Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Charlotte Mendelson, Daniel M Davis, David Shields and Shane Salerno, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Almost English, Charlotte Mendelson 

Charlotte Mendelson’s fourth novel pivots precariously between tragedy and comedy, exploring the turbulent inner workings of an emotionally fragile mother – Laura – and her awkward daughter Marina. A coming-of-age story with a Hungarian tang, this Booker-longlisted novel has been receiving a mixed response from critics, who both admire Mendelson’s theatrics, yet criticise her sincerity.

Bella Bathurst, writing for The Observer, praises the sharp, cynical voice that governs Almost English, noting that the novel deserves to win the Booker “for the quality of the writing alone”. While impressed by the prose, Bathurst does find fault with the similar characterization of Marina and Laura, noting that although “the lack of differentiation between mother and daughter sometimes makes for comedy, [it] sometimes feels uncomfortably same-ish”. In a similar vein, The Independent’s Arifa Akbar criticises the pair’s lack of individuality, observing that “the often histrionic inner voice of the teenager sounds a little too similar to the often histrionic inner voice of the mother, which sounds peculiarly petulant for a woman of her years”.

Arifa Akbar writes in the Independent that it’s not just Laura and Marina who lack refined characterisation, but the whole cast of Almost English. “Characterisation of the eccentric brood of Hungarians feels two-dimension and generic,” writes Akbar, “they seem forever to be saying ‘Von-darefool’ as if accented English were a substitute for depth.” But aside from this, Mendelson is admired for her depiction of strained but intense teenage crushes: “Marina talks in the screeching language of teen love”.

The New Statesman's Claire Lowdon refigures what Akbar calls “generic” or “histronic” as a “Dickensian love of caricature and plot.” Lowdon identifies a shared purpose between Mendelson and the Victorian author, where “the comedy comes with a sting”, and acts as a “poignant counterpoint to all the rollicking social satire.” This “sting” however, is not always achieved and at points the humour is smothered by over-exaggeration. “Marina’s visit to the Viney country pile is hammed up, Guy’s snooty 17-year-old sister utter[s] such improbabilities as, ‘One becomes so protective…’” Initially appreciative of Mendelson’s larger-than-life characters, Lowdon is ultimately frustrated, concluding with the judgment: “if you are writing in the realist tradition, you can only exaggerate so far.”

The Compatibility Gene, Daniel M Davis

In The Compatibility Gene Davis popularizes the genetics of immunology, investigating how the genes of each human being determine relationships, health and individuality. Small clusters of our 25,000 genes, Davis argues, hold disproportionate influence over the human body. These clusters, as The Compatibility Gene explores, control tissue compatibility for transplants and are responsible for a healthy immune system.

Michael Brooks, writing for the New Statesman, praises Davis’ scientific storytelling, paying particular attention to his Darwinian vision of genetics: “As well as dealing with foreign tissue, the compatibility genes seem to influence our selection of biologically beneficial partners. It turns out that we look for complementary immune systems that enhance the chance of our offspring’s survival.” While Davis’ study offers optimism for a future where genetics is increasingly understood, Brooks is quick to notice a note of poignancy in Davis’ work. “Many more scientists are threaded through the pages of Davis’s thoughtful book and they all share one thing: the grinding heartbreak that is the slow progress of scientific discovery.” Nonetheless, concludes Brooks, “The Compatibility Gene is a fascinating, expertly told story of a field that may yield significant treasures in the decades to come”.

Peter Forbes in the Guardian also identifies Brooks’ “heartbreak”, noting how “Davis sugars the pill of exploring unresolved research by focusing on the lives of the researchers and their struggles.” In his review, Forbes highlights the problem of locating underlying principles in immunology, when exceptions are present in so many cases. Most diseases require more than a single defective gene, and this “makes the job of a populariser such as Davis doubly difficult.” But Forbes is satisfied with Brooks’ admission: “While many scientists would argue that a popular-level book like this one should stick to established decades-old ideas, my view is that nothing can be more exciting than what's happening at the edge of knowledge."

Davis in the Times offers personality to his readers as well as science. “Until recently, in everyday speech ‘Neanderthal’ was a stock term of abuse, meaning lumbering, out-dated, stupid”, notes Forbes. “Davis himself can't resist quipping: ‘I look forward to discussing my wife's Neanderthal inheritance with her family at our next Christmas lunch.” Nicola Davis in the Times comments on this readability, which allows for easy comprehension. She comments, “many of the early concepts tackled are fairly familiar but Davis’s readable narrative allows them to be seen afresh through the eyes of those who first probed such puzzles as the existence of blood groups or the very nature of disease.” For all readers of The Compatibility Gene, it is clear the more we find out about this science, the more complicated the science becomes. Nicola Davis doesn’t seem fazed, she remarks.

Salinger, David Shields and Shane Salerno

With a figure as aloof as J D Salinger any biography is likely to be alluring and problematic in equal measure. In their new work Salinger, David Shields and Shane Salerno, neither of whom are biographers, think they have the answers to this particular mystery. But despite nine years of research, 200 contributors and 175 photos, they have failed to impress the critics.

Christopher Taylor, writing in the Telegraph, is unconvinced and awards the book two stars. He doesn’t like the tone of the book and although he grants that it is “energetically researched and contains some notable scoops, it is non-Salingerian in spirit to an almost comical degree: over-emphatic, lurid Hollywood-infected”. All in all, Taylor deems the autobiography to be looking for a film-style “killer montage” rather than providing any sort of insight into Salinger’s relatively unknown life.

John Walsh, in the Sunday Times, however, was more complimentary, impressed especially by the scale of the work. He says “You take away two fascinating paradoxes from this hugely impressive, if not entirely revelatory project. One is Salinger’s creepy obsession with girls on the edge of adulthood... Second is his attitude to seclusion. For a man supposedly indifferent to fame, he monitored it obsessively, checking reviews of his work, ringing up journalists, turning up to interviews with pretty women, inviting people to his house, attending army reunions.“

Carl Rollyson in the Wall Street Journal points out the haphazard nature of the book: “Salinger is biography as scrapbook, chock-full of well-known figures and well-worn stories, with fresh information scattered about.” While Taylor was pleased by the amount of information, Rollyson finds it all too much, concluding “Biographies are often accused of not explaining enough. Here, however, is an example of one that tells us too much. The raw material in "Salinger" will need to be digested by yet another biographer. But the next book will need to be less thesis-ridden and more generous to the insights that other biographers contributed to our understanding of Salinger. We have waited so long to understand J D Salinger. We must wait longer.”

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel The Lowland, already longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, follows the story of two Calcutta brothers as their paths diverge after they go to university. While one becomes politically active and a Naxalite revolutionary, the other is more obedient and passive, studying oceanography in Rhode Island. The novel examines the political and the personal, set over nearly 50 years of Indian and American history.

Stephanie Merritt, writing in the Observer, gave the book a positive review, impressed by Lahiri’s “restraint and understatement. She resists lyricism, just as she avoids obvious drama.” Although she says that “perhaps Lahiri spreads her net a little too wide at times”, she ultimately concludes that “there is no doubt that The Lowland confirms Lahiri as a writer of formidable powers and great depth of feeling, who makes the business of conjuring a story from the chaos of human lives seem quite effortless.”

Randy Boyagoda of the Financial Times, however, was not so complimentary. He writes that “Jhumpa Lahiri would be a far better writer if she weren’t so bloody exquisite about her writing. The Lowland [...] is an ambitious multigenerational intercontinental drama, but also a symptom of its author’s success.” He finds the style too irritating for the novel to merit much praise, concluding “All of the intellectually listless contradictories share the novel’s pages with those tiny ants and the softness of kisses and many other maddeningly meticulous, pathologically decorous reflections on memory and identity and tea and biscuits and journeying and jasmine-picking and Googling. Booker or not, The Lowland is awash with Lahirical excess.”

Chandak Sengoopta, in the Independent was also unconvinced, again finding problems with the Lahiri’s style. While he lauds Lahiri’s character portrayal, commenting “the tragic family saga is certainly affecting and Lahiri, as always, is adept at portraying the lives of diasporic Indians without condescension”, Sengoopta feels the tragic impact of the novel is somewhat blunted: “The entire novel, in fact, has an emotionally detached tone that reduces the impact of the tragedy”. He concludes that “The Lowland chooses to be a novel about unfathomably dysfunctional people, and not the epic human tragedy it could easily have been.”

Jhumpa Lahiri. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism