Nadine Dorries' debut novel, The Four Streets.
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Begorrah! Nadine Dorries’ The Four Streets is a bad novel, riddled with Shamrockese

After her remarkable flights from fact in her statements on abortion, it's disappointing to find that Dorries is just not very good at making things up.

"Whoi am Oi to be reiding the Nadoine Doirries noivel?" I asked me mammy when the commission came through. "Is is because Oi have disploised the Hoily Foither in some woi?" "No darling, don't be silly, it's because you're a journalist," said my mother. "And stop talking like that, you're no more a Plain Person of Ireland than the MP for Mid Bedfordshire is." Fortunately, the MP for Mid Bedfordshire has at least a dim and remote grasp of her limitations, because she doesn't try to write the whole of The Four Streets – her debut novel, and may it long remain blessed in its singularity – in the tongue of her poor-but-honest, devout-yet-practical, low-but-proud cast of net-curtain bleaching Irish Catholic housewives and their Guinness drinking docker husbands in 1950s Liverpool.

There are lines of luminous green dialogue, of course. Lines like: "Jaysus, would yer so believe it not?" and, "That'll be grand for the boxty bread." But happily, Dorries generally restricts herself to telling rather than showing what her characters are thinking and doing, so we are spared too much of the shamrockese. For example, when the villainess of the piece, "haughty stuck up Protestant bitch" Alice, first appears, she is smiling secretly to herself over a funeral. This is because she is evil.

Other ways in which we know that Alice is evil include being told that she is evilly plotting to beguile unfortunate widower Jerry, the fact that she doesn't want or like children, and the fact that she procures her own abortifacient from the chemists. Poor Jerry, not only tricked into having sex with a woman he doesn't like, but also forced to listen to "the sound of his would-be babies flushed down a tube". Well, not exactly sex: when he takes Alice roughly over the kitchen table, it is with such fury that "if Alice hadn't deliberately engineered this, his lovemaking would have bordered on rape". Fans of Hansard may here recall Dorries' claims that compulsory abstinence education for girls would prevent sexual violence.

Dorries made her name in parliament trying to make it more difficult for women to decide what to do with their own uteruses, but it's not that she would judge her characters for controlling their fertility. It's just that there's a right way and a wrong way in The Four Streets, and the wrong way is anything involving a chemist and the right way is highly mysterious. The deceased woman whom Alice is trying to replace knew the right way: the lovely Bernadette, Queen of Hearts of the Four Streets, "amazed them all with her ability to control her reproductive organs".

Dorries does not begrudge her heroine that remarkable power of will over womb, and although it is necessary for Bernadette to die in a tragic childbearing accident as she delivers her sole infant in hospital, that doesn't stop the inhabitants of the Four Streets reminiscing unrelentingly about Bernadette's angelic qualities. Nevertheless, the good Catholics do all appear to quietly absorb the reminder that perpetual pregnancy punctuated by squirting a kid onto the kitchen floor every nine months is the healthiest state for the Irish immigrant housewife, as no one in the novel tries their luck with such modern notions afterwards.

There are second chances for Dorries' characters, though. Bernadette gets to become the best dead mum the world has ever seen when she returns as poltermammy, fortuitously materialising whenever it is too late for her interventions to prevent something bad from happening, but just when a sweep of her "untameable" red hair will have maximum pathetic effect. (It really is extraordinary hair. When we first meet her, we watch her "do battle with her hair, which the wind had mischievously taken hold of and, lock by lock, teased out from under her black knitted beret". Less a hairstyle, more a Lovecraftian horror with its own self-directed will, it is perhaps only Bernadette's tragic passing that prevents this auburn terror from gaining full sentience and stalking vengefully through the Four Streets.)

Even Proddie bitch Alice finds absolution of a sort, Valiumed up to the eyeballs thanks to the tender conspiracies of her mother-in-law and GP. "The cuckoo in the nest had been put firmly in her place," says the satisfied narrator, and so we must believe there is hope in sedatives not only for Alice but also for all Protestants, given that she is their only representative in the book. But Dorries is not afraid to discuss the abuses of Catholicism. In fact, any expectations her publisher had of bulk orders from the Vatican must die in the person of Father James.

Like Alice, Father James is a very bad person and we know he is bad because we are told he is bad. Somehow, the families of the Four Streets fail to notice the manifest signs of evil that are narrated to us – but then, when your narrator speaks in a mix of inexplicable imagery (a child watches a strand of hair move around like "an overlarge windscreen wiper", even though we are later told that no one on the Four Streets has a car) and lines that read like clippings from Wikipedia ("maternal death from childbirth was the biggest single killer of young women, particularly those from impoverished backgrounds like their own") perhaps it is understandable that the simple folk of the Four Streets would miss the subtle signs of raging pederasty. On the other hand, since Father James has no character traits beyond raging pederasty, it's hard to explain why it takes his flock so long to get round to offing him in a heartwarming bit of community vigilante castration.

After her remarkable flights from fact in her statements on abortion, it's disappointing to find that Dorries is just not very good at making things up. Things in the novel appear to happen purely because they seem like a good idea at the time to the author. Characters potter in and then out again as soon as their service to the plot is done. The kitchen table that was the site of savage congress is revealed later to be made of Formica, which seems a material so unequal to the pounding described that one can only suspect transubstantiation. And when Dorries tries to sound a hopeful note of life at its end, she has apparently forgotten that the life in question is a foetus resulting from rape and growing inside a fourteen-year-old girl. In the face of such awfulness, I put on my best Oirish burr and say: Jaysus, Mary and Joseph, feck this shite.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game