In Review

Books of the Week: A Promised Land, Oh Happy Day, Olga

New releases from Barack Obama, Carmen Callil and Bernhard Schlink

Barack Obama delivers “frank confessions of his uncertainties and doubts” in an account of his rise to power and the beginning of his presidency. Australian-born Carmen Callil challenges Britain’s “snotty imperial delusions” in a sweeping and heartfelt family memoir. And Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader, creates another “study of memory” and of Germany’s tortured history.

Book of the week A Promised Land by Barack Obama 

On the cover of this book there’s a “beaming portrait” of America’s 44th president, looking “serenely confident”, said Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times. It stands at odds with the 700 pages inside. Although Barack Obama begins this memoir on a note of brisk certainty, as he describes his spectacular political rise, it settles, after 200 pages, into a measured account of the first two-and-a-half years of his presidency. The former president displays little interest in “reputation-burnishing and legacy-shaping”. Instead, he offers “frank confessions of his uncertainties and doubts”. The man whose slogan was once “the audacity of hope” tells a story “less about unbridled possibility, and more about the forces that inhibit it”.

Obama emerges from these pages as a “compulsive introvert”, said Tony Allen-Mills in The Sunday Times – someone who subjects “every decision to endless analysis from every angle”. Even the one undisputed triumph of his presidency – the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, with which this volume concludes – “provokes anguished hand-wringing” as he wonders why it was impossible to bring a similar “unity of effort” to bear on “educating our children or housing the homeless”. Such “worthiness” eventually becomes “overwhelming”. I disagree, said Sam Leith in The Spectator: it’s precisely the book’s focus on the minutiae of decision-making that makes it so fascinating. Although Obama is known for his “hopey changey” rhetoric, he emerges here as a “steely political operator”: less an idealist, more a “cool, conscientious” pragmatist. As such, his book is a “superbly engaging study in realpolitik”. 

But it’s so much else besides, said Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, also in The New York Times. For one thing, Obama’s writing is gorgeous. He meets a nun whose face is as “grooved as a peach pit”; he questions whether his is a “blind ambition wrapped in the gauzy language of service”. And he writes beautifully about his family. It’s hardly surprising that A Promised Land is “impressive as a work of political literature”, said Gary Younge in The Guardian: we’ve always known that Obama can “turn a phrase”. For all that, at 700 pages, “the book is too long”, particularly when there are so many omissions. Obama devotes just a couple of sentences to his use of drone strikes; “the prosecution of twice as many whistle-blowers as all his predecessors combined is not mentioned”. Perhaps he will expand upon such matters in Volume Two – but I wouldn’t hold out too much hope.

Viking 768pp £35; The Week Bookshop £27.99 (incl. p&p)

Oh Happy Day by Carmen Callil 

Carmen Callil, the Australian-born publisher who founded Virago, has spent her life challenging Britain’s “snotty imperial delusions”, said Peter Conrad in The Observer. “Her new book completes that endeavour.” A sweeping and heartfelt family memoir, it tells the stories of several of her ancestors who started new lives in Australia in the 19th century. Many of these forebears came from the Midlands, where they laboured in the textile industry. Callil vividly reconstructs their appallingly grim lives: the “lice-infested and incestuously congested beds” they slept on; the hard work on “rickety looms” in cramped cottages. They emigrated, she shows, for various reasons. One character, a canal navvy, was deported for stealing a small quantity of hemp; he later became a successful gold miner. Two other relatives set sail to become domestic servants. Life in Australia was rarely straightforward, but it offered opportunities that didn’t exist back home. This accounts for Callil’s title: escaping England was a “happy day”. 

This book shines a “merciless” light on many murky aspects of life in the 1800s, said Ysenda Maxtone Graham in The Times: the “sadistic floggings” meted out to convicts; the plundering of Australia’s indigenous lands by British invaders. The book’s wider goal is to “make us furious about the British empire” – and sometimes Callil pushes this agenda too far, along with heavy-handed suggestions of parallels with today. Generally, though, she’s such a “forceful writer” that we willingly follow her wherever she takes us – whether that’s to a “stinking” corner of rural Leicestershire, or to the then-undeveloped bush-land north of Sydney, with its wondrous “birdsong and plumage”. Meticulously researched and compellingly written, Oh Happy Day is an “impressive work”.

Jonathan Cape 368pp £18.99; The Week Bookshop £14.99

Novel of the week  Olga by Bernhard Schlink (trans. Charlotte Collins) 

The German novelist Bernhard Schlink is best known for his 1995 bestseller The Reader, about an illiterate former concentration camp guard, said Arjun Neil Alim in the London Evening Standard. His new novel, Olga, is another “study of memory” and of Germany’s tortured history. The protagonist, Olga, is an orphan born in Bismarck’s Prussia who grows up in Pomerania and falls in love with an aristocratic neighbour, Hubert. Through this pair, Schlink examines different sides of the German character: idealism, exploration and conquest in Hubert; and stubborn individualism in Olga. Fast-paced and ambitious, this is a work that makes you “appreciate the power of history”. 

Its time span is epic, said Lucy Popescu in The Observer: Schlink follows his characters through two World Wars before ending his narrative in the 1950s. We guess there will be “major reveals” at the end – but frustratingly, they aren’t all that surprising, because Schlink has already given strong hints as to what they will be. Olga is “too predictable to truly satisfy”.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 288pp £16.99; The Week Bookshop £13.99

The Week Bookshop 

To order these titles or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

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