Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Stephen King, Sathnam Sanghera and Maxim Leon.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

The greatly anticipated sequel to one of the most infamous horror stories of the 20th century, The Shining, has arrived. The story finds Danny Torrance, having escaped from the Overlook Hotel and inherited his father’s alcohol addiction, attending AA meetings and working as an orderly in a hospice. He has retained his ability to “shine” and can therefore offer the hospice’s dying a degree of closure and serenity, as they reflect on their life's mistakes. It is this activity that gives rise to Danny’s nickname, “Doctor Sleep”. Danny soon finds himself in spiritual contact with another “shining” child – Abra, a girl whose ability is so potent that she predicted the 9/11 disaster as an infant. Danny and Abra soon find themselves pursued by the “True Knot”, a group of nightmarish, vampire-like beings, whose continued existence relies on their absorbing the ‘steam’ that exudes from the tortured corpses of young shiners. Danny and Abra realise that they must confront the ‘True Knot’ and the story follows the endeavours in the pursuit of this aim.

The author Margaret Atwood is very complimentary in The New York Times. She states that “King’s inventiveness and skill show no signs of slacking: Doctor Sleep has all the virtues of his best work.” According to Atwood, King is “a well-trusted guide to the underworld” who gives the reader “a thorough tour of the inferno” with an assurance that he will “get them out alive.” Atwood also goes on to herald King as being “right at the center of an American literary taproot” that liberates horror writing from the sceptic denunciation of its being a “subliterary genre”, while further praising King for adding a “family dimension” that augments the multi-faceted creation Atwood believes this book to be.

The Telegraph’s Jake Kerridge is also heartily impressed by King’s latest effort. While Kerridge is riled that “There is no suggestion that his [Danny’s] euthanising activities are anything other than laudable” he finds the latter part of the novel to be “tremendously exciting”. Kerridge recognises the King’s personal progress between the writing of The Shining and Doctor Sleep, calling the former “a yell of despair from the darkest of places” and the latter “a warm, entertaining novel by a man who is no longer the prisoner of his demons...”

Stuart Kelly of The Scotsman is somewhat less impressed by King’s style. While Kelly acknowledges that Doctor Sleep is “indubitably a page turner”, he adds that “it might not be a re-reader.” Kelly judges King to be “an ideas writer, not a sentence writer”, stating that some of the ideas in the novel would have been better “not jumbled into a sequel.”  The “evil” is “banal”, according to Kelly, and the “book seems dependent on the idea that it will one day not be a novel.” Kelly does, however, add the comforting caveat that he “would read the prequel about Abra”.

Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera

Sathnam Sanghera’s debut novel, Marriage Material, is a re-working of Arnold Bennett’s 1908 work The Old Wives’ Tale, from which, to use his own phrase, Sanghera has “shoplifted characters and elements of plot” to create a study of immigrant society in Britain. The novel follows two temporally linked storylines, one being that of Sikh Punjabi sisters Kamaljit and Surinder Bains, who work in their father’s Wolverhampton corner-shop and the other being that of Arjan, Kamaljit’s son. Arjan, having managed to create a trendy, media-centric London existence, is forced to leave this and his English girlfriend behind after his father dies. Arjan returns to run the family business, only to face society's racism, the prospect of marriage and a plethora of quandaries involving his identity as an immigrant and the apparent cultural clash of which he is inevitably part.

Margaret Drabble, writing for The Spectator, applauds Sanghera for his “nicely judged” “mix of comedy, satire, realism and optimism...” Drabble is appreciative of Sanghera’s style and its subtle allusions to Bennett: “This dangerous material is handled with a darkly comic lightness of touch, and an impassively detached ironic tone that may owe something to Bennett...” Drabble, thus, is more than impressed with Marriage Material, “... [a] book so well researched you hardly notice the work that’s gone into it.”

Meera Syal, in The Observer, praises Sanghera’s mining of “rich veins”, as well as the manner in which Sanghera’s “subtle and often very funny prose” reveals his profound motifs. Syal makes clear that Sanghera is dealing with themes that “have been covered by other writers before him”, but it is Sanghera’s “deft sense of irony and self-awareness” that lift the novel “far above cliché”. Syal uses phrases such as “tender and funny”, as well as “cracking and pacy”, to indicate that, in her opinion, Marriage Material will “stay with you for some time...”

The Sunday Times’ Peter Kemp also found Sanghera’s first novel to be “enormously enjoyable”. Alert to Sanghera’s “modern makeover” of The Old Wives’ Tale, Kemp illustrates how Marriage Material is not “simply an ingenious exercise in updating”, highlighting that Sanghera inserts his own themes, such as “prejudice”, too. Kemp is evidently thrilled with the way Sanghera manages to deal with such sensitive issues “while maintaining a tone of shrewdly humorous tolerance” and concludes by declaring Marriage Material as a “warm, keenly observant and immensely appealing novel”.

Red Love: the Story of an East German Family by Maxim Leo

Red Love: the Story of an East German Family, Winner of the 2011 European Book Prize, offers a retrospective view of the German Democratic Republic (east of the wall) and its collapse, but through a familial prism. Each of Leo’s family members had a unique perspective on their East German lives, from the apparently politically-polarised grandfathers who both enthusiastically supported Communist Germany to Leo’s mother, who whole-heartedly supported the Communist ideal, but who also criticised the decidedly imperfect Communist Germany as a journalist.

Keith Lowe, writing in The Telegraph, judges Leo’s memoir as “beautiful and extremely touching”. He is particularly appreciative of Leo’s familial model, as he recognises Leo’s family to be “a microcosm of the GDR itself, struggling with the same opposing sets of ideals that eventually tore the country apart.” Lowe describes Leo’s writing as “painfully clear” and summarises the whole book as a “moving saga” that makes the history and reality of the East Germany that was, and still is in the memories of those who lived through it, “unbearably poignant.”

Marina Benjamin in The New Statesman is also impressed with Leo’s writing, particularly focussing on Leo’s “cool analytic head” and his refusal “to pass judgement on anyone”. Benjamin states that Red Love offers a “warmer” experience, when compared to other books of its ilk, such as Anna Funder’s Stasiland and stresses that it is this feature that sees Leo attempt “to heal”, as oppose to criticise, as others might.

Stephen King. Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge