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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit