Book reviews roundup: Beryl Bainbridge; All We Shall Know; The Wonder

What the critics thought of Beryl Bainbridge: Love by All Sorts of Means by Brendan King; Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know and The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Brendan King’s biography, Beryl Bainbridge: Love by All Sorts of Means, is all about his former employer. Bainbridge was a popular fixture in literary circles, and several reviewers had met and were fond of her. In the London Evening Standard, Valerie Grove recalled: “Everyone who knew her loved Beryl, party-goer and befriender of misfits. But Brendan King, her amanuensis for 23 years, got closer than most, and he has written a first rate biography.” In the Financial Times, Suzi Feay remembered that Bainbridge was “wickedly amusing” at dinner parties in the noughties, but found too much detail in King’s book about Bainbridge’s complicated love life and not enough about her “stiletto-sharp” fiction. “To be fair to King, Bainbridge herself closely equated love, sex and writing … Yet it’s hard not to feel that the messy detail detracts from her artistry rather than embellishes it.” A similar complaint came from Ben Lawrence in the Daily Telegraph: “Had King allowed room for Bainbridge’s essential niceness, as well as examining her literary talent with greater rigour, his biography might not have grabbed so many headlines, but you can’t help thinking that it would have been closer to the truth.”

It was mostly left to male reviewers of Donal Ryan’s All We Shall Know to speculate that its two female characters seem to be convincing. Several of them admired the novel’s opening lines: “Martin Toppy is the son of a famous traveller and the father of my unborn child. He’s 17. I’m 33. I was his teacher.” “As set-up scenarios go, this could hardly be bettered,” wrote Bert Wright in the Sunday Times, who admired Ryan’s “mastery of formal architecture, of voice, character, and tone”. The Daily Mail’s John Harding predicted prizes for this “convincing portrayal of life lived at the edgy margins”, though the Observer’s Kevin Curran thought it “a missed opportunity for an underrepresented community [Travellers] to be portrayed in such a negative, cliched way”. However, Roy Foster in the Irish Times was impressed, calling the novel “short, brilliantly colloquial, lyrical, sometimes brutal”.

It was women in the main who reviewed Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, which was inspired by stories of 19th-century fasting girls in rural Ireland, in this case 11-year-old Anna. Inevitably, it was compared to her most famous novel. “Donoghue’s great skill is in trapping the reader ... in that sordid little cottage,” wrote Sarah Perry in the Financial Times. “The minutely described interior, and its claustrophobic effect, recall Room ... there is again that sensation of being trapped within the pages, alongside the suffering child.” “Obsession and bigotry are powerful forces,” wrote Elizabeth Buchan in the Daily Mail, “and [Donoghue] is ruthless in her exposé of religious delusion, family lies and abuse. The depiction of a child in extremis is almost unbearable, but this shocking and gripping story is beautifully written.” The Sunday Times’s Lucy Atkins was frustrated by other characters’ failure to question Anna, but found the prose “stirring and tender, her period setting alive”. In the New York Times, Stephen King, obviously a fan, called The Wonder “an old-school page turner” and “impossible to put down”, and Donoghue’s prose “as sturdy and serviceable as a good pair of brogans, but never nondescript. There are occasional flashes of lyricism ... but Donoghue’s main purpose here is story, story, story, and God bless her for it.”

The GuardianTramp

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