Category Archives: Booker Prize

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 .

 

The landmark week

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 strongpoisonwith 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 American writer wins #ManBooker 2016: reactions

paulbeatty It’s taken months to get here but we know at last that the Man Booker prize for 2016 has gone for the first time to an American author, Paul Beatty. His novel The Sellout, his fourth is a satire that explores race relations in America. It was, apparently a unanimous choice, though a surprise one – the bookie’s favourite was Madelein Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing while popular opinion among book bloggers and Goodreads members was tending towards Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk.

A clearly emotional Beatty told the audience at the London award ceremony that it was a hard book to write and he knows it’s been hard for some people to read. He didn’t mean the language was dense or complex but that the subject is a painful one for many readers.

paul-beatty
the-selloutI’ve not read The Sellout but today a signed copy came through the letterbox courtesy of a Goodreads contact who happened to have a duplicate copy and met up with Beatty on the eve of the awards. How about that for luck!

In case you don’t know anything about The Sellout, it is set in a rundown Los Angeles suburb called Dickens, where the residents include the last survivor of the Little Rascals and the book’s narrator, Bonbon, an African American man on trial at the U.S. Supreme Court for attempting to reinstate slavery and racial segregation. It’s an audacious premise and one that has had some readers.

“The truth is rarely pretty, and this is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon,” Amanda Foreman, chairman of the judging panel. The judges considered it as a “novel of our times … that takes aim at racial and political taboos with wit, verve and a snarl”, presumably a reference to recent clashes between police and black Americans – the book partly deals with the consequences of  unjust shooting at the hands of the police.

I’m delighted for Paul Beatty for whom this clearly meant a tremendous amount and was a surprise. I bet he can expect to see a long line of students wanting to sign up for his classes at Columbia University in the near future.  Its good news too for independent publishers Oneworld – their second win in the Bookers in successive years ( the first was in 2015 with Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings). The choice of winner seems to have been well received with critics in The Guardian: and The Telegraph seeing it as a bold choice that could take the Booker in a new direction.

The Guardian commented: “The Man Booker prize has not historically been known for its sense of humour…… But Beatty has achieved the rare feat of writing a novel that is recklessly, scabrously funny, politically of-the-moment and hugely erudite in its frame of reference and its playful invocation of both literary and popular culture.”

The Telegraph called it an act of mischief: ” The Sellout was one of the most instantly readable books on the six-strong shortlist. You can well imagine how the judges fell upon its opening pages with relief amid the mammoth task of ploughing through some 150 novels in six months. But after a flying start it runs out of steam. … Crowning this high-wire act as a Booker winner has an air of mischief – as if the judges couldn’t resist the chance to shake things up and seize a place in history.

It will be interesting to see if this is the beginning of a trend for the judges to pick novels seen as most relevant to today’s society……

I’m disappointed though that they couldn’t have also given the prize to Madeliene Thien for Do Not Say We Have Nothing. (click the title to read my review) Still she has the consolation of just having won the Governor-General’s Literary Award in Canada where she has made her home.

 

Other works by Paul Beatty

The White Boy Shuffle, his debut in 1996 which is a satire on gang culture in LA. It seems to have been translated from French but I’m not absolutely certain.

Tuff, a 2001 novel about “Tuffy” Foshay, an East Harlem denizen who breaks jaws and shoots dogs and dreams of making his fortune with an idea for  film starting Danny de Vito In the meantime he decides to run for in the City Council.

Slumberland: 2008 novel about a disaffected Los Angeles DJ who travels to post-Wall Berlin in search of his transatlantic doppelgänger.  As he stumbles through the city’s dreamy streets he ruminates on race, sex, love, and Teutonic gods.

Heron Fleet, published 2013. Set in the future,  Francesca is an apprentice in the idyllic, agrarian community of Heron Fleet. She loves her impetuous partner Anya and the community acts as mother and father to her, as its founders intended. But outside Heron Fleet, the world is violent. Only a remnant of city populations, organised into violent despotic scavenger gangs, cling on by combing through rubble in search of food. They are the survivors of an ecological disaster.

He has also published two books of poetry, Big Bank Take Little Bank and Joker, Joker, Deuce and in 2006 edited an anthology of African-American humour – Hokum.

Man Booker 2016: highs and lows

Man Booker 2016-LogoFirst 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 by Iris Murdoch – slaying the dragons

The Sea, The SeaThe 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.

 

 

Back on the Booker trail

sundaysalonThis 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 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)

The Inheritance of Loss by Keiran Desai

the-inheritance-of-lossKeiran 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.  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 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 aquaintances 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.
In Germany.
In Italy.
In Japan.
In Guam.
In Singapore.
Burma.
South Africa.
They don’t like them.
In Guadeloupe — they love us there?
No.

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.

 

Man Booker 2015 … and the winner is

No, not the title that’s been the bookie’s favoThe Man Booker Prize 2015 Logourite and had oodles of critical acclaim with one or two notable exceptions (I talk of course of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara). Nope. The winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize announced tonight is the Jamaican writer Marlon James with A Brief History of Seven Killings. He becomes the first writer from Jamaica to win the award, thus demonstrating despite fears that the Booker was selling out to the Americans, that it is still carrying the torch for Commonwealth writers.

A brief historyJames was apparently the unanimous choice of the judges who reached their decision in just two hours. They called the novel “the most exciting” book on the shortlist and “full of surprises”. Inevitably the choice will not be welcomed universally – some readers will be disconcerted by the fact it has more than 70 characters, makes liberal use of Jamaican slang and profanities and a stop-start structure.  I’ve not read it – yet – and I suspect I’ll find it tough going just to keep up with all those characters and three decades of the turbulent world of Jamaican gangster life and politics. But I’m delighted the Booker didn’t settle for a safe option as the best novel of the year.

I should learn from this experience two things however : 1. don’t embark on reading the shortlist thinking that by doing so there’s a fair chance I might be reading the winner 2. don’t rely on me to pick the winner. I fail every time.

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma [2015 Booker shortlist]

The FishermenIn the small town of Akure in Nigeria, an ambitious father dreams of the illustrious futures awaiting his sons. Ikenna the eldest at 15, is destined to be a pilot, Boja a lawyer, Obembe the family’s medical doctor and nine-year-old Ben, a professor. Even David, barely three years old, had his future mapped out as an engineer. Only the youngest child has an unchartered future but as a girl, to her father she didn’t count.

Mr Agwu’s plans  crumble when his employer transfers him to a bank in the north of the country. Freed from their father’s strict control, they take to fishing in the river surrounding Akure despite its dark history as a place of floating corpses and mutilated bodies. It’s here they encounter Abulu, a deranged, malodorous creature.

He reeked of sweat accumulated inside the dense growth of hair around his pubic regions and armpits. He smelt of rotten food and unhealed wounds and pus, of bodily fluids and wastes. He was redolent of rusting metals, putrefying matter, old clothes, ditched underwear…… But these were not all: he smelt of immaterial things. He smelt of the broken lives of others, and of the stillness in their souls.

Abulu predicts Ikenna will be killed by one of his fishermen brothers, a prophecy which dogs the boys’ lives and from which tragedy ensues.

This is a coming-of-age tale of brotherly love and the disintegration of a family, of how a good and noble man is punished for his pride and a loving mother is unhinged. It’s a tale of the fight between the choices we make and the choices we’re believed we’re forced to take.

In parallel we have the story of Nigeria itself.  Chigozie Obioma has called The Fishermen a wake-up call to his home country, a  “dwindling nation” which he portrays as a country whose promise, like that of Agwu’s sons, is never fulfilled. Brother turns on brother and independence descends into civil war. The hope that rides on the popular politician MKO Abiola is destroyed when election results are rigged and he ends up in military detention. As Ben, the story’s narrator, reflects many years after the event:

Hope is a tadpole.

The thing you caught and brought home with you in a can but which despite being kept in the right water, soon died.

I know little about Nigeria’s history but I didn’t need it in order to enjoy this novel enormously.  Chigozie Obioma blends traditional techniques of novel writing with African story-telling traditions, sprinkles his text liberally with songs and snatches of conversation in Igbo and Yoruba and references to Igbo culture and superstitions. The above average quota of symbols and metaphors give it a distinctively writerly feel. Every chapter opens with a metaphor which draws a parallel between a family member and an animal or creature: father is an eagle; Ikenna a sparrow, mother a falconer etc. Its a technique that could easily be tediously over-elaborated – a case of form over substance – but the point is not to simply decorate the story but to draw out a dimension of that individual’s character, showing their true nature and the forces that drive their actions.

That doesn’t mean this is a novel without flaws. Obioma does tend to get totally carried away with his verbal cleverness sometimes, opting for the highly descriptive when a more simple form of words would suffice. Adjectives proliferate, some more successfully inventive than others.  A description of dusk as a “crepuscular awning” I can buy, less so body odour as a “corporeal convoy” and I’m still struggling to make sense of “the egg-white days of our lives”.

But The Fishermen is still a wonderfully vivid and heart breaking tale. I have a feeling even if Obioma doesn’t win the Booker Prize with this debut novel, that we’ll be hearing a lot more of him in the future.

End Notes

The Fishermen by  Chigozie Obioma is published by One, an imprint of Pushkin Press. Born and raised in Nigeria, Obioma now lives in Michigan, USA.

Room by Emma Donoghue

RoomEmma Donoghue made a brave decision when she chose as the subject for her seventh novel Room, the seven-year imprisonment and sexual abuse of a young woman.  Donoghue was accused of sensationalism and voyeurism because of the affinity between her novel and the real life story of Josef Fritzl, an Austrian who held his daughter captive and sexually abused her for 24 years. She admitted that Room was triggered by the Fritzl scandal but firmly denied that her novel was in any way ‘based on’ that case.

What interested Emma Donoghue most was not the experience of the abuse or the confinement in a soundproofed garden shed but how the victim and the son Jack that is born as a result of rape, deal with the challenges of life outside.

This is the story told by Jack. He’s five years old, born in captivity, whose knowledge of the world is limited to the 12-foot-square room he occupies with his “Ma”. Their only contact with the world outside comes via their captor  “Old Nick”, who delivers their food, a weekly “Sundaytreat” (new trousers, painkillers, the occasional candy bar) before raping Ma. She uses every ounce of her energy on nurturing and teaching her child, creating rituals that help preserve her sanity. Theirs is a very private world, with its own language and cast of characters that Ma creates out of the sparse items in their room. “Melted Spoon”, “Rug”, “Wardrobe” and “Plant” become friends as real for Jack as the cartoon characters he loves to watch on TV. Ma limits his tv time though so his “brain doesn’t turn to mush” and makes him do “phys-ed” every morning which consists of running around the room and bouncing on the bed. In between they make up poems, sing Kylie songs and create a snake from old egg shells.

For Jack every day is a day of wide-eyed discovery and joy. Ma however can recall life “outside”.  Not surprisingly some days she just succumbs to despair, days when in Jack’s eyes she is “gone” and he is left to his own devices. Ma however is an exceptional woman, one whose love for her son gives her the courage to make a bid for freedom.

When the second half of the novel moves to “outside” it loses some of its intensity but gains a new dimension in which the close mother-son relationship is put the test as Jack has to share his mother with other people.  He has to learn that what was acceptable ‘inside” the room is not acceptable “outside” and to acquire skills he never needed before like tackling stairs and wearing shoes. Jack’s introduction to this confusing new world and to gradual removal of his previous dependency on his mother is handled with remarkable skill and insight.

While it was almost impossible not to shudder at the plight of this pair it was equally impossible not to be totally enthralled by Jack. It’s not easy inventing a credible child narrator but in Jack, Donaghue delivers one whose voice is so memorable  I could hear him long after I closed the book each day. He is the figure whose sweet innocence mitigates the horror, the figure that ensures the book never descends into the simplistic mode of villain versus victim pure monster  It’s one of the reasons this is a novel like no other I’ve read in recent years.

 

End Notes

Emma Donoghue was born in Ireland but now lives in Canada. Room was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010. It was released as a film in 2015.

Emma Donaghue talks about the writing of her novel in an interview with the Guardian 

 

 

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