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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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses