Category Archives: Costa Prize
Another chapter in my reading year in which I try to capture a picture of what I’m reading, thinking about reading, buying on Nov 1, 2016.
Most of my reading at the moment is for the course on children’s literature that I foolishly decided to embark upon. It’s a level 3 (equivalent to third year university) delivered via the Open University. It’s my final module on a BA Honours Lit course I started about 12 years ago I think, persuaded by a friend who heard I had an idea for a non fiction book and recommended I sharpened up the academic research skills first. I tossed about the idea of history but got swayed by my other love of literature. It was meant for me to be ‘fun’ – I already have a lit degree so why would I need another one??? But now the end is in sight.
I finished Treasure Island by R. L Stevenson last week and now am ploughing through Little Women by L.M.Alcott and absolutely hating it. I know it’s considered a classic but it’s so full of saccharine I feel an urgent need to visit the dentist every time I read a chapter. And it’s so long! Little Women (which in America is marketed as part 1 with part 2 called Good Wives) comes in at 470 of densely typed pages. Give me strength while I grit my teeth.
By way of an antidote I am also crawling my way through Waking Lions by the Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. It’s not the fault of the book – just my lack of time. It’s quite an intriguing story which looks at how the decisions we make on the spur of the moment can have long term repercussions. In this case, the decision is made by a surgeon who accidentally runs over a man on the road. Should he leave the injured man who is clearly on the path to death or should he summon help. He chooses the former. But then the victim’s widow turns up at the door intent on a very unusual form of blackmail.
Rather a lot of new purchases recently. One by Sarah Crossan, a verse novel about conjoined twins which won the CILIP Carnegie Medal – an annual award for children’s fiction. Also purchased is another contender for the medal, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge which won the Costa Book of the Year 2015. It’s described as “deliciously creepy novel”. Both of these were bought all in the interests of research you understand for my children’s literature course (what do you mean you don’t believe me!). I succumbed to an offer at the bookshop and bought The Vegetarian by Han Kang, The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh and The Glorious Heresies by Lisa Mcinnerney which won the Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016.
The BBC did a short series with Andrew Marr looking at three different genres of books: detective fiction; fantasy epics and spy stories. I’m part way through the one on detective fiction where he argues that these follow a set of “rules”. See more about this series at the Open University web page
After my recent disappointment (described here) with my first experience of Marjorie Allingham’s detective fiction, Karen at kaggsysrambling recommended another of her titles – The Tiger in the Smoke. I’ve managed to get an audio version of this. Early days yet but the characterisation at least feels more authentic than in the other title I tried. I’m also enjoying the flavour it gives of post war Britain. Apparently J. K. Rowling has described this as her favorite crime novel
Last year I made a comment in one blog post about how much I enjoyed Colm Toibin’s Norah Webster. More than a few people people responded by recommending his earlier novel Brooklyn. Some went as far as saying Brookyn was “even better”. I’ve now read it and while I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t rate it as highly.
Both Norah Webster and Brooklyn give center stage to a strong female character who have to confront life changing situations and find their own way through them. The recently widowed Norah Webster and the young woman Eilis Lacey, heroine of Brooklyn are two brave and spirited Irish women whose predicaments are portrayed with warmth, sympathy and depth.
We first encounter Eilis looking out from her bedroom window in the village of Enniscorthy watching her glamorous older sister Rose make her way down the street to an evening at the golf club. Eilis is clearly more an observer of life than a participant. Though she is intelligent and reasonably good looking there few prospects of a husband or a job in accountancy or book keeping that would enable her to fulfill her potential. The most she can get is a lowly job as a shop keepers assistant in the grocery. Rose spots a solution when a priest vists from America and agrees to help find a job in Brooklyn for Ellis.
Within a few weeks, Rose, having survived a rough Atlantic crossing, is ensconced in a boarding house for Irish girls in Brooklyn and selling nylons in an upmarket department store. Tóibín details her first reactions to her new home, the strangeness of the busy pedestrian traffic after the quietness of Irish village streets, the novelty of heated bedrooms and the availability of affordable fashionable clothes. Over time her homesickness dissipates, she embarks on a study program in book keeps and falls in love with Tony, a good looking American Italian plumber with ambitions to get into the property market. Just as life seems to be going her way, tragic news from home sends her back to Ireland and the tension between the obligations of her old life and the excitement of the new.
Where the early parts of the book that dealt with Eilis’ sense of isolation and then the opening up of new possibilities felt touchingly convincing, the final section lacked that same feeling of authenticity. The emotional dilemma encountered by Eilis didn’t seem to be fully explored and we never got the examination of her inner thoughts that would have made her final decision more understandable and credible. As a result I put the book down thinking I’d been short changed, that there was so much more that Toibin could have done to explore Eilis’ emotional quandry. Brooklyn was sweet and lovely for the most part, but ultimately disappointed right at the end.
Pure by Andrew Miller is set in Paris in 1785. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young, ambitious engineer, arrives at the palace of Versailles hoping to get a Ministerial commission that will help him make a mark on the world. He “dreams of building utopias where the church and its superstitions will be replaced by schools run by men like himself.” Instead, the task he is handed is not one of construction but of demolition.
In the Rue de Saint Innocents stands the oldest cemetery in Paris. More than 50,000 victims of bubonic plague were reputedly buried here in one day. The subterranean wall separating the living from the dead has collapsed and the bones and decaying flesh have released a miasma which fouls the air, taints the food and even the breath of those who live within its shadow.
It takes a year for Barratte and his team of miners to open the graves and clear away the past. It’s a job which almost costs Baratte his life as the cemetery becomes a kind of hell of burning fires and walls of bones and skulls. Few of those involved in the enterprise emerge unscathed physically or mentally. When they began they imagined they were engaged in a noble cause, building the foundations of a better future in which their endeavours would be marked for posterity.
“They will name squares after us ……..the men who purified Paris,” declares the foreman of works. But as the graves are emptied and the cemetery’s wild flowers wither, so the vitality drains out of the workers. Tobacco, alcohol, weekly visits by prostitutes – nothing can distract the team of miners from the sense of loss. ‘I had some good in me once’ one observes bleakly.
Baratte too undergoes a transformation. The naïve young man is easy prey when he first arrives in the city. It takes little to persuade him to exchange his sensible brown suit for one of pistachio green silk or to join a group of drunken vandals who move about the city under cover of night painting obscenities about Queen Marie Antoinette. But it is not long before he finds he cannot sleep without a sedative and his ideals and belief in the power of reason are destroyed.
The cleansing of the cemetery is an extended metaphor for the cleansing that we as readers know these citizens will experience shortly, although on a significantly bigger scale. Andrew Miller provides plenty of symbolic references to the French Revolution, including naming one of characters Dr Guillotin and including dialogue that can easily be read on two levels. Take this example, from Baratte’s first meeting with the Ministerial aide, who gives him his commission:
It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers but the king himself. The king and his ministers.
Yes, my lord.
It is to be removed.
Destroyed. Church and cemetery. The place is to be made sweet again. Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it.
Pure is Andrew Miller’s sixth novel and it won him the 2011 Costa Book of the Year award. The judges praised it as a “structurally and stylistically flawless historical novel.” Miller deftly avoids some of the biggest failings I see in many historical novels – the author’s tendency to want to drown readers in period detail and factual information and then to make their characters speak in a kind of cod ‘period language’.
Not so for Miller. He’s clearly done his research but only uses it to bring the characters and location alive through snatches of information about clothes, food and daily domestic life . His descriptions of the stench that pervades the neighbourhood were so powerful I could almost smell it on the page I had in my hands. (rather like my feeling on reading the Paris scenes early on in Patrick Sushkind’s Perfume).
In all, for me Pure was a gripping read.