Jaw-Dropping Dullness from Booker Winner: Saville

Saville by David Storey

Saville by David Storey

I reached the end of David Storey’s Booker Prize winning novel Saville with an enormous sense of relief.

No longer would my evenings be marred by having to plod through this jaw-droppingly tedious tale.

I don’t understand why I didn’t give up on it well before the end since there are only so many pages of over-written scenes, mediocre dialogue and scrappy characterisation  I can take.

This had all three in abundance over the course of its 500 plus pages. It also had a  protagonist about whom I cared not one jot. The best part came in the opening few scenes where a miner and his new wife arrive in some northern colliery town and spend the day cleaning their meagre little home.

After that it was downhill all the way.

Working Class Struggle

Saville is a tale of a boy from a South Yorkshire mining family in the late 1930s.   Colin Saville manages to win a scholarship for grammar school; plays sport, has a few run ins with the teacher and meets a few girls. Instead of university he opts for the faster track of teacher training so he can begin earning some money to keep his parents and two brothers just above the poverty line. But he feels constrained by his home and his upbringing; taking his frustrations out on his siblings.

By the time he decides what to do with his life, we’re at the end of the book and by then – frankly – I simply didn’t care.

Desperately Hoping Something Will Happen

Colin Saville just isn’t portrayed in a way that makes me want to take any interest. There’s never any sense of the inner turmoil he supposedly feels in reaction to some of the events that happen to him. Even when his fiancé ditches him for a more wealthy friend, he seems to react as if  someone has just told him the number 6 bus left 30 minutes ago. Having the story relayed through an omniscient narrator doesn’t help.

But I also just kept waiting for something – anything– to happen that would lift the story from the realms of the mediocre.

I was still waiting when I reached the end.

According to one retrospective critical review, Storey’s work mixes realism with psychological extremism. I must have been asleep during those chapters because those elements completely escaped my attention.

If ever there was a book that needed a bit fat blue editor’s pencil to walk all over it, this one was it…..even a scene that according to James Campbell in the Guardian is one of the most memorable (when his friend Stafford visits his home and is treated to a tea of bread, butter and tinned fruit) felt over-written.

This has to be the most deadly dull of all the Booker Prize winners I’ve read. How Saville won the Booker Prize in 1976, I’m at a loss to understand.

Alternative views of Saville

I was curious what some literary experts and reviewers thought of this book.

The reaction at the time of publication was surprisingly enthusiastic.

Jeremy Brooks at the Sunday Times said that reading Saville “is like drinking pure spring water from cupped hands”.

It has no false notes, no heaviness of emphasis, no editorial manipulations of plot to prove a point. One becomes so totally involved in the lives of these people that their every word and action becomes charged with meaning…. Reminiscent of a nineteenth-century classic.’ –

His counterpart at The Times newspaper also gave it a rave review, calling it “mesmerically readable, Saville is a revelation.”  The Sunday Telegraph declared Saville to be “A feast of a book.”

I started to wonder whether this is a novel that resonated in the 1970s but no longer spoke to a twenty-first century reader but so few reviews have been written about Saville in recent years that I can’t answer that question.

All I found was that in 2008 Sam Jordison at The Guardian ( a reviewer I admire) thought Saville was a “class act”. He was so completely immersed in the book that he felt he was parting from a friend when he reached the end.

When David Storey died in 2017 many of the obituaries described him as a great post- war novelist whose raw, realist plays and novels dealt with the north-south divide and family conflict.

I seem to be a lone voice…..

This review appeared originally in 2012. This is an update – the content is substantially the same but I have added sub headings to make it easier to read.

Thoughtful Novel of Betrayal and Forgiveness

A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

I almost abandoned A Change of Climate but some part of my brain signalled that I should press on.  Which was fortunate because, whereas the first half of the book is deceptively quiet and largely uneventful, Mantel more than makes up for it with a dramatic and emotional second half.

The story concerns Ralph and Anna Eldred, parents of four children, who live in a large and dilapidated house in Norfolk. They give the appearance of being selfless do-gooders, opening their home to drug addicts, homeless kids, waifs and strays; all of them beneficiaries of a religious charitable trust set up by Ralph’s father.

A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

But there are clearly some tensions in this set up. The trust sucks up all their money and Ralph feels drained by the constant need to beg for funds. Although the problems of rural deprivation are as acute as ever, his level of satisfaction with helping its victims is on the wane.

He was torn, divided. The demands of the world dragged on his conscience; but did he do enough for his own family? … Today he had just one more letter to do …Yawned. But, he told himself, don’t despise these little things; they add up. A tiny series of actions, of small duties well performed, eventually does some good in the world. That’s the theory anyway.

Anna feels increasingly alienated from her husband. He spends all his time in meetings or on the phone solving the latest crisis while she’s left coping with a draughty house smelling of mice and mould. She and her children are worn down by the trail of ‘‘good souls and sad cases’ Ralph has brought into their lives to try and rehabilitate them – with little success.

Secrets From The Past

For a long time I thought this was a fairly typical story about a marriage in difficulty. But I was proved wrong because as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the fragility of the Eldred’s relationship is the consequence of an event twenty years ago when they were missionaries at a remote station in South Africa.

It’s not until the second half, when the novel moves back to the late 1950s, that we discover the nature of the catastrophe that befell them and that has affected their lives ever since. From that point on, A Change of Climate was transformed into a novel about pain and suffering, betrayal and forgiveness.

The act of horror perpetrated on the Eldreds causes Ralph to lose hope that they will ever feel safe or to blindly believe in goodness. In a letter to his uncle he says prayers are futile because he no longer knows to what he would be praying.

Before now I have looked at the world and I have seen no compelling evidence of the goodness of God, but I chose to believe in it because I thought it was more constructive to do so. I thought here was order in the world, at least – a ind of progress, a meaning, a pattern. But where is the pattern now?

Family Tragedy

A Change of Climate is a cleverly constructed novel in which the revelation is delayed while Hilary Mantel steadily builds up the story of the couple’s life post Africa. The book moves backwards and forwards in time, introducing us to each of their children and Ralph’s unmarried sister Emma, a stabilising force for all the Eldreds.

A Climate of Change has a style vastly different to Hilary Mantel’s other novels, quieter in tone for much of the time, but no less emotionally affecting, particularly in the final section. This is a novel that asks about forgiveness and whether it is possible to escape the past.

It’s well worth reading, you just have to give it time to mature.

Loathsome Male Character Doesn't Spoil Brilliant Novel: Disgrace by J M Coetzee

Disgrace by J M Coetzee

If ever proof was needed that it’s possible to have a thoroughly distasteful and objectionable protagonist and yet be totally engrossed in their story, look no further than Disgrace by J M Coetzee.

This novel, which earned J M Coetzee his second Booker prize win, features David Lurie, a university professor in Cape Town. He’s a white South African in his early fifties, intelligent and good looking but somewhat out of synch with his newly post apartheid country.

His field of expertise is modern languages but that specialism has been abolished as part of a nationwide rationalisation of educational resources. He is allowed to run just a single course (he choses the Romantic poets) and the rest of the time is spent lecturing in what he considers the preposterous world of ‘communications skills’.

Predatory Seductor

Coetzee shows a man who views his students with disdain, seeing them semi-illiterate products of a mediocre education system and lacking a basic grounding in the context and sources of the literature which they are studying.

If his academic life is stalling he considers he is rather more successful in his private life. As he describes it:

For a man of his age, 52, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.

That ‘solution’ of which he is proud is a weekly visit to a prostitute with whom he believes he has more than just a financial relationship.  Such an arrangement doesn’t stop him embarking on an affair with Melanie, a girl half his age and one of his students.  

Lurie tries to elevate this to a grander plane by arguing it is the duty of attractive women like Melanie to share their beauty.  “She does not own herself. Beauty does not own itself” is one of his mantras. But actually Lurie is a predator and this is a pretty unpleasant seduction. He plies the girl with drink until she is unable to withstand his advances and almost refers to himself as “Daddy” when he is with her.

Revenge for Apartheid?

Denounced and called to account by the university he admits guilt but steadfastly refuses to repent or to indulge in the public handwringing apology the university believes is necessary. He resigns, abandons his home and seeks refuge with his daughter Lucy on her smallholding somewhere in the Eastern Cape. There they are subjected to a savage attack and a fire which causes a deep rift between father and daughter.

Lurie cannot comprehend his daughter’s response to the attack. Why won’t she report it to the police? It’s clear one of the attackers is connected with a black farmer whose property lies along side her own but why doesn’t Lucy want the man confronted?

Even more puzzling is Lucy’s attitude that her rape is an equal exchange for the way white settlers treated the black indigenous population. She wonders if rape is the price she has to pay for staying on? 

Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves.

Lurie’s previous feelings of complacency are shaken by his daughter’s willingness to accept her fate particularly because his own resources have been diminished.  His good looks were destroyed in the fire, robbing him of his sexual identity. His much cherished idea of finishing an opera about Byron now seems irrelevant.

In a move that seems to suggest he is seeking atonement he throws himself into work at a local animal clinic, helping to deal fatal injections to unwanted and homeless dogs before chucking them into the incinerator. He also begins a relationship the woman who runs the clinic. He doesn’t really desire her, in fact describing her as ‘remarkably unattractive’, but seems to view their love making sessions on the floor as some kind of benevolent act towards a single, lonely woman. The price he pays in a sense for his previous egotistical attitude towards the opposite sex.

Shift in Power in New South Africa

Disgrace is a novel which clearly has some big ideas; ideas about race, about colonial guilt and responsibility.

Running through it is also a theme about the balance of power. In the new South Africa, a different relationship exists between black and white, one in which the latter understand sacrifices of their old power may be required. For Lurie the chain of events which began in Cape Town brings him to an insight into the suffering of others and a shift in his relationship with Lucy. he can no more tell her how to live her life than the white population can dictate to the black South Africans.

‘How humiliating,’ he says finally. ‘Such high hopes, and to end like this.’

‘Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing.’

Lurie is talking about his own situation here but his comments could also be a reflection on the new reality of life in South Africa.

Disgrace is a dark novel in which the political and the personal coalesce.  There are no resolutions here, the problems of the character’s lives are still open by the time we reach the final page. 

Coetzee’s sparse style brings an emotional distance even though he deals with hugely emotive issues. Particularly impressive for me was that Coetzee makes us understand Lurie’s  arrogance even if we don’t endorse his beliefs and shows us by the end of the novel that it’s possible to sympathise with a man who starts out as a thoroughly unsympathetic human being.

Disgrace by JM Coetzee: Endnotes

J M Coetzee was born in South Africa and lived there until 1962 when he relocated to the UK and subsequently to USA. He left the USA in 1971 having failed to be granted permanent residence status , in part due to his involvement in protests against the war in Vietnam.

He worked as an academic at the University of Cape Town until his retirement in 2002. That year he moved to Australia, becoming an Australian citizen in 2006.

J M Coetzee’s first novel was Dusklands  published in 1974. He has twice won the Booker Prize – for Life and Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999.

In 2003, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first author from South Africa to be selected by the Nobel Committee.

This review was posted originally in 2018. This is an updated version incorporating background info about the author and improving readability by shortening the paragraphs.

From English seaside to Nigerian city: 6 Degrees of Separation

Sanditon by Jane Austen is the starting point for this month’s episode of Six Degrees of Separaton, hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.

I don’t think we can really call this a book; a ‘fragment’ would be a more appropriate description because when Jane Austen laid her draft aside due to ill health (she died four weeks later) she had written only 12 chapters. In 23,500 words she really had space barely to set the scene and introduce the characters.

Jane Austen

How the plot would have developed we simply don’t know which is a shame because Sanditon is the first Austen work set entirely at the seaside. The change of location gives her the opportunity to expose a heroine to a completely unfamiliar environment and experiences. The book actually ends as the heroine is about to experience sea bathing for the first time.

The seaside location triggered a memory of another novel where the main character takes to the waters.

Irish Murdoch

For my first link I’m choosing The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. In this Booker winning novel we meet Charles Arrowby,  an esteemed London theatre director who has recently retired to a seaside cottage in the south of England. There he goes swimming in a nearby cove each day, contending with tricky steps and dangerously rough waves.

Donal Ryan

By contrast the sea in my next book is not a form of exercise but a means of escape.

From A Low And Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan opens with a doctor’s family of Syrian refugees who take to the sea to scape the fundamentalists in their country. They put their lives in the hands of human smugglers. Catastrophe ensues. The father eventually washes up in Ireland.

It’s a brilliant novel using a situation that will be painfully familiar to anyone who followed the recent atrocious case of the Vietnamese people found dead in a container lorry in England. Ryan’s novel reminds how, throughout history, people have left their homelands in the hope of finding a brighter future in a foreign land.

There are many novels that use emigration and travel as a theme. But I thought I’d choose another Irish author for my next book.

Colm Toibin
One the Booker judges overlooked?

Brooklyn by  Colm Tóibín won the  Costa Novel Award in 2009 and went on to become an award winning film. It takes a young unmarried girl who, unable to find work in her home town, is persuaded to leave Ireland for New York where she has been promised, wonderful opportunities await her. America is a culture shock and there is the heartbreak of knowing she may never see her sister or mother again.

Tóibín chose the suburb of Brooklyn as the new home of his protagonist. In the 1950s it was a neighbourhood with a strong Irish and Italian population.

Leopold Borstinski

Though overcrowded Brooklyn was relatively settled and safe, especially when compared to another New York neighbourhood, also densely populated by immigrants, in which my next book is located.

In the early 1900s the Bowery was a dangerous place to live. The Bowery Slugger by Leopold Borstinski shows a neighbourhood ruled over by gangs drawn from Italian, Irish and Jewish settlers. Violence and extortion was the name of the game. A young man could quickly rise to the top, but only if he was willing to use his fists or a knife.

One of the interesting themes in this book was the idea of dislocation. The Jewish settlers who come to live in the Bowery try to hold on to their language and traditions as a way of dealing with the strangeness of their new home.

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo picks up on this idea of dislocation, showing that life in the new ‘promised land’ doesn’t always turn out the way the settler expects.

Zimbabwe is a country on its knees in this novel. It ‘s government is inept and corrupt and its people reduced to selling trinkets and reliant upon foreign aid agencies for support. Hardly surprising they want to leave.

Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, flying, fleeing — all to countries whose names they cannot pronounce.

Thirteen year old Darling is one that makes it out. She gets to Michigan and finds it strange and unwelcoming to incomers. She does make friends but they reject her because she also tries to retain her connection to her old home. They want her to be completely ‘American’.

Americanah
Robbed of the Booker Prize?

What my final book in this chain shows is that no matter how strong the bond is to one’s homeland, it’s difficult to rewind the clock and return.

In Americanah, we encounter a young girl who attains her dream to escape Nigeria and secure a place at Princetown university in America. To fit in, she straightens her hair, hides her accent and adopts American slang. When she returns to Nigeria she’s called Americanah because of her blunt, American way of speaking and of addressing problems, a label she resists and resents. But if she’s not American then neither is she wholly Nigerian for her country has changed as much as she has.

On that note I’m bringing this chain to a close. We travelled a long way from the English coast to Ireland and Africa. There’s a connection between them that I never realised until the end. The sense of alienation I highlight in the last few choices, can apply equally to Sanditon, Wish I could claim that it was all by design but actually it was a complete fluke.

Uncovered: An Overdose Of Crime On The Shelves

Today marked yet another attempt to bring some order to the chaos of my book collection. Thanks to a mini cull I can see some space on the bookshelves which is just as well because the piles on the floor are in danger of toppling.

Every time I do this exercise I make a discovery about my stock of “owned but unread” books. Today’s discovery was that I own a load more crime fiction novels than I expected.

It’s a surprise because, though I’m partial to a little crime fiction from time to time, I’ve never considered myself a huge fan.

I view them as entertaining, something I enjoy at the time, but not the kind of book that makes me think or that lingers in my mind long after I’ve got to the final page. Most of them are so forgettable that, were you to ask me to describe a particular book, I’d be in difficulties.

Those I do recall are memorable because the characterisation is sharp, the setting evocative and the narrative deals with interesting issues. Hence why I enjoy Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series so much.

Given all this, how have I ended up owning 22 crime fiction books?

Fortunately I can turn to the spreadsheet where I record all my purchases and acquisitions (gifts, donations, ARCs etc) to find some answers.

Completing A Series

A few are parts of a series I’ve been following. That accounts for my copies of Nature Of The Beast and Bury Your Dead which are part of the series by Louise Penny I mentioned earlier.

It also accounts for In Two Minds by Alis Hawkins. It’s the second in her Teifi Valley Coroner series and I enjoyed the first None So Blind so much I had to get the follow up. I do need to read this soon however because there is a third book Those Who Can due out in May 2020.

Earlier this year I started reading a series by Abir Mukherjeeset in India at the time of the Raj. I must have been convinced this would be good because even before I read book one, A Rising Man, I had already bought books 2 and 3 and have an ARC of the fourth.

Who Can Resist A Bargain?

I can’t, at least not when it comes to books.

I volunteer at a National Trust property which runs a second hand bookshop as a way of raising funds. So of course every time I report for duty I just have to have a peek at the most recent donations.

The prices are ridiculously low – just £1 will get you a paperback in good condition (the volunteers who run the shop vet everything before it goes on the shelves). So hard to resist…..

Which is how I acquired two books by Jane Harper: The Dry and The Lost Man, both of which a friend had highly recommended.

A “two for the price of one” offer at The Works brought me Stasi Child, a debut novel by David Young which has won several awards. What attracted my interest was that it is set in the former East Germany during the time of the Cold War. I also bought the follow up Stasi Wolf.

I have a set of three books by Alexander Wilson that came as a discounted bundle from The Book People. Wilson was one of the pen names of Alexander Joseph Patrick “Alec” Wilson, an English spy and MI6 officer. I’ve no idea about the quality of the books; maybe their plots won’t be as interesting as the real life story of the author. After his death in 1963 he was discovered to have been a serial bigamist but then questions began about the true nature of his intelligence work.

Buzz Books

There are some books I bought purely on the strength of reviews from other bloggers, mentions in social media and the occasional newspaper review. Unfortunately I failed to record the exact source of the recommendation – something I shall try to remedy with any future purchases.

Into this category falls Sixty Four by Hideo Yokoyama which revolves around the disappearance of two teenage girls 14 years apart. It was published with considerable buzz in 2018. It’s a massively chunky book , which is probably why I haven’t tackled it yet.

I also have Lewis Man by Peter May which is clearly a mistake because it’s book number one in a trilogy and I don’t have book one. So now I have to decide whether to go back to the beginning and add yet another title to my shelves…..

It’s going to take me a few years to work my way through all of these because I’ll space them out among other genres. If you’re a crime fiction expert maybe you can help me decide which of these to read first? And if there are any titles here that I could maybe give away…..

Terrific Portrait of A Lonely Woman's Despair

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

by Brian Moore

Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

Brian Moore’s unflinching yet sympathetic portrait of loneliness qualifies as the most painfully sad book I’ve read for many years.

Judith Hearne – or Judy she calls herself when daydreaming – is a 40-something year old spinster. An orphan with no relatives, few friends and little money. All she has is her faith and a dream that one day she will meet a man who remove her from her dreary life into one of married bliss. She has a clear picture of this man and their life together:

He came into the room, late at night, tired after a day at work in his hotel. He took off his jacket and hung it up. He put his dressing gown on and sat down in his armchair and she went to him prettily, sat on his knee while he told her how things had gone that day. And he kissed her. Or, enraged about some silly thing she had done, he struck out with his great fist and sent her reeling, the brute. But, contrite afterwards, he sank to his knees and begged forgiveness.

Judy Hearne, she said, you’ve got to stop right this minute. Imagine romancing about every man that comes along.

When the book opens she has moved into a shabby room in a Belfast boarding house in what “used to be one of the best parts of the city.” Here she expects to spend most of her evenings “waiting like a prisoner for the long night hours.”

Her one treat is a weekly visit to her friends the O’Neill family. She views their children fondly as her “little nieces and nephews”, unaware that they mock her and their parents tolerate her out of a sense of duty.

Dreams of Mr Right

The only bright spot on the horizon is a fellow guest, the landlady’s brother James Madden who has just returned to Ireland after many years in America. Before long she’s imagining him as a future partner and her new life in New York.

Mr and Mrs James Madden, of New York, sailed from Southampton yesterday in the Queen Mary. Mr Madden is a prominent New York hotelier and his bride is the former Judith Hearne, only daughter of the late Mr and Mrs Charles B. Hearne, of Ballymena. The honeymoon? Niagara Falls, isn’t that the place Americans go? Or perhaps Paris, before we sail. 

But then, as so often in the past it seems, she has woefully misread the signs. Her life slips once more towards humiliation and pain. Just when she needs it most, her beloved Church fails her; her appeals to the parish priest simply brushed aside.

Solace lies in a bottle. In one of the most powerful, painful scenes of the novel she retires to her soulless room and opens the bottle locked away in her trunk.

A drink would put things right. Drink was not to help forget, but to help remember, to clarify and arrange untidy and unpleasant facts into a perfect pattern of reasonableness and beauty. Alcoholic, she did not drink to put aside the dangers and disappointments of the moment. She drank to be able to see these trials more philosophically, to examine them more fully, fortified by the stimulant of unreason.

In The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Brian Moore gives us an arresting but disturbing portrait of a woman forever chasing a dream only to have hope crushed over and over again. What we come to suspect is that she has had drunken episodes before, having to leave previous boarding houses when her raucous singing upset

A Constrained Life

It’s a terrific portrait of loneliness and despair. The Ireland of the 1950s is a bleak place for a woman like Judith Hearne. Her convent education has given her few skills to offer on the jobs market yet without an income (and no savings to fall back on) it’s a struggle to keep up a veneer of respectability.

There are few options to occupy her time that are both cheap and respectable beyond window shopping and church services. Nor are there friends to gossip with or share experiences and memories. In a life without excitement every incident assumes momentous importance, something to be savoured and perhaps exaggerated.

All The Lonely People

It’s uncomfortable reading because you know that although this is a fictional character, you also know that there are many Judiths today who are just as lonely and despairing.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a terrific book. The characterisation is excellent but the sense of Ireland at this point in time is superbly evoked. James Madden sees it as a dull place, lacking the vibrancy and ambition of New York, a city where even a lowly hotel doorman can feel alive. While Judith is the star of the show Brian Moore gives us two especially distasteful characters in the shape of the morally questionable James Madden and the landlady’s slobbish son Bernard.

Without question, this is a book to savour.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne: End Notes

I read this novel as part of my Classics Club project. Only 3 more to go.

This was the debut novel of Brian Moore, the novel that brought him to public attention. It was rejected by ten American publishers before being accepted by a British publisher.

Published in 1955, the book won the Authors’ Club First Novel Award and was immediately optioned for the film rights.

The novel was originally titled simply Judith Hearne. The longer title was adopted after the film version issued in 1987 and starring Maggie Smith.

Brian Moore wrote the novel after leaving Northern Ireland for Canada, in part because of the religious conflict in his native country. He was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1975 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1976 (The Doctor’s Wife), 1987 (The Colour of Blood) and 1990. (Lies of Silence)

He died in January 1999.

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