Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Hurd and Young, Higashida and McCleen.

Disraeli: Or the Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young

Douglas Hurd and Edward Young offer an insight into the paradoxical life of Victorian Prime Minister and parliamentarian Benjamin Disraeli in their biography Disraeli: Or the Two Lives. Hurd and Young’s written account depicts the life of an outsider who became the leading representative of the aristocracy despite having been born without either wealth or connections.

According to Richard Davenport-Hines at The Guardian, “their book is far from a hagiography of their party's idol” and “proves a fascinating character study”.

Leo McKinstry at The Express argues that the biography lacks “any startling revelations”, but concedes that Hurd and Young succeed in “the beautiful style of their writing, the pace of their narrative and their ability to condense complex political problems”. Matthew Parris from The Times has said “so judicious is their presentation of the evidence and so carefully do they strive to find something to praise”, agreeing with McKinstry that the biography “lay out with clarity the essentials of a story often and variously told” instead of making a pretence of assembling mountains of new material. The New Statesman’s Michael Prodger is of the opinion that “the aim of the book is to “separate the public and private strands of Disraeli’s career into a pair of brief lives” and both Hurd and Young “track the complexities of his career deftly while pointing out that although his governments did much to help the working class, Disraeli himself was no democrat”.

The Reason I Jump By Naoki Higashida

Author David Mitchell and his wife K A Yoshida have translated this book written by Naoki Higashida at the age of thirteen. The book includes short stories, elements of memoir and FAQs providing a very personal insight into the mind of a thirteen year old autistic child.

Luisa Metcalfe, writing in the Express that The Reason I Jump “brings the fascinating quirks of the autistic mind to life” an opinion that she believes defies the opinions that “people on the autistic spectrum are seen as being cold, socially awkward, better with maths or computers than society”. She continues to discuss the liberation that Higashida feels in the book of the joys of “lining up his toys” and “memorising numbers on timetables”. Yet despite these activities being primarily mathematical or logical, she describes the narrative as “highly perceptive and deeply emotional”

Arifa Akbar from The Independent similarly writes that The Reason I Jump “offers sometimes tormented, sometimes joyous, insights into autism's locked-in universe” giving readers an “eloquent access into an almost entirely unknown world”. Akbar goes on to discuss  how the “child's-eye view of autism is as much a winsome work of the imagination as it is a user's manual for parents, carers and teachers” agreeing with David Mitchell and KA Yoshida whose purpose of translating their son’s novel which was primarily for “helping others dealing with autism”.

The Daily Mail’s Marcus Berkmann agrees with both Akbar and Metcalfe, agreeing that the book offers new insights into life with autism, “an entry into another world” and provides a counterbalance to “the world’s ignorance of [the] condition” by offering the “most astonishing glimpses of autism's exhilaration”.

The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen

The Professor of Poetry is Grace McCleen’s second novel. It tells the story of a Professor named Elizabeth Stone, who turns to investigate some papers by T S Eliot on a poem which was once given to her by an elusive Professor Hunt. As a respected academic, she is haunted by her lack of confidence in her writing, searching out for unknown papers on the work of T S Eliot with plans to write the ‘best essay’ in order to impress Hunt.

Beth Jones from The Telegraph suggests that “the novel promises to be an intriguing exploration of a woman seeking meaning in the face of mortality” but emerges as “a shallow love story” that becomes “predictable”. Despite this, Jones believes that the novel has its “rare moments that the novel manages to come alive with a tight, unsettling atmosphere of claustrophobia and regret” and ultimately describes it as an “enjoyable” novel.

Furthermore, reviewers from The Sunday Times and The Telegraph hint that The Professor of Poetry is tainted by the same writing style of both of Grace McCleen’s novels. As Jones describes the “continuities with her debut novel”, Kate Clanchy from The Guardian expands on the opinion that “both her first books were cut from the same 'unworkable' original novel”, as though they both “have been an autobiographical text”. The Professor of Poetry is about "time and stillness and music", Clanchy writes, yet she believes the plot “lacks urgency”.

 

English Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli on the arm of his private secretary Montagu William Corry (right). Image: Vanity Fair/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

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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