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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Ronan Bennett

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To purchase Zugzwang

Title: Zugzwang
Author: Ronan Bennett
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007
Length: 277 pages
Availability: Zugzwang - US
Zugzwang - UK
Zugzwang - Canada
Zugzwang - Deutschland
  • First published in serial form in The Observer

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Our Assessment:

B : enjoyable period-thriller

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum A 12-1/2008 Scott Bradfield
Daily Telegraph . 11/10/2007 Julia Flynn
Financial Times . 8/9/2007 Carola Groom
The Guardian . 8/9/2007 Steven Poole
The Independent . 3/10/2007 Ian Thomson
Independent on Sunday A 9/9/2007 Tim Martin
The NY Observer . 6/11/2007 Damien Da Costa
The Observer A 16/9/2007 Nick Greenslade
The Spectator B 5/9/2007 Tom Fleming
The Times . 8/9/2007 Kate Saunders
TLS A 24/8/2007 David Malcolm

  Review Consensus:

  Most are very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "It’s a Hitchcockian premise, delivered with all the narrative skill and conviction of Brian Moore or Graham Greene (.....) It’s no accident that the central metaphor of this first-rate book is chess" - Scott Bradfield, Bookforum

  • "What the book lacks, fatally, is any sense of mounting excitement. (...) It is beautifully written, in lucid prose; but the story as a whole does not quite cohere. It is one of those over-elaborate thrillers where the exigencies of following the plot stifle one's enjoyment of the locale and the characters." - Julia Flynn, Daily Telegraph

  • "His tone of dry analysis only heightens our awareness of the ever-encroaching dark. (…) A classy treat." - Carola Groom, Financial Times

  • "Indeed, numerous characters repeatedly spring into rooms holding revolvers at opportune moments, as though in obedience to Raymond Chandler's law of plotting. (…) Bennett handles the lurid, sensationalist action with admirable cross-cutting momentum. A certain awkward formality of syntax in the dialogue manages to imply Russian without insisting upon it, and perhaps the most interesting things in the novel are the dream sequences, abruptly interjected into the narrative without overt flagging, and which manage to be disconcertingly imaginative without becoming silly: here, the novel's psychoanalytic subtheme is illustrated rather than explained." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "(A) mesmerising tale of shifting political allegiances and double dealing. Unusually for a fiction these days, Zugzwang was serialised in a newspaper. It shows signs of hasty plot-sketching, yet remains a taut historical thriller. (...) Though Zugzwang lacks the narrative suspense of Bennett's acclaimed novel The Catastrophist, it is still a gloriously readable thriller. Bennett is now the closest we have to Graham Greene; he looks squarely at the human condition, and attains a rare gravitas." - Ian Thomson, The Independent

  • " (T)he brilliant set-up is deceptively deadpan. (…) As Spethmann's stable world starts to unravel, agents reveal themselves as double agents and activists seem willing to kill allies in order to discredit opponents, he is forced to question what he knows even about family and friends. (…) The book includes diagrams of the Spethmann-Kopelzon game which give it an extra dimension for chess buffs. Yet one needs to know nothing of "mysterious rook moves" or the Maróczy Bind to enjoy this atmospheric, ingenious and perfectly paced novel." - Tim Martin, Independent on Sunday

  • "Zugzwang falls short of the standard Mr. Bennett set with The Catastrophist, but only if you assume he’s aiming beyond entertainment: Even when the new novel founders on the shoals of genre that The Catastrophist so gracefully avoided, it’s still irresistible." - Damien da Costa, The New York Observer

  • "It is tempting to place Zugzwang in the same company as CJ Sansom's Winter in Madrid and Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. What sets Zugzwang above those two works, however, is its complexity. This is not simply true of the plot, where one could argue that Bennett sometimes overdoes the twists and turns -- the flipside, one suspects, of the pressure to deliver the literary equivalent of the soap opera cliff-hanger each week -- but also the way he uses psychology; identity and chess not simply to drive the narrative on, but to give it depth and dimension." - Nick Greenslade, The Observer

  • "Zugzwang was serialised in the Observer in weekly instalments, so it’s no surprise that the plot is steadily compelling, even if several key twists are predictable. Bennett is at his best, though, when examining the terrible ambivalence of his characters’ political and personal loyalties. (…) Unfortunately Bennett’s prose lacks inspiration, and the chess metaphor carries a gentle air of cliché (…..) Bennett’s evocation of his turbulent setting is memorable, but as a thriller Zugzwang is not surprising or fiendish enough to satisfy." - Tom Fleming, The Spectator

  • "This classy, literate thriller is about chess, psychoanalysis, Russian skulduggery, history, mystery, romance -- and more. (…) This first appeared as a newspaper serial, which may account for its pace." - Kate Saunders, The Times

  • "(A)lways about to tip over into William Le Queux melodrama, but with substance behind the props of the shocker, a thriller with a complex plot and serious subtexts. (…) The historical elements in the novel and its detective plot have contemporary resonances; the setting is a pretext for a political and moral discussion. It asks what we should do in times of tyranny and injustice. (…) Zugzwang is an entertaining and serious work of fiction." - David Malcolm, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As if merely giving a book the title Zugzwang didn't make it clear enough, the book begins with an explanation of the term, which states quite dramatically:

In chess it is used to describe a position in which a player is reduced to a state of utter helplessness. He is obliged to move, but every move only makes his position even worse.
       Does that leave many doubts what is going to happen to narrator Dr.Otto Spethmann ?
       Yes, this is a book full of chess-games -- including several actual ones. Spethmann is in the middle of an extended game with a friend, exchanging moves when they get around to it, and a major tournament is being held here in St.Petersburg, with all the world's top players -- as well as the obsessed but troubled prodigy Avrom Chilowicz Rozental, who is referred to the psychoanalyst Spethmann.
       Other, larger-scale games are also being played: it is 1914 and Russia is in some turmoil, with the police and the secret police seeing plots everywhere. Spethmann gets drawn into an investigation when his carte de visite is found on the body of a murdered man -- a suspicious character, but someone Spethmann claims never to have met. In being asked to help steady and ready Rozental for the tournament, Spethmann is unwittingly drawn into another (but, of course, related) matter.
       In short, fast chapters (the book was originally published in serial form in The Observer), Bennett keeps things moving: as in a good chess game still up for grabs, positions keep shifting, the advantage seeming to be first on one side, then suddenly on another, new dangers arising from reconfigured positions, unexpected changes coming. The Endspiel is more tumultuous than one would see on a chessboard, but for the most part Bennett keeps his complicated game going fairly well. Bennett plays a bit much with all the secrecy -- from Spethmann's daughter concealing who she was sleeping from him to him lying to her about the woman he gets involved with -- and allegiances, with moles and traitors in every organisation, but at least one can't complain about a lack of action or surprises.
       With people -- including Spethmann, his daughter, and Rozental -- constantly being used as pawns, and a zugzwang at almost every turn the twists can get to be a bit much; perhaps dosed out over weeks all that was easier to take. Spethmann finds it hard to tell who the good guys are -- if there are any at all -- but the rough idea of what the big plan around which the novel revolves isn't difficult to figure out, with Bennett offering fat clues that Spethmann manages to avoid putting together for longer than seems reasonable. Not that it does him that much good when he does figure it out .....
       The fast pace of the story in its rapid-fire succession of chapters also gives a feel of much being simplified and made (too) obvious. There are echoes of contemporary issues, from terrorism to police power, but they feel a bit forced, as if Bennett was trying in this way to lend (or rather: force) weight to the story. It also feels, at times, like absolutely everything is spelled out, with even the cleverer ideas too blatantly pitched to the reader, as when the psychoanalyst is questioned by yet another very powerful man:
     'You want everything brought to the surface, is that it, Spethmann ?'
     'More or less,' I said.
     'Then it's a very foolish business you're in,' he snorted. 'Very foolish. In my experience, life runs more smoothly with secrets left undisturbed.
       Bennett offers more twists and turns than fit comfortably in a novel of this size, but at least it keeps things hopping, and it does make for an enjoyable light and very fast read. Zugzwang is a thriller that is only modestly successful in its ambitions -- using the trappings of history, chess, and psychoanalysis, but not as much more than plot-points -- , but it's clever enough, and written well enough to entertain.

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Zugzwang: Reviews: Ronan Bennett: Other books by Ronan Bennett under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       (Northern) Irish author Ronan Bennett was born in 1956. Incarcerated for political activities in his youth he went on to study History at King's College. He has written several screenplays and novels and a prize-winning memoir. He currently lives in London.

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