturbance of lorries bringing in grain or taking birds to the abattoir.

Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy at City University believes the change to intensive farming has entrenched cheap chicken into our culture. "The more cheap meat these farms produce, the more people eat, the more cheap meat becomes part of the culture and lifestyle. We now have chicken and chips, chicken nuggets, chicken burgers. Chicken is the processed meat of choice," he says. Free range chicken accounts for 3 per cent of the market. Organic – which has the highest animal welfare standards – makes up just 1 per cent.

Yet the actual meat has changed since intensive farms arrived. Experts tested chicken from such farms in 2008 and found it had twice as much fat, a third less protein and a third more calories than in 1940. Gram for gram, it had as much fat as a Big Mac.

Chickens grown for meat are kept in computer-controlled warehouses, with up to 19 birds per square metre (roughly the same amount of space as an A4 piece of paper per bird). They are fed additive-filled, high protein food and the temperature and humidity is controlled so they gain weight. They are taken to be slaughtered when they are five to six weeks old.

Farmers and the food industry say this is the most efficient and green way to produce the meat people want. Inside sheds, the birds are protected from predators while disease and pollution can be controlled. Putting these birds out to pasture would use up more land – land which could be used for houses, parks or kept as countryside. Last June, a Defra survey counted 173 million poultry birds on the ground at that point – though as there are many "crops" of chicken many more are slaughtered in total. If we wanted to raise all those birds to organic conditions, we would take up the same amount of space as the whole of the island of Anglesey.

Animal welfare campaigners say the current "factory farming" system is cruel. Chickens want to feel the sun on their feathers, roll in dust and forage for seeds. Cramped inside a shed, they become stressed and start injuring or cannibalising one other. Food poisoning bugs such as E.coli or campylobacter, many of which are becoming resistant to antibiotics, can spread quickly through a herd. Some 63 per cent of supermarket chickens are now infected with campylobacter, the latest government testing shows, although this has decreased since last year.

The latest report, written by the House of Lords’ EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, said polls show 80 per cent or more of the UK public want animal welfare standards to be maintained or improved post-Brexit. Yet many consumers are not aware of the difference between intensive and organic farming – and may not be willing to pay a price for premium welfare products, it said.

Lang believes debate should be opened again. People need to understand where their meat comes from and whether they are comfortable with the methods used to make it. The rise in intensive farming is driven by our choices, with food companies and supermarkets acting as our brokers. “If we don’t like it, we must vote with our purses, demand retailers change their contracts and specifications in our name," he says.

‘With Brexit looming, British consumers need to be very clear: do they want animal welfare standards to rise or get swept away in pursuit of cheaper food?’

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She tweets @madlendavies.