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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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