Category Archives: Man Booker Prize
Books frequently have deeper resonance for me when I read them in the country in which they are set. This was particularly true in the case of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, a 1974 Booker prize winning novel set in South Africa. Last year as I drove across the vast dry plains of the Klein Karoo, empty but for a few isolated farms, we were looking upon a landscape which is a key point of reference in this novel.
Gordimer’s novel is a character study about a rich, white South African capitalist who buys a 400-acre farm as a tax dodge and a love nest for assignations with his mistress. Mehring soon becomes absorbed in the mechanics of running a farm, making excuses to get away from business meetings and social occasions so he can spend more time on his land. He believes he is a good steward of his land and a fair and generous employer.
We see him in a very different light however.
His shoes and the pale grey pants are wiped by wet muzzles of grasses, his hands, that he lets hang at his sides, are trailed over by the tips of a million delicate tongues. Look at the willows. The height of the grass. Look at the reeds. Everything bends, blends, folds. Everything is continually swaying, flowing rippling waving surging streaming, fingering. He is standing there with his damn shoes all wet with dew and he feels he himself is swaying….
Although The Conservationist concentrates on one man, it’s clear that Gordimer sees Mehring as a representative of a particular type of South African. One who reads the signs that change might coming but has no desire to take any action himself to end discrimination or improve the lot of his workers. He simply doesn’t see there is any need for change. If ever he needs a signal that he is wrong and that hold on the land is but a tenuous one, it is the body of a black man that refuses to remain buried. The corpse is the real possessor, the real guardian of the land; not Mehring.
I respected what Gordimer was doing but can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book.
If you’d like to see another view of this book, take a look at Lisa’s review at anzlitlovers.
About the author: Nadine Gordimer is one of South Africa’s most respected authors. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. Over a career spanning some 60 years she dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned, and gave Nelson Mandela advice on his famous 1964 defence speech at the trial which led to his conviction for life. Gordimer’s writing dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa.
The book: The Conservationist was joint winner of the 1974 Booker Prize, sharing the honour with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday.
Why I read this book: It is one of the few remaining titles on my Booker Prize project.
The day after I started reading Vernon God Little a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at a music festival in Las Vegas, causing multiple fatalities and injuries. It made reading this book about a (fictional) mass killing at a school inMartirio, Texas, especially thought-provoking because it opened up questions about the way in which society respond to such events.
In the aftermath of Las Vegas, the initial desire was to understand ‘What happened?” and “How could this have happened?” This was quickly replaced by questions of responsibility. ‘Who is to blame?” and “How could they have let this happen?” asked people around the world. This need to identify the person or people responsible and bring them swiftly to account for their failings, is a response that has become all too common in a world which has in recent years experienced a multitude of calamities.
The ‘blame culture’ is very evident in Vernon God Little. Jesus Navarro, a college student, shot and killed 16 students at his school before turning the gun on himself. His 15-year-old friend Vernon becomes the town’s scapegoat and is almost immediately charged as an accessory to the crime. As the book begins, Vernon has been taken into custody and is being questioned by police officers who are under pressure from an angry and grieving community to identify the guilty party. Vernon steadfastly maintains his innocence but his behaviour over the course of the following few months, simply acts as further evidence to the police and the news media that he is guilty. He flees to Mexico but is captured and put on trial as Texas’ most notorious serial killer. As a death row prisoner his fate will be decided in a Big Brother-style programme.
This is a story told from Vernon’s point of view. You’d think, given the subject matter, that this would be a fairly somber tale but actually it contains a surprising amount of humour. I don’t mean humour of the belly-aching, laugh out loud kind, but the type that has you wincing — if you’ve ever watched eposides of the BBC sit com The Office (the original British version that is) you’ll have an idea of what I mean. The behaviour of the central character is ludicrously funny but we also cringe at some of his antics. We laugh with Vernon and at him but often feel guilty about the latter because he’s in essence a nice kid whose been given a rough deal. His father disappeared some years previously and his mother is, well let’s be kind and say she’s not really there. Instead of protecting her son and doing her damnest to get him the best legal help possible, she goes all dewy-eyed about a video repairman who masquerades as a news reporter. “Lally” Ledesma is clearly a sleaze who befriends Vernon only to further his own career but Vernon’s mother doesn’t see the damage this guy is doing to her son. Vernon isn’t well served by the girl he fancies — she leads him on then shops him in order to further her own aspirations to be a media personality — or by his mother’s friends. They’re more concerned with junk television and, perhaps aptly in a town nicknamed ‘the barbecue-sauce capital of Texas’, stuffing their faces with ribs and fried chicken. Vernon’s mother and her chums fret endlessly about whether he is getting enough to eat. Her closest friend Palmyra is a wonderful larger-than-life character who bellows at police officers when she finds they’re not feeding him enough:
So the door flies open. Pam wobbles in, bolt upright like she has books on her head. It’s on account of her center of gravity.
‘Vernie, you eatin rebs? What did you eat today?’
‘O Lord, we better go by the Barn’
Doesn’t matter what you tell her, she’s going by Bar-B-Chew Barn believe me.
Pam just molds into the car. Her soul’s already knotted over the choice of side-orders you can tell.
No-one in this novel really comes across in a positive light however; they’re either fat, stupid or conniving. In fact, Vernon God Little is rather scathing about American society in general, portraying it as full of slobbish incompetent law enforcers and gun-obsessed gullible citizens. Everything in this world can be turned into a form of entertainment — even the death penalty. One of the most chilling plot developments comes when Ledesma sells an idea to a television network for a Big Brother style series where viewers get to decide the fate of prisoners on death row. Prisoners are given coaching on how to act when the cameras are installed in their cells.
Internet viewers will be able to choose which cells to watch, and change camera angles and all. On regular TV there’ll be edited highlights of the day’s action. Then the general public will vote by phone or internet. They’ll vote for who should die next. The cuter we act, the more we entertain, the longer we might live.
I wish I could believe such an idea will never materialise outside the world of fiction. But then who could have imagined a program about a bunch of misfits who live together in a custom-built home under constant surveillance??
No wonder that at the end, Vernon wonders: “What kind of a life was that? A bunch of movies, and people talking about movies, and shows about people talking about movies.”
So what did I make of this book? It was certainly an odd book. Frequently loopy, barmy and just plain whacky, it was a tale told with gusto and zest. But the initial novelty of this style wore off half way through and, as much as I was interested in its ideas, I just wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible.
About the book: Vernon God Little was the debut novel by DBC Pierre. Published in 2003 it won the Booker Prize the same year in the face of competition from Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut and Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.
About the author: D.B.C. Pierre (the pen name of Peter Warren Finlay) has a ‘colourful’ history, admitting to being a drug-taking, hard-drinking, law-breaking tearaway in his past. His misspent youth gave him his nickname of Dirty But Clean (hence the DBC…). Part American, part Australian he now lives in Ireland.
Why I read this book: It was one of the remaining books to read in my Booker Prize project. Just six more to go..
Of all the books long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker prize, Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor was the one I most wanted to read. Having done so I’m at a loss to understand why the Booker judges failed to select this for the shortlist. Not for the first time it seems the judges’ idea of what makes an outstanding novel is a mile apart from my own thinking.
Reservoir 13 is quite simply an extraordinary novel. It gives an innovative twist to the device of a missing girl; has a meticulously plotted structure and a mesmeric poetic style of writing.
The springboard is the disappearance of 13 year old Rebecca Shaw from the holiday cottage in England’s Peak District where she is spending New Year’s Eve with her parents. Initially it seems the novel is treading a familiar path; one which traces the ensuing search, the grief of the girl’s family and the shock of the community before the revelation of what happened to Rebecca. So we get police helicopters buzzing overhead, villagers turning out to sweep the frozen moors and divers trawling through the reservoirs. It’s all in vain. Rebecca Shaw is nowhere to be found. Not that day or in the following weeks, months and even years. McGregor keeps alive the possibility that she may be found however; tantalising us with the discovery of a navy-blue body-warmer identical to the one Rebecca wore the night she disappeared; several mentions of disused lead mines and characters who have secrets they would prefer lay undiscovered.
McGregor’s stroke of ingenuity is to make us think this is all adding up to be a murder mystery/crime kind of novel, while all the time writing an entirely different of book. What Reservoir 13 is about is essentially the ebb and flow of life in a rural community showing how, despite a human tragedy, life does go on. Cows are milked, crops planted and harvested, tea rooms opened, kilns fired. Babies are born; children grow up and experiment with drugs and sex; people fall in and out of love; some fall sick; others die. Some villagers leave, others return. In the immediate aftermath of Rebecca’s disappearance, the villagers scale back on some of their time-honoured traditions and festivities as a mark of respect for her family. But as the years pass and still she is not found, they make a return appearance on the calendar: the charity dance in spring, well dressing in mid summer; the cricket match against the neigbouring village; harvest festival; the winter pantomime and fireworks at New Year
McGregor follows the daily lives of a large set of villagers, watching them deal with small and not-so-small sorrows and disappointments over the course of 13 years. Child pornography; depression; marital discord; examination failures and successes; all human life is recorded in this novel. There’s Irene who puts on a brave face even when her special needs son becomes violent; Jackson the farmer, who rules his sons’ lives from his sick bed and Jones the school caretaker whose protective attitude towards his boilerhouse is suspicious. None of these villagers dominate the novel; there is in fact no central character. Often all we get is a fleeting glimpse of their lives, a single sentence or a short conversation alone signalling their attitudes, their vulnerabilities and how their lives are changing. It’s a style that calls for careful reading — blink and you can easily miss some essential detail.
The cycle of human life is echoed in the rhythms of the natural world — the flowering of trees and wild plants, mating and hibernation of wildlife and weather conditions marking the changing of the seasons.
The swallows returned in numbers, and could be seen flying in and out of the open doors at the lambing shed at the Jacksons’ and the cowsheds over at Thompson’s, and the outbuildings up at the Hunter’s land. … There was rain and the river was high and the hawthorn by the lower meadows came out foaming white. The cow parsley was thick along the footpaths and the shade deepened under the trees.
Through meticulous layering of details and repetition Reservoir 13 marks the turning of the years. Every chapter, each of which takes us one year on, begins in the same way: a sentence noting the fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Yet with a few small changes McGregor shows how life is changing for this community.
Chapter 2, which marks the first anniversary of Rebecca’s disappearance begins
At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but they were too far off for the sound to carry to the few who’d come out to watch.
By year 4, the villagers are in more of a celebration mood:
At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks on the television in the pub and dancing in the street outside.
Almost a decade later however, after New Year’s Eve is marked by arson attacks at a caravan and the allotments, the villagers are more cautious about their celebrations:
At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but no one in the village even lifted their heads to look.
McGregor’s prose is rhythmic and measured, seeming simple on the surface yet with such precision and detail that you feel immersed in the life of this community and drawn towards its inhabitants. It’s the kind of writing that can easily sweep you along. I forced myself to slow down, reading just one chapter a night so I could savour it more fully.
Even while absorbed in their own lives, the village can never completely forget what happened on that one night so many years ago. Periodically McGregor reminds us of the girl’s disappearance, even in the final chapter some 13 years after her disappearance we are told:
The missing girl had not yet been forgotten. The girl’s name was Rebecca or Becky or Beks. She had been looked for everywhere. … It was no good.
This is in short a wonderful novel. The best I have read this year.
About the book: Reservoir 13 was published in 2017 by 4th Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins. My version is in hardback and was borrowed from my local library.
About the author: Jon McGregor is the author of four novels and a story collection. He is the winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, Betty Trask Prize, and Somerset Maugham Award, and has twice been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, where he edits the Letters Page, a literary journal in letters. He was born in Bermuda in 1976, grew up in Norfolk, and now lives in Nottingham, England.
Until I read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, I knew only three things about its protagonist Ned Kelly:
- He was an outlaw in Australia
- He was hanged for his crimes
- In his final shootout he wore a helmet made from iron with slits for his eyes
Carey’s novel takes us way beyond those headline facts and into the mind of the man whose first encounter with the law happened when he was just thirteen years old and he was charged with the assault and robbery of a Chinese pig and fowl trader. By the time Ned Kelly was 25 he had progressed to cattle thieving, bank robberies and murder. How this child of a dirt-poor Irish immigrant family became one of the most wanted men in Australia and the stuff of legends is the premise of True History of the Kelly Gang.
Based partly on historical documents including the Jerilderie Letter written by Kelly to a fellow outlaw, the novel begins with a 12-year-old boy forced to grow up quickly when his father dies. As head of the family, Ned is fiercely protective of his mother and siblings, putting his heart and soul into building fences around their farm in Victoria and clearing the land to protect crops and livestock. Manoeuvred by his mother to become an apprentice to the infamous bushranger Harry Power, Ned is drawn increasingly into a life of crime. He fights with his mother’s suitors and the police, and when he shoots a treacherous police officer in self-defense, Ned is forced to flee into the wild bush country. With his younger brother and two friends he commits audacious crimes, all the while gaining widespread support from poor oppressed farmers and remaining one step ahead of the forces of law and order.
True History of the Kelly Gang is an imaginative reconstruction of Ned Kelly’s life story in his own words. Dedicated to the baby daughter he has never seen, Kelly wants to set the record straight. He promises her at the beginning that his history “will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false” and the word ‘True’ in the title further seeks to persuade us that this is an definitive and authoritative account of his life and of the injustices suffered by the Irish in Australia.
He repeatedly represents himself as a person who was pushed into the life of an outlaw by forces beyond his control. “What choice did I have?” he asks, when he kills the constable who heads the local police station. At other times he reflects on how he has been betrayed by the dishonesty of others. He operates to a code of ethics that will not let him see his brother imprisoned for an act that he Ned committed, and that drives him to rob banks to raise money for the release of his mother from what he considers an unlawful imprisonment. All of this is in strong contrast to the lack of princples he witness among the police, judges and fellow settlers.
All of this is rendered in a style that is striking. Carey’s narrative has a directness and immediacy of tone that makes it hard to resist Kelly’s portrait of himself as a man who had the stuffing knocked out of him as a child. Coming out of a stint of hard labour in prison he reflects:
I were 17 yr old when I came out of prison 6ft 2in. broad of shoulder my hands as hard as the hammers we had swung inside the walls of Beecworth Goal. I had a mighty beard and was a child no more although in truth I do not know what childhood or youth I ever had. What remained if any were finally taken away inside that goal boiled off me like fat and marrow is rendered within the tallow pot.
The raggedness of this style of writing with its lack of punctuation and free flow from one thought to another took me a little time to get used to but once any initial reservations were overcome, I got swept along. Kelly may have lacked a formal education but he knows how to tell a story and to describe the environment in which he lives and hides. Here are a few examples I picked out:
“Many is the night I have sat by the roaring river the rain never ending them logs so green bubbling and spitting blazing in a rage no rain can staunch.”
“The clouds was light but queerly yellow on their edges as they moved across the ageless constellations.”
“Curtains of bark hung from the trunks like shredded skin”
These moments together with flashes of humour and reflections on the Irish experience were welcome contrasts to the torrent of detail about cattle thieving, double crossing, run-ins with the law and shoot-outs. Ned Kelly seems to have perfect recall of every stage of his life and every conversation and to want to tell us about every single detail. I got a bit tired of this three quarters of the way through. Though I did enjoy it, less would certainly have more with this book.
About this book: True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey was first published in 2000 by the University of Queensland Press. It won the Booker Prize in 2001. My copy is a paperback published by Mackays of Chatham.
About the author: Born in Australia in 1943, Peter Carey is the author of six previous novels and a collection of stories. He won the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda; his other honors include the Commonwealth Prize and the Miles Franklin Award. He became only the second author to win the Booker Prize twice.
Why I read this book: it’s one of the few remaining books on my Booker Prize project. I included it in my 20booksofsummer project for 2017.
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday invites us to list the books on our reading horizons for autumn. I had intended to say that I don’t have an Autumn reading plan because a) I’m no good at sticking to these kinds of plans b) I haven’t long finished working through the 20booksofsummer list so am suffering a little list fatigue and c) I’m a hopeless prevaricator so can never make up my mind in advance what I want to read.
But then of course I remembered that I have a little unfinished business with my Booker project. So by default I seem to have a plan of sorts because I want to finish this project by the end of the year. That means I know there are seven Booker Prize winners I will be reading in coming months.
2015 – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)
2004 – The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst)
2003 – Vernon God Little (DBC Pierre)
1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)
1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)
1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)
1972 – G. (J Berger)
Based on the insight from several bloggers I’m saving The Line of Beauty and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha until the end. The order in which I read the other five will be down to the mood I’m in at the time I’m ready to start a new book.
What else is in the offing?
From the library today I picked up a copy of Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize and – according to many comments I’ve seen – deserved to be on the shortlist but was overlooked by the judges. In it, he depicts the aftermath of the disappearance of a 13 year old girl during a New Year’s holiday in a village in the Peak District. Over the course of 13 years, McGregor shows how life goes on in this community after the initial shock of her disappearance. To get the best idea of this book take a look at Susan’s review at A Life in Books.
I’ve already started reading this it being a perfect day to sit in the sunshine with a coffee and read. And so far it’s turned out to be a remarkable book…
I have a few novels I’ve agreed to review including a crime story in the style of the Golden Age of Crime, a historical fiction book set in Versailles and a new work by Richard Flanagan called First Person which is apparently a story about a ghostwriter haunted by his demonic subject.
And then there are a few Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Lively novels that are calling to me, and it’s time I revisited some of my classics club list. which has a few Anthony Trollope and Emile Zola titles I fancy. But wait a moment, what about all the Louise Penny titles I bought on my last trip to the USA? And the authors from Wales that I’m trying to highlight….
Even with my less than stellar arithmetical skills I realise I’m way over 10 books. Better get reading hadn’t I????
The Man Booker Prize judges announced the shortlist for the 2017 prize today and sprung a few surprises.
The first and by far the biggest surprise is that Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead which has been hoovering up prizes everywhere else is missing from the list. That was the bookie’s favourite up until this morning. Its omission has taken many in the book world by surprise. Waterstones fiction buyer Chris White commented to the Guardian newspaper: “We’re all used by now to the Booker judges delivering surprises but the omission of The Underground Railroad from the final six certainly ranks among the biggest shocks I’ve witnessed. I think that, when we look back at 2017, we may see this as the one which got away”. He obviously isn’t a reader of BookerTalk because he would have seen from my post earlier this week that people I would class as knowledgeable though not professional readers didn’t rate it that highly.
Another surprise is that established authors like Zadie Smith, Arundhati Roy, Sebastian Barry and Kamila Shamsi have all been pushed aside in favour of first time novelists. George Saunders who makes it to the list with Lincoln in the Bardo (now the bookie’s favourite to win) has only previously written short stories. He, together with Fiona Mozley, a part-time book shop worker from the UK who apparently wrote part of her book on her phone while commuting and American Emily Fridlund will now go head to head against the big names of Paul Auster and Ali Smith (neither of whom have won the Booker in previous years).
Continuing the trend from recent years two independent publishers are featured among the shortlisted titles.
The judges, chaired by Baroness Lola Young, said at a press conference that “the novels [chosen], each in their own way, challenge and subtly shift our preconceptions – about the nature of love, about the experience of time, about questions of identity and even death.”
So what do the critics and followers of the Booker Prize make of the shortlist?
A number remarked on the lack of geographic breadth of the selected authors. The judges were apparently challenged at the press conference about the Americanisation of the prize. Three of the shortlisted writers are from the US. Baroness Young ejected the accusation. “… nationality is not an issue in terms of how we decide on a winner – it’s what is in our opinion the best book in these six. All we can say is that we judge the books submitted to us, and make our judgment not based on nationality or gender, but what is written on the pages,” she said.
Former Booker judge Alex Clark, writing in The Guardian called the shortlist ‘daring’. The choices, he said, seem “to reject conventional realism and celebrate precarious and unstable narratives…”
Toby Lichtig writing for the Times Literary Supplement noted that neither of his two favourites was selected (Underground Railroad and Reservoir 13) while the inclusion of Auster would “raise a few eyebrows” because while it ” is a work of towering ambition” for some readers it was also one of” towering self-regard”. Writing in the TLS, James Campbell found it to be lacking in “rhythm, tone, vivacity, wit. To name just four things”.
The Mookes and the Bookish group over at Goodreads greeted the announcement of the shortlist with astonishment “…the longlist had restored my faith in the Booker. The shortlist has successfully re-destroyed it!” said one member. Several were dismayed that two of their favourite reads Solar Bones and Home Fire didn’t make it and questioned why Elmet was on the list because they didn’t find it any more noteworthy than some other debut novels that were eligible.
The prize for 2017 looks wide open although Ladbrokes are giving the edge to Saunders. Interesting to see Elmet in joint second place – is she going to be the dark horse?
Whoever wins it’s certain to be a decision that will not please everyone but twas ever thus.
The 2017 Shortlist
4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (UK-Pakistan)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) Watch a video from Foyles about this book
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) Read an interview with Ali Smith
The 2017 winner will be announced on Tuesday 17 October
The Booker Prize judges will announce tomorrow which six books will make it to the shortlist for the 2016 prize. For the first time in the five years since I started this blog when the longlist was announced I discovered I hadn’t read any of the 13 longlisted titles. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise really since this year I’ve focused on reading more from my TBR and consequently a lot less contemporary fiction. But neither did I feel excited enough this year to rush out and acquire a few of the longlist titles. I did get electronic samples of most of them and have decided which interest me the most: Home Fire, Reservoir 13, Autumn, Lincoln in the Bardo and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I might even be able to read one or two before the final announcement.
So essentially I’ve been following the prize as a backseat passenger this year. Fortunately there are a few highly dedicated groups and individuals who have taken more of an interest and have been working their way through the list over the past few months.
The Mookse and the Gripes is a very lively Goodreads group of 51 contributors. Based on their scores for each individual book, they’re anticipating that the six shortlisted titles will be:
1 Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
2 Home Fire by Kamila Shamsi
3 Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
4 Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
5 Autumn by Ali Smith
6 Days without End by Sebastian Barry
They ranked the remaining seven titles as follows:
7 Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
8 Exit West by Hamid
9 The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
10 4321 by Paul Auster
11 Swing Time by Zadie Smith
12 Elmet by Fiona Mozley
13 History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
Over at The Reader’s Room a smaller but no less dedicated team have ranked the novels according to the quality of writing quality; originality; character development; plot development and readers’ overall enjoyment.
1. Autumn by Ali Smith
2. Exit West by Hamid
3. 4321 by Paul Auster
4. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
5. Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
6. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsi
7. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
8. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
9. Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
10. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
11. Swing Time by Zadie Smith
12. Elmet by Fiona Mozley
13. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Astonishingly, given the large number of readers of these books, there is a large level of agreement between the Goodreads group and the Reader’s Room. Four of the titles: Solar Bones, Home Fire, Lincoln in the Bardo and Autumn appear in both lists as likely shortlist contenders.
Where they part company is over Reservoir 13, Exit West and Days without End.
Reader’s Room reviewers liked the style of Reservoir 13 which was reminiscent of poetry but thought there wasn’t enough character or plot development. Exit West was gauged by one reviewer to “convey incredible depth and emotion” by subtly using magical realism. Only two reviewers for the Reader’s Room read Paul Auster’s 4321 – both commented on its length (900 pages approx) but found it engaging, complex and written in a style bordering on perfection. Over at Goodreads, Paul one reviewer commented that Reservoir 13 was “A wonderful novel — modest in its scope but all the more powerful for it” and a breath of fresh air compared to the over-blown novels that have won in recent years. Another reviewer said it was the most compelling read of the year. There were mixed reviews for Exit West – a number of people thought the writing dull (others completely disagreed) and the migrant experience not fully developed or not realistic. As for 1234, the length of the book was an issue with a lot of the reviewers – several thought it could easily have been trimmed by 100 or 150 pages without suffering. A few commented that the basic structure of the novel – relaying the vastly different lives of four identical boys formed from the same DNA – was confusing at times but also felt repetitive.
What was interesting for me about both lists was that Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad which was “the” book of 2016, doesn’t come higher on any of the lists. This is the novel that won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the Heartland Prize and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Yet several reviewers didn’t find it to be as innovative as they expected. Will the Booker Prize represent one hurdle too far for this novel?
Not according to Ladbrokes, the bookmakers, who have Whitehead’s novel as the clear favourite to win.
But then, as John Dugdale pointed out in an article for The Guardian an entry in the bookmakers’ lists isn’t any guarantee of success.
The National (an online magazine) has also taken out their crystal ball and come up with a list of who they’d like to see on the shortlist. They are the only ones to put The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and Swing Time in the frame.
The field is clearly wide open as it were.
It’s 210 years since an Act of Parliament abolished the slave trade in Britain, a trade upon which many personal fortunes were made; mansions, stately homes and churches built and Britain’s major ports, cities and canals developed. It’s estimated that by the early 1800s as many as one in six of the wealthiest Britons derived at least some of their fortunes from slavery. This is a period of British history which still causes controversy today – earlier this year campaigners vowed to erase the name of Edward Colston from the streets of Bristol because the buildings he bequeathed to the city were funded through his involvement in the slave trade.
The profit motive that propelled merchants and investors like Colston is the theme explored in Sacred Hunger, the 1992 Booker-prize winning novel by Barry Unsworth. It begins with the ambition of one man, William Kemp, a leading merchant in Liverpool who believes the time is ripe for the city and its entrepreneurs to reap the rewards of trade across the Atlantic and Africa. So confident is he that he has a new ship built to carry firearms to the west coast of Africa, intending to trade them for slaves to be transported and sold in the West Indies in exchange for a cargo of sugar to be taken back to England.
He knows it will be a risky endeavour. So he equips the Liverpool Merchant with special features: guns on its quarterdecks mounted so they can be trained down to quell slave revolts and thickened rails to make death leaps more difficult. In his captain Saul Thurso he finds a man who will not hesitate to act in whatever way necessary to maintain order. Yet Kemp likes to think he is also a caring man so he recruits his nephew Matthew Paris as ship’s doctor, “for reasons of humanity”, much to Thurso’s astonishment and disgust.
It’s through the eyes of this doctor that we witness events on board ship once it sets sail. Paris is a complex character. In between binding the wounds of crew members and treating the symptoms of venereal disease and bloody flux (severe dysentery), he spends his time at sea reading Voltaire and Pope. His thoughts turn constantly to his wife and his feelings of guilt for the part he played in her premature death. His objection to the profit motive, the inhumanity of slavery and the treatment of the human cargo put him at loggerheads with the Captain.
When an artist and philosopher called Deblanc joins the ship in West Africa, Paris finds he has someone with whom he can debate the legitimacy of the profit motive behind the voyage. Deblanc tells Paris how the lust for profit becomes legitimised:
Money is sacred as everyone knows… So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking only to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.
Paris becomes increasingly disquiet about his own role in assisting the slave traders:
I have assisted in the suffering inflicted on these innocent people and in doing so joined the ranks of those that degrade the unoffending… We have taken everything from them and only for the sake of profit—that sacred hunger… which justifies everything, sanctifies all purposes.
Thurso decides to jettison the captured slaves, the insurance money being more attractive than their prospects for sale in their sickened condition. It’s the breaking point for Paris who leads a rebellion and forms a settlement off the coast of Florida where crew members and slaves live together on equal terms. They share the few remaining women slaves, communicate via a trade pidgin and trade with local Indians.
A decade later, William Kemp’s son Erasmus learns of this settlement and resolves to recapture the slaves for they are, in his eyes, his property. Book 2 of Sacred Hunger traces his journey across the Atlantic to seek retribution against his cousin, bring him to justice and reclaim the remaining slaves. Like his now-dead father, Erasmus is motivated by money and finds in Florida that the promise of land and wealth is equally compelling to the Governor of this British colony and the local Indian tribal chiefs.
The story moves at a smart pace, especially in the first book. There is a large and colourful cast of characters from the crewmen duped in wharfside brothels into joining the ship to Thurso whose glaring eyes and propensity for flogging make him an imposing figure. Unsworth provides so much detail that we feel we too are pitching and rolling through the waves or clambering up the mainmast. Fortunately the book doesn’t get so authentic that we experience the stink of the slave’s quarters in the bottom of the hull.
Sacred Hunger is long at 600 pages but doesn’t feel unnecessarily drawn out. It’s page after page of solid adventure, realistic 18th century dialogue and vivid prose which works without recourse to any experimentation with form. In Book 1 which takes us as far as Thurso’s murder of the slaves, Unsworth varies the tempo by alternating episodes on the Liverpool Merchant with scenes of a failed romance and a family scandal in Liverpool.
Book One was a joy to read but I wasn’t as enthralled by the considerably shorter Book 2. Most of this later section is set in Florida where the hoped for utopia of a settlement of equals is clearly breaking down despite Paris’ attempt to convince the settlers that “White man, black man, all free man, all bradder, lie tagedder dis place, all same boat.” The problem for me was that so much of this section is conveyed in that kind of pidgin language. It’s understandable since it brings home the point about how difficult it is for the English and Africans to communicate but it made for some frustrating reading. Overall though this was still a good read and will find a place in the top half of my favourite Booker titles I’m sure.
About the book: Sacred Hunger is a historical novel by Barry Unsworth first published in 1992 by Hamish Hamilton. It shared the Booker Prize that year with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (one of my all-time favourite Booker winners).
About the author: Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham. After university he served in the Royal Corps of Signals, then became a teacher and novelist. He worked as a lecturer in English at a London technical college and the universities of Athens and Istanbul. He was writer in residence at the University of Liverpool. In later years he made his home in Umbria, Italy. He died in Perugia, at age 81, of lung cancer.
Earlier in the week I asked for help in working out which of the remaining 8 Booker titles from my list I should read next. And also was there a standout novel with which to end.
Thanks to everyone who weighed in on this. As I expected, opinions were divided, proof if ever any were needed that reading is a highly personal experience.
Some clear trends did emerge however.
G. the 1972 winner by J Berger got zero votes of confidence which is not surprising since it had been read by only one person: Susan at A Life in Books. Only one other person seemed to be aware of Berger’s work: Kelly at Kellysbookishramblings has G on her TBR shelves..
Also not universally recommended is the 1974 winner The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer. Lisa of ANZitlovers gave it a resounding vote of confidence calling it “a brave book written by a brave woman who exposed the day to day reality of apartheid to the international stage” and Bookbii described it as an “excellent, if challenging book.” Countering this however is Alison, a blogger from South Africa who commented : Nadine Gordimer is a Sacred Icon in South African literature, but I’ve always found her books very heavy going.”
Local connections certainly played a part in reactions to James Kelman’s 1994 winner How Late It Was, How Late “Don’t be put off Kelman,” said Weezelle at BooksandLeaves. My (Scottish) husband says that the criticism aimed at him comes from certain parts of the British Isles who were educated in certain institutions that may or may not have a particular elitist view of the world. Even for me as a non-Scot, I loved this book.” Col, a Glaswegian, loved the book but admitted to maybe a little bias since it is set in her home city and the language is thus very familiar.
The jury delivered a minority verdict on Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre. Some of you really enjoyed it, calling variously “a riot’ and “bonkers” but others declared they hated it and Paul Fulcher thought it “lightweight and completely unworthy of the prize.”
What did you recommend?
Top of the poll was Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, the 1993 winner by Roddy Doyle with nine votes in favour and no negative reactions. Kim at Reading Matters described it as “one of my all time favourites. ” Many of you commented on its readability – a description that would have pleased the judges of the 2011 prize but was dismissed by many of the literary great and the good asa sign of dumbing down of the prize. But what’s wrong with saying a book is readable? I’m more than confident that people reading this blog don’t mean these are “simple” books or superficial. Maybe we mean they are less challenging in form or subject but still require engagement of the brain.
Also described as an easy and very readable book is The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst which won the Booker Prize in 2004. It attracted 6 votes, a draw with The True History of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey.
The novel that had me most curious to hear your reactions was the most recent winner on my list: the 2015 winner A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Although it attracted only 4 votes in its favour there were none against which surprised me because I’ve seen many other reviews commenting on how complex a novel this is structurally and how tough it can be to tune into the Jamaican dialect. Yet one commenter said it was “An astonishingly good book, that stays with you long after you’ve read it. Yes, there is extreme violence, some of the dialect is hard to understand, and the politics can be confusing. It is not an easy read – but worth the effort.
Where does this take me?
I’m going to save The Line of Beauty and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha until the end since they were so highly recommended. It would be tempting to leave one of the least favourite novels to the end but I really do not want to mark the completion of this project by reading something I don’t enjoy. I’m going to make The True History of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey by next choice given it has had a positive reaction. After that I’m going to let my mood dictate what I choose, trying to space out the more challenging reads where I can.
Thanks for all your help.
The countdown has begun for my project to read all the Booker Prize winners since the inception of the prize in 1969. I’ve read 40 of the winners, abandoned two which means there are just eight remaining ( I decided to call a halt in 2015).
It’s taken far longer than I anticipated when I started more than 5 years ago. If you’re a book blogger you can blame yourself for my slow progress – you would insist in pushing other titles under my nose that I felt I absolutely had to read. In other words I got distracted a few times. But I’m determined to wrap this up before the end of the year.
I’m just not sure what to read next particularly since some of the remaining titles sound challenging. A Brief History of Seven Killings, the 2015 winner is ” a difficult book with a stop-start structure ,” and cast of around 75 characters according to The Guardian reviewer. One of the Booker judges declared the 1994 winner How Late it Was How Late to be “crap” while The Guardian review considered the novel “brilliant, sometimes quite funny, but more often a miserable slog…. confusing, claustrophobic and miserable” . I started The Conservationist at the end of last year but found it confusing so set aside temporarily.
Here’s a little request – can you help me work my way through the final eight by letting me know if you’ve read any of these and how you found the experience? I especially want to make the final Booker I read to be a firework and not a damp squib. So are there any rockets in this list?
For those of you who don’t know these books, here are the Goodreads synopsis for each one
2015 – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)
“…a masterfully written novel that explores the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the late 1970s.
On December 3, 1976, just before the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert, gunmen stormed his house, machine guns blazing. The attack nearly killed the Reggae superstar, his wife, and his manager, and injured several others. Marley would go on to perform at the free concert on December 5, but he left the country the next day, not to return for two years.
Deftly spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters—assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts—A Brief History of Seven Killings is the fictional exploration of that dangerous and unstable time and its bloody aftermath, from the streets and slums of Kingston in the 70s, to the crack wars in 80s New York, to a radically altered Jamaica in the 90s.
2004 – The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst)
In the summer of 1983, twenty-year-old Nick Guest moves into an attic room in the Notting Hill home of the Feddens: conservative Member of Parliament Gerald, his wealthy wife Rachel, and their two children, Toby-whom Nick had idolized at Oxford-and Catherine, highly critical of her family’s assumptions and ambitions.
As the boom years of the eighties unfold, Nick, an innocent in the world of politics and money, finds his life altered by the rising fortunes of this glamorous family. His two vividly contrasting love affairs, one with a young black clerk and one with a Lebanese millionaire, dramatize the dangers and rewards of his own private pursuit of beauty, a pursuit as compelling to Nick as the desire for power and riches among his friends.
Richly textured, emotionally charged, disarmingly comic,
2003 – Vernon God Little (DBC Pierre)
Named as one of the 100 Best Things in the World by GQmagazine in 2003, the riotous adventures of Vernon Gregory Little in small town Texas and beachfront Mexico mark one of the most spectacular, irreverent and bizarre debuts of the twenty-first century so far. Its depiction of innocence and simple humanity (all seasoned with a dash of dysfunctional profanity) in an evil world is never less than astonishing. The only novel to be set in the barbecue sauce capital of Central Texas, Vernon God Little suggests that desperate times throw up the most unlikely of heroes.
2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang (Peter Carey)
Told in the form of a journal justifying Ned Kelly to the daughter he would never meet, this is a mesmerising act of historical imagining by one of the most popular novelists at work today.
1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)
One Sunday morning in Glasgow, shoplifting ex-con Sammy awakens in an alley, wearing another man’s shoes and trying to remember his two-day drinking binge. He gets in a scrap with some soldiers and revives in a jail cell, badly beaten and, he slowly discovers, completely blind. And things get worse: his girlfriend disappears, the police question him for a crime they won’t name, and his stab at disability compensation embroils him in the Kafkaesque red tape of the welfare bureaucracy. Told in the utterly uncensored language of the Scottish working class, this is a dark and subtly political parable of struggle and survival, rich with irony and black humour.
1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)
“Sometimes when nothing happened it was really getting ready to happen.” Irish Paddy rampages through Barrytown streets with like-minded hooligans, playing cowboys, etching names in wet concrete, setting fires. The gang are not bad boys, just restless. When his parents argue, Paddy stays up all night to keep them safe. Change always comes, not always for the better
1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)
“The winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature paints a fascinating portrait of a “conservationist” left only with the possibility of self-preservation, a subtle and detailed study of the forces and relationships that seethe in South Africa today.”
1972 – G. (J Berger)
John Berger relates the story of “G.,” a young man forging an energetic sexual career in Europe during the early years of this century. With profound compassion, Berger explores the hearts and minds of both men and women, and what happens during sex, to reveal the conditions of the Don Juan’s success: his essential loneliness, the quiet cumulation in each of his sexual experiences of all of those that precede it, the tenderness that infuses even the briefest of his encounters, and the way women experience their own extraordinariness through their moments with him. All of this Berger sets against the turbulent backdrop of Garibaldi and the failed revolution of Milanese workers in 1898, the Boer War, and the first flight across the Alps, making G. a brilliant novel about the search for intimacy in history’s private moments.