The hell of the antebellum South: Let Us Descend, by Jesmyn Ward, reviewed

Jesmyn Ward, America’s only female two-time National Book Award winner, has had more than her share of hellish experiences to fuel her literary life. Her Mississippi-based family endured Hurricane Katrina. Salvage the Bones (2011), set during the catastrophe, was Ward’s response. Her memoir, Men We Reaped (2013), tackled her grief at losing five men close to her, including her brother, who was killed, aged 19, by a drunk driver. In January 2020, Ward’s husband died of acute respiratory distress syndrome. Ward recreates the hell of the antebellum South for the ‘stolen’ people forced into chattel slavery Hell is very much the context for her fourth novel, Let Us Descend. In

Should we judge a work by the character of its creator?

‘Most of my heroes are monsters, unfortunately,’ Joni Mitchell once said, ‘and they are men.’ The singer-songwriter was able to detach the maker from the made. Should we do the same? Is it ethical? Even possible? These are the questions Claire Dederer deftly considers in Monsters, which puzzles through the problem of what we ought to do about great art by bad men. Ideally, nothing. Early on in her quest, Dederer longs for someone to invent an online calculator: The user would enter the name of an artist, whereupon the calculator would assess the heinousness of the crime versus the greatness of the art and spit out a verdict: you

Why should advocating sexual restraint be ridiculed?

Louise Perry is on a mission: ‘It wasn’t enough just to point out the problems with our new sexual culture,’ she declares at the start of her punchy first book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. So she offers advice as well to the young women she believes have been ‘utterly failed by liberal feminism’. That’s because contemporary sexual mores have exposed them to risks, the most serious of which are linked to some men’s propensity for violence. Women, Perry argues, have in recent decades been conditioned to repress their desire for attachment. They have learned instead to behave in ways more typical of men, with their greater (on average)

The playwright seems curiously detached about rape: The Breach, at Hampstead Theatre, reviewed

Hampstead’s latest play is a knotty rape drama by Naomi Wallace set in Kentucky. Four teenagers with weird names meet in a hired basement. Hoke and Frayne are boys. Jude is a girl whose younger brother, Acton, gets bullied at school. Their chat is aggressive, cynical and funny. Jude boasts that she’s already lost her virginity but she’s proud to have slept with just two men: ‘You’ve got to do six or seven to qualify for slut.’ Hoke claims to have groped his 34-year-old aunt when she was drunk, ‘but she never knew it happened so in a way it didn’t’. Great opening dialogue. Wallace’s attitude to sexual assault is

Criminalising ‘cyberflashing’ is a waste of time

It’s a fact of life that at any given time, a woman’s social media messages will be filled with three things. Young Ponzi schemers asking if you want to earn £500-a-month from the comfort of your own sofa; an unknown jewellery brand with 15 followers begging you to be their new ‘brand ambassador’; and blurry photos of a man’s penis. The men who send these pictures are weirdos, obviously. But if the government gets its way, soon they’ll also be criminals. The Online Safety Bill, going through parliament today, makes so-called ‘cyberflashing’ a criminal offence. According to the government, the new law will mean that: ‘Anyone who sends a photo or film of a person’s genitals, for the

The frisky side of a classical master: National Gallery’s Poussin and the Dance reviewed

In the winter of 1861, visitors to the Louvre might have seen a young artist painstakingly copying one of the museum’s 39 paintings by Poussin. The subject was ‘The Abduction of the Sabine Women’ and the artist was the 27-year-old Edgar Degas, then at work on his own classical battle of the sexes, ‘Young Spartans’. Although lumped with the impressionists, Degas was a classicist at heart. ‘The masters must be copied over and over again,’ he believed, ‘and it is only after proving yourself a good copyist that you should reasonably be permitted to draw a radish from nature.’ A dedicated copyist himself, Poussin would have approved. The paintings in

Hang in there for the gripping final half an hour: The Last Duel reviewed

Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel is set in the 14th century and is a tale of rivalry and rape told from three points of view, when two would probably have been sufficient. The best is saved to last, perhaps unforgivably. It’s the woman’s story, starring Jodie Comer who is sensational, so do hang on in there for that. However, I can’t guarantee that you won’t have severe battle-scene fatigue by then. The last duel itself is so extended it puts you in mind of Monty Python and the Holy Grail Based on true events and, loosely, on the book by Eric Jager, it stars Adam Driver (trying hard not to

Gripping slice of old-fashioned entertainment: Old Vic’s Camp Siegfried reviewed

Boy meets girl. Girl gets pregnant. Then the entire world collapses. That’s the story of Camp Siegfried, which is set in the late 1930s at a holiday park in Long Island where German-Americans come to enjoy the outdoor life and to celebrate their ancestral culture. The boy is a strapping 17-year-old who chats up an awkward geeky girl with little sexual experience. Or so it seems. The boy is keen on Germany’s dynamic new chancellor but the girl finds Hitler too ‘excitable’. But when she’s invited to give a speech to the entire camp, she becomes an overnight convert and extolls the Nazi virtues of unity and patriotism. And she’s

Clever, funny and stomach-knotting: Promising Young Woman reviewed

Promising Young Woman is a rape-revenge-thriller that has already proved divisive but is a wonderfully clever, darkly funny, stomach-knotting — my stomach may never unknot — exploration of what #notallmen seem to get: it isn’t OK to have sex with a woman who has had a few too many and isn’t in a position to give consent. Unless, of course, she is also out late at night and wearing a short skirt in which case: asking for it. We all know that. This is written and directed by the extraordinary polymath that is Emerald Fennell, who was head writer for the second series of Killing Eve, has collaborated with Andrew

Imran Khan’s cowardly response to Pakistan’s rape crisis

Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan has once again blamed women for an appalling rise in rape cases. Khan used a televised question and answer session this week to say that sexual violence was a result of ‘increasing obscenity’. Women in Pakistan should remove ‘temptation’ because ‘not everyone has willpower’, he added, urging females to cover up to help reduce the sexual violence which has plagued our country. Khan pointed the finger of blame at Bollywood and Hollywood, for spreading ‘vulgarity’. He also repeated the growing divorce tally of the UK as evidence of the ‘ethical plunge’ of the West, which he said is messing up the moral compass of the Muslim world and Pakistan. ‘World history tells when

Has the school co-educational ‘experiment’ failed?

Reading these reports of what has been happening in some co-educational public schools, it’s clear that the trend began way back at the end of the 1960s. Back then, I was a guinea pig – and both I and the system have a lot to answer for. John Dancy, the headmaster of Marlborough College, known as a ‘progressive headmaster’, thought it was wrong that his daughter could not benefit from the education enjoyed by the boys in his public school – so he proposed as an experiment that his daughter and daughters of other masters should be allowed to join the school in the sixth form. I joined the second year,

Don’t blame private schools for failing to tackle ‘rape culture’

The allegations levelled against some of Britain’s top private schools have been deeply troubling. Dulwich College turns boys into sexual abusers, one former pupil has claimed. A ‘dossier of rape culture’ has been compiled by ex students at Westminster School; Latymer Upper School has reported sex abuse allegations to the police. These are just a handful of examples: Everyone’s Invited – an online campaign which invites young people to post anonymous testimonies of sexual assault and harassment – has over 4100 testimonies from girls as young as nine. For teachers like me who have taught sex education to 14 and 15 year old boys, these allegations are shocking but perhaps not surprising.

The sufferings of Okinawa continue today unheard

Okinawa is having a moment. Recently a Telegraph travel destination, to many in the west it’s still unfamiliar except as a location of the Pacific theatre. To Elizabeth Miki Brina, the author of Speak, Okinawa, it was also unfamiliar until she was 34 — though her own mother is Okinawan, and she had spent time there as a child. Not until the break up of a relationship which played out the toxicities of her own family relations did she attempt to unravel her mother’s heritage: Okinawa’s brutal history, not Japanese, yet owned by, and at the mercy, of Japan; its persecution by America; its current state of suffering and her

Imran Khan’s rape crackdown won’t make Pakistan safer for women

Rapists in Pakistan will soon face a stark choice. Under a law backed by the country’s prime minister, Imran Khan, those convicted of rape can either be chemically castrated, face life imprisonment or even a death sentence. But while the new law sounds radical, it’s unlikely it will be enough to curb the wave of sex attacks against women in Pakistan. The tough measures have been painted as something of a compromise by Khan, who has said those found guilty of sex attacks should be hanged in public. Dismissing this as an option, Khan said introducing such a punishment would ‘not be internationally acceptable’. ‘The trade status given to us by the European Union

‘The most powerful and disturbing book that I have ever read’

I had assumed, after 40 years of researching and writing about war in the 20th century, that I was prepared for just about any horror. But Christina Lamb’s research, into the mass rape of women and young girls in more recent wars and ethnic cleansing shook me to the core. This is the most powerful and disturbing book that I have ever read, and it raises important questions. Lamb takes us from one zone of racial and religious aggression to another. The attackers have different motives and each persecuted minority is culturally unique, yet the pain and suffering of their victims are terrifyingly similar. She meets the Yazidi women, seized

Alfred Dreyfus is being erased all over again

In London to promote a book, I received an invitation to a secret screening of An Officer and a Spy, Roman Polanski’s new film about the Dreyfus affair. I boarded public transportation to a clandestine destination, somewhere in England, to view what recalled for me the samizdat literature once produced in Communist eastern Europe. I looked over my shoulder several times to see if anyone was watching me; if the possibility of exposure wasn’t real, my anxiety certainly was. My emotional reflexes still echo the trip I took to Prague in 1983 to meet dissident writers during which I was followed. But why all the cloak-and-dagger dramatics now? Why can’t

It’s not wrong to ask rape complainants to give their phones to police

Jeremy Corbyn, Shami Chakrabarti and Harriet Harman all have difficulties with the idea of complainants in rape cases being asked to hand over their mobile phones as part of a police investigation. Corbyn has described it as a ‘disturbing move’. It is nothing of the sort. No change in the law has taken place. Instead, rightly stung by a series of recent cases in which evidence from mobile phones suggesting innocence was withheld from the defence until the last minute, the National Police Chiefs Council and the Crown Prosecution Service have agreed on a standard form to give to complainants when investigating sexual offences. It deals with those cases –

Blurred lines | 4 April 2019

It is late, on a wet Tuesday evening in November, and I am driving home, listening to endless talk of Brexit on the radio. The phone rings in the car and cuts off the news. It’s an unknown mobile number; I press the answer button on the steering wheel. A moment’s hesitation and a woman’s voice comes over the speakers; middle-aged, well-spoken. She’s almost in tears and struggles to get her words out. ‘You don’t know me, and I’m so sorry to ring you this late. I got your number from my lawyer friend Stuart, and he told me you are the person I need to call. It’s about my

Let’s hear it for the girls

Whether by accident or design, Zoë Ball took over the coveted early-morning slot on Radio 2 this week just as Radio 4 launched another of its Riot Girls series, celebrating ‘extraordinary’ women writers, those who have overturned convention, risen up against the status quo, proved themselves to be just as capable as their male oppressors (if not more so). Ball launched herself on to the airwaves on Monday morning at a pace it was hard to keep up with when it was still dark outside and the house had not yet warmed up. Her first track, that key statement of how she intends to reshape the breakfast show, give it

Box of delights | 31 May 2018

Two films this week, one that has stood the test of time, dazzlingly — it still feels as fresh as a daisy, almost 90 years on — and another that’s so tiresome it felt almost 90 years long. First, Pandora’s Box, directed by G.W. Pabst in 1929, starring Louise Brooks and her iconic hair-do. It is always described as ‘a masterpiece of silent cinema’, which, let’s admit it, can strike fear into the heart of the average cinemagoer. It’ll be primitive, vaudevillian, barely watchable. There will be exaggerated hand-flapping and over-the-top faces. There will be a woman tied to the railway tracks and a moustached villain or, if it’s a