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.

MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad