A new, more positive, biography of poet Philip Larkin has been published Photograph: Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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Reviews round-up | 2 September

The critics’ verdicts on David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, Will Self’s Shark, and a new biography of Philip Larkin by James Booth.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks, a book David Mitchell has described as his “mid-life crisis novel,” is the story of a 1980s teenager who gets entagled in a conspiracy threatening the structure of time. The New Statesman’s Olivia Laing admires Mitchell’s ability to recreate the past: “Mitchell has a flair for period furniture, for the loving accumulation of details that make the near as well as distant past luminous,” she writes. However, she is less convinced by the overall structure of the book. “It has its emotional charge defused by the author’s decision to wrestle it into an increasingly irritating edifice of plot.”

The Times’ Melissa Katsoulis is more enthusiastic, writing, “In the wrong hands, magical storytelling like this would make you cringe. But in Mitchell’s it thrills. He is funny, hip and full of life.” She even goes so far as to start making predictions about literary prizes: “This beautiful explosion of adventurous ideas may well take him, finally, beyond the Booker shortlist.”

Louise Jury in the Independent suggests that not every aspect of Mitchell’s novel will be found universally appealing: “for sci-fi fantasists, the imaginary world Mitchell creates might be a thing of wonder, a Dungeons and Dragons for literate grown-ups. For others, I suspect the flesh and blood anguish of a long life lived well against the odds will prove the greater pleasure.” Overall, however, she is positive about the book, calling Mitchell a “consummate craftsman” for his ability to weave together different stories.

Shark by Will Self

Will Self’s eleventh novel is a prequel in narrative, though sequel in publication date, to Umbrella, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012. The New Statesman’s Mark Lawson praises Self for “saving the life of the hard reward that rewards the attention demanded,” even if he is a little hesitant about the density of the prose: “the ideal reader of Shark might be someone who doesn’t have a job but does have insomnia and a catheter. Even the most diligent Self fan, when confronted with such density of typography and exposition, must sometimes think: give us a break.”

The Daily Telegraph’s Jon Day is similarly full of admiration for Shark: “not only is this a truly wonderful novel, it also makes you want to revisit his previous work and read it with a keener eye.” He also suggests that Self has improved on what he began in Umbrella: “where Umbrella’s tricksiness sometimes made it feel like a work of historical fiction, in Shark the language feels urgent and necessary. What Self aired in Umbrella has hardened into a style.”

The highest praise comes from the Guardian, in which Stuart Kelly writes, “Shark confirms that Self is the most daring and delightful novelist of his generation . . . I have every expectation that when this trilogy does conclude, it will be recognised as the most remorseless vivisection and plangent evocation of our sad, silly, solemn and strange last century.”

Philip Larkin: Life, Art, and Love by James Booth

James Booth's new biography of Philip Larkin gives a more positive version of the famous poet than is customary. The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon points out that “although Booth has carried out his own interviews and draws on previously unpublished letters, his biography contains no game-changing revelations,” and as such Booth’s positive presentation of Larkin relies on reinterpreting the existing evidence. “Sometimes, it works,” Deacon writes. Other attempts, however, are “not very convincing.”

The Observer’s Rachel Cooke is similarly mixed in her praise. Booth is said to be “unfair to Larkin’s lovers, women he apparently regards as the poet’s ‘creation’.” He also “overstate[s] the Larkin-haters’ case, the better that he might ride to the rescue.” All the same, “there is compensation in the form of his lengthy readings of the poems, which are close and thoughtful if not exactly exhilarating, and in his use of Larkin’s letters, which remind the reader again and again what a fantastic writer the poet was, even in casual mode.”

In the Spectator, on the other hand, Peter J. Conradi is much more positive, calling Booth’s biography “superb.” Conradi also suggests the book is superior to Motion’s: “Booth’s psychology is subtler than Motion’s and more convincing. His achievement is to paint a satisfying and believably complex picture . . . As for Larkin the misogynist, it is mysterious how the character painted by Motion could have had any love life at all, let alone a highly complex and fulfilling one.”

HELEN SLOAN / THE FALL 3 LTD
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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

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 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories