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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

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

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism