Category Archives: Book prizes

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson #BookerPrize #bookreviews

finkler question-1I tried my best but around page 150 The Finkler Question and I parted company. It’s become only the second Booker Prize winning title that I have failed to finish — in case you’re wondering, the other was The Famished Road by Ben Okri, a book so bad I couldn’t even make it past page 80 (my review explains what I hated about this book).

The Finkler Question is the story of Julian Treslove, a man who once worked on the kind of BBC Radio 3 programmes that no-one ever listens to (if you discount the insomniac man and his dog in the Outer Hebrides). He’s come down in the world and is now making a living as a celebrity lookalike. Not that he resembles anyone famous especially, he just looks like all kinds of people in general. Treslove is a man much inclined to introspection who attacks an idea with the determination and perseverance of a dog with a bone. Treslove has an identity problem. He wants to be a Jew so that he can experience the sense of belonging possessed by his two closest friends who are Jewish.

One of them, Sam Finkler, has become a celebrity as the author of popular  mainstream books on philosophy.  Treslove resents his friend’s success and hi-jacks his surname Finkler as a shorthand descriptor for the word “Jew” because “It took away the stigma ….The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins.”  Another, much older friend, is Libor Sevcik, an elderly ex-Hollywood journalist who is in mourning for his beautiful dead wife.

In essence the novel deals with Treslove’s obsession with the meaning of Jewishness, politically, socially, culturally etc. He sees it as a club to which his friends belong but from which he has always felt ostracised. But on his way home from dinner with his two pals he is mugged by a woman whose parting words, Treslove believes, are “You Jew”. He takes it as a sign that his attacker knows more than he does —t hat he is, as he has always desired to be — Jewish.

A lot of the novel up to page 150 is taken up with Treslove looking for further confirmation of his Jewishness and with the reactions of friends and family.  In between we get discussions between Finkler and Sevcik about the state of Israel. Sevcik is pro, pronouncing the word “as a holdy utterance like the cough of God” whereas the anti-Israel Finkler makes it sound as if the word denoted an illness. They’ve debated the subject so many times even they sound rather tired of it – Finkler responds with a resigned “Here we go, Holocaust, Holocaust” whenever the subject comes up, attracting the equally resigned repost from Libor “Here we go, here we go, more of the self-hating Jew stuff.”

According to The Guardian reviewer The Finkler Question is “full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding.” To me it was just dull, repetitive and self-indulgent. It seemed to move forward at snail’s pace with endless dialogue about what makes a person a Jew.  Howard Jacobson opens up an interesting line of questioning here. Is Jewishness a state of mind inherent from the time of birth? Or is it a state of mind acquired over time. Or a set of behaviours? At one conversation Treslove fails to persuade Libor that his boyhood interest in opera and the violin is significant.

That doesn’t make you Jewish. Wagner listened to opera and wanted to play the violin. Hitler loved opera and wanted to play the violin. … You don’t have to be Jewish to like music.

Interesting yes but Jacobson milks this approach, returning to the same kind of conversation over and over again without ever reaching a decision to act. It’s quite tedious. By the time I’d reached page 150 I’d had enough of Treslove’s persistent introspection. He’s not a character I cared enough about to want to know  whether his deliberations reached any satisfactory conclusion. I just wanted to grab him by the scruff of his neck and shake some sense into him.

Footnotes

About the Book: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010. Jacobson was the rank outsider for the £50,000 prize – the money was on Emma Donaghue to win with Room or Tom McCarthy’s C . 

About the author: Howard Jacobson was born in 1942 in Manchester, UK. He went to Cambridge university studying English under the tutelage of F.R Leavis. He pursued an academic career in Australia and then the UK. His first novel Coming from Behind, was published when he was in his 40s.

Why I read this book: It’s one of the remaining 10 titles in my Booker prize project. I also made it one of my 20booksofsummer titles 

 

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki [Book Review] #20booksofsummer

Tale for timeIf you’d asked me a few weeks ago whether I’d be likely to enjoy a novel about everything from Zen and the meaning of time to the Japanese tsunami and environmental degradation, I’d probably have said no way. But not only did I enjoy A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki it’s turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

This is a novel that addresses big themes that transcend cultures and borders yet it starts at the level of one individual. In a Tokyo cafe where waitresses dress up as French maids, 16 year old Nao (pronounced as “now”) Yasutani  pours out her thoughts into a diary. Her journal is an attempt to deal with the severe loneliness and feelings of alienation she has experienced since her father lost his lucrative hi-tech job in Silicon Valley, California  and the family had to move back to Japan. They live in a one bed room apartment; her mother sits for hours in front of a tank of jellyfish at the aquarium, her father, unable to get a job, has attempted suicide. Nao has been bullied, ostracised and humiliated at school and is herself contemplating suicide. But first she will write the life story of her 104-year-old grandmother Jiko, a nun who lives in a remote Buddhist temple in north-eastern Japan.

More than a decade later, the diary, wrapped in a Hello Kitty lunchbox and freezer bags covered in barnacles, is washed ashore on an island in British Columbia where it’s discovered by Ruth, an author.  As she reads the Nao’s words Ruth becomes sucked into the mystery of the girl’s life.   How has the diary wound up here on the other side of the world? Did it float across the Pacific on one of the huge gyres of waste she learns about from her husband Oliver?  How long had the package been tossed about in the sea? What happened to Nao – did she kill herself or was she a victim of the tsunami in 2011? Can Ruth find and save her? Questions that compel Ruth to frantically hunt the Internet, seek insight from local marine experts and help with translation. Each time she thinks she is making progress, she hits another dead end.

The novel oscillates between first person excerpts from Nao’s diary and third person narration in which Ruth reacts to the diary and the other documents. New layers of story emerge and new connections are made. In the lunchbox, Ruth discovers letters from Jiko’s son, Haruki, a young man forced to give up his studies and become a kamikaze pilot during the last days of the Second World War. In the letters, written in French so his commanding officers cannot understand them, he reveals his fears about the task he has been ordered to undertake. The package also contains Haruki’s watch which miraculously still keeps time.

