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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Book reviews roundup: How to Build a Girl, Village of Secrets and A Broken World

Caitlin Moran 'She writes with breathtaking brio' … Caitlin Moran. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

"Any novel that begins with its 14-year-old narrator masturbating in the same bed as her sleeping little brother can't be all bad. Indeed, Caitlin Moran's spirited coming-of-age tale romps from strength to strength. After her popular essayistic memoir How to Be a Woman, Moran's first novel for adults, How to Build a Girl, follows the remaking of Johanna Morrigan, a pudgy, smart-mouthed teenager from the West Midlands". Lionel Shriver in the Times pronounced herself "a Moran fan … At 39, the author can still summon the raw, jangled experience of being a teenager." "There's a lot about masturbation here – as much an age of coming as a coming of age novel", noted an equally admiring Julie Burchill in the Spectator: "She writes with breathtaking brio, like a great professional hoofer who has been toe-tapping since tot-hood but has never grown tired of performing: very much a 'Ta-da! – see what I did there?' type of writer." But Liz Jones in the Evening Standard didn't agree: "The problem is, this novel has no depth or pathos. Even though it's based on what she knows, there is no sense that this new girl is real … It's all quite glib … Moran hasn't stretched herself … It would be easy to give this book a good review … But I feel it's my job … to warn young women when I think they're wasting their money."

Village of Secrets by Caroline Moorehead, an account of Chambon-sur-Lignon in France, the "remote mountain village", as Sinclair McKay wrote in the Daily Telegraph, "that provided sanctuary and escape for numbers of Jewish people … is riven with complexity". It is "also about ownership of history. Moorehead analyses how, in recent years, the story … has been fluffed up as a sort of national comfort blanket – a beacon of redemptive light in Vichy darkness … at the expense of difficult truth … If anything, Moorehead's pacy, headlong narrative, zigzagging across the war years and different territories with so many piercing vignettes and close detail, packs too much in and the structure suffers. A longer book would have given more room for reflection …" Alan Judd in the Spectator praised the book for pointing out "the brute facts. France was one of only two sovereign states (the other was Bulgaria) to do the Nazis' work for them, rounding up and deporting over 150,000 – half of them Jews – to death or slavery. From the start, Vichy 'consistently offered more than Germany asked for, more and also sooner'."

On the cover of the anthology A Broken World: Letters, Diaries and Memories of the Great War, edited by Sebastian Faulks and Hope Wolf, the author of Birdsong is "for obvious commercial reasons", wrote Libby Purves in the Times, put first "and much bigger". Wolf's "area of research in war writing includes 'miniature narratives and popular form (anecdotes, jokes, cliches, memes)' and Faulks himself handsomely acknowledges in his introduction that the book's merits are largely due to her search for the oblique, the overlooked and the international. He is right … the pleasure of the book is in the straightforward human responses." According to Gerard Henderson in the Daily Express "it is the pain, the suffering and the confusion that dominates this impressive work – the awful reality of warfare summed up by Private Frank Cocker, who wrote from the front in 1915, following the loss of his brother: 'My heart is so stunned I don't know whether it is broken or not.'"

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