Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Raymond and Tallis, Bergner and Adichie.

What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by Daniel Bergner

Daniel Bergner’s ‘What Do Women Want?’ is an in-depth and unique take on female desire. Bergner uses scientific experiments and studies, anecdotal evidence, and interviews with experts in the field of arousal (sexoligists, behavioural scientists, and psychologists), to enlighten his thesis concerning the relationship between women and themes such as monogamy, intimacy, porn, narcissism and sex. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Bergner argues that women are naturally the less monogamous and more desire-driven than men and in the process forces the reader to challenge many common conceptions about the sexuality of the sexes.

Emma Brockes for The Guardian suggests that Bergner’s exposition of female desire is hardly a “new narrative” and criticises the implied causation in certain examples which extrapolate from the behaviour of rats and monkeys to human nature, saying they “can sometimes feel a bit flippant”. In addition, Brockes complains that “the potted social histories are cursory”, and dismisses Bergner’s superficial analysis of social or political context as “practically meaningless”. That said, Brockes concedes that there are “good sections” on the subjects of female mental health and reluctantly admits that Bergner’s discussion on the “difficulty of sustaining interest in a partner over the course of a long marriage” is “touching”.

Zoe Williams, also for The Guardian, looks at the disconcerting ramifications of Bergner’s findings and remarks that “the idea that fidelity has no natural defender” is somewhat unnerving. Moreover, Williams comments that it “blows [her] mind a little bit” that Bergner’s conclusions about female sexual energy were not arrived at sooner.

At the New York Times, Elain Blair, like Brockes, is sceptical of the task Bergner has set himself. She comments that despite primatologists finding evidence “that many kinds of female primates initiated sex, while their male counterparts pretty much sat around waiting for the ladies to take an interest in their erections”, in fact “[h]uman arousal and sexual behaviour are difficult to study in a lab.” Blair concludes that Bergner “seems to get lost in the sexiness of it all” – sometimes letting vaginal blood vessels “throb” with arousal - and states that “[t]here is something drastically under-theorized about what all these tentative findings and speculations…might mean taken together.”

NHS SOS: How the NHS Was Betrayed and How We Can Save It Edited by Jacky Davis and Raymond Tallis

This summer marks the 65th anniversary of the British National Health Service and coincides with the implementation of a series of far-reaching reforms. NHS SOS, edited by Jacky Davis, a consultant radiologist and co-chair of the NHS Consultants' Association, and Professor Raymond Tallis, a British polymath who specializes in geriatric care, depicts the “dismemberment” of the NHS as an institution and provides a manifesto for the retraction and reversal of Lansley’s reforms, paying particular attention to the effects of the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

The New Statesman’s Richard Horton writes that NHS SOS “lucidly describes” the way in which Lansley “infiltrated the Department of Health, ignored the advice of his most senior civil servants and implanted his plan to end more than 60 years of consensus.” Horton elucidates upon the “three catastrophic failures” which Tallis and Davis claim resulted in the “end of the NHS”. Firstly, Labour MPs are said to be “culpable” for having effectively “prepared the NHS for privatization”. Then Horton switches the onus to the media’s failure to ask the right questions concerning Lansley’s reforms. Finally Horton laments the “most atrocious betrayal of all”, citing the BMA’s policy of appeasement as the final nail in the NHS’s coffin. Horton calls NHS SOS “a painful story” but resolves that it is “one that we must confront if we are to have any hope of reclaiming what was once ours”.

Bernadette Hyland at the Morning Star is of the opinion that NHS SOS “is a difficult book to read” because “In chapter after chapter we see the way in which determined neoliberals have hacked away at a cherished British institution.” Despite calling NHS SOS a “devastating read”, Hyland achieves a more optimistic outlook than Horton, deciding that “the purpose of the book is to bring together the various individuals and organisations that are horrified by the prospect of the new NHS” and emphasising that “A whole section at the end of the book gives advice on what people can do to save the NHS.”

In a similar vein, Yvonne Roberts, writing for The Observer, provides an impassioned analysis of the nuances contained in Section 75 of the Health and Social Care Act, which removes the Health Secretary’s duty to “secure or provide” free of change “a comprehensive health service for the prevention, diagnoses and treatment of illness”, leaving behind only a duty to “promote”. Roberts, like Hyland, accentuates the optimistic normative ending of the book and advises her readers to “Buy the book, read that chapter, act” otherwise, in her words, “we'll all be sorry when she's dead and gone – and 90% of the country can't afford to be sick.”

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

In her third novel “Americanah”, former winner of the Orange Prize Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, follows the lives of two former sweethearts from modern-day Nigeria, Ifemelu and her first love Obinze. As a student, Ifemelu makes the decision to relocate and continue her studies in the U.S. Here she suffers a series of tribulations, eventually falling into prostitution. Obinze opts to move to the U.K. where he too is faced with trying times, and finds himself cleaning toilets before he is deported. Adichie tackles pressing issues regarding race, having acknowledged that many of the experiences faced by Ifemelu were very similar to her own. 

Claire Lowdon, Assistant Editor at Areté, unravelled “Americanah” for the New Statesman. Although in parts, examples of racial torments feel “like an anthology of examples - an agglomeration rather than an arrangement”, Adichie is undoubtedly insightful. Her observations “are always sharp, intelligent, humourous and humane” and her commentary “will challenge the way you think about race”. Despite some “wobbles, moments when the whole book risks losing its balance”, Adichie “is a very skilful writer and her talent for illuminating the intricacies of human interactions carries her.”

Mike Peed in the New York Times also acknowledges Adichie’s insightfulness. He praises her as “an extraordinarily self-aware thinker and writer”, and again remarks how “Americanah” manages to challenge our perceptions of race, holding “the discomfiting realities of our times fearlessly before us”. Adichie is “hugely empathetic, both worldly and geographically precise” and her work “never feels false”.

Laura Pearson in the Chicago Tribune, offers similarly impressive praise for an “absorbing love story”. Its ambition is evident, managing to present “a multilayered meditation on learning to belong to one's own life” alongside a romantic novel.  Like Lowdon, Pearson does note that Adichie “indulges in a lot of detail” to the extent that the novel “meanders” and “lags in places”. Yet the novel still remains precise, as Adiche manages to “capture specific emotions with rich, exacting detail”. Accompanied with Adiche’s own experience of life in Nigeria and the U.S., we “get vivid descriptions about the often lonely, disorienting experience of adjusting to a foreign country.”

Like Raymond and Tallis, protesters leading a mock funeral procession in London are critical of the Government's changes to the Health Service. Photograph: Olly Scarff at Getty Images

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide