Sunday Salon: literature from around the world project

blog globe small 1Last year I created a personal challenge to read more literature from parts of the world outside the UK and North America. The World Literature challenge started with countries along the Equator and the Prime Meridian and I made these part of an overall challenge to read books from 50 different countries by the end of 2018.

I changed the course somewhat a few months ago and decided I wanted this to be more of a project and a general direction rather than a challenge with a set target and a deadline. That way it would feel less that I was reading something simply to meet a goal.

I’m so glad I made that switch. It’s been much more rewarding to pick up a book knowing I wanted to read it rather than feeling compelled to read it just because it was the next country on my list. And I can mix up that reading with my other projects on reading more classics and reading the Booker prize winners.

The past few weeks have seen me read novels from Somalia, New Zealand and India. All three were by authors I had never read before. All three have given me insights into cultures and issues outside my own experience. Maybe it’s a cliche to say that they’ve broadened my horizons but it’s nevertheless true.  Nurradin Farah’s The Fractured Rib dealt with the problems of being a woman in Somalia including that of arranged marriages and circumcision; Keri Hulme’s The Bone People introduced me to Maori legends while also highlighting the issue of child abuse and Amitav Ghosh brought the history of Burma to my attention in The Glass Palace.

So far I’ve read books from 13 different countries, six of them from Equatorial countries.  Not all of them have been remarkable or particularly rewarding of course but I did find some authors whose work I now know I want to further explore.

Next on my horizon will be Afghanistan via And the Mountains Echoed, the third novel by the Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini and then possibly Uganda with Moses Isegawa’s first novel, Abyssinian Chronicles. The first is a definite since I’m reviewing it for Shiny New Books magazine. But you never know where my wanderlust will take me after that and I may change my literary travel plans in favour of Latin America or China or Italy or ……….. 

 

Weekend Bookends April 20

Farewell to Nobel giants

This week saw the death of one Nobel literary award winner and the commemoration of another. Neither attracted anything like the media coverage as the death of Sue Townshend, author of the Adrian Mole series.  I’m not decrying Townshend’s popularity or her achievements, just baffled at what kind of news judgement is being exercised among members of the Fifth Estate.

Doris LessingSt Martin-in-the-Fields church in central London was the venue for a celebration on Monday of the life and work of Doris Lessing who died in November 2013 at the age of 93.  One of the speakers, the biographer and critic Hermione Lee remarked on how Lessing had throughout her work asked “ruthless questions about the way we live now”. As a young woman she rejected the brutal, racist colonial system into which she was born becoming a vociferous and life-long campaigner against apartheid and discrimination and having embraced Communism she came to question its teachings and indeed all other other codified political systems.

The event passed almost unmarked by the mainstream media however – only the Daily Telegraph seems to have shown an interest with this personal reflection by Gaby Wood. 

Gabriel Garcia MarquezOn Thursday, the death was announced of a writer considered to be one of the greatest writers to emerge from Latin America, Gabriel García Márquez.  Few other writers did as much to change the course of a region’s literature but that’s what Márquez did with the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967. It marked the beginning of a long association between the genre of magical realism and Latin American authors. Most of the leading publications have run obituaries and tributes in the last few days but one of the most interesting pieces I’ve come across was a 1981 interview with the great man in Paris Review in which he talked about the differences between his work as a journalist and as fiction writer and the many authors and books that influenced him in his younger days. He was almost knocked off his bed when he read the opening line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis he said, not realising until that point that it was permissible to write in that fashion. Check out the Paris Review article if you can.

Should celebs write children’s fiction?

Madonna’s done it. So have Jamie Lee Curtis, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Ferguson (the former Duchess of York); Katie Price; Paul McCartney and Sting.  Some of the ventures by these celebs into the world of children’s fiction have been rather more successful than others. But what makes a singer or actress pick up a pen and begin writing (other than the very obvious reason that they want to keep their name in the public domain and they can trade on their celeb status to earn even more money). More to the point, should they? That’s a question tackled in a debate between Tom Lamont, the Observer newspaper’s commissioning editor and author Robert Muchamore. 

Muchamore is very pragmatic about the whole celeb thing:

…while a celebrity name might sway a few parents into buying a picture book, the kids who read them not only don’t know who the celebrity is, but usually don’t even understand what an author is.

Lamont’s point is along the lines that the celebs think writing a children’s book is easy, an attitude which is disrespectful to the skills of ‘real’ children’s authors and also to the child readers.  I couldn’t agree more — just because we were all children once doesn’t automatically give us the skills to write for them or to understand that what interested us as children will interest young people of today. There’s an art in finding the right  voice and language so that you neither patronise nor confuse, and an art in deciding what would or wouldn’t interest children.  Oh and then there’s the whole complicated issue of what topics are ‘appropriate’ for children.  Melvin Burgess and Jacqueline Wilson have shown that children’s fiction can tackle emotive subjects like adoption, drugs, divorce but they do so with a huge amount of sensitivity honed over many years of experience.

The one point I was surprised not to see discussed was the issue of funding. If publishers pay large advances to politicians and stage/screen stars who want to dabble in the children’s fiction field, doesn’t that mean less funding is available to support full-time writers?

If you want to join the debate, go to the Observer article

Inevitably the announcement that Donna Tartt is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer generated a lot of buzz this week – with many tweeters complaining a) the wrong persoon won b) the wrong Tartt novel one. TheGoldfinchpulitzer.org/awards/2014

 

 

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Review

Reluctant FundamentalistMohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist is one of those books that end in such an ambiguous and unresolved way it’s tempting to start re-reading it immediately to find the clues missed the first time around.

The mystery begins immediately the book opens. It’s dusk in Lahore. An American visitor at a pavement cafe is approached by Changez, a local man who speaks immaculate English and who offers to help the stranger find the perfect cup of tea. Neither of these men is who they seem to be at first glance.

Is Changez just someone extending the hand of friendship to a visitor in his home or is there something more sinister in this encounter? Is the American acting nervous simply because he is unfamiliar territory or is there another reason why he keeps looking around him?  And why is there a bulge in his jacket similar to one you would find if someone wore a gun holster?

Changez it turns out is a Princeton graduate who was once the star employee at a New York firm specialising in the evaluation of ailing companies prior to their takeover. He had flown first class, stayed in premium hotels  and holidayed with some bright young things and fallen in love with the daughter of a wealthy American family.  His initial enthusiasm for the American dream turned into disenchantment however to the point where the attack on the World Trade Center causes him to smile.

… at that moment my thoughts were not with the victims of the attack ——I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.

Aghast at the way America responds with aggression towards Afghanistan, using Pakistan as their military base from which to launch attacks, he throws up his job and returns home to become a university lecturer.

The title and the tense atmosphere that builds as the conversation progresses sets up an idea that Changez has become increasingly politicised since his return but has he gone over to the dark side of fundamentalism? He tells his listener that he has made it his mission “to advocate a disengagement from your country by mine”, building a support group from among his students and orchestrating anti-American protests and demonstrations. Is he, as he claims “simply a university lecturer, nothing more nor less” or is he a radical who while advocating non violence himself turns a blind eye to the activities of his supporters?

Hamid has made his narrator a forceful, persuasive speaker. He is polite, considerate of his guest and finely attuned to the slightest change in his body language and facial expression. But there’s also a sense that he is an unreliable narrator, smoothly glossing over his own involvement in the failed assassination of an aid worker and glibly presenting his ideas as perfectly reasonable. 

If Changez is a radical fundamentalist whose activities have come to the attention of the authorities, is the American merely a passive listener or is he a secret service operative engaged in a mission to eradicate this potential threat? Mohsin Hamid keeps up the suspense right to the end and even then doesn’t provide the answers.  Instead he stops the action just at the point where it seems something violent might happen.  Whether the American or Changez is the target, we never get to find out.  It’s one of the reasons I throughly enjoyed this book — Hamid doesn’t lay all the answers out on a plate for readers, instead he leaves it free for us to design our own interpretation and explanations. 

The Verdict

From the moment I read the opening sentence I had high hopes for this book and it didn’t disappoint.  The structure is straightforward — it’s a dramatic monologue in the style of a framed narrative which Hamid makes compelling because of the strength of his characterisation of the narrator. It’s not a book of action but there is a feeling all the time that something is going to happen, we’re just not sure what.  

End Notes

The Reluctant Fundamentalist was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007.

There are some similarities between Mohsin Hamid and the narrator of his book. Like Changez, Hamid studied at Princeton and worked for a management consultancy company in New York.  His latest novel is How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

Sunday Salon: Plans go Adrift

sundaysalonThis was a week which didn’t quite turn out the way I had planned.

It did start on a high note as the first edition of Shiny New Books plopped into my in box. Many of you will have already seen this but for the uninitiated I should explain that this is a new quarterly on line bookish magazine created by four UK based bloggers (Annabel, Victoria, Simon and Harriet). I was thrilled to be invited to contribute to the first issue with a review of Jim Crace’s Harvest. I knew this would be a good quality magazine because the four people are seasoned reviewers of some 30 years experience between them and know a lot about the literary world. I wasn’t prepared for just how good it would be however – scores of reviews and articles and all high quality. Do take a look and sign up for the newsletter (I warn you now that your reading wish list will likely get longer as a result.)

After that high spot, things went a little downhill.

Firstly, the magazine I’d bought which promised to show me many smart techniques for improving this blog using WordPress, turned out to be a mistake. Not the publishers’ fault, I should have studied it more closely. The tips were good, but the problem is that they seemed to work only if you have the self-hosted version available at WordPress.org not the fully-hosted wordpress.com version which is what I have. So the plug ins which you need to do cool things with images and tagging are not available. Which meant all my plans to get this blog into better shape went out of the window. 

And then, despite promising myself that I would devote time to catching up on all the reviews I have yet to write, how many did I actually do? None. Procrastination was one factor (I do seem to take an inordinate amount of time to actually decide what to write). The other was that I only had the use of an iPad since I was away from home and the WordPress system doesn’t seem to be that compatible with iPad. Text jumps around and if you try and do copy paste, you can’t seem to get the cursor to land exactly where you want to paste the text. I gave up…..

On the plus side though instead of blogging and writing, I could spend the time reading and finishing both the Guernsey Literary & Potato Pie Society (if this hadn’t been a book club read I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it) and Keri Hulme’s The Bone People which was much better than I expected it to be.

Next week I’ll be starting to think what books to take with me on a short holiday to Italy jus after Easter. Ideally I’d like something set in Italy but I don’t seem to have anything on the shelves that fits the bill and I haven’t come up with anything yet that I can go out and buy. Any suggestions/recommendations from you would be welcome – if possible of something set in Verona/Milan or that region…….

Weekend Bookends April 12

This week’s roundup of bookish news is a potpourri of prize announcements and electronic reading related items.

Literary Prizes

Announcements of contenders for this year’s literary awards came thick and fast over the past few days.  Monday saw the 6 short listed titles for the Baileys Prize for women’s fiction announced − it wasn’t really a surprise to find Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ‘s Americanah; Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland all on the list of finalists. Tuesday was the turn of fiction in translation with the shortlist for the International Foreign Fiction Prize which for the first time included work by some Japanese women writers and a book written by the German author Birgit Vanderbeke (The Mussel Feast) more than 20 hears ago but only now available in English. The International Impac Dublin literary award also revealed the 10 shortlisted authors for the 2014 award this week. I wonder if the people at publishers Harvill Secker have already put the champagne on ice in anticipation of success for their Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard who made it onto the lists of both the Impac and the Foreign Fiction prize though with different pieces of work.

There’s one major prize however that we didn’t hear from this week – the Pulitzer Prize. It’s due to be announced on Monday (April 14)  but in case you can’t wait that long take a look at the Huffington Post article which does a review of the authors/titles they believe are the strongest contenders for the four categories this year, Tartt, Adichie Lahiri are amongst them.

E-world buzz 

EBookrealLondon Book Fair this week was used by many publishers and sellers as the platform for announcements of new tools and channels for selling and accessing books. Penguin Random House UK unveiled My Independent Bookshop - a consumer book recommendation website where you’ll be able to set up a virtual bookshop to share your favourite reads. It’s also a platform for discovering new reads and posting reviews. It’s not yet ready for launch so there are few details yet of how this will work.  Clearly the publishing house has seen the growth of personal recommendation as a way of influencing what we buy. Their new channel will have to be pretty special to compete in a space which is already crowded – what will it offer that people can’t already get from Goodreads and Library Thing I wonder?

Yet another article about the effect of on line reading – this one fortunately isn’t the usual fare of the ‘e-readers’ versus ‘real books’ type. The Washington Post  looked at question whether the trend for reading via an e-reader or computer is actually changing how we read rather than simply what we read and how much.  Apparently research has shown that when we access content on line we skim rather than read and slowly digest so we miss key information. I’ve certainly found that’s the case myself − I know that when I need to proof read something for example or to really understand complex info, then I have to use a printed copy. It’s all connected apparently with the way the eye moves on the page and on the screen. We think we read every word in a sentence but in reality we see one word and then without being aware of this, our eyes also take in a few words either side − but not the whole line,  just enough to  get the sense of what were reading − before jumping to the next line. Our brain fills in the gaps so that we can make sense of he whole line. With on screen reading we ‘read’ even fewer words per line so the gaps get wider and its harder to make sense of the whole line.

If you want to see whether your on screen and printed reading habits are different, you can test it by timing yourself by opening a printed book you’ve never read before. Read it for 15 minutes. Count how many words you completed. Then have someone test you on what you remember (e.g. names of characters, places, dates, times). Then repeat this with a different book but this time read it on a computer screen or an e-reader. Was there any difference? I’ll be curious to know your results……

Libraries Stretch their Horizons

Breathe while readingIf you’re down at your local library today and here some strange noises coming from behind the shelves, fear not – it might just be the neighbourhood yoga group in action.  We’ve known for a long time now that libraries are about more than just books – some of them have very extensive music and dvd collections and they’ve long opened their doors to community acivities like local history societies. But some libraries like the multi-million facility opened in Birmingham, UK last year, have taken the open door approach a stage further. As the BBC reported recently now you’re just as likely to hear the clickety-click of knitting needles as the sound of pages turning.

 

Sunday Salon: April snapshot

sundaysalonI enjoy those photography projects where you take a picture of the same location on the same day every month or year. So I thought I’d copy the idea and do a snapshot of what I’m reading etc on the first Sunday of each month.

So  here goes with the first one…..

Reading
I have two books on the go at the moment: Keri Hulmes The Bone People which I’m reading as part of my Booker Prize project and Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  The latter is the next selection for our book club.  I can see why it’s hugely popular and parts of it are enjoyable. I’m learning a lot about the impact of World War 2 on the Guernsey islanders that I didn’t know before but overall the book isn’t grabbing me much.

Watching

I’m playing catch up with the BBC series The Plantagenets. The first program was about the origins of the dynasty and how they grew to be rulers of a huge swathe of land from Scotland, through England and as far as the middle of France. In between laying the foundations of the British justice system and taking off for the Holy Land on crusades,they seem to have spent much of their lives fighting each other. Talk about dysfunctional families! It’s a fascinating series – you can still watch the first three episodes on BBC I Player.

Listening
For years I listened to the radio news programs on my commute to work. But I stopped that when the interviewers became more interested in their own voices than in what their interviewees had to say. So I’ve switched to podcasts and audiobooks instead. After a spate of Peter James crime fiction featuring Superintendent Roy Grace, I’ve now moved onto Christabel Kent’s A Time of Mourning which is set in Florence and just has me wishing I was strolling in those piazzas right now. I’ve also caught up with some of my favorite podcasts like The Readers. 

Learning

Future Learn is running a MOOC course on Shakespeare and his world. I’ve taken about five of these MOOC courses either through Future Learn or Coursera and found the quality is very mixed. This is one of the best I’ve done so far. It’s a collaboration between the University of Warwick and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stra􏰐ord‐Upon‐Avon and looks at the plays from a historicist perspective. We’ve covered his interest in classical stories and in war for example, reading a different play each week. This week’s featured play The Merchant of Venice discussed the theme of money and trade and how Venice could represent the way London was emerging as the centre of a global trading nation.  Next week we move onto the historical plays in the Henry cycle.

 

Weekend Bookends April 5

So many times during the week I come across an interesting article in a newspaper, magazine or on the Web and put it to one side meaning to come back to it ‘when I have more time.’ And then newspaper recycling collection day comes around again, the magazine gets thrown out and that’s the last I’ll see of that piece. Or, when I am in one of my more organised moods, I might remember to cut it out and put on the pile to read. Where it gathers dust and turns yellow. Does that sound familiar to you?

Since I don’t like the idea I’m missing out, I thought I’d start keeping a note of the most interesting items and titbits as I find them. And I thought I’d share them with you on the basis that you may also have missed them.

What piqued my interest this week?

Publishing News

It was April 1 earlier this week in case you hadn’t noticed so I was on the look out for any truly imaginative bookish April Fools jokes. The only thing I came across was something picked up by the Asymptote journal which reported on news from the German publisher PediaPress that they plan to print out all of Wikipedia— bearing in mind this is about four million articles, that doesn’t sounds like a smart thing given all the dire warnings about climate change coming out of the scientist pow wow in Japan this week. So it’s got to be a prank hasn’t it?

For those of you who grew up with Ernest Fowler’s manual on how to write clear and plain English at your side, you’ll be interested to know that a new edition of Plain Words has just been published. It’s 60 years since Fowler’s Complete Plain Words first appeared. It’s gone through a number of revisions since that time – this latest is the work of Fowler’s great-granddaughter Rebecca. The Daily Telegraph marked the occasion with an article looking at the origins of Fowler’s book and asking whether his war against jargon was a lost battle.

Access to Books

Something that completely escaped my attention but came to light this week, was the decision by the UK Government to prohibit prisoners from receiving books as gifts. This apparently is meant to address public perceptions that prisoners have it easy in jail – so prohibitions on gifts of books, wire guitar strings and new underwear are no longer to be tolerated. Prisoners can still get books from the prison library of course, or can buy them using wages from working in the laundry for example, but it’s goodbye to books as birthday or Christmas gifts or even as an occasional treat. The only reason I heard of this was because many authors and actors took to the streets of London to protest. Regardless of the fact people are in prison because they offended society’s rules, I’m appalled to think reading is considered a treat and not a basic human right.

You can add your voice to the debate by signing an on line petition 

 

A bookseller’s tale 

How many avid readers dream of owning their own bookshop? It sounds idyllic doesn’t it? What could be more fun than basing your shop in a quaint rose clad cottage or bay fronted Victorian building? Sarah Henshaw thought she had the perfect idea – convert a barge into a bookshop to travel the waterways of central England. Problem was, she had no experience of running a business of any kind and never got past the second paragraph of a manual on how to run a bookshop. Not surprisingly, the business ran into difficulties and even a letter to Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos asking for help didn’t help. She began swapping books for food, laundry and a bed for the night. Now she’s written a book about her experience (the barge business is still afloat though only on weekends and during holiday periods). The Bookshop That Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw is published by Constable & Robinson in UK. You can read part of her story in this article 

That’s it for this week.

Let me know what you think of this idea

And don’t forget to tell us about snippets of news that attracted your attention this week but we might have also missed.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

A J Fitkry

The Storied Life of A.J Fitkry

It would be hard to picture someone less likely than A.J Fitkry to be the owner of the only bookshop of a small  New England island.

Fitkry does love books. It’s his customers he doesn’t much care for, particularly those who spend all afternoon looking at his magazine collection but buying nothing, and those who know nothing more about the book they want than it was in the New York Review of Books and it had a red cover. Still less does he care for publishers’ reps who turn up at the door of Island Books trying to push their latest catalogues. And he definately doesn’t have a very high opinion of writers, viewing them generally as “unkempt, narcissitic, silly and generally unpleasant people.”

He does hold very clear views on what constitutes good literature and it certainly isn’t anything in the realm of “postmodernism, post apocalyptic settings, postmodern narrators, or magical realism.” He loves short stories but his customers are no so enthusiastic. Hardly surprising that Island Books is experiencing its worst ever sales. Only the annual influx of tourists in the summer will help keep the ship afloat.

Fikry’s life is similarly in a downward spiral. Since the death of his wife in a road accident, he’s turned his back on the world. He numbs his pain with copious amounts of wine and dreaming of a retirement financed by the sale of his most prized possession, a very rare first edition of early Edgar Allan Poe poetry. Those plans are thrown into chaos however when the book is stolen.

Two events change his world.

First, Amelia, a new and ultra keen sales rep arrives from Knightley Press. She and A.J fail completely to connect on her first visit but slowly the ice thaws and they develop a relationship vial email and occasional lunches. More unexpectedly, someone deposits a baby girl named Maya in his shop, asking Fikry to take care of her, which he does, reluctantly at first but gradually forming a close bond with the child. Maya and Amelia provide the watershed in the life of this curmudgeonly book seller, giving him a chance to see everything through new eyes and to form new friendships.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is essentially a tale about redemption and the way life sometimes deals us a second chance to reconnect Running through the novel is a message about the transformative power of reading. The women who turn up to give him free child-minding advice turn into customers and then a book club and a police officer who is Fitry’s self-appointed guardian angel gets the reading bug too and starts his own book club for police and fire officers (they spend most of their meetings arguing about the validity of the detection methods in the crime novel they read that month.) Even Fitry has to change his opinions and finds there are such things as well written children’s books.

Appropriately for a novel featuring a book shop, there is a high bookish element to this novel — apart from the many references to books made by the characters, each chapter begins with the title of a real short story and a brief personal note from Fitry to Maya about the story . His verdict on Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Claveras County is that it’s worth reading because of the fun Twain has with narrative authority even if the author is having more fun than the reader. Irwin Shaw’s Girls in their Summer Dresses prompts a fatherly note to Maya: “Someday you may think of marrying. Pick someone who thinks you’re the only person in the room.”

This is a perfect novel for those who like fiction with a high poignancy and life affirming quota. It’s not quite my cup of tea. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it — Zevin is an accomplished author so her story reads very smoothly and I enjoyed many parts of it, particularly the section that leads up to the discovery of the child and the humour of the police chief’s book club. But much of the book felt too much like the adage ‘happiness writes white’ for my taste. I’d have preferred it if Fitry had stayed grumpy for a lot longer and Maya wasn’t portrayed quite so much as an extraordinary child. Maybe that’s just me being grumpy though.

End notes

The Storied Life of A. J. Fitry by Gabrielle Zevin is published in paperback by Algonquin Books in US and Little, Brown in the UK in April 2014.

Thanks to the publishers for providing me with an advance copy.

Gabrielle Zevin has published six novels – learn more about her work at her website http://gabriellezevin.com

 

 

Sunday Salon: Looking back Looking ahead

sundaysalonAs Spring has officially given way to summer time in the UK, it seems a good time to think about the year so far and take a peak at what’s next on my reading horizon.

Let’s start with the good news. My TBR pile is shrinking (round of applause please). I’ve read eight from the list of 139 books that were on my shelves or on the e-reader as of January . Despite many temptations I’ve bought only one book so far this year. My wish list has exploded however.

Of all the books I’ve read so far this year only two really stand out for me: L’Assommoir by Emile Zola and the 1999 Booker prize winner Disgrace by J. M Coetzee. If I was the sort of person that used a star-rating system they would be in the 5 star category.  They couldn’t be more different in terms of setting or themes – Zola’s focus is on the miserable condition of the poor in nineteenth century Paris whereas Coetzee looks at the issue of life after the ending of apartheid in South Africa. What they have in common is the way they make you pause from whatever else is going on in your life and to think instead about the condition of the human race.

It wasn’t a surprise that the Zola was so good because I’ve enjoyed three other novels by him (Germinal is one of my all-time favourites) but I’d never read anything by Coetzee. Based on this experience I was getting fired up to read two of his works that I already have on my shelves − his 1983 Booker Prize winning Life & Times of Michael K and Summertime published in 2009. On closer inspection however I found that the latter is the third in a series of “fictionalised memoirs” so isn’t going to make much sense until I read the first two. I’ll have to check whether I can get them from the library.
Looking back over the last few months I think I’ve neglected my Booker Prize project a little. I’m not following any deadline for this project but since this was what prompted me to start blogging, I feel I should be making rather more progress than I have of late.  So I am rectifying that right now by starting  The Bone People which won the Booker Prize in 1984 for the New Zealand author Keri Hulme.

TheBonePeople

It’s a story of relationships in which Maori myths and folk traditions are blended with a modern day setting of life. The mystical tones of the opening didn’t give me great hope:

It is all silence.
The silence is music.
He is the singer.

They were nothing more than people by themselves. Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves. But all together they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great. Together, all together, they are the instruments of change.

Fortunately we’ve had less of this as the story got underway though I sense it will not go away entirely. Interesting to note in the author’s introduction that she refused her publisher’s guidance about editing the book, declaring she would rather have the book “embalmed in Perspex” than re-shaped.

After that, it’s a toss up between Graham Swift’s 1996 winner Last Orders or the 1992 winner— Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. 

Any of you read either of those and can give me a recommendation?

Unexploded by Alison Macleod

unexplodedjpegEight months after Britain declares war on German, the people of Brighton anxiously prepare for a rumoured Nazi invasion. The town’s piers are dismantled and barbed wire goes up on the beach. Soon vegetable seedlings will replace the flower displays in the parks and the lights of the fun fair will be dimmed. Already the racecourse has been transformed into an internment camp for whose people deemed to be ‘suspicious’.  such as Otto Gottlieb, a German-Jewish artist whose work featured in the Nazi exhibition of “degenerate art”.

In the Beaumont household, the preparations ignite underlying tensions. Geoffrey Beaumont is a banker charged with a secret mission to secure the future of the country’s currency by removing it to an undisclosed location, leaving his wife Evelyn and eight year old son alone to face the invaders. The only preparations he makes on their behalf involve a stack of cash and an envelope containing two cyanide pills buried  in the garden, a contingency plan that in Evelyn’s eyes, amounts to a betrayal. The resulting tension between them escalates when Evelyn takes more than a close interest in Otto Gottleib and questions the treatment of the internees at the camp.

It’s easy to see why Unexploded was long-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Macleod delivers a very persuadable sense of the period, rich in detail and atmosphere. Even though so much has been written about the lives of ordinary people at this point in Britain’s history; the anxiety of an unknown enemy, the constant rumours, the day to day trials of food shortages, the narrative often has a fresh feel.  In one extended passage she describes how it would feel to be on the receiving end of a bomb attack.

You are lifted from your bed even before you hear the blast….. You wake, unable to understand why heaps of gravel and brick dust are being shovelled over you at speed. You stumble outside for air, but even here the day is thick with dust, soot and – you can’t make sense of it – a blizzard of feathers.

The immediacy of the present-tense approach coupled with her use of imagery made this one of the most memorable passages in the book for me.

I also enjoyed her characterisation of the Beaumont’s son Phillip. As an only child his loneliness leads him to become friends with boys who would not be out of place in Lord of the Flies, to hide in corners listening illicitly to the radio, and to betrayal. Where the adults are simply frightened by the prospect of Hitler’s arrival, Philip’s reaction is more complex. It starts as a game, an amusing diversion, but then things happen that although he doesn’t comprehend fully, he still recognises as disturbing and wrong.

His story is suggestive of a theme in the novel about the way the war acts as a catalyst, igniting elements that have until now lain idle such as the incompatibility between Evelyn and her husband and the anti-Semitic attitudes held by sections of the British population. In essence this is a novel that shows a society at a turning point:

Change was creeping under the door and through the windows of their home, persistent as gas … It was gathering over the house in spite of the purity of the day’s rinsed blue sky. It was spiralling down the flue. At night as they slept, it would settle over their hearts.

A good story; well-written prose; lots of simmering tension, strong characterisation and meticulous attention to detail: it would be hard to find much about this book not to enjoy.

 

EndNotes

Unexploded was published by Hamish Hamilton in 2013.

Alison MacLeod is a professor of contemporary fiction at the University of Chichester in the UK. Raised in Canada she has lived in England since the 1980s. This is her  third novel.