Reviews round-up | 11 November

The critics' verdicts on Philip Short on Mitterrand, the last instalment of Tony Benn's diaries and Sebastian Faulks being PG Wodehouse.

Mitterrand: a Study in Ambiguity by Philip Short

François Mitterrand had an eventful career. It wouldn’t be too extreme to suggest that his political life was a timeline interwoven with scandal. He condoned torture in Algeria, fathered an illegitimate child at the state’s expense, managed to keep his cancer a secret from the press and choreographed an assassination – on himself. Yet he rose above it, and has even been described as "great". Philip Short, a former Parisian correspondent for the BBC, has written a new biography on the man entitled Mitterrand: a Study in Ambiguity and the critics are intrigued.

Matthew Campbell of the Sunday Times describes Mitterrand as a "double-dealing, Gallic Blackadder" who is "inscrutable, sphinx-like" and in the habit of "rewriting history to cast himself in a more favourable light". Overall, he is impressed with Short’s work as he "guides us through the shadows and mirrors with great authority." The book keeps Campbell fascinated, particularly in an age of greater transparency. He thinks the book is bound to be a "riveting read for anyone interested in political psychology". However, he thinks it could have benefited from delving deeper into the murkier waters of diplomacy.

The Literary Review’s Robert Gildea also describes Mitterrand as "Machiavellian and Sphinx-like". He is impressed that "ambiguity" is used to frame Mitterrand’s life and finds the book to be a "fascinating interweaving of the public and the private", its greatest asset being exactly that combination. Gildea finds Short hinting at the idea that Mitterrand appropriated De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic despite his vocal criticism and is impressed with Short, finds him "adventurous" even, for interviewing Anne Pingeot, Mitterrand’s "other woman".

The women of Mitterrand’s life also interest John Lichfield of The Independent. These are the interviews which "without fanfare" add much new material into the life of this elusive man. Their examination is "scattered throughout the book, bringing alive, without prurience, the sub-plot of Mitterrand's energetic private life." Lichfield commends Short on his archival research too. He leaves the book feeling that times have changed, "partly because Mitterrand changed them."

Look out for Andrew Adonis on Mitterrand in this week's New Statesman (out 14 November).

A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries by Tony Benn

Death looms heavily through reviews of this book – reading them all, it feels as if Benn has already passed away. Indeed because of his seniority, Benn, now 88, finds himself somehow politically muffled - in the uncomfortable position of being embraced by the Right as a harmless "national treasure", when he has spent his whole life trying to be a formidable threat to the establishment. "That’s what they do," he said in conversation with socialist dauphin Owen Jones at the Bishopsgate Institute on Friday, "to sideline you."

At the same event, he said that if he would like anything to be written on his headstone it would be that he "encouraged people", and whatever his other failings, it is impossible to deny that Benn has inspired thousands to cherish their political convictions.

The FT’s Matthew Engel argues that it is not ageism or a conspiratorial "sidelining" that has neutered Benn into being a "national treasure", but rather that he’s brought it upon himself: "most of the causes he espoused are so out-of-fashion as to render him harmless." However, somewhat confusingly, Engel also calls Benn "the embodiment of the British left" in the same review.

For good or for ill, Tony Benn is not really the embodiment of the current British left at all, and indeed, his utter disdain for New Labour and his no longer being an MP are the very reasons these diaries are so different to his past ones. But Engel does hit upon the essence of the book when he writes of how, even in the life of a committed ideologue such as Benn, politics sooner or later has to take a back seat, writing that they offer "a chance to contemplate Enoch Powell’s maxim that all political careers end in failure, and also old age in general. Even for this most political of men, sharp pains, bad nights, a leaking roof and an intractable computer start to loom larger than the news."

Dominic Lawson in the Sunday Times captures the charmingly naïve (or faux-naïf) tone of the diaries when he writes "it is a little bit The Diary of Tony Benn Aged 84½, with lots of 'It was fun!' and, after an especially good day, 'It was huge fun!'" Indeed, even Harold Wilson, Prime Minister of the 1964-70 Labour Cabinet Benn served in, said "he immatures with age."

