Paperback reviews: including Dunkirk by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore and Outline by Rachel Cusk

Also includes The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham and Stuff I've Been Reading by Nick Hornby

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The Independent Culture


It’s the 75th anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk, and Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s meticulously researched and brilliantly told history of the extraordinary event is a fitting tribute. Sebag-Montefiore is especially good on the build-up to that last-gasp escape – indeed the actual evacuation doesn’t begin until two-thirds of the way through. Before that we have the pitiful story of the Allied collapse before the German onslaught in France and Belgium. One reason for this was lack of flexibility by French commanding officers; whereas German officers were expected to make their own decisions, the French had to get actions approved by superior officers, resulting in fatal delays. Moreover, the mighty French tanks were so heavy that they kept running out of petrol, and under the French system were refuelled consecutively rather than simultaneously, so often weren’t ready to engage when needed; and when they did engage they had a tendency to run out of petrol again in the middle of battle.

The book centres on the heroic sacrifices made by British regiments to fight a rearguard action and keep the corridor to Dunkirk open, so that most of the British Expeditionary Force could escape. This practically amounted to a suicide mission; for example, of a battalion of 450 men of the Gloucestershire Regiment who held up the Germans at Cassel, only 12 made it to the beaches at Dunkirk themselves. Drawing on war diaries, letters, and eye-witness accounts, as well as Cabinet minutes and records of meetings between the British and French generals, Sebag-Montefiore has assembled a fascinating, moving story of tragedy and heroism. The descriptions of the horrors of modern warfare – the massive casualties, the awful injuries – make you feel as if, well not quite as if you are there, but as if you are watching the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan.


A spare, stylish novel which leaves one’s mind buzzing, Outline is narrated by an unnamed woman who goes to Athens as the tutor on a writing course. During the few days she spends there she meets a series of people – new students, old friends, colleagues, her neighbour from the plane trip – and they have long, searching conversations, in tavernas, on a yacht, in class. The narrator says little; she listens as characters tell her about their lives, their marriages, their families, their careers, their changing and uncertain sense of self. It’s mostly dialogue and reported speech, but there are beautifully sharp descriptions to bring the setting to life: “The Parthenon sitting like a white and gold crumbling crown on the hilltop with the fierce pagan blue of the sky behind it.” Readable, thought-provoking, full of stories, it’s a tour de force. I can’t think of any other novel quite like it; the closest parallel would be the film My Dinner with Andre, which takes a similar delight in the endless possibilities of human beings talking to each other.


In her introduction to this re-issue of Allingham’s 1952 detective novel, Susan Hill describes it as “one of the greatest crime thrillers ever written”. It has certainly worn better than most 20th-century crime fiction. Allingham’s detective, Albert Campion, is more likeable than Lord Peter Whimsey and more believable than Hercule Poirot, and the story is no arid whodunnit but a dark, creepy gothic tale of the London underworld, featuring the pitiless killer Jack Havoc, his sadistic henchman Tiddy Doll, and a ragged crowd of murderous street musicians who keep a captive tied up in their hideout. Allingham’s imagination had a strong streak of the grotesque, and this is more reminiscent of Dickens than of Agatha Christie.


This collection of columns for the magazine The Believer consists of Hornby’s comments on the books he bought and the books he read every month between 2006 and 2011. Here you can read Hornby’s views on George Orwell (dated observations, great prose style), Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (nowhere near as good as the early stuff, but chapter five is worth reading). In one of the months, the World Cup was on, so naturally Hornby didn’t read any books then, but has plenty of entertaining observations about football. The whole thing, indeed, is entertaining, as Hornby’s writing always is. But it’s a dipper, not a read-in-a-sitting book; other people’s opinions get fatiguing after a while.


Failed writer Arthur Friedland takes his three sons to see a stage hypnotist who tells him he needs to change his life. This he does, immediately, driving away and abandoning the three boys, and becoming a famous and successful novelist. The sons grow up to be an art forger, a financier who embezzles all his clients’ money, and a Catholic priest who doesn’t believe in God. It’s a funny, clever, literary novel, whose separate narratives click together satisfyingly. One might classify it as a novel of ideas, in that it explores the relationship between faith and fakery; but it’s also a great comic novel, with real characters one can care about. I didn’t know Kehlmann’s work before, and now I want to read it all.