Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Candia McWilliam, Ha-Joon Chang and V S Naipaul.

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What to Look for in Winter: a Memoir in Blindness by Candia McWilliam

"What to Look for in Winter: a Memoir in Blindness is a story of loss and self-destructiveness, beginning with a mother who commits suicide and ending with the loss through blindness of her greatest solitary pleasure: reading," writes Susan Elderkin in the Financial Times. It is also, however, "a misery memoir that, while touching on the far reaches of pain, leaves one feeling enriched." Acknowledging the author's reputation for verbosity, Elderkin concedes that McWilliam "is certainly no Hemingway but her love and understanding of words is so gorgeously apparent in this memoir . . . that it cements her status as one of our most important literary writers beyond question."

McWilliam's memoir "is composed of many layers of past, present, memory, thought, observation, query and, occasionally, opinions about fiction," remarks Amanda Craig in this week's New Statesman. This depth should ensure that McWilliam is recognised as "not only a consummate stylist, but very funny; far funnier than her novels ever showed". What to Look for in Winter "is beautiful, harrowing and in every way remarkable".

"In this book, McWilliam projects an image of herself that consists of opposites and paradoxes." So writes Andrew Motion in the Guardian. "It is in some parts extremely sad, in some indulgent, in some brilliantly written, in some comically jewelled, in some shrewd, and in some surprisingly naive." Motion finds it irksome that McWilliam "still drops names; she still writes about money as though everyone had buckets of the stuff" and identifies "a curious reserve about underlying needs, compulsions and characteristics". "The prose may be highly self-conscious, the syntax elaborate and the references fancy. But the heart beneath is raw and bleeding."

For Christina Patterson, though: "This is, for all its minor irritations, a work of beauty and of truth." Patterson's review in the Independent describes What to Look for in Winter as "one of the most devastatingly moving memoirs I've ever read. It is about a battle with the self which is, at times, literally one of life and death. It's about envy and self-destruction and beauty and love . . . It is, in every sense, an extraordinary tale."

23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

In this week's New Statesman, Robert Skidelsky deems Ha-Joon Chang's 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism as "the most successful" of a triptych of recent books on the future of capitalism. "Chang's general theme is that contrary to the current orthodoxy, the free-market era inaugurated by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher delivered worse outcomes, for developed and developing countries alike, than the more statist capitalism which preceded it" -- and Skidelsky applauds Chang for his "incisive and entertaining" analysis.

According to John Gray in the Observer, this is a "witty, iconoclastic and uncommonly commonsensical guide to the follies of economics", in which Chang masterfully debunks "some of the myths of capitalism". "Each of Chang's 23 propositions may seem counterintuitive, even contrarian", but "taken together they present a new view of capitalism". Gray deems Chang's proposed reforms politically unrealistic, requiring "a type of global governance that will not exist in any foreseeable future". However, "his account of where we find ourselves today is arrestingly accurate. For anyone who wants to understand capitalism not as economists or politicians have pictured it but as it actually operates, this book will be invaluable."

David Smith of the Sunday Times (£), though, would "attach a warning to this book: Chang is being polemical. His truth is no more objective than that he criticises the free marketeers for." "What he hates, and what this book assaults, is the free market ideology that has ruled the world since the 1980s." It is, overall, "a lively, accessible and provocative book". "It makes for a good read," argues Smith, but he cautions us "to read it with care".

The Masque of Africa by V S Naipaul

In Sunday's Observer, Aminatta Forna describes V S Naipaul's The Masque of Africa as "a quest through the continent for the spirit of African belief, the belief systems that preceded the arrival of Christianity and Islam". Although "Naipaul does both Africa and himself a disservice in failing to verify much of his information", his sources "navigate the complexities and conflicts of their own culture and are able to describe what they have lost with the passing of the old religions". Forna ultimately concludes: "Naipaul is often blinkered but he still sees things in Africa that others miss."

Whereas Forna could excuse Naipaul of his imperfections, for Robert Harris, writing in the Sunday Times (£): "This may well be the most mordantly unsympathetic account of Africa by an eminent British writer since Evelyn Waugh published Black Mischief in 1932." Harris "wonders why Naipaul is bothering to pursue a subject so uncongenial to him" and finds certain passages about African ritual and superstition "toxic, uninvestigated, unverified", reminding him of Oswald Moseley "accusing black African men of eating dog food and keeping white women locked in basements".

Sameer Rahim agrees. "Mostly, Naipaul comes across here as tired and tetchy," Rahim summarised in Friday's Telegraph, while questioning why "Naipaul, at the age of 78, continues to punish himself with such travels". "His scepticism is so entrenched that his work is now cleansed of humour, imagination and human sympathy."

 

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