Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Charlotte Mendelson, Daniel M Davis, David Shields and Shane Salerno, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Almost English, Charlotte Mendelson 

Charlotte Mendelson’s fourth novel pivots precariously between tragedy and comedy, exploring the turbulent inner workings of an emotionally fragile mother – Laura – and her awkward daughter Marina. A coming-of-age story with a Hungarian tang, this Booker-longlisted novel has been receiving a mixed response from critics, who both admire Mendelson’s theatrics, yet criticise her sincerity.

Bella Bathurst, writing for The Observer, praises the sharp, cynical voice that governs Almost English, noting that the novel deserves to win the Booker “for the quality of the writing alone”. While impressed by the prose, Bathurst does find fault with the similar characterization of Marina and Laura, noting that although “the lack of differentiation between mother and daughter sometimes makes for comedy, [it] sometimes feels uncomfortably same-ish”. In a similar vein, The Independent’s Arifa Akbar criticises the pair’s lack of individuality, observing that “the often histrionic inner voice of the teenager sounds a little too similar to the often histrionic inner voice of the mother, which sounds peculiarly petulant for a woman of her years”.

Arifa Akbar writes in the Independent that it’s not just Laura and Marina who lack refined characterisation, but the whole cast of Almost English. “Characterisation of the eccentric brood of Hungarians feels two-dimension and generic,” writes Akbar, “they seem forever to be saying ‘Von-darefool’ as if accented English were a substitute for depth.” But aside from this, Mendelson is admired for her depiction of strained but intense teenage crushes: “Marina talks in the screeching language of teen love”.

The New Statesman's Claire Lowdon refigures what Akbar calls “generic” or “histronic” as a “Dickensian love of caricature and plot.” Lowdon identifies a shared purpose between Mendelson and the Victorian author, where “the comedy comes with a sting”, and acts as a “poignant counterpoint to all the rollicking social satire.” This “sting” however, is not always achieved and at points the humour is smothered by over-exaggeration. “Marina’s visit to the Viney country pile is hammed up, Guy’s snooty 17-year-old sister utter[s] such improbabilities as, ‘One becomes so protective…’” Initially appreciative of Mendelson’s larger-than-life characters, Lowdon is ultimately frustrated, concluding with the judgment: “if you are writing in the realist tradition, you can only exaggerate so far.”

The Compatibility Gene, Daniel M Davis

In The Compatibility Gene Davis popularizes the genetics of immunology, investigating how the genes of each human being determine relationships, health and individuality. Small clusters of our 25,000 genes, Davis argues, hold disproportionate influence over the human body. These clusters, as The Compatibility Gene explores, control tissue compatibility for transplants and are responsible for a healthy immune system.

Michael Brooks, writing for the New Statesman, praises Davis’ scientific storytelling, paying particular attention to his Darwinian vision of genetics: “As well as dealing with foreign tissue, the compatibility genes seem to influence our selection of biologically beneficial partners. It turns out that we look for complementary immune systems that enhance the chance of our offspring’s survival.” While Davis’ study offers optimism for a future where genetics is increasingly understood, Brooks is quick to notice a note of poignancy in Davis’ work. “Many more scientists are threaded through the pages of Davis’s thoughtful book and they all share one thing: the grinding heartbreak that is the slow progress of scientific discovery.” Nonetheless, concludes Brooks, “The Compatibility Gene is a fascinating, expertly told story of a field that may yield significant treasures in the decades to come”.

Peter Forbes in the Guardian also identifies Brooks’ “heartbreak”, noting how “Davis sugars the pill of exploring unresolved research by focusing on the lives of the researchers and their struggles.” In his review, Forbes highlights the problem of locating underlying principles in immunology, when exceptions are present in so many cases. Most diseases require more than a single defective gene, and this “makes the job of a populariser such as Davis doubly difficult.” But Forbes is satisfied with Brooks’ admission: “While many scientists would argue that a popular-level book like this one should stick to established decades-old ideas, my view is that nothing can be more exciting than what's happening at the edge of knowledge."

Davis in the Times offers personality to his readers as well as science. “Until recently, in everyday speech ‘Neanderthal’ was a stock term of abuse, meaning lumbering, out-dated, stupid”, notes Forbes. “Davis himself can't resist quipping: ‘I look forward to discussing my wife's Neanderthal inheritance with her family at our next Christmas lunch.” Nicola Davis in the Times comments on this readability, which allows for easy comprehension. She comments, “many of the early concepts tackled are fairly familiar but Davis’s readable narrative allows them to be seen afresh through the eyes of those who first probed such puzzles as the existence of blood groups or the very nature of disease.” For all readers of The Compatibility Gene, it is clear the more we find out about this science, the more complicated the science becomes. Nicola Davis doesn’t seem fazed, she remarks.

Salinger, David Shields and Shane Salerno

With a figure as aloof as J D Salinger any biography is likely to be alluring and problematic in equal measure. In their new work Salinger, David Shields and Shane Salerno, neither of whom are biographers, think they have the answers to this particular mystery. But despite nine years of research, 200 contributors and 175 photos, they have failed to impress the critics.

Christopher Taylor, writing in the Telegraph, is unconvinced and awards the book two stars. He doesn’t like the tone of the book and although he grants that it is “energetically researched and contains some notable scoops, it is non-Salingerian in spirit to an almost comical degree: over-emphatic, lurid Hollywood-infected”. All in all, Taylor deems the autobiography to be looking for a film-style “killer montage” rather than providing any sort of insight into Salinger’s relatively unknown life.

John Walsh, in the Sunday Times, however, was more complimentary, impressed especially by the scale of the work. He says “You take away two fascinating paradoxes from this hugely impressive, if not entirely revelatory project. One is Salinger’s creepy obsession with girls on the edge of adulthood... Second is his attitude to seclusion. For a man supposedly indifferent to fame, he monitored it obsessively, checking reviews of his work, ringing up journalists, turning up to interviews with pretty women, inviting people to his house, attending army reunions.“

Carl Rollyson in the Wall Street Journal points out the haphazard nature of the book: “Salinger is biography as scrapbook, chock-full of well-known figures and well-worn stories, with fresh information scattered about.” While Taylor was pleased by the amount of information, Rollyson finds it all too much, concluding “Biographies are often accused of not explaining enough. Here, however, is an example of one that tells us too much. The raw material in "Salinger" will need to be digested by yet another biographer. But the next book will need to be less thesis-ridden and more generous to the insights that other biographers contributed to our understanding of Salinger. We have waited so long to understand J D Salinger. We must wait longer.”

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel The Lowland, already longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, follows the story of two Calcutta brothers as their paths diverge after they go to university. While one becomes politically active and a Naxalite revolutionary, the other is more obedient and passive, studying oceanography in Rhode Island. The novel examines the political and the personal, set over nearly 50 years of Indian and American history.

Stephanie Merritt, writing in the Observer, gave the book a positive review, impressed by Lahiri’s “restraint and understatement. She resists lyricism, just as she avoids obvious drama.” Although she says that “perhaps Lahiri spreads her net a little too wide at times”, she ultimately concludes that “there is no doubt that The Lowland confirms Lahiri as a writer of formidable powers and great depth of feeling, who makes the business of conjuring a story from the chaos of human lives seem quite effortless.”

Randy Boyagoda of the Financial Times, however, was not so complimentary. He writes that “Jhumpa Lahiri would be a far better writer if she weren’t so bloody exquisite about her writing. The Lowland [...] is an ambitious multigenerational intercontinental drama, but also a symptom of its author’s success.” He finds the style too irritating for the novel to merit much praise, concluding “All of the intellectually listless contradictories share the novel’s pages with those tiny ants and the softness of kisses and many other maddeningly meticulous, pathologically decorous reflections on memory and identity and tea and biscuits and journeying and jasmine-picking and Googling. Booker or not, The Lowland is awash with Lahirical excess.”

Chandak Sengoopta, in the Independent was also unconvinced, again finding problems with the Lahiri’s style. While he lauds Lahiri’s character portrayal, commenting “the tragic family saga is certainly affecting and Lahiri, as always, is adept at portraying the lives of diasporic Indians without condescension”, Sengoopta feels the tragic impact of the novel is somewhat blunted: “The entire novel, in fact, has an emotionally detached tone that reduces the impact of the tragedy”. He concludes that “The Lowland chooses to be a novel about unfathomably dysfunctional people, and not the epic human tragedy it could easily have been.”

Jhumpa Lahiri. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

The Writers Museum
Show Hide image

Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear