We’ll start on a high note. This is a Booklist review of my friend Sabina Murray’s new novel, Forgery. Booklist, I should point out, is famously hard to impress.
(Starred Review) Forgery.
Murray, Sabina (author).
June 2007. 272p. Grove, hardcover, $24 (0-8021-1844-5).
REVIEW. First published June 1, 2007 (Booklist).
Murray’s latest novel tells the story of Rupert Briggs, a recently divorced man who, in the summer of 1963, heads off to Greece to find new items for his uncle’s art collection. But, like quite a few things in this beautifully written book, the title is deceiving; although it does refer to dubious works of art, it also (and primarily) refers to Rupert himself, a man who isn’t quite what he appears to be. There’s also friendly Steve Kelly, who may not be merely the journalist he claims to be. In fact, the story itself is something of a forgery, a psychological thriller posing as a gentle travelogue, a fairly dark voyage of self-discovery posing as a relatively light story of comic misadventure. Rupert is an intricately designed, intriguingly presented character: we know we like him, but we also know there are plenty of things about himself he isn’t telling us (including, perhaps, the truth about the death of his young son). Murray does a lovely job of transporting us to mid-1960s Greece, a country teetering on the edge of political upheaval; unlike the people, this place, which no longer exists, feels entirely genuine. Forgery is a deeply complex, emotionally and intellectually rewarding novel about the lengths people can go to to make themselves into the people they wish they were.
— David Pitt
Now, there was once an unwritten rule of a kind, where as a writer, you’d avoid giving a negative review because you wouldn’t want to get one, and what review could be worse than no review?
Bee Wilson, author of The Hive, just out in the US from St. Martin’s, doesn’t think so. She has taken the trouble to craft a vicious hatchet job in today’s New York Times Book Review for my friend Sabina Murray’s newest novel, Forgery. And it would be one thing if the review were a considered evaluation of Sabina’s efforts, by a peer, but instead it’s glib and in some cases clearly patched together out of Google searches about Sabina. It looks like someone out of their depth in the reviewing of fiction, inventing concerns for the review that no author of fiction would or should take seriously.
It was once the case that you could expect the killing review for a book, should it come, to be written by this or that historian or expert, called on to declare a novel rubbish because it had failed to include this or that single historical fact. Now you can expect it to come from the person who knows nothing of the subject whatsoever—someone, in this age, who has only opinions, no matter if they’re uninformed. Wilson begins by invoking some masterpieces of fiction set ‘in the recent past’: War and Peace. Middlemarch (it’s my hope that a review of her book soon begins with a comparison to Origin of Species, as my friend Anston suggested, or Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon). Wilson, who has no background in art forgery, the writing of fiction, or contemporary Greece, then attempts to pass herself off as an expert on Greece in the 60s, first attacking Sabina for not including the murder of Gregoris Lambrakis, a politically important murder that was the subject of the film “Z”, and then in other ways, claiming that the characters are anachronistic to the place, in their language and behavior, and even tut-tutting their sex lives as too modern, by innuendo.
But Wilson didn’t live there then—she doesn’t know from Greece in the 60s, whether it comes to their sexual mores, language, or what the tourists would have been thinking about local politics, and her suppositions are imaginary ones—the stance of a competing fiction, unwritten, inside Wilson’s mind. And against which anyone but her would fail. Meanwhile Sabina, who personally knows people who did live there then and who summers there herself, every year, is excoriated. What’s more than that, though, faulting the lack of the historical event is a bizarre standard to hold a novel to—will all novels set after September 11th now be expected to include September 11th? Internationally? Will they be called rubbish if they don’t? Does every novel set in the year of the Kennedy assasination have to tell us where the character was when Kennedy was assassinated, in order to be credible? She holds up On Chesil Beach by comparison, but I don’t see McEwan’s characters thinking on the politics of 1962, the year previous—say, the entry of Great Britain into the European Common Market—his characters are virgins, which no doubt meets Wilson’s demand for sexual purity—and are very focused on their personal lives. As are Sabina’s. And yet that novel passes muster.
She also refers to Sabina’s narrator as ‘chilly’—another review of this novel called him ‘icy’—and the phrase used to describe A Carnivore’s Inquiry, Sabina’s novel prior to this one, came directly from another review in that paper, by Michiko Kakutani, but appears uncredited in Wilson’s: “A grisly thriller.”
Why a negative review? Well, a negative review takes a moment that is meant to be for the book being reviewed and turns it into one for the reviewer. It’s a hijacking. No doubt today she’s reading it and chuckling to herself as friends call and say, ‘Oh, good one, Bee. Good one. Hilarious.’ She may even be congratulating herself on getting her name out among the American audience she seeks. You know—driving sales. Because Bee Wilson is promoting her new book, The Hive, a ‘who knew?’ book about bees, and with her book just out this July, Ms. Wilson (born Beatrice) was probably a little too busy to finish reading all of Sabina’s novel, which would have answered certain of her review’s criticisms, much less any of Sabina’s other books, in order to work up the thoughtful, mid-career review Sabina deserved. It was asking a lot of a food columnist from Great Britain, whose claim to literary fame thus far is that she wrote a book about the insect for which she is nicknamed.