Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Wilson, Astill and Doyle.

Ballistics, by D W Wilson

Following his success as a writer of short stories, D W Wilson’s ‘Hyper Macho’ debut novel follows two male protagonists: Alan West and Archer Cole. At the behest of his grandfather Cecil, Alan journeys through the Canadian Rockies, in the grip of wildfires, searching for his father. He takes Archer Cole along with him, an 82-year-old US marine and Vietnam War veteran, who continually experiences disturbing flashbacks.

David Annand of the Telegraph offers praise for Wilson’s first novel. He remarks that “unlike the standard sub-Carver sentences that characterise most of the [Hyper Macho] genre, Wilson’s prose is rich and nuanced, and Archer is a sophisticated portrait of a man intelligent beyond his education”. However, “It’s a shame ... that Alan seems to have been unaffected by his big-city schooling and is as uncritically in thrall as the rest of them to the Hyper Macho honour code.” Annand suggests that the book would thus benefit from a “counterpoint model of masculinity”.

The Scotsman’s Tom Adair offers a similar criticism, remarking that the novel is perhaps too hypermasculine, to the clear detriment of its analysis of women. “The story lacks real insight into its trio of female characters” suggests Adair. “Invermere, [where most of the novel takes place] drenched in testosterone, booze, male sweat, the sounds of gunfire, the rasp of petrol engines, buzzsaws, men revving up for regular blood and bone encounters, is a male-only adventure playground”. Compared to Wilson’s short stories, Adair also believes that “too much happening, too many words”.  A similar overload is lamented in “the closing quarter of the novel” which “almost chokes itself: so much drama”.

Robert Nathan of the Guardian however is not so critical of what he calls a “lean, powerful book about quiet, emotional people”.  He offers particular praise for Wilson’s descriptive ability. He “animates a world that any small-town North American could identify in a moment”. Yet mere description is not all Wilson achieves. The novel “transcends this environment to evoke something universal: how people live through loss, and how they talk about what matters, or don't”.

The Great Tamasha, by James Astill

The critics have lavished praise on James Astill’s exploration of Indian cricket. The Great Tamasha analyses key developments in cricket’s recent history, such as the advent of the IPL, the Indian influence on cricket, and its growing domination of the sport, while also using the game as a lens to view deeper, more problematic issues in Indian society.

The Guardian’s James Burke flatters Astill’s  “engaging, perceptive and rigorous book”. The book is about much more than sport” Burke explains, and features analysis of recurrent Indian issues, such as the caste system. Particular praise is given to Astill’s first-hand research. Astill “spent a week living in both slums in Mumbai and a rural village in the dirt-poor northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which few writers have the time, or the desire, to do”. As a result, his “narrative is helped along by lively interviews with strong characters”. Burke concludes that “The Great Tamasha tells a fascinating story well. Anyone interested in India, or cricket, and most certainly both, will enjoy it very much”.

Mihir Bose of the Independent offers similar adulation. “Much of this story is known” remarks Bose, “but while Astill relies on previously published material, what makes his book exceptional is his first-hand reporting”. The breadth of Astill’s research receives special praise. We “meet powerful Indian politicians from Sharad Power, who aspired to be prime minister and headed international cricket, to residents of Dharavi in Mumbai, one of the biggest slums in Asia”. Like Burke, Bose is also keen to emphasise how other important issues in Indian society are tackled through the lens of cricket. India’s “corruption, crony capitalism, ... [its] thriving democracy” are all explored.

Finally, Tom Fort of the Telegraph congratulates Astill on a “clear-sighted and superbly researched” book. Yet another critic is impressed by Astill’s erudition: “Astill seems to have talked to everyone who is anyone involved in this deeply unattractive business” Fort remarks. Fort also believes that as a “cricket nut” and the “Economist’s bureau chief in Delhi, Astill was well placed to observe the birth of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and monitor its explosive growth”.

The Guts, by Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle’s latest novel is a sequel to The Commitments (1987). It follows middle class, middle-aged Jimmy Rabbitte who pays for a three bedroomed house and sizeable family by pursuing a career in the Irish music industry. At the start of the novel Jimmy is diagnosed with bowel cancer (hence the title), exploring both his treatment for the disease, and the Irish music industry simultaneously.

Theo Tait of the Guardian remarks that although the book is “easy to pigeon hole” as a “mid-life crisis novel”, it “has heart and humour, and is thick with Dublin detail”. Impressive too is the fact that Doyle manages to simultaneously serve “up a good-sized helping of nostalgia”, yet attack such sentiments at the same time. Tait believes that the book “provides everything that, back in the mid-1990s, a Roddy Doyle novel seemed to represent: a big, raucous but loving Northside Dublin family; perfectly pitched dialogue; well-observed male camaraderie; a lot of music; and, perhaps most of all, entertaining profanity”. He concludes that “The Guts deserves to be a popular success. Who knows, it might even penetrate a demographic group notoriously resistant to reading novels: middle‑aged men”.

The National Post’s Philip Marchand also emphasises the warmth that Doyle’s latest work contains. “The novel is rich in sentiment and episodes conveying sentiment” Marchand explains, while the book has a “comic mode” which is retained even in its darker moments. This “comic mode is heightened by the form of the narrative, which is basically a series of dialogues - often texted”. However, although this “keeps things sprightly” it “also limits the emotional tone, so that the novel begins to seem like a requiem performed entirely by brass instruments.” In all, Marchand offers a balanced appraisal of a “buoyant tale”.

“It is bright, jokey, wry and robust” explains Patricia Craig of the Independent. She a makes a point of commenting on the book’s authenticity, as Doyle “captures the authentic tones of a late 20th-century, urban working-class, pub- and housing-estate culture, all Howyeh and Wha' d'you mean? and shite and fuck”. This creates an “emphatic atmosphere” which “in a sense... takes the place of a plot”. Like the other “’Barrytown’ novels in particular” The Guts is by no means a book where you will find intricate plot making.

Again, reference is made to the book’s treatment of sentimentality. At times, Doyle’s “and his characters' exasperation with sentimental shite ('it was fuckin' everywhere') gives way to actual sentimental shite: 'the sadness, the grief, had never left. Like losing the kids, them growing up and away from him, one by one'. But such lapses are rare, amid the whole demotic, chaotic onrush of Dublin life and inimitable carry-on”, Craig explains.

Craig remarks that The Guts features much of what is typical of Roddy Doyle: social criticism, “immense skill” and an intensely Irish feel.

James Astill's "The Great Tamasha", an exploration of indian cicket, has been well received. Images: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit