Category Archives: Booker Prize
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
Joslyn @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.
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.
I’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
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?
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.
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
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.
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 .
This has been a week of landmarks, mostly small but still notable and one big one….
- I got to the end of Little Women. It took me nigh on three weeks to read this dratted book. I loved the
character of Jo March when I was young – she is the element of the book that has stayed with me for years and it seems I am not alone in finding her the most interesting of the four March sisters. But I had forgotten how preachy this novel is with its initial device of making the sisters follow the course of Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress and then the wise homilies of the saintly Marmee inserted every few pages. If it were not a required text for my children’s literature course – and there is an essay due on it – I would have abandoned it long before the first book was completed. By way of an antidote I started to read one of the series of detective stories from the 1930s by Dorothy L. Sayers which feature the aristocratic private investigator Lord Peter Whimsey. Strong Poison is the fifth in the series and sees Whimsey try to save a woman from the hangman. It’s a welcome light relief after Alcott but not too frothy.
- My official TBR has now passed the 200 mark. Despite good intentions at the start of the year and some concentrated effort to read what I already possess, it’s higher now than it was in January. I could winge and moan but its actually a pleasure to know I have books to suit every mood right at my fingertips (providing I can find the book without the piles tumbling over). Book number 200 is The Conservationist by the South African writer and political activist Nadine Gordimer who received the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Conservationist was joint winner of the Booker Prize in 1974 (sharing the prize with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday). I knew that her writing dealt extensively with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid. What I didn’t know was that she gave Nelson Mandela advice on his famous 1964 defence speech at the trial which led to his conviction for life.
- Inspired by another blogger – I think it was Lisa at ANZlovers – I have finally started to make Goodreads work more effectively for me at keeping a list of books I want to read. I had these in so many formats and places beforehand that it was impossible to keep track. I had links to reviews, emails, Evernote notes. But few of them actually said where i had learned about the book. Now I have a wishlist in Goodreads and have started to post comments to track where I heard about the book or who recommended it. Bliss….
- I know in some homes the word Christmas is banned until December 1 and that was the case with me for years but this year its starting earlier than planned because of a health issue. I’ve just launched a 12 days of Christmas game and giveaway which starts on December 1 – its the first time I’ve ever done this on my blog. Hope it works. Also hoping lots of people join in…..
- And finally, the biggest landmark of them all. I finished my course of chemotherapy. I’ve been fortunate and the side effects haven’t been too debilitating but still its good to know from the tests that it had the desired effect in halting the progress. I have a lot more of the mountain to climb before my health is back on track but I’m now beyond base camp. Next milestone is radiotherapy which begins on Nov 28. Cause for celebration I think don’t you?
First there were 155 contenders. Today’s announcement of the longlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize brought that down to 13. Come September 13, there will be just six left in the running before the big announcement of the winner on Tuesday 25 October.
When I saw the list initially it confirmed what I’d predicted a few weeks ago – that I wouldn’t be familiar with most of the titles (I’ve read just one of these books – My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout). After a few hours of reflection, I’m left with some positive reactions but also some niggles about the selection….
On the plus side …..
I’m delighted to see so many debut authors featured in the list because there’s always a risk with a prize as prestigious as the Booker that it will be dominated by the big names. Thankfully the judges saw past the great and the good to list four debut authors: Hystopia by David Means; The Many by Wyl Menmuir; Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh and Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves. Getting on the list may not translate into huge commercial success unless they also make it to the shortlist but what a confidence builder this will be. It’s refreshing to see that the list made up of names that always make it to the Booker list. Only 2 of the 13 authors (Coetzeee and Levy) have ever previously been long listed for the Booker. I know this means that big names like Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain and Don DeLillo are missing but every year we get similar comments about ‘such and such a name’ being snubbed or overlooked.
Also good to see smaller publishing houses featured once again. Last year independent publisher Oneworld was cock-a-hoop when Marlon James walked off with the ultimate prize A Brief History of Seven Killings. This year they’re back in contention with Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, described by the Guardian as “a galvanising satire of post-racial America”. Salt – a publisher whose output I’m getting to know slowly – also features on the list with Wyl Menmuir – as does a small independent crime fiction imprint Contraband with Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project
One thing I look to the Man Booker Prize to celebrate and applaud is innovation in narrative styles and storytelling techniques. I love the fact that they have selected a crime thriller this year – it’s a genre that often unfairly gets the sniffy treatment from the establishment as being somehow of a lesser standard than more highbrow ‘literary’ fiction. It’s not the first time a crime story has been selected – the 2013 winner Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – was essentially in that vein. and it does seem that Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project is a cut above your average crime novel.
And yet …..
There is a worrying lack of geographic diversity in this list. It’s so heavily weighted towards UK and US authors (five from each country) that Commonwealth authors barely get a look in and even then 2 of the three hail from Canada. It’s left to J.M. Coetzee to represent the huge geographic swathes of Africa, India and Australasia. The Booker was criticised a few years ago when they changed the rules to allow entries by USA authors from 2014 with alarm bells raised that this would push out authors from the Commonwealth. And so it’s proved to be the case. Are the judges really saying there were no authors from any of those countries that were worthy of listing?? It’s the diversity of previous listed authors that I’ve appreciated, being introduced to writers and cultural perspectives that were completely new to me. I do hope this is a blip and we wont see a pattern emerging in future years.
Author (nationality) – Title (imprint)
Paul Beatty (US) – The Sellout (Oneworld): described as a satire of post-racial America
J.M. Coetzee (South African) – The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker): this will not be published until September 30 so little is known about it other than it is something of a follow-up to his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus.
A.L. Kennedy (UK) – Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape): a London love story between two decent but troubled individuals that is told over the course of 24 hours.
Deborah Levy (UK) – Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton): described as a“richly mythic” tale of mothers and daughters
Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) – His Bloody Project (Contraband): Features a brutal triple murder in a remote northern crofting community in 1869.
Ian McGuire (UK) – The North Water (Scribner UK): a closely detailed story of violence that breaks out between desperate men on a doomed whaling expedition into the Arctic
David Means (US) – Hystopia (Faber & Faber): the novel imagines a history in which John F Kennedy was not assassinated, the Vietnam war drags on and returning soldiers have their traumas wiped.
Wyl Menmuir (UK) –The Many (Salt): the novel tells the story of a man who moves to an abandoned house in an isolated Cornish fishing village. The longer he stays, the more uncomfortable and bizarre life becomes. Apparently he wrote this after attending a creative writing course where his tutors were less than enthusiastic about his effort.
Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen (Jonathan Cape): set in the 1960s, this tells the story of an unhappy young woman and a bitterly cold Massachusetts winter.
Virginia Reeves (US) – Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK): Set in rural Alabama in the 1920s, it tells the story of a pioneering electricity engineer sent to prison for manslaughter after a young man stumbles on one of his illegal power lines.
Elizabeth Strout (US) – My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking): a striking story about a relationship between mother and daughter. Simply one of the best novels I’ve read so far – see my review here
David Szalay (Canada-UK) – All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape): I’m not clear whether this is genuinely a novel of a collection of stories about a different stage of “man’s” life.
Madeleine Thien (Canada) – Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books): relates the story of musicians who suffered during and after China’s Cultural Revolution.
The Sea, The Sea glared at me from my bookshelf for five years. I glared back. It was a feat of endurance. Who would be the first to break? Well of course the answer is clear, if I was going to complete my quest to read all the Booker Prize winners then the battle of wills between myself and Iris Murdoch would have to come to an end. I did not relish the occasion having tried on more than one occasion to read her work (I still have the scars of The Black Prince which started off reasonably but became more and more confusing with its possible multiple intepretations of the theme of erotic obsession). After a few more false starts I put her into the category of “too damn difficult and obscure”.
And so I embarked on The Sea, The Sea which won the 1978 prize girding my reading loins for more of the same challenge.
What a revelation awaited me.
This was not a book of obscure erudite philosophical meanderings but a darn good read that at many points hilariously ridiculous.
It’s impact comes from the central character of Charles Arrowby, an esteemed London theatre director who has recently retired to a seaside cottage in the south of England. There he plans to write his memoirs, with particular focus on a woman called Clement who was once his lover as well as his mentor. He doesn’t have a great success in love having toyed with the affections of two actresses believing he has power over them when in fact the reverse becomes apparent.
We get a blow by blow account of his life in a cottage that might come with a Martello tower but is clearly a pretty down at heel property. His days are filled with doing battle with rough waves in the cove near his home ( he sees himself as a skilful, fearless swimmer who can sport like a dolphin) and preparing bizarre concoctions that he thinks of as a product of his “felicitous gastric intelligence” but to me felt rather disgusting.
Here’s one of the more reasonable menu offerings:
For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil i essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London) …. Then bananas and cream with white sugar (Bananas should be cut, never mashed, and the cream should be thin). Then hard water-bicscuits with New Zealand butter and Wensleydale cheese. Of course I never touch foreign cheeses. Our cheeses are the best in the world. With this feast I drank most of a bottle of Muscadet out of my modest celler.
A few days later he is extolling the delights of his dinner:
… an egg poached in hot scrambled egg, then the coley braised with onions and lightly dusted with curry powder, and service with a little tomato ketchup and mustard. (Only a fool despises tomato ketchup). Then a heavenly rice pudding. It is fairly easy to make a very good rice pudding but how often do you meet one?
You get the idea from the asides that Charles is a man who has many foibles, opinions and ideas but not all of them can be relied upon as accurate. That Charles is an unreliable chronicler of his life becomes evident when he discovers that the former love of his life, a girl called Hartley, is living in the village near his cottage. Though she is married with an adult age son this doesn’t stop Charles deciding that now is the time to rekindle that love and that Hartley needs rescuing. She never gives him any real evidence that she needs him to act the knight in shining armour but Charles ploughs on regardless, even to the point of abducting her and keeping her hostage in his home.
Meanwhile his former friends and lovers keep dropping in unannounced to try and talk sense into him beyond his rose-tinted version of a new life with Hartley. Rosina gives him a dose of reality:
She’s timid. She’s shy, she must feel terribly inadequate and mousy and dull… she probably feels ashamed of her dull husband and feels protective about him and resentful against you. … She’d bore you , darling, bore you into a frenzy and she knows it, poor dear. She’s an old-age pensioner, she wants to rest now, she wants to put her feet up and watch television, not to have disturbances and adventures. … You’ re used to witty unconventional women and you’re an old bachelor anyway, you couldn’t really stand living with anybody, unless it was a clever old friend like me.
Inevitably all his plans unravel.
In Murdoch gives us a tremendous portrait of a man of middle to advancing age subsumed by jealousy and vanity and capable of letting his egotistical self damage those around him. With this novel I might well have slain my Murdoch dragons.
This year was meant to be the year I completed my self-imposed project to read all the Booker Prize winners. At the start of the year my tally was 28 of the 48 winners and one that I couldn’t finish, leaving me with 19 (I’m not counting the winner of the 2016 prize which has yet to be announced). Since then I’ve read four. so if I keep up this pace I still won’t cross the finishing line by year end. Does that matter? Well not really in the scheme of things. No Booker Prize police are going to come storming my house demanding to know why I didn’t finish by the due date. But equally I don’t want to drag it out for ever.
I put three Booker winners on my list for 20booksof summer as a way of giving myself a kick up the rear end. Which is how I ended up reading the 1996 winner Last Orders by Graham Swift this week. I’m familiar with the story because of the film version featuring Tom Courtenay, Michael Caine and Helen Mirren. It’s actually a rather simple plot: four men spend a day travelling from London to the coastal resort of Margate to scatter the ashes of their friend Jack Dodds, as he requested just before his death. The book’s title comes from the idea that these men are fulfilling Jack’s final request but it’s also a play on the phrase used to signal closing time in the pub, which is where all these men spend a lot of their time.
Three of the men; Ray, Lenny, and Vic; knew Jack for most of their adult lives and come from the same working class part of London. The fourth, Vince, is Jack’s son. As they journey to Margate their histories, thoughts and feelings are revealed in a series of short chapters each told from one of the character’s point of view. So far it’s rather easy reading and I’m wondering why this Swift’s novel was considered better than Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance which were on the shortlist.
Here’s what I still have left to read. Some of them are going to be more challenging, then others namely How Late It Was, How Late, Vernon God Little and G so I’m likely to leave these to last. Anyone have some recommendations for me from this list of what I should get to earlier?
