Books of the Week: Friends and Enemies, Himalaya, The Silence
New releases by Barbara Amiel, Ed Douglas and Don DeLillo
This week’s must-reads include Barbara Amiel’s “gob-smackingly honest” and “hilariously bitchy” memoir; a “hugely ambitious” and wide-ranging study of the Himalayas by writer and climber Ed Douglas; and an “uncanny” novel by Don DeLillo which imagines a mass electrical wipeout set in 2022.
Book of the week Friends and Enemies by Barbara Amiel
Barbara Amiel, the wife of the disgraced former newspaper magnate Conrad Black, is “ruthless, cruel and thrillingly unself-aware”, said Anna van Praagh in the London Evening Standard. Yet having read her “gob-smackingly honest” memoir, I’ve got to admit I can’t help liking her. It centres, of course, on the couple’s spectacular fall from grace in the early 2000s, when Black, who then owned The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, was revealed to have been “cooking the books”. From leading lives of extraordinary opulence, the pair became social pariahs – and Black ended up spending three years in prison. But this “sorry histoire” isn’t the sole focus of Amiel’s memoir. She also recounts her “terrible” childhood, first in north London and then in Canada, and describes her adult life before meeting Black (there was a successful career in journalism, and three prior husbands). Amiel, now nearly 80, has “led one helluva life”. And she describes it superbly in this “brilliant book”.
“What a divinely bonkers book this is,” said Camilla Long in The Sunday Times – “a crazed page-turner as written from the inside by Marie Antoinette”. It is “hilariously bitchy and bitter”. Not content with simply describing her many enemies, Amiel lists them all – by continent – at the back: “the many evil lawyers, industrialists, socialites and supposedly bent judges, who either dropped the couple or queued up to destroy them”. Although candid about her excesses, she seems bewildered at all the fuss. She admits spending tens of thousands on bedsheets, but trills: “I never asked the prices – I mean, how much can sheets be?” On and on she ploughs, through the dramas and the lovers – among them, the charismatic publisher Lord Weidenfeld, to whom she recalls giving “oral pleasure” as a means to “avoid actual body-to-body contact”. Like her husband, Amiel writes in “dense, pompous sentences”, and at 608 pages, this book sometimes “feels like thrashing your way through a thick, oversexed jungle”. But there’s “extraordinary” fun to be had along the way.
I can’t say I found that, said Richard Davenport-Hines in the TLS. Amiel’s account of her “horrendous” childhood is fascinating: her father committed suicide; other family members were “terminally selfish”. The rest is “dominated by her full-throttle resentment”. The result is “verbose, distracted and irritating”.
Constable 608pp £25; The Week bookshop £19.99
Himalaya by Ed Douglas
Ed Douglas is a writer and climber who has explored most of the Himalayas, said Mick Brown in The Daily Telegraph. This experience animates his “hugely ambitious” new book, a study of the region that takes in history, mountaineering, religion and culture – and which cuts through many enduring myths. Central to Douglas’s survey is Tibet, a territory whose remoteness and beauty has long led it to be idealised as a “sort of Shangri-La”. Douglas shows that its history is less “magical” than often supposed – before China invaded in 1950, it was an oppressive theocracy more than an Eden devoted to spiritual enlightenment.
The sections on mountaineering history are especially strong, said Hugh Thomson in The Times. Douglas conveys the wonder of the first Victorian explorers in the region who, having been used to the “small, concentrated” Alps, felt as if they’d “left a solar system and found a galaxy”. He is good, too, on the no-nonsense British climbers of more recent times who regarded the Himalayas as mere “rocks to be conquered”. This is a wide-ranging account, and the level of detail can seem overwhelming – but overall, Himalaya is a “magisterial” study of the “greatest mountains on Earth”.
Bodley Head 592pp £25; The Week bookshop £19.99
Novel of the week The Silence by Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo’s slim new novel begins inside a passenger jet in 2022, said Claire Allfree in the London Evening Standard. New Yorkers Jim and Tessa are returning from a holiday in Paris, when suddenly the screen in front of Jim goes blank. The scene shifts to the apartment of their friends Max and Diana, who are expecting to watch the Super Bowl. “The giant TV screen turns grey and silent”, and Diana can’t get her phone to work. A “mass electrical wipeout”, it emerges, has suspended communication – bringing normal life to a halt. Having miraculously survived their emergency landing, Jim and Tessa make their way on foot to Max and Diana’s apartment, where they sit around staring at the blank screen and talking “like characters in a dystopian Chekhov play”. Although The Silence is “minor DeLillo”, it’s still an “uncanny” work from a writer who has long “given voice to America’s deepest fears about the future”.
On the contrary, DeLillo’s feted abilities as a seer seem to have deserted him here, said Jon Day in the FT. His vision feels clichéd and “indistinct”, and there’s a sense of “belatedness” to it. His characters talk about technology in an oddly old-fashioned way: “Activate your tablet,” Tessa commands Jim. It’s missing the point to look for realism in DeLillo, said Anne Enright in The Guardian. His characters don’t talk like normal people, but they are “compelling and human” all the same: their voices have a “ritualised urgency”. The Silence feels prescient. “As we all learned during lockdown, apocalypse is not always interesting”: large parts of it involve sitting around doing nothing. DeLillo has got it right again.
Picador 128pp £14.99; The Week bookshop £11.99
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