Hazel McHaffie


I’ve shared amusing reviews with you before, but today I want to capture one which appeared in The Times on January 22 that’s so excoriating I had to read it twice to believe it. The book is A Previous Life by American writer Edmund White (which I’ve never read, by the way, so can have no personal opinion on it). If you go to the publisher’s blurb about it, it’s ‘a daring, category-confounding and ruthlessly funny novel … exploring polyamory and bisexuality, ageing and love’, but The Times reviewer, John Phipps, is perplexed as to how ‘this cliche-ridden mess’ ever reached publication. I can see why his verdict did though!

He begins with ‘Nothing good follows this sentence.’ Well, that grabs the attention at least!

Though he concedes that Edmund White’s previous books ‘hold the status of modern classics’, he considers A Previous Life to be ‘… one of those outright catastrophes you can hardly believe made it off the editor’s desk. At once artless and affected, it rambles with mind-boggling carelessness between metafictional conceits and contradictory time-schemes before petering out altogether.’

Apparently paragraphs are ‘aimlessly picaresque’, facts are ‘ham-fistedly contrived’ and include ‘insulting detail’. The dialogue is ‘bad’, the writing ‘joyless’, the time frame ‘implausible’, the text ‘riddled with grammatical errors’. The storyline is littered with ‘absurdities’, ‘blunt inconsistencies’, fluctuating tenses. The author ‘seems to have lost all relish for language’.

Which is certainly not true of this reviewer, whose writing certainly captured my attention. He concludes with a flourish: ‘A Previous Life is a mess, and it badly needed an editor, but what it needed most of all was a writer.’ Ouch!

Perhaps I ought to stick with reporting things like the increase in people selling their organs in the harsh conditions in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over.

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