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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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder