Margot Asquith in 1924. The Brocks’ edited collection has reinvigorated Margot’s vitriolic comments. Photo: Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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Reviews round-up | 30 August

The critics' verdicts on Ahamed Liaquat, Kerry Hudson and Margot Asquith.

 

Money and Tough Love: Inside the IMF by Ahamed Liaquat

This offering from the "Writer in Residence" series commissioned by Alain de Botton’s School of Life sees Liaquat Ahamed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his Lords of Finance, relaying the results of several months spent with his former organisation, the International Monetary Fund. Ahamed describes the everyday business of meetings and work abroad for employees of the Fund, presented alongside photography by Eli Reed.

Phillip Aldrick of The Times is impressed by how Ahamed manages to "humanise a faceless institution ... and teach a little economic history along the way." The book, according to Aldrick, describes well the "prosaic truth" of why the IMF shrank from prominence on the world stage. Aldrick notes the "sense of fading glory" as one of the book’s main themes. While he worries that "it’s hard to imagine many people outside the IMF being particularly interested," he nevertheless claims that Ahamed’s "gentle prose" serves as a "good introduction to the IMF".

The Financial Times’ Edward Luce calls the book an "enjoyable portrait." Luce knows Liaquat personally, at his own admission, but claims that the author "removes his rose-coloured spectacles" in order to write the book. Assuming Luce manages the same in his review, the book is credited with "bringing life to an institution that is too often deadened with jargon." SinceMoney and Tough Love is "about the troops not the generals," Luce also mentions Ahamed’s daily-reportage style, adding that this helps "avoid the leaden prose of an in-house biographer." The Fund is a complex machine and its "finances are usually arcane," writes Ahamed. Luce is taken with this apparently clear and entertaining look at such an organisation.

The book endures a much more tepid reception from Alex Preston writing in The Telegraph, who claims that the ‘anonymous and dull’ nature of the organisation applies equally well to Money and Tough Love. Writing that the book lacks "drama and stylish prose," Preston questions why Ahamed’s project seems so drab despite the "extraordinary access" he was granted, and compares the attempted look at the human side of the organisation unfavourably to a fictional counterpart – namely, David Foster Wallace’sThe Pale King and its "greater scope to show us the unique complexity of every human life."

Thirst by Kerry Hudson

Thirst is Kerry Hudson’s second novel, following her well-received debut,Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. The story follows Alena, a young Russian, who is the victim of a sex trafficking gang in East London. Beginning with an encounter with Dave, a security guard who catches Alena shoplifting, the novel explores a conventional romance among a backdrop of “unrelenting horror”. Yet the characters’ back stories are more complex than they first appear, allowing for the plot to unfold with “horrible inevitability”.

Louise Welsh of The Guardian applauds the novel’s “wit and shrewdness”, confronting “hard-hitting” topics, while being “never miserable”. She praises Hudson’s decision, as in her debut, to explore the lives of communities who are “not generally considered fit for literature”, while emphasising her ability to create “complex working-class characters faced with moral dilemmas”. In fact, Welsh suggests that recent critics who have drawn attention to “literature’s failure to portray working-class characters with intelligence, education or culture” are likely to be impressed by Thirst.

The Independent’s Katie Welsh similarly admires Thirst, describing the novel as “heartbreaking”, “beautiful” and “touching”. Welsh praises Hudson’s maturity in dealing with depictions of a “brutal series of sexual assaults” without descending into “sensationalism”. As with the Guardian’sreview, special praise is reserved for Hudson’s ability to write “from the perspective of people whose voices are rarely heard”, largely a result of her “meticulous research”.

Writing for The ScotsmanLesley McDowell suggests that Kerry Hudson has “consolidated her position” as a writer “prepared to face the injustices and the grimness of life”. The review congratulates the novel’s authenticity, praising Hudson’s ability “to get to the heart of her characters”. DescribingThirst as a “tale of female powerlessness”, comparison is made with events of “brutal male domination” that have cropped up in the media in recent weeks. Given this, McDowell asserts that although Thirst is “hardly a summer read”, it is “probably an essential one”.

Margot Asquith's Great War Diary 1914-1916: The View from Downing Street, Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock

Margot Asquith’s diaries fill 22 volumes in total, and this single volume, edited by the Brocks (Michael and Eleanor), tells a part of the story only two years long. Those two years are the wartime years of Herbert Asquith’s premiership. Replete with vociferous opinions and depictions of the most notable political characters of the time, these diaries provide a long-awaited, very personal insight into the upper heights of the UK government during the onset of the First World War.

Writing in the Telegraph, an impressed Miranda Seymour calls the collection a "beautiful work of conjugal editorship by Eleanor Brock and her late husband." "The sensation of intimacy is remarkable," writes Seymour, who is particularly taken by Margot’s defence of Richard Haldane from charges of treachery. She adds that "Margot may have been rude and overbearing, but she was also observant, bright and thoughtful," and concludes that these "private records are all the better for being unspeakably, delectably, impenitently frank."

Jane Ridley writes in the Literary Review that "Michael and Eleanor Brock have edited Margot’s writing with meticulous academic precision." However, she characterises the diaries themselves with a mixed tone, saying that Margot’s "party tricks" of writing "characters" of people and coming off best in every argument can be "tedious." She adds that Margot was "slapdash and egotistical... emotional and histrionic." But ultimately she calls the wartime picture that is painted "really striking," and adds that the diary is "invaluable and fascinating."

Writing for the TimesLawrence James is impressed by the book, describing it as a “vivid, fascinating and disconcerting record of war as seen from the top”. He describes Margot Asquith’s bold, swashbuckling spirit” and “caustic wit”, while praising the “lucidity and scholarship” of the editors who compiled the volume. James highlights how the “partisan record” is predictably supportive of Margot’s husband Herbert, whose virtues of “humanity, compassion and warmth are praised throughout”. Nonetheless, James emphasised the “pleasure” he took in reading the book.

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser