Category Archives: New Zealand

Man Booker Prize longlist 2015

I admit defeat. I am clearly not skilled in the art of book prize predictions. When the Man Booker prize judges announced their 2015 longlist today I found that none of the titles that came up in my crystal ball yesterday made the cut. Not one. I had floated briefly with nominating one of the titles that did get chosen: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Not that I’ve read it yet (I’m planning to take it with me on holiday in a few weeks) but it has been getting a lot of exposure recently and sounded like the kind of novel the judges would choose.

My reactions to the list are rather mixed.

On the plus side I was relieved that Kazuo Ishiguro and Kate Atkinson were not listed but disappointed that Colm Tóibín didnt get get selected.

On the plus side I’m delighted that the list contains so many authors that are new to me. But the diversity seems to have dissipated. Last year there were no long listed titles from the Commonwealth countries but five from USA. This year we have five USA authors again but only one each from Jamaica, New Zealand and India.

  • Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape) by Bill Clegg, a literary agent from USA. This is his debut novel
  • The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) by Anne Enright. The Dublin-born author is a previous Booker Prize winner with The Gathering in 2007
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications) by Marlon James, born in Kingston, Jamaica
  • The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing) by Laila Lalami, born in Morocco and now living in USA. This novel was shortlisted for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize
  • Satin Island (Jonathan Cape) by Tom McCarthy, a Londoner
  • The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press) by Chigozie Obioma, Nigerian born now living in North America. This is his first novel
  • The Illuminations (Faber & Faber) by Andrew O’Hagan, the Scottish born author is a previous Booker shortlisted author with Our Fathers, in 1999
  • Lila (Virago) by Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2005 for Gilead
  • Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus) by Anuradha Roy, born in Calcutta, India
  • The Year of the Runaways (Picador) by Sunjeev Sahota, born in Derbyshire, UK.
  • The Chimes (Sceptre) by Anna Smaill, a New Zealander. This is her debut novel
  • A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus) by Anne Tyler, American born, previously nominated for a Pulitzer prize
  • A Little Life (Picador) by Hanya Yanagihara, the second novel by this American author

Im not sure I’ll get to read many of these before the shortlist is announced on October 13.  My interest is leading towards The Year of the Runaways, The Illuminations and The Fishermen. 

For other views on the list take a look at:

PJE’s Booker Blog

Clare at Word by Word

 

 

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The luminariesWhen Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries was declared the winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize, almost every article and review drew attention to  the fact it was the longest novel ever awarded the prize and Catton the youngest ever winner. Much was made too of the genre affinity between Catton’s  work and that master of the sensation novel, Wilkie Collins. Most reviewers seemed to agree with the Booker judges who called it “extraordinary, luminous, vast,”. The only dissenting voices came from the panel convened by one of the UK tv channels the night before the award who admired Catton’s technical virtuosity but didn’t feel it was the best book of the year, and David Sexton in The London Evening Standard who argued that a stunning feat of construction didn’t necessarily equate to a great book.

Having now read this 832-page tome, I find myself more in David Sexton’s camp than that of the Booker judges.

That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book. I did.  Catton really knows how to tell a good story (but then she’d have to be good at this in order to keep people engaged through such a lengthy book).  Her plot is intricately crafted and she manages the multiple story lines deftly, making you want to keep turning the page to find out what happens next in this tale of death, deception and doomed love set in New Zealand during the time of the gold rush.

The book opens on a stormy night as the young Scottish lawyer Walter Moody,  lands on the shores of Hokitika, a town hurriedly constructed to service prospectors seeking to make their fortune in the surrounding hills and rivers. Shaken by an incident on the boat he goes into the first hotel he comes across, badly in need of a restorative drink and a bed for the night. He finds himself in a room of 12 men who slowly begin to reveal their unease about some strange recent events in the town involving a whore, a dead hermit and a missing fortune. Together these 12 luminaries set about trying to get to the bottom of these events by piecing together the knowledge each of them holds. Although they are not constituted as a jury they do weigh up the evidence from each man’s version of events and make judgements about some of the people involved.

Catton made much of the fact that she structured her novel on astrological movements, using a software programme to help her pinpoint the exact positioning of the stars corresponding with events in the book. Each chapter begins with an astrological chart indicating which characters are in ascendancy on the date in question. I tried to follow this but couldn’t see much beyond the fact the chart indicated which characters would be the focal point of the chapter. It felt like an artifice that didn’t add much to our understanding of the story.

Initially the story is told in the form of a nested narrative where the 12 men tell their stories to Moody, in the hope he can make sense of their complex and multifaceted tales. This moves to straight forward narration of specific events but then at the end Catton loops right back to the beginning with some short chapters (some just two or three paragraphs long) which reveal the backstory and fill in the missing elements.  Along the way we get plenty of melodramatic episodes with a shipwreck, a murder trial and a seance.

All the elements are there for a darn good read. And yet, for all its technical prowess, there was something missing from this book. It was difficult at first to pin down what that missing element was but eventually it dawned on me that what I was lacking was any sense in which the novel illuminated the human condition. Outside the plot there wasn’t much else of substance, all was really smoke and mirrors and the characters just faded out rather than came more sharply into view the more we heard them speak. There was little that caused me to pause and reflect, in short there was little evidence of the emotional or philosophical weight that I expect from a Booker prize winner.

And that’s really my issue.  The Luminaries IS a really enjoyable, well crafted novel and is one of the best of its kind I have read in many years. But it’s not up to the gold standard that the Booker should represent. How the judges chose this over Jim Crace’s Harvest is just baffling.

 

The Bone People by Keri Hulme

Keri Hulme’s 1985 Booker Prize winning book The Bone People is one of those novels for which the word unorthodox would be a woefully inadequate description.

TheBonePeopleRejecting the exhortation frequently heard in creative writing courses that novice writers should focus on just one narrative point of view, Hulme switches perspectives between her three principal characters. She mixes poetry and song with prose, mingles English with the Polynesian language of the indigenous Maori population of New Zealand and even creates new words where she believes a standard lexicon simply doesn’t adequately capture the meaning she wants to convey.

The result is an extraordinary novel that was 12 years in the making and rejected by most publishers who thought it unwieldy and too different. Even those who were interested would publish it only on condition she made severe edits (she refused). It  saw the light of day only because of a small publishing firm in New Zealand whose owners came from the same Maori tribe as Hulme.

The Bone People went on to become of the most controversial winners of the Booker Prize, deeply dividing critical opinion between those who felt Hulme had broken new literary ground and those who considered its quasi spiritual aspects pretentious and its prose barely comprehensible.

With that background in my head, I approached The Bone People with trepidation.  The mystical tones of the opening didn’t do much for my nervousness level but I persevered and eventually the book began to take hold. Yes there were many times when I was completely bewildered as tenses changed mid paragraph, punctuation was omitted and interior monologues were introduced without any preamble to indicate which character was actually speaking. Without the helpful glossary there were many sections of dialogue that would have been completely meaningless. And yes there was a higher quota of pseudo mysticism than I can normally tolerate. But — and it is a big but — there was a quality about this novel that kept drawing me back to it, making me want to keep reading even if I wasn’t sure exactly what I was reading.

The Bone People is essentially a tale of three broken, battered and bruised individuals and how they try to build a family out of their pain and suffering. Kerewin Holmes (note the resonance with the author’s name) is a painter who has cut off all connections with her family, She lives in solitude in a beachside home called The Tower, spending her days fishing and trying, but failing, to paint anything worthwhile. Her life is  fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol. Into her home and her life stumbles Simon, a deeply disturbed and mute six year old boy whose anti social habits of stealing and violence against classmates have made him notorious in the small island community. Yet Keri warms to him and to Joe, a Maori who informally adopted the boy when he found him washed ashore after a yachting accident.  Joe is contending with his own demons having lost his own child and wife shortly after Simon’s appearance.  Slowly the trio form a bond but its strength is tested when Holmes learns the truth about the scars on Simon’s body. Her discovery has devastating consequences.

The question Hulmes poses in the novel is not simply whether the rupture between the members of this trio can be healed, but whether they can each find peace with themselves and with the world. Each, she seems to suggest, must endure more suffering before they can be made whole again. Home and the ties of family are twin pillars  of hope for these three sufferers.  As Simon says at one point late in the book:

He had endured it all. Whatever they did to him, and however long it was going to take, he could endure it. Provided that at the end he could go home.  ……if he can’t go home, he might as well not be. They might as well not be, because they only make sense together. We have to be together. If we are not, we are nothing. We are broken.

It’s a disturbing book with some shocking moments of violence. Counter-balancing the tension are moments of pure comedy and moments of reflection in which Hulme’s writing takes on a more poetic tone. It was unfortunate that in the last quarter of the book she introduced some semi-mystical figures and mysterious potions to help get towards a resolution.  It’s such a shame that Hulme resisted all advice to edit the text because her book was strong enough without  these contrivances.

Hulme has achieved something however that is remarkable. It will either leave you captivated or completely bewildered and frustrated. What you won’t do is to forget it since this is one book that leaves a lasting impression.

 

 

%d bloggers like this: