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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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