Category Archives: Man Booker Prize

Almost Beaten By Controversial Booker Winner “How Late It Was How Late”

I tried, I really tried to read all the way to the end of How Late It Was How Late. I made it, but it was incredibly hard going and several times I was ready to throw in the towel.

How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman

The issue wasn’t the rawness of the text. After a time I simply became immured to the frequency with which James Kelman used the F word. In case you’re interested, some columnists did a count and got to 4,000 instances. In my edition that equates to ten uses per page….

I even got used to the strong Glaswegian dialect used by his central character, a habitual drunk and petty criminal called Sammy Samuels. I kept imagining I was hearing Billy Connolly in one of his rants…

Here’s a typical passage that will give you a flavour of the style of this book. Any oddities are not of my making – it’s just the way the book is written. This snippet comes from early in the novel where Sammy, having woken up in an alley after a two-day drinking binge gets into a fight with some soldiers. Taken into police custody he’s so badly beaten he becomes blind.

He didnay even know what day it was. Jesus. The big mouth man he always had to blab. If that was him for another night

Jesus christ. She would be really worried now. He aye had to blab. How come he aye had to blab! Just stupit. Stupit. She would be worrying. Doesnay matter the situation, how it was, that was past tense, she would worry. Cause he had nay place to go and she knew it. Ye’re talking from whenever it was the now back to last Friday morning man that’s how long it was; four maybe five days, including the Saturday. Fucking Saturday! Saturday was a blank. A blank.

Confused? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. The ‘she’ in the passage turns out to be a woman called Helen with whom he’s been living. But when he eventually gets back to the flat she’s disappeared. Where and why, we don’t know. Half the time even Sammy doesn’t really have a clue what’s going on.

Bleak and Bizarre

For a book that deals with someone already in the dregs of society whose life suddenly turns much worse when he is blinded, How Late It Was, How Late is understandably dark. But it can also be quite funny in a black comedy kind of way.

Sammy for example cobbles together a kind of walking stick so he can tap his way along the streets. Then he realises it needs to be painted white. No problem, he has plenty of paint in his flat. Just one issue remains – how will he know which can is white?

Sammy bizarrely doesn’t seem all that fazed by his blindness initially. He just thinks it’s weird, an ‘initial wee flurry of excitement but no what ye would call panic-stations.” He’s more concerned about the fact someone stole his new leather shoes while he was in his drunken stupor, leaving him with badly fitting cheap trainers.

He’s remarkably philosophical about his run ins with the police – he’s clearly been down that road before and knows the score. But when he tries to get some disability compensation for his blindness he enters an unknown world of absurdity and obfuscation in the form of the welfare system. All he wants to do is claim some money so he can buy food but instead he gets a lecture on ‘Dysfunctional Benefits’ and ‘Community Gratuity’. And ends up empty handed except for a warning about making false statements alleging police violence

Flashes of humour didn’t however provide enough compensation for the fact that for most of the time I found the book was a slog. Page after page of stream of consciousness, interrupted occasionally by a strange third person voice, but without the

Condemned By Critics

I didn’t dislike it as intensely however as some of the critics who castigated How Late It Was How Late when it was published and was named as the Booker Prize winner in 1994..

Simon Jenkins, The Times columnist, for example described Kelman as “illiterate savage” who had done no more than “transcribe the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk”. One of the Booker Prize judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, declared that the book was unreadably bad and said that the awarding of the prize, Britain’s most important, was a “disgrace.”

Kelman hit back in his acceptance speech at the Booker awards ceremony. “… my culture and my language have the right to exist and no one has the authority to dismiss that… A fine line can exist between elitism and racism. On matters concerning language and culture, the distance can sometimes cease to exist altogether.”

He has a good point. No author should feel stifled because of an elitist view of what is ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ language. Kelman is writing from his own experience, of the people he saw around him while growing up on a housing estate in Glasgow. It’s a city notorious for straight talking, hard living and dark humour. Did the critics seriously expect Kelman to have a central figure who uses Queen’s English or received pronunciation?

I didn’t enjoy How Late It Was How Late, but neither did I feel it deserved the level of criticism levied at Kelman. It’s not a book to everyone’s taste but he has to be admired for his boldness and ingenuity.

Jaw-Dropping Dullness from Booker Winner: Saville

Saville by David Storey

Saville by David Storey

I reached the end of David Storey’s Booker Prize winning novel Saville with an enormous sense of relief.

No longer would my evenings be marred by having to plod through this jaw-droppingly tedious tale.

I don’t understand why I didn’t give up on it well before the end since there are only so many pages of over-written scenes, mediocre dialogue and scrappy characterisation  I can take.

This had all three in abundance over the course of its 500 plus pages. It also had a  protagonist about whom I cared not one jot. The best part came in the opening few scenes where a miner and his new wife arrive in some northern colliery town and spend the day cleaning their meagre little home.

After that it was downhill all the way.

Working Class Struggle

Saville is a tale of a boy from a South Yorkshire mining family in the late 1930s.   Colin Saville manages to win a scholarship for grammar school; plays sport, has a few run ins with the teacher and meets a few girls. Instead of university he opts for the faster track of teacher training so he can begin earning some money to keep his parents and two brothers just above the poverty line. But he feels constrained by his home and his upbringing; taking his frustrations out on his siblings.

By the time he decides what to do with his life, we’re at the end of the book and by then – frankly – I simply didn’t care.

Desperately Hoping Something Will Happen

Colin Saville just isn’t portrayed in a way that makes me want to take any interest. There’s never any sense of the inner turmoil he supposedly feels in reaction to some of the events that happen to him. Even when his fiancé ditches him for a more wealthy friend, he seems to react as if  someone has just told him the number 6 bus left 30 minutes ago. Having the story relayed through an omniscient narrator doesn’t help.

But I also just kept waiting for something – anything– to happen that would lift the story from the realms of the mediocre.

I was still waiting when I reached the end.

According to one retrospective critical review, Storey’s work mixes realism with psychological extremism. I must have been asleep during those chapters because those elements completely escaped my attention.

If ever there was a book that needed a bit fat blue editor’s pencil to walk all over it, this one was it…..even a scene that according to James Campbell in the Guardian is one of the most memorable (when his friend Stafford visits his home and is treated to a tea of bread, butter and tinned fruit) felt over-written.

This has to be the most deadly dull of all the Booker Prize winners I’ve read. How Saville won the Booker Prize in 1976, I’m at a loss to understand.

Alternative views of Saville

I was curious what some literary experts and reviewers thought of this book.

The reaction at the time of publication was surprisingly enthusiastic.

Jeremy Brooks at the Sunday Times said that reading Saville “is like drinking pure spring water from cupped hands”.

It has no false notes, no heaviness of emphasis, no editorial manipulations of plot to prove a point. One becomes so totally involved in the lives of these people that their every word and action becomes charged with meaning…. Reminiscent of a nineteenth-century classic.’ –

His counterpart at The Times newspaper also gave it a rave review, calling it “mesmerically readable, Saville is a revelation.”  The Sunday Telegraph declared Saville to be “A feast of a book.”

I started to wonder whether this is a novel that resonated in the 1970s but no longer spoke to a twenty-first century reader but so few reviews have been written about Saville in recent years that I can’t answer that question.

All I found was that in 2008 Sam Jordison at The Guardian ( a reviewer I admire) thought Saville was a “class act”. He was so completely immersed in the book that he felt he was parting from a friend when he reached the end.

When David Storey died in 2017 many of the obituaries described him as a great post- war novelist whose raw, realist plays and novels dealt with the north-south divide and family conflict.

I seem to be a lone voice…..

This review appeared originally in 2012. This is an update – the content is substantially the same but I have added sub headings to make it easier to read.

Loathsome Male Character Doesn’t Spoil Brilliant Novel: Disgrace by J M Coetzee

Disgrace by J M Coetzee

If ever proof was needed that it’s possible to have a thoroughly distasteful and objectionable protagonist and yet be totally engrossed in their story, look no further than Disgrace by J M Coetzee.

This novel, which earned J M Coetzee his second Booker prize win, features David Lurie, a university professor in Cape Town. He’s a white South African in his early fifties, intelligent and good looking but somewhat out of synch with his newly post apartheid country.

His field of expertise is modern languages but that specialism has been abolished as part of a nationwide rationalisation of educational resources. He is allowed to run just a single course (he choses the Romantic poets) and the rest of the time is spent lecturing in what he considers the preposterous world of ‘communications skills’.

Predatory Seductor

Coetzee shows a man who views his students with disdain, seeing them semi-illiterate products of a mediocre education system and lacking a basic grounding in the context and sources of the literature which they are studying.

If his academic life is stalling he considers he is rather more successful in his private life. As he describes it:

For a man of his age, 52, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.

That ‘solution’ of which he is proud is a weekly visit to a prostitute with whom he believes he has more than just a financial relationship.  Such an arrangement doesn’t stop him embarking on an affair with Melanie, a girl half his age and one of his students.  

Lurie tries to elevate this to a grander plane by arguing it is the duty of attractive women like Melanie to share their beauty.  “She does not own herself. Beauty does not own itself” is one of his mantras. But actually Lurie is a predator and this is a pretty unpleasant seduction. He plies the girl with drink until she is unable to withstand his advances and almost refers to himself as “Daddy” when he is with her.

Revenge for Apartheid?

Denounced and called to account by the university he admits guilt but steadfastly refuses to repent or to indulge in the public handwringing apology the university believes is necessary. He resigns, abandons his home and seeks refuge with his daughter Lucy on her smallholding somewhere in the Eastern Cape. There they are subjected to a savage attack and a fire which causes a deep rift between father and daughter.

Lurie cannot comprehend his daughter’s response to the attack. Why won’t she report it to the police? It’s clear one of the attackers is connected with a black farmer whose property lies along side her own but why doesn’t Lucy want the man confronted?

Even more puzzling is Lucy’s attitude that her rape is an equal exchange for the way white settlers treated the black indigenous population. She wonders if rape is the price she has to pay for staying on? 

Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves.

Lurie’s previous feelings of complacency are shaken by his daughter’s willingness to accept her fate particularly because his own resources have been diminished.  His good looks were destroyed in the fire, robbing him of his sexual identity. His much cherished idea of finishing an opera about Byron now seems irrelevant.

In a move that seems to suggest he is seeking atonement he throws himself into work at a local animal clinic, helping to deal fatal injections to unwanted and homeless dogs before chucking them into the incinerator. He also begins a relationship the woman who runs the clinic. He doesn’t really desire her, in fact describing her as ‘remarkably unattractive’, but seems to view their love making sessions on the floor as some kind of benevolent act towards a single, lonely woman. The price he pays in a sense for his previous egotistical attitude towards the opposite sex.

Shift in Power in New South Africa

Disgrace is a novel which clearly has some big ideas; ideas about race, about colonial guilt and responsibility.

Running through it is also a theme about the balance of power. In the new South Africa, a different relationship exists between black and white, one in which the latter understand sacrifices of their old power may be required. For Lurie the chain of events which began in Cape Town brings him to an insight into the suffering of others and a shift in his relationship with Lucy. he can no more tell her how to live her life than the white population can dictate to the black South Africans.

‘How humiliating,’ he says finally. ‘Such high hopes, and to end like this.’

‘Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing.’

Lurie is talking about his own situation here but his comments could also be a reflection on the new reality of life in South Africa.

Disgrace is a dark novel in which the political and the personal coalesce.  There are no resolutions here, the problems of the character’s lives are still open by the time we reach the final page. 

Coetzee’s sparse style brings an emotional distance even though he deals with hugely emotive issues. Particularly impressive for me was that Coetzee makes us understand Lurie’s  arrogance even if we don’t endorse his beliefs and shows us by the end of the novel that it’s possible to sympathise with a man who starts out as a thoroughly unsympathetic human being.

Disgrace by JM Coetzee: Endnotes

J M Coetzee was born in South Africa and lived there until 1962 when he relocated to the UK and subsequently to USA. He left the USA in 1971 having failed to be granted permanent residence status , in part due to his involvement in protests against the war in Vietnam.

He worked as an academic at the University of Cape Town until his retirement in 2002. That year he moved to Australia, becoming an Australian citizen in 2006.

J M Coetzee’s first novel was Dusklands  published in 1974. He has twice won the Booker Prize – for Life and Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999.

In 2003, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first author from South Africa to be selected by the Nobel Committee.

This review was posted originally in 2018. This is an updated version incorporating background info about the author and improving readability by shortening the paragraphs.

Washington Black Travels To Freedom [BookReview]

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Did you love adventure stories as a child?

Washington Black, the Booker shortlisted novel by Esi Edugyan, is very much in the mould of the adventure novel although written with an adult reader in mind. It has many of the elements of the adventure tale: a courageous character who goes on a perilous quest to a far-flung location; high octane escapades in the form of a balloon flight and storms; and an ogre who shadows the protagonist wherever he goes.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

But to label it simply as an adventure novel would be a gross injustice because this is a multi-layered, hybrid novel in which excitement and thrills are married with thoughtful exploration. It’s a novel crafted with panache that uses thrills, coincidences and twists of fate to explore the nature of enslavement and freedom.

Washington Black opens on a cotton plantation in 19th-century Barbados where her eponymous hero, George Washington (“Wash”) Black, is a young orphan slave. Christopher “Titch” Wilde, brother of the plantation owner, picks Wash to be his personal assistant in an attempt to build a hot air balloon.

Flight To Freedom

The child proves to be a quick learner with a sharp mind and a latent talent as an illustrator.  As Titch and Wash form a bond through their joint endeavour, fate thrusts them even closer. The pair literally take flight from the Caribbean to protect Wash from accusations of murder and almost certain execution. A nomadic existence ensues, taking the boy to the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and, finally, Morocco.

It’s a clever device that enables Esi Edugyan to greatly expand her scope. The early chapters which describe the physical brutality and emotional pain of slavery are vivid and memorable. But it’s when Wash is removed from the daily cruelty of slavery that the breadth and ambition of Washington Black become evident.

How Does It Feel To Be Free?

Edugyan’s interest is no less than the nature of freedom itself. Though her protagonist is no longer a plantation slave as Wash roams the world he carries with him the physical marks of his former servitude. A brand on his chest can be hidden but the fascial disfigurement caused by a failed experiment is all too evident. It makes him easy prey for the bounty hunter who stalks him from continent to continent years after slavery is abolished.

As a child Wash had asked a slave woman who befriended him, how it felt to be free. It was, she said, the ability to “go wherever it is you wanting.” But now he has this long desired free movement, he becomes terrified by that freedom. It is, he thinks, like “the terrible bottomless nature of the open world, where one belongs nowhere, and to no one.

He can never entirely separate his new self from his old. Even when he has become an accomplished, though unacknowledged, marine scientist he still thinks of himself as a “disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows.”

Journey To Understanding

The countries he visits become allegories of his journey to understand who he really is, and just as significantly, what he means to Titch. He had thought Titch was his friend but then the two became estranged in what Wash sees as an act of betrayal.

For years afterwards, Wash is in turmoil, constantly questioning whether Titch had valued him for as a person, or as a useful pair of hands or an abject creature in need of rescue. In an emotionally charged scene he finally gets to confront Titch.

I was nothing to you. You never saw me as your equal. You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men.

That yearning for truth and for recognition haunts Washington Black. The boy who escaped bondage and eluded a slave catcher has grown up through the course of the novel. But as a young man he is still questioning the past and until he finds the answers, we sense that he will never be happy. Whether he does so by the time we reach the final page is still in doubt since Esi Edugyan leaves us with the kind of ending that is open to more than one interpretation.

What is clear however is that this is a fascinating novel that ranges far and wide geographically but never strays from the central idea about freedom as a state of mind as well as a physical entity.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Fast Facts

Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan was raised in Alberta, Canada after her parents immigrated from Ghana. Despite favourable reviews for her debut novel  The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, she struggled to find a publisher for her next work. she abandoned that to write Half-Blood Blues, about a young mixed-race jazz musician, for which she won the Giller Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2011.

Washington Black, her third novel, was published in September 2018. It won the Giller Prize that year making Edugyan only the third writer to win the award twice. Washington Black was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

3 Booker Prize Winners Worth Re-Reading

There were a number of Booker Prize winning novels I read before I began this blog and my project to work my way through all the winners. As I’m approaching the end of that project I thought I’d write some short reviews of those pre-blog books.

I seldom re-read contemporary fiction (I don’t know why, but the classics seem to lend them selves far more to re-reading. ) But these are three that I would definitely consider reading a second time.

The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending: Booker Prize winner 2011

This 2011 Booker Prize winner was my first experience of Julian Barnes .

It’s a slim novel, beautifully paced and very readable yet it gets you thinking about some of the issues well after you reachthe last page.

The Sense of an Ending is narrated by Tony Webster, a retired man of around 60 years old. He reflects on his life and in particular his relationship with Adrian Finn, a boy he met at school. Adrian was the most intellectually advanced and gifted boy in his coterie.

But a rather odd girl called Veronica comes between them. Tony takes her defection to Adrian badly, heaping curses upon the pair. And then he learns Adrian has killed himself.

Years later Adrian’s diary is bequeathed to Tony. He believes it will unlock the mystery of why Adrian died. But first he will have to do battle with Veronica.

This is very much a reflective novel about a man who is trying to make sense of his life. His frustrations and anger come to the fore but so too does regret and his feeling of being on the fringe of life. “You just don’t get it. You never will.” is the barb Veronica most frequently throws at him. Tony does have a selective memory however and even by the end you feel that he is still a puzzle to himself.

The Sense of an Ending is a compact novel which meditates on the complexity of the human struggle to deal with regret and loss.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Blind Assassin: Booker Prize Winner 2000

Until I read this 2000 Booker Prize winner, my only experience with Margaret Atwood was through The Handmaids’ Tale. Although there is a sci fi aspect to The Blind Assassin, it couldn’t have been more different.

It has a complicated structure with three plot strands and multiple time frames.

The over-arching device is that this book is the memoir of Iris Chase, from her beginning as the daughter of a prosperous family, through a loveless marriage and into solitary and brooding old age. As she nears the end of her life she is determined to set down her version of the stories and scandals that have long swirled around her and her family.

Her younger sister Laura killed herself in 1945, 10 days after the end of the war. Iris published her sister’s novel The Blind Assassin posthumously. a decision which propelled Laura to fame but Iris to a life of isolation.

Interposed with Iris’s reminiscences are passages from that novel,  about an upper-class married woman and her lover, a hack writer and a political radical, who spins a science fiction tale (also entitled The Blind Assassin) during their clandestine meetings. 

Confused?? It’s not surprising.

Reading this novel is a giddy experience. We get Iris’ narrative, Laura’s novel, extracts from the pulp science-fiction stories the hero of Laura’s book tells his lover and newspaper reports on events.

In the hands of a less able novelist, this mix of narrative forms would be a mess. But Atwood handles it with authority and aplomb. It’s quite an extraordinary novel.

 

Amsterdam : Booker Prize winner 1998

Ian McEwan won the 1998 Booker Prize with his story of a euthanasia pact between a composer and a newspaper editor that ultimately destroys their long-term friendship.

It’s rather a dark novel from the beginning which takes place at a funeral where the two men agree that if one of them is left helpless by a medical condition, the other will ease his exit from this world.

The rest of the novel sees each man take decisions with far-reaching consequences. The editor publishes private photographs revealing a political scandal. The composer leaves the scene of a rape because he can’t waste time when he has a symphony to finish.

This is a novel which reads like a psychological thriller at times; particularly in the final chapters in Amsterdam where the friends meet for a show-down. But it’s the way the novel deals with moral ambiguities that I enjoyed the most.

I read Amsterdam in 2000 and it’s one of my favourite novels by Ian McEwan. It’s one of the Booker Prize winners I think warrants a second read.

Fantastic tale of loss: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje [review]

Warlight by Michael OndatjeeMichael Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight, is a stunning tale about loss and displacement set in the mysterious world of espionage.

It opens in 1945 when 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister Rachel discover their parents are off to Singapore, supposedly in connection with their father’s job.

They are left in the care of a strange man called The Moth and an odd assortment of his friends who drift in and out of the house in Ruvigny Gardens in London. The purpose of their visits and their connection to the absent parents only becomes clear in the second half of the book. 

Chief among the visitors is The Darter, a former boxer turned con artist, who ropes Nathaniel into his illegal nighttime expeditions through the streets and waterways of post-war London. Together they collect illegally imported greyhounds and smuggle them to racing tracks around the capital.

Education in life

The first half of the novel is essentially about Nathaniel’s education in life, when “cut loose by my parents, I was consuming everything around me.”

Through the Moth’s connections he begins working as a dishwasher at the Criterion hotel, mingling with the mainly immigrant staff, and bunking off school. And he has his first sexual experience with a girl who calls herself Agnes (we never learn her real name), in empty houses that have escaped bomb damage and are now up for sale.

In the footsteps of a spy

Part two of Warlight sees Nathaniel, now aged 28, and working in a department of an unnamed branch of British Intelligence. Though he is narrating his strange adolescence we come to realise that this book is not about him, but about his now-dead mother Rose and his attempts to piece together her life. In particular he wants to discover what happened during the final year of the war when he was left in the care of The Moth. 

In furtive forays through the basement archives of his employer, he traces his mother’s double life as a spy whose radio transmissions were monitored closely by the Nazis. But though he can piece together fragments of her life, including her narrow escape from capture, she remains an enigma. Equally puzzling is his mother’s relationship with another agent, whom she first met when she was a child and he was the boy who fell from the roof of her parents’ house while working as a thatcher.

But as Nathaniel reflects towards the end of the book that all he has done is to “step into fragments of their story”. 

We never know more than the surface of any relationship after a certain stage, just as those layers of chalk, built from the efforts of infinitesimal creatures, work in almost limitless time.

Memorable Atmosphere

Although much in this novel is murky, one thing is clear: the qualities I loved in Michael Ondaatje’s earlier novel The English Patient are in abundance in Warlight.

In particular his ability to convey character and atmosphere through sharply perceived images: Nathaniel’s night time trips through the waterways of the darkened city, his assignations with Agnes in grand mansions as greyhounds romp around the empty rooms.  They are scenes that will longer long in my memory. 

There is a poignancy too in this novel.

Nathaniel never sees his father again; his role in the whole escape to Singapore remains unclear, he cannot even find a photograph of the man.

Though he does re-unite with his mother who has hidden herself in a cottage in “a distant village, a walled garden”, the relationship between them is taut and uncomfortable. The boy’s desire to find that bond is palpable but Rose is too much on her guard to be at peace with her son, fearing that one day, she will be discovered by those who believe her actions during the war were dishonourable. 

Questions of morality

Warlight is a thoughtful book. Ondatjee doesn’t focus only on the human dimension of relationships but about the morality of actions committed during war. Rose and her fellow agents were acting in the name of piece but they were still responsible for many deaths It’s a point that Nathaniel reflects upon:

In this post-war world, twelve years later, it felt to some of us, our heads bowed over the files brought to us daily, that it was no longer possible to see who held a correct moral position.

Warlight is such an outstanding novel that I am completely perplexed how it didn’t win the Booker Prize in 2018.

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