Time of course is one of the threads that holds the novel together. The slippery nature of time is one of Nao’s preoccupations. She calls herself a “time being.  … someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and everyone of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”  She captures her thoughts about her “last days on Earth” in a diary bound within the covers of an old copy of Proust’s  A la Recherché du Temps Perdu. As she recounts her past, she wonders not only who will read her story, but also when she will catch up to her present and what catching up will feel like. At the same time, she seems to believe that “now” is an impossibility because it keeps disappearing:

In the time it takes to say now, now is already over. It’s already thenThen is the opposite of now. So saying now obliterates its meaning, turning it into exactly what it isn’t. It’s like the word is committing suicide or something.

She invites her imagined reader to count the moments of the now with her. Across the years and across the ocean Ruth tries to keep in time with Nao, forcing herself to slow down the pace at which she reads the journal. Reading it at the same pace at which Nao wrote it, will she reasons, enable her to “more closely replicate Nao’s experience.”  It’s left to Ruth’s husband Oliver to provide a logical explanation for the conflation of past and present she experiences, using the experiment known as Schrödinger’s cat as evidence that an object (or Nao herself) may be simultaneously both alive and dead.

Philosophical explorations of quantum mechanics, discussions about crow species and the anatomy of barnacles populate A Tale for the Time Being. It’s a dizzying array of ideas which sometimes threaten to overwhelm the reader (especially if you also pay attention to the 163 footnotes and six appendices). What holds it all together is Nao’s voice. She’s a direct and engaging narrator, holding little back in her account of her fears for her father and the despair when a disturbing film about her goes viral through social media.  What saves  her is her relationship with her grandmother. During a summer holiday at the temple Nao learns how to control her anger, empty her mind and express gratitude for the simplest things in life. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for this girl in her pain and her desire for love. 

If you want a novel that deals with both the big and the small issues,  A Tale for the Time Being ticks all the boxes. It’s quite mesmerising in scope but at the heart of it is a young girl reaching out across time and space for help.

Footnotes

About the Book: A Tale for the Time Being is Ozeki’s third novel. It was longlisted for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Award and shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize.

About the Author: A native of Connecticut, Ruth Ozeki immersed herself in English and Asian Studies college and through extensive travel in Asia. After working in cinematic set design and television production, she became an independent filmmaker. Ozeki’s two earlier novels, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, were both recognized as Notable Books by The New York Times. An ordained Zen Buddhist priest, Ozeki divides her time between New York and British Columbia. There are numerous parallels between the author and the character of Ruth in A Tale for the Time Being – aside from sharing a name, they are each married to a man called Oliver, have a mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s, a moody cat and have a house on an island in Desolation Sound. 

Why I read this book: I heard about this book when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was considered to be a strong contender (though some reviewers said they felt the section set in British Columbia was weaker than the Tokyo sections). I never got around to reading it but then found a copy in a library sale. It’s one of the books on my 20booksofsummer reading list.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang [book review]

The-Vegetarian-Han-Kang-2I stopped eating meat about 30 years ago as an experiment in healthy eating. Like Yeong-hye, the central character in The Vegetarian, I came in for many challenges from certain members of my family who couldn’t understand why I wanted to forsake what, for them, was a standard element of any meal. Fortunately I had a more cohesive answer than the one Yeong-hye gives her husband: “I had a dream.” she tells him when he discovers her sat on the floor of their kitchen in Seoul, surrounded by packets of meat she has thrown out of the freezer.

We learn, though her husband doesn’t, that her dream is grotesque, bloody and aggressive. And so is the reaction to her decision. Her husband frets about how this will look to his boss who invites them for dinner (the resulting occasion is a painful event). father, so incensed that she will not eat the delicacies prepared for a family lunch, tries to force a piece of sweet-and-sour pork into her mouth. In protest Yeong-hye stabs herself.

And yet who would have imagined this of a woman whose nature until then had been so docile and insignificant; the very reason her husband chose her for his bride was that she was “completely unremarkable in every way”. And yet here she is refusing to wear a bra, defying Korean cultural expectations by putting her own needs above those of family and husband,  and to eat only plants even though she is clearly starving herself. Only her brother in law, an unsuccessful video artist, finds her attractive. Unfortunately he’s not interested in her as such, only in Yeong-hye as a body, a canvas upon which he can paint giant flowers and plants. She becomes the object of his sexually-charged obsession that transforms her body into a “huge, abstracted plant.”

The Vegetarian is told in three acts which have distinctive differences in language from measured prose to almost hallucinatory description and to fragmented internal monologues where we get to learn what is going on in Yeong-hye’s mind.

Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts; nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I’m okay. Still okay. So why do they keep on shrinking? Not even round anymore. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening–what am I going to gouge

The first act, narrated by her husband interposed by Yeong-hye’s dreams, deals with her decision and her family’s reaction;  the second is narrated by her brother-in-law and the third by her sister In-hye; the only member of the family who seems genuinely to care for Yeon-hye. She maintains contact when all others abandon the woman, unable to deal with her increasingly bizarre actions. But In-hye’s patience is tested severely when she visits her sister to learn she believes she is a tree, taking sustenance only from the soil, violently refusing attempts to force feed her when placed in a mental institution.

“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”

This is a portrait of disintegration. Yeong-hye’s rebellion causes her mental faculties to collapse and lead to the destruction of two families. It’s also a quite unflinching portrait about the clash between personal desire and conformity to expectations of behaviour in a society that denies such desires. Repeatedly we’re shown the clash between desire and denial in a way that asks disturbing questions about the nature of personal choice and ownership of one’s body in Korean society.

For a short novel, this is a startling piece of work. It’s disturbing in its portrayal of mental collapse, provocative in its portrayal of rebellion against conformity and unstinting with its descriptions of bleeding, vomiting, and manic behaviour. This is not a novel you can say you ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’ but it’s certainly one that you will not forget.

Footnotes

About the book: The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith was published in 2015. It was considered ‘very extreme and bizarre’ in Korea on first publication but has since been translated into more than 20 languages. The Vegetarian won the International Man Booker Prize in 2016. Han Kang has gone on record that the inspiration for the book, initially published as three novellas, was a line by a modernist poet Yi Sang: ‘I believe that humans should be plants.’ which obsessed her while she was at university. Further insights on the book are in an interview for the White Review. 

About the author: Han Kang comes from a literary family in Korea, her father is a novelist and her brother a writer. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University, South Korea.  She is the winner of several awards including the Yi Sang Literary Prize (2005), Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. Since 2013 she has been teaching creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. 2016 saw the publication in translation of Human Acts which begins with the massacre of students in South Korea in 1980.  If you don’t know her work, you can get a taste with the short story Fruit of My Woman on the Granta website 

Why I read this book: I bought The Vegetarian as a way of  making up for my large deficiency of knowledge of writers from Asia. It’s the first book I’ve read from my 20booksof summerproject for 2017.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett #bookreview

Bel CantoAnn Patchett’s Bel Canto makes a grand claim for the power of music not only to sustain the spirit in the bleakest of times but even to transform a life.

In an unnamed South American country,  the world-renowned soprano Roxane Coss sings at a birthday party in honour of a visiting Japanese industrial magnate. She’s the bait in a plan by the hosts to persuade Mr Katsumi Hosokawa, one of her biggest fans, to rescue their failing economy by building an electronics factory in their country. Unfortunately the plans go awry because on the night of the party in the vice presidential mansion, a band of guerrillas swarm in through the air ducts. Their quarry is the president but he’s nowhere to be found having decided he much preferred to stay home watching his favourite  TV soap opera rather than entertain a room of distinguished and powerful diplomats and leaders from around the world.

Taking advantage of a bad situation the invaders decide to take all the party goers hostage and use them as bargaining tools to secure the release of their comrades held in prison. They’re pretty ineffective negotiators and not much better at controlling the hostages. It soon becomes clear that it’s the soprano who is calling the shots. During the month-long standoff with neither government nor guerrillas giving ground, her singing keeps the atmosphere calm. Soon the guerrillas are running around to satisfy her whims just to keep her singing — one minute they are finding dental floss and herbal throat lozenges for her, the next it’s musical scores she needs.

Unexpected talents and depths of character emerge during the stand-off. The vice president for example assumes the dual roles of housekeeper and gracious host:

He seemed to think that the comfort of his guests was still his responsibility. He was always serving sandwiches and picking up cups. He washed the dishes and swept and twice a day he mopped up the floors in the lavatories. With a dishtowel knotted around his waist, he took on the qualities of a charming hotel concierge … Everyone was very fond of Ruben. Everyone had completely forgotten that he was the Vice President of the country.

Near the end of the stand-off he has a moment of epiphany in the garden, appreciating for the first time the sensation of grass beneath his feet and the scent of flowers. And he resolves there and then to be a better man, a better father and a better husband.

Change comes to the rebels too. Enchanted by the grandeur of their surroundings they begin wandering through the house sniffing hand lotion and snaffling pistachio nuts. They become so hooked on a TV drama (the same one that delights the president) much to the disgust of their commander,  they begin missing drills or fitting them in around the program schedules.

Amid the tension, love is kindled. For Mr Hosokawa, proximity to his idol is a dream come true. He has already seen her 18 times in performances around the world, often inventing business trips that will place him in the audience. Hearing her in the close, intimate setting of the besieged mansion, admiration burgeons into love. Captivity also brings romantic fulfilment for his loyal translator Gen Watanabe, in the form of a guerrilla fighter appropriately named Carmen for whom her time in the house is the happiest point in her life.

Roxane and Mr Hosokawa, Gen and Carmen are the novel’s principals but they are surrounded by a strong cast including a Frenchman, Simon Thibault, who weeps into the stole his beloved wife leaves behind when all the women except Roxane are allowed to leave. There’s a Red Cross representative who interrupts his holiday to act as a hostage negotiator though in his suit and tie he looks more like “an earnest representative of an American religion” and a chain-smoking Russian, who makes an unexpectedly delicate declaration of love, regaling Roxane with mournful and meandering childhood stories.

What unites the 50 or so people thrust together in the mansion, is music.

Mr Hosokawa’s eleventh birthday was a life-changing experience. It was the first time he heard opera,  a moment imprinted on his eyelids that marked the beginning of his love affair with music, a love that surpassed all other interests and responsibilities.

The records he cherished, the rare opportunities to see a live performance, those were the marks by which he gauged his ability to love. Not his wife, his daughters or his work. He never thought that he had somehow transferred what should have filled his daily life into opera. Instead he knew that without opera, this part of himself would have vanished forever.

In the vice presidential music a young priest undergoes a similar experience when he hears opera sung live for the first time.

It was different in ways he could never have imagined, as if the voice were something that could be seen. Certainly it could be felt … It trembled inside the folds of his cassock, brushed against the skin of his cheeks. Never had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one who stood so close to God that God’s own voice poured from her. How far she must have gone inside herself to call up that voice. It was as if the voice came from the center part of the earth and by the sheer effort and diligence of her will she had pulled it up through the dirt and rock and through the floorboards of the house, up into her feet, where it pulled through her, reaching, lifting, warmed by her, and then out of the white lily of her throat and straight to God in heaven. It was a miracle and he wept for the gift of bearing witness.

For her part Roxane comes to appreciate the true power of the music that has been her life’s work, causing her to sing ”as if she was saving the life of every person in the room.” Patchett’s idea of the power of music does strain too far however when Roxane takes an interest in one of the rebels she discovers is a musical prodigy, able to repeat perfectly the notes and lines that she sings. As if her readers don’t really understand that this talent could be his escape route from poverty, Patchett makes the General her mouthpiece:

It makes you wonder, All the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected  we knew how.

Such a cod piece of philosophy strikes a really duff note in an otherwise absorbing and finely tuned novel about the the various ways in which human connections can be forged, even in the most unlikely of circumstances and situations.

Footnotes

About the book: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett was first published in UK by Fourth Estate in 2001. My paperback copy dates from 2002. Bel Canto won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2002. The novel is loosely inspired by an event in December 1996 when members of a guerrilla group entered the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru, seized nearly 600 hostages and demanded the release of a number of political prisoners. The resulting siege lasted four months.

About the author: Ann Patchett was born in Los Angeles in 1963. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. Bel Canto is her fourth novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy [Booker Prize]

God of all ThingsThe God of Small Things, the debut (and to date sole) novel by Arundhati Roy sparked a hoo-ha when it was announced as the winner of the Booker Prize in 1979.  A lawyer from Kerala (Roy’s home state in India and the setting for the book) filed a complaint of obscenity against the author. Reviews in the USA were extremely positive but those in the UK, less so. The Chairman of the Booker judges, Gillian Beer, a professor of English literature at Cambridge praised the book for its ”extraordinary linguistic inventiveness” but some commentators said it was too popularist. One previous Booker judge called the novel “execrable” and The Guardian newspaper labelled it  “profoundly depressing”.

Was I reading a completely different novel to the one read by the UK critics? I’d agree that The God of Small Things is not an ‘uplifting’ book – it’s one you read it with a sense of sadness for the characters whose lives take a turn for the worse. But depressing? No way. It’s thoughtful, insightful and an often funny tale of the decline and fall of the dysfunctional Kochamma family who “tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how.” As for the allegation of ‘popularism’ I’d be mightily offended by that if I were the author  for it’s a term that suggests a kind of book that can be read without taxing the brain too much wheras Roy’s novel is full of ideas and questions about the caste system, communism and family loyalty.  Added to this are the insights we gain into aspects of life in Kerala including the growth of Communism and the tradition of the Kathakali dance.

The novel opens with one of the members of the Kochamma family returning to her childhood home at Ayemenen House in Kerala at the southernmost tip of India. This is where Rahel (one half of the Kochamma “two-egg twins” ) lived for seven years with her brother Estha and their proud, beautiful mother Ammu who bears the stain of a divorce from her alcoholic, violent husband. Other residents include the twins’ blind grandmother Mammachi, their beloved uncle Chacko (Rhodes scholar, serial womaniser) and their great-aunt Baby Kochamma. Ayemenen House was once an elegant property befitting the proprietors of a successful chutney and pickle business but by the time of Rahel’s return the gardens are overgrown, the windows are filthy, the corpses of insects litter the rooms and grease dulls the shine of the doorknobs. The only occupants are Baby Kochamma, now a fat old woman who spends her days sprawled on a sofa watching soap operas beamed in via a huge satellite dish, her maid and Estha, now a young man who refuses to speak.

It’s Estha that Rahel has come to visit. They were inseparable as children, thinking of themselves

 … together as Me, and separately, individually as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.

For the first seven years of their life they rode above the antagonisms and tensions of the household with a blend of affection and inexhaustible energy. But when Chacko decides to bring his estranged wife and his daughter Sophie Mol to Ayemenen for Christmas, the twins are jolted into a realisation that their mother’s love cannot be taken for granted. Their ensuing jealousy of Sophie Mol has tragic consequences.

Twenty-five years have passed since Rahel and Estha last saw each other. It the night Sophie drowned in a river.   What happened that night, what part the twins played and why Sophie’s death had such damaging consequences for the family is something we learn only in fragments “resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for.” Roy’s reconstruction of the past is a circuitous one, told via flashbacks and foreshadowings whose significance becomes apparent only when all the strands come together at the end of the novel.

It could make for a deeply frustrating read but what captivated me and sustained my interest throughout was the exuberance of the characters and the richness of the writing itself. The twins’ private language is a case in point. They love all forms of word play, including reading backwards, but particularly the one where they take words and phrases  uttered by adults and twist and distort them into their own version.  Instructed for example to be good ‘Ambassadors of India’, when they meet Sophie Mol at the airport, they instantly adopt new titles as  ‘Ambassador E. Pelvis’ (reflecting Estha’s love of pointy shoes and quiffed hairstyle) and Ambassador S. (stick) Insect’ (for the moth disovered by her father that flutters in Rahel’s heart).  On the way home they give a rendition of the song they’ve been taught to sing in welcome:

RejOice in the Lo-Ord Or-Orlways

And Again I say re-jOice

Their Prer NUN sea ayshun was perfect

This is writing that dances and sparkles with nonsensical rhymes, jokes and rogue capital letters that perfectly capture the effervescent nature of the twins, often with tremendous comic effect.

The twins of course are at the heart of the novel. It is their reaction to Sophie Mol’s visit that provide the impetus for Sophie’s death and for a revelation about their mother’s love affair with Velutha, an Untouchable, that will be her and her family’s undoing. But my favourite character is Baby Kochamma, a woman who in her youth fell in love with a Roman Catholic priest and converted to his faith to try and win him. Embittered by her failure she degenerates into a mean, resentful figure who loves nothing more than stirring  up trouble for everyone else.  So determined is she to protect her family’s reputation from the shame of Ammu’s forbidden love, that she fabricates a story that Velutha is a rapist and a child abductor just so he can be got out of the way. The grossness of this woman’s mind is matched by her physical presence.

In the old house on the hill Baby Kochamma sat at the dining table rubbing the thick, frothy bitterness out of an elderly cucumber. She was wearing a limp, checked, seersucker nightgown with puffed sleeves and yellow tumeric stains. Under the tale she swing her tiny, manicured feet, like a small child on a high chair. They were puffy with oedema like little foot-shaped air cushions. …

She was eighty three. Her eyes spread like butter behind her thick glasses. … Her hair, dyed jetblack, was arranged across her scalp like unspooled thread. The dye had saine the skin of her forehead a pale grey, giving her a shadowy second hairline. .. A sly touch of rouge. And because the house was locked and dark and because she only believed in 40 watt bulbs, her lipstick mouth had shifted slightly off her real mouth.

 

 

With characterisation this glorious, with language that dances and dazzles and with a story that mingles sadness with joy,  The God of Small Things has become one of the best novels I’ve read all year.

Footnotes

About the book: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy was published by Flamingo in the UK in 1997. It went on to win the Booker Prize in 1997, was listed as one of the New York Times Notable Books of the Year that same year and reached fourth position on the New York Times Bestsellers list for Independent Fiction.

About the author: The God of Small Things is semi-autobiographical, reflecting Arundhati Roy’s childhood experiences in Aymanam, Kerala. Though its success gave her financial security she turned her back on fiction writing to devote herself to political activism.  She is a spokesperson of the anti-globalization/alter-globalization movement and a vehement critic of neo-imperialism and U.S. foreign policy.  Late in 2016 Hamish Hamilton UK and Penguin India announced she was working on a new novel – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – with a publication date of June 2017.

Why I read this book: It’s one of the Booker Prize winners I hadn’t got around to reading. 

 

 

 

 

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I wouldn’t like to be drawn against Graeme Macrae Burnet in any game that requires participants to keep a straight face while lying through one’s teeth. He’d be far too good for me to spot if he was telling porkies.  Not that I know the man personally you understand – I’m basing my depiction of his character entirely on the subterfuge he concocts in his novel His Bloody Project. 

This is a book that is written to make you think it’s a true story. It’s subtitled “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae” for one thing and contains a preface declaring that these  documents relate to a murder trial that the author uncovered while researching his family history.  The  documents ‘found’ in the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness include a manuscript in “handwriting… admirably clear with only the most occasional crossings-out and false starts” about a triple murder.  Burnet keeps up the fiction that this is a ‘true’ story through the rest of the book, presenting it in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial. And so we get witness statements, a written account by Roderick Macrae, the 17-year-old crofter  accused of the murders, an extract from a (fictional) investigation by the (real) pioneering criminologist James Bruce Thomson and local newspaper accounts of the trial.

But this is neither a story about one of his ancestors nor a fictionalised account of a real incident. However, according to a newspaper interview with Burnet there is some grain of truth in His Bloody Project. In the novel, for example two of Roderick Macrae’s uncles die in a shipwreck – a similar accident befell two of Burnet’s own family around the same time as the novel is set and close to the location of the fictional tragedy. There actually was a triple murder committed some forty years earlier by a crofter just like Roderick Macrae but both these incidents only came to light after Burnet had finished the first draft of his novel.

This is one ingeniously plotted novel. We know from the early part of the book that Roderick is in prison accused of beating to death the local constable Lachlan Mackenzie who had waged a war of intimation against his father. There is no question that Roderick is the culprit – he was seen with blood on his hands and he confessed to his actions. In his testimony he says “I carried out these acts with the sole purpose of delivering from father from the tribulations he had lately suffered.” What we don’t know at the start of the book is who the other two victims are nor why he might have killed them. His former teacher describes him as an exceptionally intelligent boy who could have gone on to greater things but for his father’s insistence that he works on the land. Neighbours however describe him as a bit of an idiot, a lad who was always “wrong in the head.” Did he intend to kill or did he suffer a temporary loss of sanity, a form of moral insanity so that he is not responsible in law for his actions?  The prison doctor and a criminologist are brought in to give their opinions on the state of his mind, leading to some blackly funny dialogue about whether all murderers share common physical characteristics.

The book’s pretence at veracity is one of the pleasures of reading His Bloody Project. Along with that we have the presence of not just one, but several unreliable narrators to keep us wondering where truth lies. Add to the mix the fact Macrae brings into focus the hardships of life for poor crofting families in the Highlands of Scotland who have to scratch a living from impoverished soil, and you have a highly enjoyable reading experience. A minor niggle for me was the lucidity of Macrae’s testimony – he makes an apology at the outset for “the poverty of my vocabulary and rudeness of style’ and then proceeds to turn in some fluid and perfectly grammatical prose. Even the schoolteacher’s assessment of the boy’s superior intellect didn’t convince me that a boy from such a poor background with little formal education beyond a village school could write so coherently.  Overall it didn’t markedly spoil my enjoyment of what was in essence a well conceived and well executed novel that I highly recommend.

Footnotes

The Book: His Bloody Project was published in 2015 by the small independent publisher Saraband. It went on to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016.  Though it was considered an outsider because it fell into the genre of crime fiction (which isn’t a genre the Booker judges tend to select), it beat off strong competition to get onto the shortlist.

The Author: Born and brought up in Kilmarnock, Graeme Macrae Burnet worked for several years as an English teacher in Prague, Bordeaux, Porto and London, before returning to Glasgow and working for eight years for various independent television companies. His first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (Contraband, 2014), received a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust. His Bloody Project is his second novel. His third is currently in progress.

Why I read this book: The day the Booker longlist was published I noticed this book was available an an e-version at a ridiculously low price so I bought it intending to read it before the shortlist announcement. I started it but got the impression it would be one of those books that has crucial information at the beginning so you need to keep turning back – which I find impossible to do on an e-reader. I requested a hard copy instead from the library but it arrived when I was out of the country and then I didn’t have time to read it so back it went unopened. But clearly the fates were determined I would read this because in February my sister turns up to visit me in hospital with a paperback copy, declaring “you really should read this.” Who could argue with that? So third time lucky for Mr Burnet…

 

 

The Best of the Booker winners

I’ve never met Joslyn except through her blog Chronic Bibliophilia. Her home is in Massachusetts, USA. Mine is in Wales, UK. Thousands of miles separate us physically but we are united by one thing – our interest in the novels that win what’s considered one of the most prestigious prizes in the literary world: The Booker Prize. Over the last few years each of us has been reading through the list of winners.

Which of these are our favourites – we asked each other that question and came up with vastly different answers. Here we chat about the progress we’ve made and pick our top 3 titles from the winners we’ve read so far.

Joslyn’s Top 3 Booker winners

JosylnJoslyn @Chronic Bibliophilia

Born and raised in the US, my lifelong bibliophila was initially heavily biased towards American works, a bias imposed by convenience rather than ideology. As I child, I aspired to read all of the Newbery Medal winners – awarded annually for the most distinguished American children’s book. Though that project didn’t survive adolescence, in my early adulthood I found myself formulating a similar goal – to read all of the Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction. Again, this was a prestigious list of feted works by Americans. When I actually completed the Pulitzer project in 2012, I felt compelled to expand my reading horizons and to take on a new challenge. Two UK-led prizes – the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize – shimmered in front of me like irresistible bait. I was hooked. Within a few years, I finished these prize lists, as well.

To my mind the Booker’s Prize list is one list that is particularly fraught with inconsistencies – stocked equally with exquisite masterpieces and near misses. Though there are a number of award winners which were quickly read and forgotten, however, some of the finest works on this list remain among the top books I’ve read. 

Booker top 3

Selecting the creme de la creme was a painful process, but eventually I arrived at what, for now at least, are my top three Booker Prize winners – “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, “Possession” by A.S. Byatt, and “The Bone People” by Keri Hulme.

“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel

In “Life of Pi”, Yann Martel spins an engaging story, an epic reminiscent of the Odyssey for its magic and mystery. Pi, a young Indian boy, is lost at sea after the cargo ship upon which he, his family, and their zoo animals, were attempting to emigrate, sinks. Pi valiantly finds his way to the one and only lifeboat, but soon he realizes that he is not alone. Far from bringing him comfort, his newly discovered companions put him in even graver danger. This story is full of bigger-than-life events and, as a reader, I willingly suspended disbelief early on, finding myself taking for granted the possibilities (and impossibilities) laid out throughout the tale.

“The Bone People” by Keri Hulme

1985’s winner, “The Bone People”, also has its mystical moments as it explores the intersection of a dwindling Maori culture and the crush of modernity. Kerewin is a misanthrope, shut off in an odd cottage of her own making, eschewing any interaction with the outside world. Her peace, self-torturous though it seems, is interrupted when a young mute boy finds his way into her home and gradually into her steely heart. Keri Hulme has written what I suspect is a partly autobiographical story of isolation, culture, and the definition of family. The main characters are troubling and troubled, finding themselves and each other in a complicated world. The storytelling is beautiful, painful, and heart-stopping

“Possession” by A.S. Byatt

The book nerd and researcher in me was immediately tantalized by this book. “Possession” tells the story of two literary scholars who discover and dissect letters between two tragic latter-day poets. It is part mystery, part scholarship, part romance, crafted in intricate and dazzling measure, woven like a centuries-old tapestry full of impossible detail and discovery. Byatt explores the interplay between passion and ambition, desire and drive. I was astounded by how good this book was. The experience was visceral, the story deeply moving.

About Chronic Bibliophilia

For as far back as I can remember, reading has been more than a past time for me. Reading is breakfast; it is a hot shower; it is sleep on the perfect pillow. Sure, I could go a day without it. But why on earth would I? Chronic Bibliophilia chronicles my journey as I endeavor to become a ridiculously well-read human being. This blog provides reflections, reviews, and recommendations from a reading list focused on supporting and highlighting the voices that continue to face suppression. I believe that this project has changed not just what I read, but how I read and how I think. I hope you’ll join me on my literary odyssey. Click here to visit Chronic Bibliophilia and to sign up to follow the blog.

Karen @BookerTalk.com 

BookerTalkI’m from Wales which for those of you who are geographically challenged, is a country within the UK. I’m one of those people that helps keep the publishing industry afloat since I simply cannot resist buying books. I’ve  been like this ever since I was a child, saving up my pocket money just so I could by the latest Enid Blyton. Naturally my tastes have evolved since then … My adventures in the world of the Booker prize started just over five years ago. I’m not exactly sure what triggered the idea – probably I’d just heard something on the radio about the latest winner – but I started to think about the whole question of why some novels are deemed ‘better’ than others. Maybe, I thought, if I read all the winners of one of the most prestigious literary prizes, I might find the answer. Although I’ve now read 39 of the winners the answer is still proving elusive.

Reaction to Joslyn’s choices

It’s been fascinating to see how different Joslyn’s choices are from my own. I enjoyed Life of Pi, far more than I expected to given that relies on magical realism which not my favourite technique. I didn’t rate it as highly as Joslyn does however – it’s  currently ranked at number 13 on my list of the Booker titles I’ve read. Possession trails a long way behind at number 31 in my list. I appreciated A. S Byatt’s ability to weave the Victorian era and the contemporary period stories together but looking back at my review I see that I didn’t find the characters very convincing and the poetry I found tedious. The Bone People, is currently ranking at number 28 in my list. I would have ranked it higher if Keri Hulme hadn’t gone and introduced a set of mystical creatures right towards the end. It spoiled what was otherwise an intriguing novel that kept me engaged even if sometimes I wasn’t sure what I was reading.

Karen’s Top 3 Booker winners

Favourite top 3 Booker winners copy

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

The winner in 2012, this is the follow up to her 2009 Booker winning novel Wolf Hall, a novel which broke the mold in terms of historical fiction. Mantel was by no means the first author to write a fictionalised biography of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s right hand man. What made Wolf Hall novel so distinctive was how Mantel went behind the mask of Cromwell’s actions and into his head, revealing the complexity of his character and what it takes to navigate the treacherous waters of the King’s court. Bring Up the Bodies takes us further by  showing how Cromwell has to decide if he is willing to do whatever is necessary to serve the King even if that means putting integrity and honesty to one side.

It’s a stunning novel from a writer at the top of her game.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Given the fact this is a novel set against a backdrop of the notorious death railway in Burma, I was expecting it to be an uncomfortable read. But this is a novel that ranges far beyond savagery and survival to ask profound questions about culpability and forgiveness. Its central character is an army surgeon who is damaged by his experience as a prisoner of war. Rather than make the Japanese camp commanders a one dimensional portrait of evil, Flanagan gives them a voice that recognises their helplessness to act according to their own sense of humanity in the face of orders from their Emperor. It’s a haunting story that well deserved to win the prize in 2014

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

This novel, the Booker winner in 1992, is a beautifully paced tale of four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war. One is a man burned beyond recognition during the North African campaign of World War 2; a Canadian Army nurse who is traumatised by what she has witnessed in the conflict, a Sikh British Army sapper and a thief. They come together in the bomb-damaged ruins of an Italian monastery, hoping to heal their wounds and repair emotional scars. What I loved about this novel was how Ondaatje wraps multiple themes, of identity and nationality, of belonging and isolation, into a relatively short book.

Joslyn’s reaction to Karen’s choices

I, too, found Mantel’s Booker winners riveting. Both works are weighty and complex, but remarkably approachable – no small feat for a collective 1000 pages set in the 1500s. Haunting is exactly the right word to describe The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This book is chilling and devastating in a way that I did find a bit uncomfortable, but appropriately so. Flanagan tells his story in raw detail, offering the reader no quarter and no chance to avoid its intended impact. A brutal read, but an absolutely worthy one. I am a fan of Ondaatje’s works, though I preferred his In the Skin of a Lion, which explores many of the same themes. Where The English Patient fell a bit short for me was in its ability to elicit emotion; the narrative was cast in a ‘romantic’ haze that felt a bit …lacking. In spite of that criticism, Ondaatje’s beautiful and deliberate storytelling are on full display in this novel.

What do you think of our choices?

If you’ve read any of the six titles we picked, what did you think of them? Would you rate them as highly as we did? Are there other Booker winners that you would put in your list of top 3?

Booker Prize Project – the end in sight

Booker prize finish line

Approaching the finishing line

Five years ago I embarked on a project to read all the Booker Prize winners since the inception of the prize in 1969. I’d already read a number of them like The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. Though I didn’t set myself any deadline I thought, with a little effort, I’d be done in two years. Well clearly that never happened. I am however in the homeward straight now with just 11 titles remaining to be read. Until now I’ve purposefully avoided reading the winners in date order – and I don’t plan to do that for the final batch. I am however pontificating whether to reserve to the very end, one book that has been universally praised so I end on a high note.

Here’s what I have still to read: (I’m discounting the 2016 winner since I have to stop somewhere).

Winners 21st century 

2015A History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)
2010 – The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)
2004 – The Line of Beauty (Hollinghurst)
2003 – Vernon God Little (D.B. C Pierre)
2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang (Peter Carey)

Winners 20th century 
1997 – The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)
1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)
1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)
1992 – Sacred Hunger (Barry Unsworth)
1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)
1972 – G. (John Berger)

 The ones I am least looking forward to are  How Late It Was, How Late  by James Kelman and  A History of Seven Killings by Marlon James purely because contain a high quota of local dialect – working class Scottish dialect in the case of Kelman and Jamaican dialect in the case of Marlon James).

My question to you good people is – what should I read next? Of the remaining 11 titles there is nothing that is really calling out strongly ‘read me next’. I’m tempted by The Finkler Question since I dipped into it last year and enjoyed what I found (though I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea). I also embarked on The Conservationist but found that hard to get into so put to one side for now.

Out of my remaining list are there any you would recommend? Anything you’ve read that was a stand out novel for you? Conversely are there any on this list that you’d suggest leaving until last?

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively [Booker prize]

Egypt. Cairo - Giza. General view of pyramids

In Penelope Lively’s Booker-prize winning Moon Tiger, an elderly woman lies dying in a hospital somewhere in the UK.  As the nursing staff suspect from her rambling utterances, she is no ordinary woman. She is Claudia Hampton, an esteemed war journalist during World War II who went on to become a published historian. Now lying on her bed she decides to construct in her head a history of the world and at the same time her own history.

The question immediately confronting her is how best to tell this story. Claudia is clear that her readers should not expect a linear narrative  nor to encounter just one Claudia. “I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water,” she declares. “The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and re-shuffled, there is no sequence, everything happens at once.”

This statement becomes a metaphor for the way Penelope Lively constructs her own narrative. Instead of a linear progression we get a kind of fragmented monologue from Claudia (the results of her medication or her ageing mind?) interposed with the comments of an omniscient narrator. Some episodes are relayed multiple times from the – often conflicting – viewpoints of different people who are reaching into their own memories. Claudia – and hence Penelope Lively – orchestrate these people as if they were providing stage directions for a set of characters in a play.

Mother, Gordon, Sylvia, Jasper, Lisa. Mother will drop out before long, retiring gracefully and with minimum fuss after an illness in 1962. Others as yet unnamed will come and go. Some more than others; one above all. In life as in history the unexpected lies waiting, grinning from around corners. Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.

Females do in fact play second fiddle to the male characters in Moon Tiger. For this is a story that revolves around Claudia’s relationship with three men: her brother Gordon against whom she competes intellectually; her first lover Jasper by whom she bears a child; and Tom, a British tank commander she meets and falls in love with in Egypt while reporting on Rommel’s desert campaign. Their time together is confined to one weekend during Tom’s leave from the front but it is enough for them to begin to make plans for the future, for marriage and children. Shortly afterwards Claudia learns of Tom’s death during the Battle of El Amamein. Now, after many decades, Claudia vividly recalls details of this precious weekend, the ring he bought her and the Moon Tiger mosquito coil that sent coils of smoke into the night as they lay in bed on their last night together.

Lively takes two risks with this novel. First of all she chooses as her protagonist a character who it is difficult to like.  Claudia is an opinionated, selfish, competitive, headstrong woman who doesn’t seem to feel any strong emotional attachment to her daughter Lisa, leaving her in the hands of her grandmother while she goes off on her reporting assignments. She also has a questionable relationship with her brother that might disturb some people. But then we get Lively’s inventive form of story-telling where the narrative seems to start, stop, rewind and then fast forward.  It’s a tricky technique to get right. It makes for a difficult to understand opening chapter compounded by the fact we don’t know the characters being mentioned. But once Lively gets into her stride, the result is rather wonderful. And she succeeds, against the odds, in providing a story laden with atmosphere and poignancy (nowhere more so than in the final few pages).

It’s a novel that captivated me with its exploration of the difficulties of producing a history even if it is one’s own; of sifting through and trying to reconcile memories with facts.  I’m sure it’s one that will withstand a second reading but in the meantime I’m left with an abiding image of an old woman in bed watching darkness fall on bare branches outside her room… and remembering.

Footnotes

The Book: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively was first published by Andre Deutsch in 1987. My paperback edition was published by Penguin in 2010. It won the Booker Prize in that year against competition from Iris Murdoch and Chinua Achebe.  A recording of Penelope Lively talking about Moon Tiger is available as a podcast from the BBC World Book Club via this link. 

The Author: Penelope Lively grew up in Egypt though moved to England to take up a place at Oxford University. She was twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize with her first novel The Road to Lichfield in 1977 and then According to Mark in 1994.

Why I read this book: It is part of my Booker Prize project 

 

 

 

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey #Bookerprize

oscar-and-lucinda

It begins in Devon with Christmas pudding plucked from a child’s mouth by his beloved though sternly Evengelical father. It ends with a glass church floating on a barge along a river in the Australian outback. What lies between is a marvellously idiosyncratic tale of two misfits: a gangly, nervous clergyman called Oscar Hopkins (nicknamed ‘Odd Bod’)  and a frustrated, unconventional heiress called Lucinda Leplastrier.

Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey’s Booker prize winning novel from 1988, is a love story in which these two unlikely partners-in-life stumble their way to a relationship. Chance brings them together: a toss of a coin convinces Oscar that God is calling him to be a missionary in New South Wales. On board the ship taking him away from from England he goes to Lucinda’s state-room to hear her confession and discovers their shared passion for gambling. In Lucinda’s cabin the two experience a kind of euphoria, playing poker together for penny stakes. Chance also threatens to drive them apart: to prove his love, Oscar wagers he can transport a glass church built in Lucinda’s glass manufacturing factory through unchartered terrain and erected  on her behalf in a remote bush settlement. It’s a foolish proposition – though breathlessly stunning in appearance,  a ‘crystal-pure bat-winged structure’, its cast-iron framework and glass sheets weigh more than thirty hundredweight. Readers who by this stage of the book is well aware of Oscar’s ineptitude at most things, wouldn’t trust him with such a mission. But Lucinda is a girl in love so she stakes her fortune on his success. The results are unexpected – having set readers on a breadcrumb trail with an unnamed narrator who declares he is the great-grandson of Oscar, Peter Carey springs a surprise about this lineage in the book’s denouement.

Oscar and Lucinda is an episodic novel related in 111 short chapters that chart Oscar’s and Lucinda’s lives with many digressions that introduce a host of minor, odd yet credible, characters. Peter Carey delineates their physical characteristics and their personalities so magnificently that they linger long in the imagination. Oscar himself is a magnificently-drawn character. Scarecrow thin with a triangular face, frizzy red hair “which grew outwards, horizontal like a windblown tree in an Italianate painting…” and a nervous habit which made him unable to ever sit still. He also has a morbid fear of the sea:

It smelt of death to him.  When he thought about this ‘death’, it was not as a single thing you could label with a single word.  It was not a discreet entity.  It fractured and flew apart, it swarmed like fish, splintered like glass.

This fear provides one of the most telling scenes in the novel where, all other attempts to get him up the gangway having failed, his friends and father have to resort to a cage used to load the animals on board for the voyage to Australia . Oscar is clearly a man trapped by his own nature, a theme repeated towards the end of the novel where he is towed up river inside the church.

The man inside the church waved his hands, gestures which appeared … to be mysterious, even magical, but which, inside the crystal furnace of the church, had the simple function of repelling the large and frightening insects which had become imprisoned there.

They flew against the glass in panic. They had the wrong intelligence to grasp the nature of glass. They based against ‘nothing’ as if they were created only to demonstrate to Oscar Hopkins the limitations of his own understanding, his ignorance of God, and that the walls of hell itself might be made of something like this, unimaginable, contradictory, impossible.

Even more vivid for me was the portrait of Mrs Stratton, the indomitable wife of an Anglican vicar, she loves nothing more than a good theological argument. Introduce a question on the merits of the Nicine Creed versus the Athanasian Creed or the nature of divine grace and she’s off ….

She sought the high ground, then abandoned it. She plunged into ditches and trotted proudly across bright green valleys. She set up her question, then knocked it down – she argued that her own question was incorrect. She set alight to it and watched it burn.

Oscar and Lucinda is a novel where the plot and characters get a bit fantastic at times but one where I couldn’t help but get swept along, eagerly wanting to know what happens next. It’s a novel which could frustrate the hell out of people who prefer novels that go from A to B in a direct line and don’t want too many themes and ideas. But for readers who love oddities and  playfulness yet also appreciate a narrative of sensibilities, I hope this will be as much of a joy for them to read as it was for me. This has now gone down as one of my favourites among all the Booker prize winners.

Footnotes

The Book: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey was published by Faber and Faber in 1988. My paperback edition is from 1997.

The Author:  Peter Carey was born in Australia. He worked in advertising for many years while trying to build a career as a novelist. He is one of the few people to win the Man Booker Prize twice – with Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Kelly Gang. There is a fascinating interview with him in the Paris Review in which he talks about the frustrations of trying to get his first fiction efforts published and his writing process.

Why I read this book:  This was one of the 12 Booker prize winning titles remaining to be read in my Booker Prize project. I moved it to the top of my list on the recommendations of our experts on authors from ANZ: Whispering Gums and ANZlovers .

 

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