2015 – A History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)
2010 – The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)
2004 – The Line of Beauty (Hollinghurst)
2003 – Vernon God Little (Pierre)
2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang (Carey)
1997 – The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)
1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (Kelman)
1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)
1992 – Sacred Hunger (Unsworth)
1988 – Oscar and Lucinda (Peter Carey)
1986 – The Old Devils (Kingsley Amis) – on my 20booksofsummer list
1983 – Life & Times of Michael K (Coetzee) on my 20booksofsummer list
1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)
1972 – G. (Berger)
Keiran Desai’s novel The Inheritance of Loss was a controversial winner of the Booker Prize in 2006. The controversy had nothing to do with the fact she had been considered an outsider for the prize or that some critics were less than enamoured with her book. The issue was one of setting and in particular how she had represented the community of Kalimpong, a town in the Himalayas. The town’s residents were outraged at her depiction of a 1980s bloody and chaotic rebellion by the ethnic Nepalese inhabitants. Kiran Desai was accused of including “condescending statements” and portraying the Nepalese as little better than criminals, thieves and fools. Calls were made to burn or ban her book.
It’s true that Kiran Desai doesn’t paint her Nepal characters in a very positive light. But then she doesn’t seem to have sympathy for most of the people in her novel. We encounter over-privileged Indians who try to adopt a mantel of culture by using English terms and mannerisms, English settlers who are racist and desperately cling to the past and ignorant tourists who use the most desperate hovels to add authenticity to their holiday snaps while ignoring the poverty under their noses. Nearly every character becomes humiliated and in turn humiliates others. It’s an unflinching, unsentimental portrayal of what happens when people lose their way.
The focal point is a crumbling, isolated house at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga , the third highest mountain in the Himalayas. It’s occupied by a cranky retired judge and his orphaned granddaughter, Sai. They have few acquaintances other than a Swiss priest Father Potty and two anglophone sisters. Lacking the knowledge or ability to provide the love and warmth his granddaughter needs, the judge hands over her care to the cook and her education to Gyan, a young Nepali maths tutor. Their burgeoning romance is throttled almost at its birth when insurgency erupts in the mountains and Gyan is swept along in the demands for Ghorka independence.
Woven into this story is another thread about the cook’s son Biju who wants to make a new life outside of India. He joins a cruise ship which deposits him in New York. While his father imagines his son is on his way to a successful and lucrative career in catering, the reality is that Biju is an illegal worker, sweating a living in filthy rat-infested basement kitchens around New York. Coming into contact with other illegals his eyes are opened to what the world really thinks of his proud nation:
From other kitchens, he was learning what the world thought of Indians:
In Tanzania,if they could, they would throw them out like they did in Uganda.
In Madagascar, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Nigeria, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Fiji, if they could, they would throw them out.
In China, they hate them.
In Hong Kong.
They don’t like them.
In Guadeloupe — they love us there?
These stories of loss and guilt are told with varying success. Desai’s prose seems to work best when she is dealing with a setting, whether it’s the beauty of the Himalayas or the grime of New York’s lower class restaurants. At the beginning we get a vivid picture of the judge’s decaying mansion, used as a metaphor for the disintegration of the old social order. Built on a site chosen “for a view that could die the human heart to spiritual heights” it was once the epitome of high class workmanship and style. But now the roof leaks, fungus grows in many of the rooms and the plumbing is held together with bamboo splints and rubber bands. Even the robbers who come creeping over the grass in search of guns are shocked by its shabbiness.
Their noses wrinkled from the gamy mouse stench of a small place, although the ceiling had the rect of public monument and the rooms were spacious in the old manner of wealth, windows placed for snow views. They peered at a certificate issued by Cambridge University that had almost vanished into an overlay of brown stains blooming upon walls that had swelled with moisture and billowed forth like sails. The storeroom supplies and what seemed like an unreasonable number of emptied tuna fish cans had been piled on a broken Ping-Pong table in the kitchen, and only a corner of the kitchen was used since it was meant originally for the slaving minions not the one left over servant.
‘House needs a lot of repairs,’ the boys advised.
The Inheritance of Loss is less effective when it comes to characterisation. Desai doesn’t offer much hope for her individuals, little sense that they will grow or achieve resolution and redemption. But I found it hard to care overly much about any of them. The romance between Sai and Gyan began as an evocation of the sweetness of first love and then descends into bitterness but it still felt very flat. Biju’s predicament in the dankness of America’s underbelly felt authentic but Desai didn’t bring anything to this theme that we haven’t seen many times over.
The effect overall was of reading something admirable and enjoyable at times yet I couldn’t escape the sense that there was something missing.
Why I read this
The Inheritance of Loss is part of my Booker prize project in which I am reading all the winners of the Man Booker prize.