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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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