Category Archives: Book prizes
Saville by David Storey
I reached the end of David Storey’s Booker Prize winning novel Saville with an enormous sense of relief.
No longer would my evenings be marred by having to plod through this jaw-droppingly tedious tale.
I don’t understand why I didn’t give up on it well before the end since there are only so many pages of over-written scenes, mediocre dialogue and scrappy characterisation I can take.
This had all three in abundance over the course of its 500 plus pages. It also had a protagonist about whom I cared not one jot. The best part came in the opening few scenes where a miner and his new wife arrive in some northern colliery town and spend the day cleaning their meagre little home.
After that it was downhill all the way.
Working Class Struggle
Saville is a tale of a boy from a South Yorkshire mining family in the late 1930s. Colin Saville manages to win a scholarship for grammar school; plays sport, has a few run ins with the teacher and meets a few girls. Instead of university he opts for the faster track of teacher training so he can begin earning some money to keep his parents and two brothers just above the poverty line. But he feels constrained by his home and his upbringing; taking his frustrations out on his siblings.
By the time he decides what to do with his life, we’re at the end of the book and by then – frankly – I simply didn’t care.
Desperately Hoping Something Will Happen
Colin Saville just isn’t portrayed in a way that makes me want to take any interest. There’s never any sense of the inner turmoil he supposedly feels in reaction to some of the events that happen to him. Even when his fiancé ditches him for a more wealthy friend, he seems to react as if someone has just told him the number 6 bus left 30 minutes ago. Having the story relayed through an omniscient narrator doesn’t help.
But I also just kept waiting for something – anything– to happen that would lift the story from the realms of the mediocre.
I was still waiting when I reached the end.
According to one retrospective critical review, Storey’s work mixes realism with psychological extremism. I must have been asleep during those chapters because those elements completely escaped my attention.
If ever there was a book that needed a bit fat blue editor’s pencil to walk all over it, this one was it…..even a scene that according to James Campbell in the Guardian is one of the most memorable (when his friend Stafford visits his home and is treated to a tea of bread, butter and tinned fruit) felt over-written.
This has to be the most deadly dull of all the Booker Prize winners I’ve read. How Saville won the Booker Prize in 1976, I’m at a loss to understand.
Alternative views of Saville
I was curious what some literary experts and reviewers thought of this book.
The reaction at the time of publication was surprisingly enthusiastic.
Jeremy Brooks at the Sunday Times said that reading Saville “is like drinking pure spring water from cupped hands”.
It has no false notes, no heaviness of emphasis, no editorial manipulations of plot to prove a point. One becomes so totally involved in the lives of these people that their every word and action becomes charged with meaning…. Reminiscent of a nineteenth-century classic.’ –
His counterpart at The Times newspaper also gave it a rave review, calling it “mesmerically readable, Saville is a revelation.” The Sunday Telegraph declared Saville to be “A feast of a book.”
I started to wonder whether this is a novel that resonated in the 1970s but no longer spoke to a twenty-first century reader but so few reviews have been written about Saville in recent years that I can’t answer that question.
All I found was that in 2008 Sam Jordison at The Guardian ( a reviewer I admire) thought Saville was a “class act”. He was so completely immersed in the book that he felt he was parting from a friend when he reached the end.
When David Storey died in 2017 many of the obituaries described him as a great post- war novelist whose raw, realist plays and novels dealt with the north-south divide and family conflict.
I seem to be a lone voice…..
This review appeared originally in 2012. This is an update – the content is substantially the same but I have added sub headings to make it easier to read.
There were a number of Booker Prize winning novels I read before I began this blog and my project to work my way through all the winners. As I’m approaching the end of that project I thought I’d write some short reviews of those pre-blog books.
I seldom re-read contemporary fiction (I don’t know why, but the classics seem to lend them selves far more to re-reading. ) But these are three that I would definitely consider reading a second time.
The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes
This 2011 Booker Prize winner was my first experience of Julian Barnes .
It’s a slim novel, beautifully paced and very readable yet it gets you thinking about some of the issues well after you reachthe last page.
The Sense of an Ending is narrated by Tony Webster, a retired man of around 60 years old. He reflects on his life and in particular his relationship with Adrian Finn, a boy he met at school. Adrian was the most intellectually advanced and gifted boy in his coterie.
But a rather odd girl called Veronica comes between them. Tony takes her defection to Adrian badly, heaping curses upon the pair. And then he learns Adrian has killed himself.
Years later Adrian’s diary is bequeathed to Tony. He believes it will unlock the mystery of why Adrian died. But first he will have to do battle with Veronica.
This is very much a reflective novel about a man who is trying to make sense of his life. His frustrations and anger come to the fore but so too does regret and his feeling of being on the fringe of life. “You just don’t get it. You never will.” is the barb Veronica most frequently throws at him. Tony does have a selective memory however and even by the end you feel that he is still a puzzle to himself.
The Sense of an Ending is a compact novel which meditates on the complexity of the human struggle to deal with regret and loss.
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Until I read this 2000 Booker Prize winner, my only experience with Margaret Atwood was through The Handmaids’ Tale. Although there is a sci fi aspect to The Blind Assassin, it couldn’t have been more different.
It has a complicated structure with three plot strands and multiple time frames.
The over-arching device is that this book is the memoir of Iris Chase, from her beginning as the daughter of a prosperous family, through a loveless marriage and into solitary and brooding old age. As she nears the end of her life she is determined to set down her version of the stories and scandals that have long swirled around her and her family.
Her younger sister Laura killed herself in 1945, 10 days after the end of the war. Iris published her sister’s novel The Blind Assassin posthumously. a decision which propelled Laura to fame but Iris to a life of isolation.
Interposed with Iris’s reminiscences are passages from that novel, about an upper-class married woman and her lover, a hack writer and a political radical, who spins a science fiction tale (also entitled The Blind Assassin) during their clandestine meetings.
Confused?? It’s not surprising.
Reading this novel is a giddy experience. We get Iris’ narrative, Laura’s novel, extracts from the pulp science-fiction stories the hero of Laura’s book tells his lover and newspaper reports on events.
In the hands of a less able novelist, this mix of narrative forms would be a mess. But Atwood handles it with authority and aplomb. It’s quite an extraordinary novel.
Amsterdam : A Novel by Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan won the 1998 Booker Prize with his story of a euthanasia pact between a composer and a newspaper editor that ultimately destroys their long-term friendship.
It’s rather a dark novel from the beginning which takes place at a funeral where the two men agree that if one of them is left helpless by a medical condition, the other will ease his exit from this world.
The rest of the novel sees each man take decisions with far-reaching consequences. The editor publishes private photographs revealing a political scandal. The composer leaves the scene of a rape because he can’t waste time when he has a symphony to finish.
This is a novel which reads like a psychological thriller at times; particularly in the final chapters in Amsterdam where the friends meet for a show-down. But it’s the way the novel deals with moral ambiguities that I enjoyed the most.
I read Amsterdam in 2000 and it’s one of my favourite novels by Ian McEwan. It’s one of the Booker Prize winners I think warrants a second read.
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.
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 thereJoanna 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 authorsDavid 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)