Mervyn Jones Valentine Cunningham - Essay

Valentine Cunningham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Today the Struggle is the kind of undauntedly capacious, generation-spanning novel to which British writers of our time seldom nerve themselves. So bulky that the book is a bit of an effort to pick up, it is also so engrossing that it's hard to put down. In it the fortunes of a persistently (often surprisingly) related lot of families are followed from mid-Thirties, through mid-Fifties, to the mid-Seventies. The generations are closely scrutinised, swirling and settling about their points of crisis, the epicentral moments of an apocalypse that's always just coming and never quite does: the Spanish Civil War, the Ban-the-Bomb movement, and the present financial lows….

It's bound, of course, occasionally to seem a bit too schemed-for, too shrewdly schematising. The recurring locations (homes and houses, Liverpool Street Station), seasons (Easter, Christmas) and events like picnics all come on naturally enough. A lot, though, does look less excusably pat…. Inevitably, not all the events and characters are equally known to the author nor made equally knowable to us. There are some intriguing hops and yawns, and some blank spaces just tarted over with stereotypes; while items put in just for the record (journalist Sophie beds JFK; Mervyn Jones is mentioned) can seem sorely obtruded.

But these are midget grouses. Many of the people are wonderfully believable in themselves …; they are, what's more, placed most convincingly in their time. The set-pieces keep coming off too: the CP branch meeting, the anti-Fascist demo, the Committee of 100 sit-downs. And above all there's the irrefutably steady slide into Seventies apathy, the ironically bleak future that Thirties communists and Fifties protesters never dreamed of, the unending grey of our economic distress. (p. 227)

Valentine Cunningham, in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 17, 1978.