Paperbacks reviewed by Lesley McDowell from The World Before Us to The Shore

Lesley McDowell
Sunday 20 March 2016 14:24
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Better Living Through Criticism, by A O Scott. Jonathan Cape £12.99

As esteemed New York Times film critic Scott points out in this profound yet also perhaps surprisingly uplifting appreciation of the art of criticism (subtitled “How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth”): “The shape of the digital future is hard to predict.”

But one thing we can be sure of: “There will be no shortage of words.” How then, he asks, are we to know “what to watch, to read, to feel, to dream about?” It’s a “state of wondering paralysis” that, he says, “cries out for criticism”.

So, he’s setting out his stall clearly enough. But is he right? These statements come at the end of an assessment of the value of criticism that tries to be as honest as possible. Yes, critics can get it wrong (in a particularly robust section, he argues that they must get it wrong), and yes, being a critic can seem like a glorified excuse for a job.

But in his defence of his art, he pierces those demands for “sympathy” between the artist and the critic (a “distraction” and a “nuisance”) when he emphasises that the poet Keats, often portrayed as the martyr to critics’ barbs, himself critiqued art and society in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. It’s hard to argue, too, with his contention that culture is more tied to consumption than perhaps ever before: the critic has to go beyond that.

Scott’s paean to “intellectual scrutiny” doesn’t feel, happily, like one man simply comforting himself about an art form under threat. On the contrary, he blends intimacy with something more objective, which is perhaps the ideal combination for the critic.

That he succeeds in speaking to us all (“everyone’s a critic”), whilst at the same time delineating his own specific role in culture, is only one of the many pleasures to be found in this erudite work.

The World Before Us, by Aislinn Hunter. Penguin £8.99

Some may find themselves gritting their teeth at the intrusions of a Greek chorus from the Underworld throughout this historical novel, but these expressions of discontent with an ambiguous afterlife echo perfectly the struggles of Hunter’s protagonist.

Jane has never forgiven herself for the loss of a little girl, whom she was babysitting when a teenager. She was in love with the girl’s father, more wrapped up in impressing him than keeping an eye on the child, who wandered off and was never found again.

Hunter weaves her heroine’s terrible guilt with the disappearance of a young woman from an asylum close to the same woods where Jane lost her charge, almost 150 years previously. Often the mixing of past and present narratives can result in a privileging of one over the other, sometimes detectable in the writer, and very often felt by the reader who can feel forced to choose between them.

But Hunter avoids this by binding the two so closely together that they often feel part of a single moment. Beautifully handled.

Among the Ten Thousand Things, by Julia Pierpont. One World £8.99

Pierpont’s debut is undeniably confident and mature, as she traces the impact of an adulterous affair on a marriage, when middle-class New York children Kay and Simon discover, through a package of printed emails, that their father, Jack, has betrayed Deb, their mother.

With some admirably forceful realism, Pierpont goes through the agonising moments of discovery and confrontation, only slightly mitigated by Deb’s knowledge all along of the affair.

Pierpont is even-handed in her delegating of space to each of the four characters in the centre of this emotional maelstrom, but then she does a dangerous, if brave thing: in the middle of the novel, she summarises, over a few pages, what will happen to them all in the years ahead.

To spoil the way narrative tension is traditionally built up may be an innovation Pierpont couldn’t resist, but the second half of the novel fizzles out.

The Shore, by Sara Taylor. Windmill Books £8.99

The interconnectedness of landscape and human behaviour is hardly a startling new concept, but Taylor brings a freshness to that idea with prose that is both direct and yet also full of implication.

A helpful family tree, showing the travels down the years of two families living on islands off the coast of Virginia, emphasises that closeness between humans, too, as we follow the plucky yet desperate Chloe, seemingly abandoned by her mother to the machinations of her drunken, abusive father.

Taylor begins her novel in violence, but this is merely the culmination of years and years of horrific abuse many of the women have suffered at the hands of husbands, fathers, work colleagues. The occasional magical moment is the only real light in a litany of darkness which can overwhelm at times. But Taylor shows a special affinity with the lives of women that makes for a powerful debut, nonetheless.

The Ancient Greeks: Ten Ways They Shaped the Modern World, by Edith Hall. Vintage £8.99

An attempt to bring us as close to the thoughts and attitudes of the ancient Greeks as possible, Hall’s superb history achieves her aim with a happy marrying of literature and archaeology.

It may seem logical that an island race would have a deep respect for the sea, for instance, but Hall shows how that close relationship didn’t result in a “little islander” mentality but rather an openness to other cultures and societies, a keenness to learn and to pass their own learning on.

As she moves chronologically through the supposed “Dark Ages” of ancient Greek history, to the era with which we’re most familiar, that explosion of philosophy and art that still defines Western culture today, she reminds us that Sappho’s homoeroticism in her poems was not unusual for the time, and that the idea of prognosis underpinned their medical practice.

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