Paperback reviews: The Roar of the Lion by Richard Toye, Some Luck by Jane Smiley, The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn

 

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The Roar of the Lion by Richard Toye

Oxford University Press, £14.99

A book about Churchill’s wartime speeches is likely only to appeal to his most ardent fans, or so one might think. But Toye’s superb history is more concerned with the impact that his speeches had on the British population, as well as on those listening abroad. For his speeches to be considered truly great, after all, wouldn’t an assessment of their impact be crucial?

And so we find out the untold story: for example, just how fractured the response to Churchill’s oratory often was, a contrast to the unified enthusiasm we have been encouraged to believe in. Art student Mary Cooke refers to Churchill’s “overdramatised speeches” which “never inspired” her; Miss E Hill in Northumbria dislikes the “relish” in them for hunting down the enemy; A N Gerrard from Manchester thinks “he fails miserably” when he sounds as if he’s writing for posterity. These voices come down through Ministry of Information reports, but also through the research organisation, Mass Observation.

It would have been interesting to query any gender bias; were women more likely than men to dislike Churchill’s warmongering tone? And even when the public on the whole seems to prefer positive messages, many question whether they’re being told the whole truth, as invariably they are not, of course. Toye also shows how much care was given to drafting a speech, which surprisingly perhaps involves the opinions and efforts of others.

What also surprises is that often the speeches with the biggest impact weren’t necessarily the ones we remember now. And that some of them rescued Churchill just when the public, and Parliament, were beginning to doubt him. Ultimately, this is an intelligent and essential corrective to Churchillian glory, which neither idolises the man nor damns him.

*****

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Picador, £7.99

Smiley’s first novel in her historical trilogy won’t please post-modernists who will reject her traditional linear structure, her recourse to truth as opposed to truths, and her character-led view of the past 100 years in America. But Smiley has a few gentle tricks up her sleeve. Characters get their own perspective from the moment they’re born, like baby Frank, whose view of his parents, hardworking Walter and beautiful Rosanna, wouldn’t necessarily chime with their own view of themselves. And the experience of his angelic sister, Lillian, would not seem quite so poignant, when she reaches high school and discovers she’s not the princess she expected to be after all.

Given that Frank’s family is a large one, Smiley commits herself to several viewpoints. This structure gives her story pace and variety but it can occasionally result in a lack of depth. However, its epic quality is not in doubt, although a little more in the way of disaster, baby Mary’s sad demise excluded, might have given it more gravitas.

****

HRC: State secrets and the rebirth of Hillary Clinton by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes

Arrow, £9.99

The subtitle of this biography of Clinton is slightly misleading, as it’s more about the everyday workings of the office of Secretary of State – the office Obama offered her just after he was first elected President – than it is about state secrets. It is also rather more partisan, clearly on Clinton’s side, presenting a view of a pragmatic, fiercely loyal and utterly dedicated woman who may well run for President herself. Where this biography works best is probably in its pacing, which is fast and contemporary with a sense of urgency and an almost a televisual feel, giving the impression of a Washington not too far from something like House of Cards. The authors don’t scrimp on detail, either, to make for a weighty, if friendly, portrait.

***

History of the Rain by Niall Williams

Bloomsbury, £8.99

Williams’s utterly glorious, funny, clever, literary tale, told by bedridden Ruth, as she gazes back over her family’s past in search of her father, somehow didn’t make the leap from the Booker longlist to its shortlist. Inexplicably so, in the opinion of some, as rarely do novels come along that revel in language to the extent that this one does, and even more rarely do they combine that mastery with a deep humanity, too. Ruth has a “masculine” touch to her voice, so she’s been told, with a tendency to Capitalise and allude all over the place. But her story is also about finding love, about our relationship with the landscape around us, and our need to mythologise. A lovely book, that deserves to be read and re-read.

*****

The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn

Abacus, £7.99

Dunn’s historical Tudor romances are a cut above the rest. In this latest one, she focuses on Jane Seymour’s early life at Wolf Hall, and the mystery surrounding the scandal of her sister-in-law, Katherine. It was believed that Katherine had an affair with her father-in-law and was subsequently cast aside by Jane’s powerful brother, Edward. Dunn disputes that story with an alternative theory about Katherine’s disgrace, but her real purpose here is to depict an unworldly Jane coming to terms with her loss of innocence. This is the Jane that proceeded to the court of Henry VIII. The romance of her story is played up by Dunn, although a little more dirt, and a little more darkness, might not have sullied the story too much.

***

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