But the rest of Lawson’s review takes a less sympathetic line. For instance, when disagreeing with Benn’s hopes for a resurgence of socialism born from the 2008 financial crisis, Lawson denies they had any sociological import: "The riots in London in 2011 were nothing more than looting: a desire for yet more consumer goods, not a socialist revolt."

On interpreting Benn’s decision to forgo a royal invitation for a street protest, he says: "A cynic might say the difference between the two invitations is that at the latter event Benn would be the speaking star rather than a decorative adjunct: but I take a more charitable view." And yet somehow this manages not to sound particularly charitable at all.

The way in which The Guardian’s Gaby Hinsliff effectively describes Tony Benn as being on his "deathbed" in her review is a little hard to stomach, as well as (one hopes) overstating the case somewhat, but she is otherwise full of affection and praise for the book, focusing not so much on politics but on what the diaries have to tell us about mortality itself. If you have bought the book for an insider’s glimpse into the corridors of power, she warns, you’ve made a mistake: "The ideological warfare of the late Blair-Brown years plays second fiddle in this book to a very human struggle against the dying of the light."

In fact, the words "The Last Diaries" appear before the author’s name or even the book’s main title on the dust jacket. The uncanny sense of an ending - the irrefutable fact that these are the last diaries – means that one’s reading cannot help but be coloured. "The real Benn is with us still," Hinsliff says, "but that friendly diarist's voice in one's ear has now fallen silent for good. It is an eerie foretaste of quite how much we will miss him when he's gone."

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks is deft at pastiche. Fans of Radio 4’s The Write Stuff will know this. However, the thin line between pastiche and parody is made even thinner when the author being imitated is PG Wodehouse. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is a sequel to the Jeeves and Wooster catalogue. The critics, while commending Faulks for his effort, have found that mirroring Wodehouse is a difficult task perhaps no one is up to.

The Observer’s review is most optimistic. Sam Leith is surprised that the novel is "not half bad." Indeed, "considering the Eiger he has assaulted, considering the soufflé he is attacking with his spade, it’s a pretty remarkable performance." Leith is glad that the "voice of the novel is recognisably and pleasurably Wodehousian." Yet, there are shortcomings. Leith thinks that Faulks employs the use of the Wodehousian definite article too much, that the novel simply isn’t as funny as Wodehouse and that Faulks "can’t resist a shade of pathos that the originals are immune to." It is this injection of the sentimental, references to the Somme and death, which has failed to impress other reviewers.

The Scotsman’s review finds the conjuring of the Warwickshire cricketer who died on the Somme and from whom Jeeves’ name derives as Faulks "eager perhaps to show himself well versed in the lore". Faulks has allowed the real world to enter the novel, something Wodehouse would never do, and has allowed "a nasty whiff of the harsh real world into Arcadia"; it is a "grave error of taste." The plot is also deemed "adequate". This is important as Wodehouse attached great importance to getting the plot right as evidenced by his letters. Ultimately, despite a valiant effort by Faulks, the book "still seems unnecessary."

Cristopher Howse at the Telegraph is least impressed with the novel. He feels the author has put too much effort and intricacy into the plot. The mention of the Somme is also jarring. Worse, Faulks places the novel temporally, which regardless of it differences to Wodehouse, also has inherent problems. The novel is set in 1926 yet there is no mention of the General Strike and Howse fears Faulks steers clear of Wodehousian phraseology as it may be too archaic by today’s standards. Howse is most unconvinced with Faulks’ use of the literary reference. He identifies that "Wooster may be a bit of an idiot, but he quotes poetry, from Keats to Longfellow, that modern readers might not recognise. Faulks sticks largely to Shakespeare." All in all, Sebastian Faulks just isn’t PG Wodehouse.

François Mitterrand: an ambiguous man. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.
IBL/REX
Show Hide image

Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

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

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496