“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Book Reviewing 101: Don’t Mention The War (#7)

There are bad reviewers, atrocious reviewers, and then there are reviewers who should be strapped to the mast and flogged with a cat o’ nine tails woven from their own entrails. Consider Geoffrey Vine’s (‘Dunedin journalist and Presbyterian minister’) take on Declan Hughes’ ALL THE DEAD VOICES at the Otago Daily Times:
“All three seem to have links with warring factions of the IRA and Loy discovers there are matching factions within the police and security forces, all just as much at war, as the collection of wounds Loy accumulates testify.
  “Most of us outside Ireland may wonder why it is so necessary to again rake over the coals of an awful civil war.
  “Both the fact (that Hughes has written a book which alternately glorifies the Troubles and condemns them) and the fiction (the book’s plot) stir up tensions we might think best left alone.”
  A couple of things need to be said here. First off, “Don’t mention the war” is a Basil Fawlty joke, not an acceptable argument in a book review. Secondly, dissident Republicans murdered two people in Ireland shortly before the publication of ALL THE DEAD VOICES, which at the very least suggests that Declan Hughes is not the only man in Ireland capable of ‘stirring up tensions’ amongst Irish paramilitaries. Thirdly, I’ve just bore a small hole in my skull scratching my head at how Vine managed to take from the novel the notion that Hughes was ‘glorifying’ the Troubles, when one of the main themes of the novel is the extent to which former murderous paramilitaries have infiltrated modern Irish business and political life.
  Yes, yes, I know it’s the Otago Daily Times, and maybe we shouldn’t expect too much. But at the very least Declan Hughes is entitled to have his book reviewed by someone who can understand basic English. Like here, for instance ...
  As for Geoff’s abhorrence of stirring up tensions – God help him if anyone gives him a copy of Stuart Neville’s THE TWELVE to review …

6 comments:

Liliana said...

I would tell Mr Vine that most of us outside Ireland need books that have the power to make us reflect on such "useless" issues as the awful civil war. Most times, one builds theories on information provided by sources which may not be the most accurate (such as the press), therefore it's rather interesting having the chance to know other approaches to the same topics.
I don't know the work of Declan Hughes (I suppose only a few know it here), but this is a book I would certainly enjoy reading.

Gerard Brennan said...

Sigh. I've just finished writing a piece that includes a look at All The Dead Voices and my take on Hughes' attempt to 'mention the war' is a little different in that I think he actually does it with a conscience that most writers who've taken a sledgehammer to the topic have lacked. My respect for him has increased considerably after reading this one.

gb

Sandra Ruttan said...

What in the review proves that the reviewer doesn't understand basic English? Perhaps you could dissect his grammar and use of punctuation, because the thrust of your post seems to be arguing against Vine's view, not his writing.

Look... I respect you Dec, and I respect your right to your opinion. But even if I personally disagree with Vine's opinion, he has the right to express it, and 'don't mention the war' isn't a joke, or a view he's alone in expressing. I spent some months living in Ireland. I've been to Belfast - traveling up from Dublin, so I've crossed the border going in both directions - and that was 1990. Before things settled down.

About two years later I was sitting with a group of people, one from Northern Ireland, and I remarked that it was like living in a war zone there. After all, I'd been to East Germany and watched the wall come down only months before going to NI, and I'd never seen so many guns in my life as I did when I was in Belfast.

The guy, who was from the north, went up one side of me and down the other because I used the term 'war'. If people from Ireland can be that hypersensitive about it, well, yes, I can actually believe some people won't think it's a good idea to stir things up, even in fiction.

Again, I may disagree, but that doesn't mean they don't have a right to their view.

My dad, and his dad before him were both Orangemen. My grandmother was Irish Catholic. My partner's biological surname is Braderick and his son is named for Patrick Pearse. I'm personally interested in Irish history but I have to accept that not everyone has the same views as me. At least this reviewer has a position. It's not like he trashed the book because he didn't like the character's name - that would be truly ridiculous.

Corey Wilde said...

Vine's review lacks substance. That's he's not comfortable with the issues addressed in Hughes' book is the really only thing he has to say about it.

As continuing problems due to racism in the US would indicate, not talking about a problem isn't likely to solve it.

If the 'coals' are not 'raked over,' can we ever possibly learn any lessons from what happened? Is it justifiable to take a writer to task because the subject matter takes the reviewer out of his comfort zone?

seanag said...

I've only read the first Declan Hughes so far, but I think this series is really good, and plan to read all of them. Even if turned out to be a lesser work than some of his others, I'd still want to read this book when I can.

I don't think I know enough about Northern Ireland to say anything about that, but I will say that in the U.S., there are still areas where people have strong sensitivities about the Civil War. And, yes, they can be touchy about it. But that just means you should consider the bar you happen to be sitting in before you start shooting your mouth off. It doesn't mean you can't write novels about it. In fact, it seems like someone is writing some sort of acclaimed, award winning novel about the Civil War just every other year. Actually, I think it probably averages out to more like every year. One year, we had both March by Josephine Brooks and The March by E.L. Doctorow winning major literary awards, (and, yes, it was confusing). Yes, it was further back in time, but I'd say it is still very much a live wire here. That doesn't make it taboo.

Declan Burke said...

Liliana - I wouldn't argue that a novel is the most accurate way of trasmitting information about any given subject. It does offer another way of seeing though, you're right about that.

Gerard - I think it's Hughes' best to date; I think it all came together for him this time.

Sandra - The fact that the reviewer thinks that Hughes glorifies the Troubles means that (a) he skimmed very lightly whilst reading, or (b) he doesn't understand basic English. I don't know if you've read the novel, but the Troubles back-story is relevant to modern Ireland. And even if it wasn't, what's all this about not writing about a particular topic so as not to offend hypersensitive people? Should we stop writing about murder because murder victims' families - or, for that matter, the killers' families - feel offended by the subject matter? Should Matt Rees stop writing about the Palestinian territories? Should we recall Stuart Neville's The Twelve? Or is it just the Troubles that shouldn't be written about?

Self-censorship is more pernicious than censorship. Much harder to counteract.

Earlier this year, two British soldiers were shot dead by dissident Republicans. In May, a Catholic was kicked to death by a drunken mob celebrating Rangers winning the football league in Scotland. The Troubles and its consequences will be with us for a very long time in Ireland, and there will very probably be as much written about it all as there was about, say, the American Civil War, or the Spanish Civil War. And fiction is a time-honoured means by which society seeks to understand itself.

By the way, I don't buy into this 'everyone is entitled to an opinion' malarkey. Not when you're reviewing books, anyway. God be with the days when you earned the right to an opinion by displaying knowledge and expertise in a given field.

And anyway, what do you think this is, a democracy? It's a blog.

Seanag and Corey, I'm with you ... ignoring the problem and hoping it'll go away is what, originally, caused the situation in Northern Ireland to fester to the point where murder campaigns could be justified by both sides, at least according to their logic.

Cheers, Dec