Will Hodgkinson's memoir features a mid-life conversion from journalist to yogi. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Reviews round-up | 10 July

The critics’ verdicts on Linda Grant, Will Hodgkinson and Helen McCarthy.

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant

Linda Grant’s second novel Upstairs at the Party is a retrospective grounded in the memories of protagonist Adele, studying at the University of York, which captures the life of a student in the 1970s when university grants meant that students were “suited to Renaissance philosopher-kings” and radicalism was rife.

The events of a 20th birthday party are the catalyst for Adele’s reminisces, yet the Independent’s Lucy Scholes wishes that the novel had stayed at uni a little longer, writing that “once we leave them behind the narrative flounders. Evie’s story is rambling and Adele’s pursuit of it a matter of unconvincingly tying up loose ends.” Similarly, according to the Financial Times’ Peter Aspden it is hard to believe that the events narrated in the first part of the book have such lingering effect ... The answer to the riddle of what-really-happened-on-that-fateful-night is anticlimactic too. It is hardly the stuff of a lifetime of pondering.” However the ambiguities of the narrative, in part due to the hazy nature of Adele’s memory as she pieces together the past, is seen by the Telegraph as a virtue. Lucy Daniel writes, With its hindsight about tragic events and paths not taken, the novel has similarities to Julian Barnes’s 2011 Booker winnerThe Sense of an Ending, has a similar insistence on reshaping the past, how information that wasn’t available first time round could have changed the entire story.”

The connection to Barnes’ best seller is trumped by comparisons to Brideshead Revisited. Scholes states that “Grant’s vision is clearly that of a Brideshead for a different generation ... but it lacks the sincere sense of loss that haunts Waugh’s classic.” Moreover, Aspden describes the androgynous Stevie and Evie as “two Sebastian Flytes in Ziggy Stardust apparel” but adds that unlike the reader’s sympathetic response to Brideshead Revisited, “we don’t actually fall under the spell of Evie and Stevie early in the novel, so it is hard to believe that they continue to play such a central role in so many lives.” Despite mixed feelings on the narrative structure, Grant’s cynical yet funny Upstairs at the Party cloaks the campus novel with melancholy; a theme that is undeniably worthy of Charles Ryder.

The House is Full of Yogis by Will Hodgkinson

In this memoir the Times’ rock and pop critic Will Hodgkinson recounts his parents’ mid-life transformation from south-west London medical correspondent and tabloid journalist to a meditative yogi and TV feminist. While the elder brother Tom survives the transition relatively unphased, Will’s childhood, as the book’s subtitle implies, is “Turned Upside Down” by the social and emotional difficulties of having a father dressed in white pyjamas and his parents’ sex lives discussed on TV.

The Sunday Times’ Helen Davies praises Hodgkinson as “a gifted storyteller” who turns his already colourful core material into a “howlingly entertaining memoir that is raw, affectionate and, unbelievably, true.” Through Hodgkinson’s father’s near death experience, his mother’s book, Sex Is Not Compulsory, and declarations of his own young mediocrity, Davies maintains that “Underneath the dysfunction ... there is a real tenderness.” Equally enthusiastically, the Telegraph’s Mick Brown’s praises Hodgkinson’s “touching account” as a “sweet, quirkish gem of a memoir.” Despite the ample possibility for easy laughs, “Hodgkinson paints a deeply loving portrait of his father.” For both Brown and Davies, the comedy is affectionate rather than disdainful. 

However, where some see tenderness, others see tragedy. While Brown feels “a particular twinge of sympathy for Hodgkinson”, The Times’ Melanie Reid sees “a deep ambivalence at the heart of this charming, entertaining book”, where “what emerges is often more sad than funny”. Despite acknowledging the book to be “charming, entertaining”, Reid suspects the “contrived” cartoonish comedy to be “a defense mechanism” to the point of questioning the very motives of the memoir: “Isn’t every memoir, to some extent, either a conscious or unconscious act of revenge on one’s parents?” For Ben East of the Observer, the fault lies in the structure: “The book ends up being little more than a series of well-told family anecdotes and snapshots of awkward encounters with girls.”

Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat by Helen McCarthy

Until 1946 women were not allowed to represent their country as diplomats. Only in 1973 was a woman allowed to have both a diplomatic position and a husband. To this day, a female head of mission has never existed in Tokyo, Beijing or Paris. Only a few years ago, the future UK ambassador at the Vatican was assumed by male officials to be their secretary. Through these appalling facts, old and new, McCarthy in Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat explores the professional lives of women in an overwhelmingly male field, chipping in her own personal stories.

Susan Pedersen, writing for the Guardian, praises McCarthy for her “verve and nicely restrained outrage”, adding that “this is not simply a history of slow institutional change. It is also a work of recovery.” According to Pederson, struggling women are recovered through McCarthy’s “vivid and engaging portraits”, an idea echoed by the Independent’s Kate Williams, who praises “this important book full of brilliant vignettes.” Despite concluding that “the complexities come out beautifully in the lives recovered in this book”, Pederson is sceptical of the “largely biographical approach and breezy style” which “leave[s] foundational issues underanalysed.”

Roger Morgan of the Times Higher Education also criticises stylistics, particularly the transition from maiden names to married names, claiming that “Readers interested in tracing individual careers will sometimes be confused by the discriminatory convention that women, unlike men, are expected to change their surnames on marriage.” He also critiques the “shortage of space” which “prevents McCarthy from going into full detail on many aspects of her wide-ranging subject.” However, like Pederson and Williams, Morgan concludes positively that this work is a “pioneering study” which supplies “a penetrating, readable and most welcome introduction to a neglected set of issues.” Despite following 150 years of progress, McCarthy’s searching analysis shows there is still a long way to go.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

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

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge