Category Archives: Book prizes

Booker Prize 2019: Hit Or Miss? What The Experts Think

Booker Prize longlist 2019

It’s Booker Prize season once more. The 2019 longlist was announced this week, triggering a process that will end on October 14 when the winner will pick up their £50,000 cheque.

It all felt very familiar. 

But there was one thing different this year. 

The judges made their usual remarks about the diversity and richness of the novels submitted for consideration. And, as so often in the past, they described their experience of reading 151 novels as  “exhilarating.”  It’s not my idea of exhilaration but perhaps that’s why I’ve never had the call inviting me to become a Booker Prize judge. 

There was no controversy about the longlist. 

No complaints about the imbalance between male and female authors. 

No complaints that the judges were dumbing down the prize, trading literary experimentation and creativity for re-readability and popularity

And no complaints that the prize was becoming dominated by American authors at the expensive of those from Commonwealth countries. 

The reaction to the longest announcement was in fact rather muted. 

Booker Prize: Reactions from Experts

What’s all the fuss about?

The surprise about this year’s Booker longlist? That for the first time in years, there are few surprises.

Justine Jardin, The Guardian

Justin Jardin’s reaction encapsulated the responses of many literary editors and arts editors who work for national newspapers around the world.

The longlist … is ever so woke-flavoured; it’s very Hackney book club. It’s solid … but it lacks thrillers.


Robbie Millen, Literary Editor , The Times

Reading these articles I got the feeling that journalists were struggling to make a decent story out of the Booker Prize longlist.

The mystery novel

A number of them like Alex Marshall, European culture correspondent for the New York Times, homed in on the one book on the list which is a mystery.

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, doesn’t get released until after the shortlist is announced on May 3.

“….its contents and plot are a closely guarded secret. Little is known except that it is set 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale and is narrated by three female characters. 

Alex Marshall, New York Times

According to The Guardian, the Booker Prize judges were so constrained by “a ferocious non disclosure agreement’ that they couldn’t give any details about plot, setting or characters. All they could say was :

… it’s terrifying and exhilarating.

Big names dominate

Several of the editors focused on the presence of previous award winners, like Margaret Atwood, in the longlist.

Booker Prize 2019 longlist
Authors featured in the Booker Prize 2019 longlist

Irish News speculated that Salman Rushdie, who won the Booker Prize almost four decades ago could win again. His novel Quichotte, which is published in August, is described a picaresque road trip through contemporary America and was inspired by Don Quixote.

Other newspapers highlighted that this will be the third nomination in a row for Deborah Levy. Her novel The Man Who Saw Everything, contains two versions of the same story.

Although the list is packed with the names of well established authors, only The Guardian mentioned some notable omissions such as Ian McEwan, Mark Haddon and Ali Smith all of whom had well received novels published within the eligibility period.

Weighing in at 1,000 pages

It was the inclusion of Lucy Ellman on the Booker Prize longlist that caught the attention of Anita Singh of The Daily Telegraph.

If you’re looking for a long read, the Booker Prize has just the thing.

Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, consists of a single sentence running over 1,000 pages. It is the interior monologue of an Ohio housewife … a stream-of-consciousness written without paragraphs or full stops.

The 426,100-word sentence is broken only a handful of times, 

Anita Singh, The Daily Telegraph

As if anticipating the eyebrow raising and pursed lips that would greet Ellmann’s inclusion, Anita Singh quoted the judges’ comments about how readable people will find this book.

The thing to know is that it’s extremely funny. So although it looks very dense and worrying on the page, actually every single page is full of puns and jokes. And there is a plot in there

Joanna MacGregor, Booker Prize judge

The nationality game

Every year the announcement of the prize is followed by an analysis of its geographic diversity.

After the rule change in , there were complaints that there were too many American authors selected, which was unfair to authors from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa etc

We didn’t get that reaction this year , largely because American authors were noticeable for their absence.

As David Sanderson, Arts Correspondent for The Times, noted, there is only one American on the longlist (Lucy Ellman) and she moved to UK as a teenager.

The list will go some way to appeasing British publishers who last year wrote to the Booker trustees to object to the broadening of entry criteria  to include American authors

David Sanderson, The Times

Patriotism did however rear its head. The Irish Times (of course) led its Booker story with the fact local boy Kevin Barry had been chosen for Night Boat to Tangier. They’re no doubt hoping 2019 will see Barry emulate the success of last year’s winner, Belfast-born Anna Burns

There was cause for celebration in Africa however with the inclusion of two Nigerian authors and another whose work explores the African disaspora. The Johannesburg Review of Books, was obviously nursing old wounds since they couldn’t resist mentioning the absence of any African authors on the list for the past two years.

And the winner is???

None of the journalists at this stage are predicting a winner or even what will make it to the shortlist on September 3. In any case, history has shown us that it isn’t always the favourite that walks off with the prize.

If you enjoy a little speculation, take a look at the Booker Prize 2019 longlist discussion board at Goodreads where the members of the Mookse and Gripes group are voting for their favourites.

I’m definitely underqualified to give my own predictions because, for the first time since I started my Booker Prize project, I’ve not read even one of the longlisted titles.

But if you have, then do post a comment below with your reactions and comments.

Booker Prize Longlist 2019

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood – Canada– (Vintage, Chatto & Windus)

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – Ireland– (Canongate Books)

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – Nigeria – (Atlantic Books)

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann – USA/UK – (Galley Beggar Press)

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo –UK – (Hamish Hamilton)

The Wall by John Lanchester – UK– (Faber & Faber)

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy –UK – (Hamish Hamilton)

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli – Mexico/Italy– (4th Estate)

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma – Nigeria– (Little Brown)

Lanny by Max Porter – UK– (Faber & Faber)

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie –UK/India– (Jonathan Cape)

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak – UK/Turkey – (Viking)

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson –UK– (Jonathan Cape)

Brilliant memoir of optimism and courage: The Salt Path

Salt PathRaynor Winn had never given much thought to the problem of homelessness.

But at the age of 50, she and her husband Moth became one of the estimated 280,000 households in the UK without a roof over their head.

The Winns lost their livelihood – and their home – when an investment in a friend’s business went sour. An obdurate legal system refused to allow them to present key evidence showing they were not liable for that firm’s debts.

Bailiffs were instructed to seize the Welsh farmhouse the couple had rebuilt from a pile of stones and turned into a thriving holiday business. Worse news followed.  Moth was diagnosed with CBD, a rare degenerative brain disease. The specialist told him that death usually comes six to eight years after the onset – and that he’d probably been suffering for six already..

While hiding under the stairs as the bailiffs banged on the door, Raynor discovered a copy of Five Hundred Mile Walkies, an account by Paddy Dillon of walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path with his dog.

The book became the catalyst for their own journey. When they took their first steps on that same path almost everything they possessed went with them:  a small tent bought on eBay, a couple of cheap, thin sleeping bags, some basic cooking equipment and a change of clothes.  In their pocket they had £115 in cash and a bankcard to collect £48 a week in tax credits.

south-west-coast-path

The route of the South West Coastal Path

They had no plan beyond starting in Minehead and following the path down to Land’s End and then along the southern coastline to Poole in Dorset. A plan for their future would emerge they hoped. Until it did,  they would just put one foot in front of the other.

 

Ill-prepared mentally, and physically one obstacle they never expected to encounter was the prejudice – and sometimes hostility  – of people they met along their way.

Only a few days into their journey a boisterous dog sent Raynor flat onto her face in the street and her precious coins rolling down the hill .  “You tramps should learn how to control yourselves. Rolling around in the street – it’s disgusting,” shouted the dog owner.  Raynor at that point began to lose what little sense of herself she had remaining :

A tramp. A homeless tramp. A few weeks earlier I’d owned my own home, my own business, a flock of sheep, a garden, land, an Aga, washing machines, a lawn mower. I had responsibilities, respect, pride. The illusions of life had rolled away as quickly as the pound coins.

Often the strangers they encountered would physically recoil when told why the Winns were walking the path, gathering their children and dogs towards them as if they feared harm. The word ‘homeless’ was the trigger.  So Moth changed their story, explaining they had sold their home to go looking for adventure wherever the wind took them. The response was telling; they became people to be admired not feared or despised. They were two ‘inspirational’ oldies having an adventure of a lifetime.

What was the difference between the two stories? Only one word, but one word that in the public perception meant everything: ‘sold’. We could  be homeless having sold our home and put money in the bank, and be inspirational. Or we could be homeless, having lost our home and become penniless, and be social pariahs.

south-west-coast-path2

A stretch of the South West Coastal path

All of this makes it sound that The Salt Path will be a gloomy book. But it’s actually brimming with humour because Raynor has a tremendous sense of the absurd (like the  man walking his tortoise) and of the beauty of nature. At times their situation is desperate: days with little more to eat than noodles and fudge to keep them plodding on; nights when their flimsy tent perched on the edge of a cliff is almost whipped from in a storm.

But in between there are the joys of moonlit swims, of dolphins and translucent fish. And the generosity of strangers who provided them with a place to camp or to stay and with food. Together they help her and Moth come to terms with their situation.

The Salt Path is a sobering reminder of easy it is to fall out of mainstream society and to become an outsider. It’s a remarkable story; thoughtful, honest, unflinching; about human strength and endurance.

 


 

The Salt Path, published by Michael Joseph, was shortlisted for the Costa Book of the Year.  Raynor and her husband Moth live in Cornwall close to the South West Coastal Path.  Their experience has been an inspiration to other homeless people as recounted in this article in The Big Issue magazine.

An American Marriage fails to do justice to injustice [review]

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American MarriageAn American Marriage was on multiple “must read” lists the year it was published.

Former US President Barak Obama apparently said it was one of his favourite books of the year. Jones then achieved the Holy Grail when her novel was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club (inclusion in which is guaranteed to generate a major hike in sales).

The novel subsequently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019. 

What seems to have appealed most is the way An American Marriage tackles the effects of racial injustice but from perspective of how it threatens to destroy a relationship. The Women’s Prize for Fiction judges called it an “exquisite” novel, “a story of love, loss and loyalty, the resilience of the human spirit painted on a big political canvas – that shines a light on today’s America. “

The relationship in focus is that of Celestial and Roy. They are a young middle-class African-American couple who’ve been married for a year.

There have been some ups and downs as in all marriages, or as Celestial describes it, their marriage is “a fine spun tapestry, fragile but fixable.”  Generally though life is looking pretty good.

Roy’s a sales rep for a textbook company and seems to have a promising career ahead of him. She’s an artist specialising in custom-made baby dolls and hoping to open her own shop.

It takes just 15 minutes one night to turn all their plans upside down.

On a trip to visit his parents in Louisiana, they spend the night at a motel. They argue, he goes outside to cool off but is back in 15 minutes. Later that night police break down the door of their room and haul Roy into custody on charge of raping a fellow guest. He’s sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Incarceration for a crime both know Roy did not commit, puts the marriage under strain. When he’s freed eventually he’s ready to pick up the marriage where they left off. But Celestial has found love in another quarter.

Wrongful conviction

Jones sets a fast pace at the start of An American Marriage.

One chapter is all it takes to get Roy into jail. There’s no time wasted on recounting his arrest, questioning by police or a trial. Instead we get drawn straight into the effect this wrongful conviction has on the young people.

Jones relates this through three narrators: Celestial, Roy, and Andre, a childhood friend who later becomes something more. A large proportion of the early narrative comes in the form of letters exchanged between Celestial and Roy.

And that was where I experienced my first difficulty with this book.

Flaws in An American Marriage

The letters simply didn’t feel authentic to me because the writing style is belaboured. It would be far more natural for a twenty-something year old to write  “I’ve never seen even seen one” rather than “I have never ….” or to say “then I’d know” rather than “then I would know what to do….”   Roy’s letters in particular  felt like correspondence to a stranger rather than to a wife.

When we discussed this at a book club meeting, a few members commented that the stilted style probably reflects the fact Roy knows that prisoners’ letters are vetted. It’s a fair point but I still found these letters irritating at times.

Equally irritating was the author’s tendency to include platitudes throughout the book. This one for example:

“A marriage is more than your heart, it’s your life.”

Or how about

“Marriage is like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk. You have the limb, freshly sliced, dripping sap, and smelling of springtime, and then you have the mother tree  stripped of her protective bark, gouged and ready to receive this new addition…”

Commentary on race and injustice

On one level An American Marriage is intended as a state-of-the-nation kind of book; a commentary on race and justice in twenty-first century America.  It’s clear that Roy’s ethnicity plays a significant part in the miscarriage of justice he experiences. On another level it’s an examination of what happens when a marriage is put to the severest of tests.

Initially both are hopeful about the future and try hard to keep things as they were. Celestial wants to recount word for word, their last conversation before his arrest so that “we can pick up where we left off.” But their optimism wanes, the affection dwindles and  bitterness sweeps in. The question in the final chapters is whether the marriage can ever be put back together.

An American Marriage has many of the elements that would make for an excellent piece of fiction but it never delivers. The injustice issue is never explored to any depth so we’re left to focus on the marriage and the individuals within that relationship. Interesting but not rivetting.

I can understand why this book has resonated with many readers. But I don’t think it’s special enough  to have won the Women’s Prize. Certainly not when the truly remarkable novel  Milkman by Anna Burns is in the frame.

Tayari Jones: Key Facts  

  • Tayari Jones was born in Atlanta, Georgia.
  • She is currently a member of the English faculty at Emory University in the city.
  • She had three novels published before An American Marriage.
  • Her  debut novel, Leaving Atlanta, was written when she was a graduate student. It’s a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-81. 
  • Her second novel The Untelling and her third Silver Sparrow are  also set in Atlanta.

Intense novel shows a city in turmoil: Milkman by Anna Burns [Review]

Milkman by Anna Burns

 

The Troubles in Ireland

Imagine a world where it’s dangerous to be different.

Where people with cameras lurk in bushes to capture your every action.

Where masked  paramilitary “heroes” dole out summary justice to suspected informers.

Where almost every family you know has seen brothers, sons, sisters, fathers killed.

We’re not talking here about a fictionalised nightmarish dystopian society where every vestige of normality has broken down. The world of Anna Burns’ Milkman is an all too real place. It’s one where, though she represents them in a highly imaginative manner, these atrocities did occur.

She never names the town in which she sets the novel, nor even the country. But it’s evident she is describing her home city of Belfast, Northern Ireland during the 1970s. This was a time when the country was embroiled in sectarian warfare and the city of Belfast was at the heart of what became labelled as “The Troubles”.

Dangerous to read and walk

Anna Burns tackles the conflict through the eyes of an unnamed 18-year-old girl. She’s an oddity in her neighbourhood because she has no interest in marriage or babies and she reads books.   She reads while she walks, usually 19th century novels.

I didn’t see anything wrong with this but it became something else to be added as further proof against me. ‘Reading-while-walking’ was definitely on the list.

This unusual behaviour draws the attention of one of the high-ups in the paramilitary organisation – Milkman – a man who begins to shadow her and treat her as if she’s his property.  He has the disconcerting habit of turning up when she least expects him: when she’s out running, as she leaves her French evening classes. He’s creepy and threatening (he says he’ll kill her boyfriend unless she ends that relationship) but in this city it doesn’t do to cross such a powerful figure.

Having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack by something that wasn’t there?

The predicament of the narrator, known only as “middle sister”, intensifies when rumours begin that she’s having an affair with this older married man. She’s now “beyond the pale” in the eyes of her community. They daren’t openly attack her for fear of retribution upon their own families but they can still make their distaste evident. Even a simple task like buying chips for her sisters’ supper becomes loaded with hostility.

A City in Turmoil

Milkman is a powerful and intense novel about a city in turmoil and a population  fearful they will make just one wrong comment or take one false step.  Even groceries are loaded with meaning. There is “the right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’.”  Distrust of state forces is universal but so too is distrust of hospitals.

It’s not a novel that dazzled me initially. In fact I was frustrated because none of the characters were named. Instead they all have labels: “third brother-in-law”, “tablets girl”, “nuclear boy” and “maybe-boyfriend”. It felt an unnecessary artifice; the product of an author trying to be ‘too clever for their own good.’

But the book slowly wormed its way into my imagination and the more I read, the more entranced I became. Light eventually dawned that what was initially an irritant was actually a strength of the novel. The very namelessness made the novel more sinister, as if the world Burns is describing is impossible to comprehend in normal terms and where individual expression and identity have been lost among the violence and political speak.

Powerful voice of narrator

The narrator is a tremendous creation. She tries to maintain a chippy devil-may-care attitude but she is left isolated and ground down by the association with the milkman

Few people other than “the real milkman” come to her help or speak up on her behalf. She tries to reach out for help but “Ma”, “Maybe-Boyfriend” and “Oldest Friend” all believe the rumours, seeing her as a  Jezebel involved in an affair with a older, married man, rather than the innocent victim of  a creepy stalker.  She even comes to doubt her own version of events: “Was he actually doing anything?” she wonders. “Was anything happening?”

It was not until years later that she more fully appreciates what had happened:

I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man,” … “Also by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.”

Milkman is a strange novel. When it was announced as the winner of the Booker Prize in 2018, there were many comments about how ‘challenging’ it was to read. It was compared with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy because of its stream of consciousness, digressive narrative and non linear structure.   It’s certainly unconventional.  It’s definitely original. I consider it one of the best and most deserving winners of the Booker Prize in recent years.


Milkman: Key Facts

Milkman by Anna Burns

  • Milkman, by Anna Burns, was published by Faber and Faber in 2018.
  • The Chair of the Booker judges,  Kwame Anthony Appiah, described the language as ” simply marvellous;  beginning with the distinctive and consistently realised voice of the funny, resilient, astute, plain-spoken, first-person protagonist.”
  • Milkman was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019

Anna Burns: Key Facts 

  • Anna Burns has drawn on her upbringing in a working-class, Catholic family in the troubled city of Belfast in all three of her novels – Milkman, Little Constructions (2007) and No Bones. 
  • She wrote Milkman while suffering excruciating back pain and struggling to make ends meet (she resorted to using food banks which she thanks in the acknowledgments of the book).
  • She is considering using part of her Booker prize money to pay for treatment on her back. If it’s not successful she has said, she doesn’t feel she will be able to write again.

Why I read Milkman

Although I have a cut off date of 2015 for my Booker prize reading project, I do read the later winners if they appeal to me. Milkman was the first since 2015 which held any appeal.

It just about qualifies for ReadingIrelandMonth2019 hosted by Cathy at 746books.com

Fantastic tale of loss: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje [review]

Warlight by Michael OndatjeeMichael Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight, is a stunning tale about loss and displacement set in the mysterious world of espionage.

It opens in 1945 when 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister Rachel discover their parents are off to Singapore, supposedly in connection with their father’s job.

They are left in the care of a strange man called The Moth and an odd assortment of his friends who drift in and out of the house in Ruvigny Gardens in London. The purpose of their visits and their connection to the absent parents only becomes clear in the second half of the book. 

Chief among the visitors is The Darter, a former boxer turned con artist, who ropes Nathaniel into his illegal nighttime expeditions through the streets and waterways of post-war London. Together they collect illegally imported greyhounds and smuggle them to racing tracks around the capital.

Education in life

The first half of the novel is essentially about Nathaniel’s education in life, when “cut loose by my parents, I was consuming everything around me.”

Through the Moth’s connections he begins working as a dishwasher at the Criterion hotel, mingling with the mainly immigrant staff, and bunking off school. And he has his first sexual experience with a girl who calls herself Agnes (we never learn her real name), in empty houses that have escaped bomb damage and are now up for sale.

In the footsteps of a spy

Part two of Warlight sees Nathaniel, now aged 28, and working in a department of an unnamed branch of British Intelligence. Though he is narrating his strange adolescence we come to realise that this book is not about him, but about his now-dead mother Rose and his attempts to piece together her life. In particular he wants to discover what happened during the final year of the war when he was left in the care of The Moth. 

In furtive forays through the basement archives of his employer, he traces his mother’s double life as a spy whose radio transmissions were monitored closely by the Nazis. But though he can piece together fragments of her life, including her narrow escape from capture, she remains an enigma. Equally puzzling is his mother’s relationship with another agent, whom she first met when she was a child and he was the boy who fell from the roof of her parents’ house while working as a thatcher.

But as Nathaniel reflects towards the end of the book that all he has done is to “step into fragments of their story”. 

We never know more than the surface of any relationship after a certain stage, just as those layers of chalk, built from the efforts of infinitesimal creatures, work in almost limitless time.

Memorable Atmosphere

Although much in this novel is murky, one thing is clear: the qualities I loved in Michael Ondaatje’s earlier novel The English Patient are in abundance in Warlight.

In particular his ability to convey character and atmosphere through sharply perceived images: Nathaniel’s night time trips through the waterways of the darkened city, his assignations with Agnes in grand mansions as greyhounds romp around the empty rooms.  They are scenes that will longer long in my memory. 

There is a poignancy too in this novel.

Nathaniel never sees his father again; his role in the whole escape to Singapore remains unclear, he cannot even find a photograph of the man.

Though he does re-unite with his mother who has hidden herself in a cottage in “a distant village, a walled garden”, the relationship between them is taut and uncomfortable. The boy’s desire to find that bond is palpable but Rose is too much on her guard to be at peace with her son, fearing that one day, she will be discovered by those who believe her actions during the war were dishonourable. 

Questions of morality

Warlight is a thoughtful book. Ondatjee doesn’t focus only on the human dimension of relationships but about the morality of actions committed during war. Rose and her fellow agents were acting in the name of piece but they were still responsible for many deaths It’s a point that Nathaniel reflects upon:

In this post-war world, twelve years later, it felt to some of us, our heads bowed over the files brought to us daily, that it was no longer possible to see who held a correct moral position.

Warlight is such an outstanding novel that I am completely perplexed how it didn’t win the Booker Prize in 2018.

Reading Horizons: Episode 13

Reading Horizons,  12 December, 2018

What are you currently reading? 

I have multiple books on the go at the moment.

I’m meant to be reading A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James because it is one of only two unread titles in my Booker prize project. However, I’m finding it hard going because it has so many different characters (75 in total), several of whom pop up at different points to tell their part of the story. I keep forgetting who all these people are and have to refer to the character list to discover whether the current narrator is the local CIA head, a Colombian drug gang member, a hooker or a journalist. Adding to the difficulty is that parts of the narration are in Jamaican patois. So it’s not the ideal novel to read late at night…..

Which is why I’m also reading The Next Big Thing by Anita Brookner. It’s another of her intense character portraits about loneliness and characters who long for something else in their lives. Hertz Fritz has led a very unremarkable life. Now 73 years old he ponders what he is going to do with the time he has remaining. He could leave London and move to Paris. He could become a regular guest on a chat show about art. He could remarry. He knows he needs to do something. But what???  He’s such a ditherer that I want to shake him out of his apathy and his constant worries about his health.

I’m also continuing to read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. It’s packed so full of information that I’m not able to absorb more than a few pages at a time. It’s fascinating however. I’ve learned why caffeine is absolutely the last thing you want to ingest in the evening (it blocks the hormone that tells us we need to sleep), and what happens during the different phases of sleep.

What did you recently finish reading? 

I’d never heard of Elizabeth Jolley until I saw her mentioned by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog who held an Elizabeth Jolley reading week earlier this year. She sounded so good I immediately bought two of her books.

The first – Sugar Daddy was extremely funny at times but the humour was nicely balanced with some disquieting themes. I had high expectations that my other purchase Miss Peabody’s Inheritance would be just as enjoyable. And I have certainly not been disappointed.

This is a novel within a novel about Miss Peabody, a lonely middle-aged spinster who has a boring office job and lives with her overbearing, bedridden mother. The only excitement in her life is a correspondence she begins with a writer of romance novels in Australia. Through the letters Miss Peabody is drawn into the world of the author’s newest novel. My review of this book will follow soonish….

What do you think you’ll read next?

It’s going to take me a few weeks to finish the Marlon James I suspect but in the meantime I have the next book club choice to read by early in January. We’ve chosen The Librarian by Salley Vickers. The description tells me this is about a new children’s librarian in the small town of East Mole who is on a mission to improve the lives of local children by giving them just the right books. Then she begins a scandalous affair with a married doctor. Not sure about the romance aspect of this but if this book features books then it has to be worth reading doesn’t it? 


Reading Horizons is linked to WWWednesday, a meme  hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It involves answering 3 questions:

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner [book review]

The Mars RoomShould I be so unfortunate to find myself  detained in one of Her Majesty’s prisons, I will at least, thanks to Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, have several survival strategies at my fingertips.

I will know for example that it’s possible to smuggle pills by using peanut butter to attach them to the roof of your mouth.

I’ll know how to send and receive contraband through the air vents and toilet system (making sure of course to wrap everything tightly in plastic).

And, to make up for the absence of real alcohol, I will be able to brew hooch from ketchup sachets, fruit juice cartons and a sock stuffed with bread (necessary to create the yeast) even if the result does look and smell like vomit. The secret is that  “… you got to double decant it ….. It’s got to breathe.”

Kushner displays an impressive knowledge of life inside a women’s correctional facility in California; the strip-searches, shacklings and lock downs and the rules that govern every moment and every aspect of the women’s lives.

There are lists of rules scattered through the book

No orange clothing

No clothing in any shade of blue

No white clothing

No yellow clothing

No beige or khaki clothing

No green clothing

No red clothing

No purple clothing

Wouldn’t it just have been simpler to tell these inmates what they could wear??

There are even rules about rules.

The failure to report a rule violation … is also a rule violation. The failure to report a rule violation of a failure to report a rule violation is another rule violation.

The Mars Room is a powerful indictment of the penal system as seen through a 29-year-old single mother who has been convicted of murder. We first encounter Romy Hall as she is taken by bus to the Stanville correctional facility where she will serve two consecutive life sentences with an additional six years for endangering her young son.

She’s already learned not to cry. Two years earlier on her first night in jail after her arrest she had cried uncontrollably, believing her life was over though hoping desperately that it was all a dream. But now she knows there is no point in looking ahead.

 I don’t plan on living a long life. Or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all. The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not. But not having plans doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets.

From this point, the novel moves backwards and forwards in time,  tracing her childhood and early years in the “fog-banked, treeless and bleak” streets of San Francisco. The city she inhabited is one tourists don’t get to see, a city of brothels, dive bars, casinos and strip joints, the seediest of all being The Mars Room where she worked as a lap dancer.  The man she killed was one of the regulars at the club. When he began turning up at her local supermarket and shadowing her home, she did a disappearing act only for him to track her down. The night she killed him her young son was asleep in her arms.

The Mars Room is predominantly Rachel’s story though there are narratives from two men associated with the penal system. One is a corrupt police officer now behind bars who takes pride in the crimes he committed and the other is a bit of an idealist brought in to teach literature in the prison. Neither of these interludes was anywhere as engrossing as Rachel’s own story and her interactions with fellow inmates.

What a fascinating bunch they are: the resident ultra bully Teardrop; Conan, a trans woman who uses woodwork classes to make dildos; the baby-killer Laura Lipp and, on death row, the former model Betty LaFrance,  chief brewer of the ketchup moonshine. When they’re on stage, the book comes alive.

Unfortunately, while there is much to admire in The Mars Room, it’s attraction began to fade for me in the final section. Up until this point we’d been exposed to the injustice at the heart of Romy’s situation. The court never heard how she was terrified by the man she killed because the lawyer appointed to take her case was incompetent. Once convicted she has no recourse for an appeal and no-one willing to help her when her son is taken into care.

Kushner’s narrative gives full exposure to the way the justice system has broken down. There is a wealth of information to explain how her fellow inmates are also victims; nudged into crime as a result of poverty, drugs and abuse. After a while it feels like we’re being beaten over the head until we understand the point. I found myself skipping paragraphs (never a good sign). And then it ends with a moment of epiphany that simply didn’t ring true. What started as a book that impressed me with its directness just seemed to dissolve without reaching any resolution.

I can see why the Booker Prize judges put it on the shortlist but for me it was a book that was good in parts but ultimately didn’t live up to its initial promise.

 

 

 

 

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani [book review]

Lullaby-by-Leila-SlimaniIt takes a brave author to begin a novel by revealing the ending. The strategy could have gone horribly wrong for Leïla Slimani in Lullaby; her tale of a nanny who morphs from little miss perfect into a monster.

But this is a novel so deftly written that it doesn’t matter that we we know from the first few pages that the nanny ends up killing the two children in her care. What really keeps us reading is the desire to discover her motive and to learn what brought her to commit such an appalling deed.

Slimani takes her time in providing the answers; dropping clues and leaving hints while slowly ratcheting up the tension. Though we know the outcome there is still a strong sense of dread as details are revealed.  As one reviewer commented on the back of my copy: “I defy you to read the disturbing opening sentences and not be compelled to read on.”

Compelling this novel undoubtedly is but it would be unfair to think of it purely in terms of its thrill factor.  For Slimani  has given us a novel that rests on an experience shared by many working parents in the twentieth century: the struggle between their desire for a rewarding, successful career and their desire to be with their children.

Myriam, the mother in Lullaby, is a highly intelligent  woman and ambitious. She loves her children but after a morning of tantrums and tedious domestic chores she longs for her own space. “They’re eating me alive,” she think. An unexpected meeting brings an opportunity  to return to the legal world she loved before her marriage.  Just one problem: what to do about the children? Her husband’s career as a music producer is about to take off so it’s not feasible for him to replace her as chief carer. They decide the only solution is to bring in a nanny, being careful to filter out unsuitable candidates. “No illegal immigrants […] not too old, no veils and no smokers,” they agree.

With her smartly polished shoes, prim Peter Pan collar and neatly polished nails, Louise appears the answer to their prayers. She becomes indispensable, bringing order to the couple’s cramped Paris apartment; enchanting the children with her games and stories and creating delicious meals. They treat her like a family member at times, taking her on their holiday to Greece.

“My nanny is a miracle-worker'” Myriam tells her friends and colleagues.

But the magic wears off.  After one incident involving his daughter, Paul decides he can’t stand their nanny any longer. Myriam begins to fret that she is losing the connection with her children. They relate more to their nanny than they do to her. A chilling episode involving a chicken carcass causes Myriam to think that Louise might be dangerous, or mad.

But the parental concerns come too late.

Are the murders some kind of punishment for parents who put personal ambitions ahead of their children’s wellbeing? That’s one interpretation. Equally feasible is that Slimani is making a point  about parents who entrust their precious possessions to a stranger with only the flimsiest of background checks. So wrapped up are Myriam and Paul in their own lives that they never consider their nanny has a life  — and problems — of her own.

Slimani deftly makes her readers more conscious of Louise as an individual than her employers ever do, showing this woman as a lonely figure, a woman who has never once had anyone to care for her or to make her a meal. In Myriam and Paul’s home and family she finds what she never had.  When it becomes evident that her future in this “warm hiding place” is under threat, she becomes unhinged.

Lullaby is a deeply powerful novel that asks questions but doesn’t provide any easy answers. Though I finished reading it a few weeks ago, I can’t get it out of my head. Easily the best book I’ve read this year.

Endnotes

Leila Slimani is a Franco-Moroccan writer and journalist. She is the first Moroccan woman to win France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, which she won for Lullaby. A journalist and frequent commentator on women’s and human rights, she is French president Emmanuel Macron’s personal representative for the promotion of the French language and culture. Faber will publish her new novel Adèle in February 2019

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst [Booker prize]

LineOfBeautyWhat a disappointment The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Booker Prize, turned out to be. It was so dull at times that I was tempted to abandon it in preference for the ingredients panel of a cereal packet.

It’s meant to be a novel reflecting on the nature of Britain in the 1980s, the era of Margaret Thatcher and a time of economic euphoria and ultra confidence among the privileged governing classes. This is also the decade that saw  the emergence of the Aids/HIV crisis.

Alan Hollinghurst tackles both topics  via the story of Nick Guest, a young homosexual who comes from a middle class background but has mingled with the great and the good during his time at Oxford university.   He’s invited by his friend Toby, the son of  a rising Tory MP (Gerald Fedden) to move into their upmarket family house as a lodger while he undertakes his postgraduate research on Henry James. His presence in the house gives Nick a chance to mingle with aristocrats and politicians, to party in castles, holiday in French chateaux and even to dance with the Prime Minister.

Nick is a charmer, an aesthete who is entranced by beauty in all its forms. A piece of furniture, a Gauguin painting; the shape of a man’s buttocks and especially the double “S” shape of the ogee, the  double curve cited by Hogarth as the “line of beauty”. Where the Feddens see art as a commodity, Nick appreciates beauty for its own sake.

Over the course of the novel, we see the changing nature of his relationship with the Feddens. But more fundamentally we also witness the development of Nick’s sexuality. The Feddens accept his sexuality if only to the extent of never mentioning it but when it threatens their privileged lives and Gerald’s prospects of high office, they turn on him. The tolerated lodger becomes persona non grata.

Hypocrisy is just one of the themes explored in The Line of Beauty.  The book also considers the relationship between politics and homosexuality, the bubble world of the the Conservatives in the 1980s (summed up by one civil servant “The economy’s in ruins, no one’s got a job, and we just don’t care, it’s bliss.”) and, of course, the nature of beauty.

So why do I say the novel is boring?

Firstly it’s incredibly slow especially in the first of the three sections which takes place in 1983 when Nick is in the first few months of his stay at the Feddens’ Knightsbridge home. He takes a lover for the first time, meeting him in secret in public parks and quiet streets.

Part 2 is an improvement. We now move forward to 1986 when Nick is in a relationship with Wani Ouradi, the wealthy son of a Lebanese businessman, with whom he enters the world of drugs and promiscuity.

Part 3 takes place just one year later when his lover has been diagnosed as HIV positive and deteriorating rapidly and the Feddens world is about to disintegrate.

The drama doesn’t materialise in any meaningful way until more than halfway through that second part. Until then we’re subjected to a series of eventful country-house parties and family gatherings where Nick is still very much the outsider (his surname – Guest – is a clue to his real status). They’re considerably more sedate than his other social interactions which involve sex and drugs.

The problem here is that the interest in a decadent lifestyle declined for me as rapidly as my appetite for a second ice-cream. Sex is seldom far from Nick’s mind.  He only has to see a man in a street and he immediately imagines him as a sexual partner.  But how many times do we need to know this? How many times do we need to read a passage describing furtive coke-snorting and sexual encounters?  The repetitive nature of this book made it hard to enjoy.

One critic in The Independent thought The Line of Beauty was “fabulous” and Hollinghurt’s recreation of a “bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch” was “brilliant”.  Not for the first time I find myself considerably at odds with critics and with the judges of the Booker Prize.

 

 

Booker prize shortlist 2018

And then there were six.

The Booker Prize judging panel announced today the books that have made it through to the shortlist round of the 2018 prize.

One surprise is that the biggest name on the longlist has now been removed from the prize. I’m still waiting for my copy of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight  to become available in the library but I’ve seen nothing but praise for this book so it’s strange not to find it on the shortlist.

One disappointment is that Donal Ryan’s From A Low And Quiet Sea didn’t make it through. As you can read in my review I thought this was even better than his earlier Booker contender The Spinning Heart.  

No surprises that Belinda Bauer’s Snap is not on the shortlist. Frankly it was a surprise to find it on the longlist. Much has been made of the fact that this was the first crime novel to be included in the Booker longlist. That’s not factually correct (Eleanor Catton’s The Illuminations was a crime novel in a sense) but even  Snap isn’t anything remarkable according to many comments and reviews I’ve seen in recent weeks.  I’ll reach my own conclusion shortly since this has been chosen for our next book club read.

The other longlisted title about which there was a lot of fuss was Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, the first graphic novel to be included on the list. This has now disappeared from the contenders.

So what are we left with? These are all the shortlisted titles, ranked in order by members of the Mookes and the Gripes group on Goodreads.

Robin Robertson (UK):  The Long Take (Picador): debut novel from a Scottish poet, written partly in verse. Chronicling the drift of a Canadian D-Day veteran across post-war America, Robertson fuses poetry, cinema and the traditions of noir into an elegy for a lost age.

Richard Powers (USA): The Overstory (William Heinemann): Pulitzer- winning                  novelist longlisted in 2014 for Orfeo. The Overstory is a mosaic of stories spanning time and space, joined together by the overarching strata of the world’s trees and a mission to save the last virgin forest

Daisy Johnson (UK): Everything Under (Jonathan Cape): debut novel that reimagines The Oedipal myth of divided families, inter-generational rivalry and twisted fate. Set in a remote cottage in the British countryside, the novel centres on the complex and fractured relationship between an isolated young lexicographer and her mother, a woman gradually succumbing to dementia.

Anna Burns (UK) : Milkman (Faber & Faber): described as a darkly wry – but disquieting – coming of age novel set in a thinly-disguised Belfast of the “Troubles”. The narrative focuses on a nameless, 18-year-old narrator and her affair with the somewhat sinister ‘Milkman’, a much older married man allied with the paramilitaries.

Rachel Kushner (USA): The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape):  a novel partly set in a women’s correctional facility from an author who says her inspiration is Don DeLillo. The narrative follows convict Romy Hall as she begins two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility.

Esi Edugyan (Canada): Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail): Edugyan is a previous nominee having been shortlisted in 2011 for Half-Blood Blues. Her new novel is described as a dazzlingly inventive new story of antebellum-era slavery and exploration that spans the globe.

I have three of these on hold at the library so with a little luck I might get to read at least a few before the winner is announced on October 16.

 

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