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17 September 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:58pm

Reviews round-up | 17 September

The critics’ verdicts on Ian McEwan’s The Children Act, A N Wilson’s Victoria: A Life and Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay.

By New Statesman

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s new novel tells the story of a High Court Judge named Fiona May. Successful, pragmatic and well respected, Fiona is at the height of her career. However behind closed doors Fiona is hardly thriving. Her marriage is disintegrating before her eyes. Fiona undertakes the life-changing case of a teenage boy whose parents are refusing a blood transfusion due to their beliefs as Jehovah’s witnesses. Partly inspired by real life events, McEwan once again attempts to tackle the existential conflict between science and religion.

“McEwan’s bold ambition is to have his novels address what novels often shy away from – the intricate workings of institutionalised power,” writes Tessa Hadley in the Guardian, criticising the negative impact of his objective on the narrative. “The digressions make the flow of life in The Children Act feel oddly halting, and, although the plotting is intricate, there’s nothing in the writing of Fiona’s private life that is as interesting as the legal arguments.” Hadley explores the allegorical nature of the narrative, observing that “realism seems beside the point after a while”.

Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times writes a somewhat scathing review of The Children Act, describing it as “suspenseful yet spindly”. Similarly to Hadley, Kakutani is left unimpressed by the narrative, “Mr McEwan’s stilted description of the showdown between Fiona and Jack is almost as implausible and mannered as the ridiculous exchanges between the newlyweds in his artless 2007 novel “On Chesil Beach.” Kakutani views the narrative as unworkable, “as though the author were perfunctorily plugging his characters into a freeze-dried story without bothering to try to make any of it feel real.”

The Financial Times’ John Day laments McEwan for failing in his aim to stay “objective” and “neutral”, arguing “he can’t resist drawing attention to the absurdity of “supernatural” beliefs; can’t help but comment on “Islam’s war with itself”; can’t help but present reason, art and secular humanism as ways of saving those afflicted with the great disease – religion – from themselves.” Day’s disappointment lies in the fact that McEwan has tried to simplify an issue that is ultimately too complex to be simplified: “In The Children Act he wants the answers to be obvious, but life isn’t so simple as that”.

Victoria: A Life by A.N Wilson

In his new revisionist biography, A N Wilson strives to reveal a new view of Queen Victoria and to overturn prejudiced conceptions of this fascinating figure. His extensive research examines her childhood, her marriage, her time as monarch and her life as widow.

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Daisy Goodwin from the Sunday Times argues that one of Wilson’s greatest strengths in the biography is “teasing out the nuances of Victoria’s much underlined opinions — she had no neutral mode and had strong views on everything.” Goodwin is impressed by Wilson’s lateral views and argues that he “makes a convincing case that many of her courtiers were convinced that Brown was her lover”. On the whole Goodwin is highly praising of the biography, despite one shortcoming: “My only quibble with his book is with the sloppy proofreading”.

Although Piers Brendon of the Independent concedes that “Wilson’s research has been characteristically diligent”, he remains unimpressed with Wilson’s findings, stating “he has unearthed little of real significance”. Brendon criticises Wilson for his inconsistencies, arguing that “he asserts that the biographer has to concentrate on the ‘inner woman’ yet devotes an inordinate amount of space to recapitulating well-known events in her reign.” Despite Brendan’s overall disapproval of Wilson’s conclusions he concedes that “Wilson is always worth reading”, despite describing his biography as “slapdash writing, poor organisation and other signs of haste.” This is due to Wilson’s wit. Brendon indeed concludes that Wilson “is astute, unpredictable and opinionated”.

The Spectator’s Jane Ridley takes a much more complimentary approach, applauding Wilson’s “superb revisionist biography”. She even goes so far as to state that this is “the book he was born to write.” Ridley comments on Wilson’s surprisingly negative stance on Prince Albert, “In a very small, buried footnote he claims that he is Albert’s greatest admirer, but one would hardly credit it from the text.” Ridley also observes that “Once Albert is dead and safely buried in the magnificent mausoleum which Victoria erected over him at Frogmore, the book really warms up and becomes a gripping read”. This is impressive as Wilson has succeeded in showing more to her than just a devoted wife. “At last Victoria has been rescued from her widow’s weeds,” he says.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

Elena Ferrante’s new novel is based on the traumatic story of two Neapoliton childhood friends, Elena and Lila, who share an unbreakable bond. The story leads them in many differing directions, but their magnetic friendship is hard to break. The story unfolds in the late 60s and early 70s. These two characters bravely grapple with issues as intricate as sex and violence, feminism, mothers and children.

Roxana Robinson from the New York Times has described Ferrante as “one of the great novelists of our time”, admiring the “ruthlessness and velocity” in her writing as well her passion. Robinson comments on the way in which Ferrante puts forward brave ideas and concepts, such as her views on family life. Her controversial ideas allow her to explore new ideas and create gripping stories that have a very different view of life compared the status quo. Robinson commends Ferrante’s simple yet effective style of writing, “Ferrante’s writing style is simple and straightforward, headlong almost to the point of clumsiness”.

The Telegraph’s Catherine Taylor regards Ferrante’s style as “deliberately combative”. Taylor praises the way in which Ferrante deals with the polticial and feminist themes running through the novel. “Lila and Elena’s anger and frustration at their upbringing and limited options as working-class women in a male, church-dominated society is powerfully, explicitly expressed. Communication is visceral: the shifts in between the Neapolitan dialect of their youth and the  ‘precious’ acquisition of Italian, the language of the cultivated middle class, mirror the women’s experiences,” she writes. For Taylor the quality of both the prose and narrative technique is undeniable: “There’s a dark ardour present in her writing, and a thrilling physicality to her metaphors, boldly translated by Ann Goldstein. She speaks of ‘the anxious pleasure of violence’, of desire feeling ‘like a drop of rain in a spider web’. Her charting of the rivalries and sheer inscrutability of female friendship is raw. This is high-stakes, subversive literature”.

Johnathan Gibbs of the Independent comments on Ferrantes anonymity and how it increases her effectiveness as an author. In particular Gibbs thinks this effects Ferrante’s writings on more sensitive issues, commenting that she is “blisteringly good on bad sex”. While on the topic of climaxing, Gibbs also admires the effectiveness of Ferrante’s narrative, “Ferrante is an expert above all at the rhythm of plotting: certain feuds and oppositions are kept simmering and in abeyance for years, so that a particular confrontation – a particular scene – can be many hundreds of pages in coming, but when it arrives seems at once shocking and inevitable”.

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