Category Archives: Man Booker Prize

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy [Booker Prize]

God of all ThingsThe God of Small Things, the debut (and to date sole) novel by Arundhati Roy sparked a hoo-ha when it was announced as the winner of the Booker Prize in 1979.  A lawyer from Kerala (Roy’s home state in India and the setting for the book) filed a complaint of obscenity against the author. Reviews in the USA were extremely positive but those in the UK, less so. The Chairman of the Booker judges, Gillian Beer, a professor of English literature at Cambridge praised the book for its ”extraordinary linguistic inventiveness” but some commentators said it was too popularist. One previous Booker judge called the novel “execrable” and The Guardian newspaper labelled it  “profoundly depressing”.

Was I reading a completely different novel to the one read by the UK critics? I’d agree that The God of Small Things is not an ‘uplifting’ book – it’s one you read it with a sense of sadness for the characters whose lives take a turn for the worse. But depressing? No way. It’s thoughtful, insightful and an often funny tale of the decline and fall of the dysfunctional Kochamma family who “tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved, and how.” As for the allegation of ‘popularism’ I’d be mightily offended by that if I were the author  for it’s a term that suggests a kind of book that can be read without taxing the brain too much wheras Roy’s novel is full of ideas and questions about the caste system, communism and family loyalty.  Added to this are the insights we gain into aspects of life in Kerala including the growth of Communism and the tradition of the Kathakali dance.

The novel opens with one of the members of the Kochamma family returning to her childhood home at Ayemenen House in Kerala at the southernmost tip of India. This is where Rahel (one half of the Kochamma “two-egg twins” ) lived for seven years with her brother Estha and their proud, beautiful mother Ammu who bears the stain of a divorce from her alcoholic, violent husband. Other residents include the twins’ blind grandmother Mammachi, their beloved uncle Chacko (Rhodes scholar, serial womaniser) and their great-aunt Baby Kochamma. Ayemenen House was once an elegant property befitting the proprietors of a successful chutney and pickle business but by the time of Rahel’s return the gardens are overgrown, the windows are filthy, the corpses of insects litter the rooms and grease dulls the shine of the doorknobs. The only occupants are Baby Kochamma, now a fat old woman who spends her days sprawled on a sofa watching soap operas beamed in via a huge satellite dish, her maid and Estha, now a young man who refuses to speak.

It’s Estha that Rahel has come to visit. They were inseparable as children, thinking of themselves

 … together as Me, and separately, individually as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.

For the first seven years of their life they rode above the antagonisms and tensions of the household with a blend of affection and inexhaustible energy. But when Chacko decides to bring his estranged wife and his daughter Sophie Mol to Ayemenen for Christmas, the twins are jolted into a realisation that their mother’s love cannot be taken for granted. Their ensuing jealousy of Sophie Mol has tragic consequences.

Twenty-five years have passed since Rahel and Estha last saw each other. It the night Sophie drowned in a river.   What happened that night, what part the twins played and why Sophie’s death had such damaging consequences for the family is something we learn only in fragments “resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for.” Roy’s reconstruction of the past is a circuitous one, told via flashbacks and foreshadowings whose significance becomes apparent only when all the strands come together at the end of the novel.

It could make for a deeply frustrating read but what captivated me and sustained my interest throughout was the exuberance of the characters and the richness of the writing itself. The twins’ private language is a case in point. They love all forms of word play, including reading backwards, but particularly the one where they take words and phrases  uttered by adults and twist and distort them into their own version.  Instructed for example to be good ‘Ambassadors of India’, when they meet Sophie Mol at the airport, they instantly adopt new titles as  ‘Ambassador E. Pelvis’ (reflecting Estha’s love of pointy shoes and quiffed hairstyle) and Ambassador S. (stick) Insect’ (for the moth disovered by her father that flutters in Rahel’s heart).  On the way home they give a rendition of the song they’ve been taught to sing in welcome:

RejOice in the Lo-Ord Or-Orlways

And Again I say re-jOice

Their Prer NUN sea ayshun was perfect

This is writing that dances and sparkles with nonsensical rhymes, jokes and rogue capital letters that perfectly capture the effervescent nature of the twins, often with tremendous comic effect.

The twins of course are at the heart of the novel. It is their reaction to Sophie Mol’s visit that provide the impetus for Sophie’s death and for a revelation about their mother’s love affair with Velutha, an Untouchable, that will be her and her family’s undoing. But my favourite character is Baby Kochamma, a woman who in her youth fell in love with a Roman Catholic priest and converted to his faith to try and win him. Embittered by her failure she degenerates into a mean, resentful figure who loves nothing more than stirring  up trouble for everyone else.  So determined is she to protect her family’s reputation from the shame of Ammu’s forbidden love, that she fabricates a story that Velutha is a rapist and a child abductor just so he can be got out of the way. The grossness of this woman’s mind is matched by her physical presence.

In the old house on the hill Baby Kochamma sat at the dining table rubbing the thick, frothy bitterness out of an elderly cucumber. She was wearing a limp, checked, seersucker nightgown with puffed sleeves and yellow tumeric stains. Under the tale she swing her tiny, manicured feet, like a small child on a high chair. They were puffy with oedema like little foot-shaped air cushions. …

She was eighty three. Her eyes spread like butter behind her thick glasses. … Her hair, dyed jetblack, was arranged across her scalp like unspooled thread. The dye had saine the skin of her forehead a pale grey, giving her a shadowy second hairline. .. A sly touch of rouge. And because the house was locked and dark and because she only believed in 40 watt bulbs, her lipstick mouth had shifted slightly off her real mouth.

 

 

With characterisation this glorious, with language that dances and dazzles and with a story that mingles sadness with joy,  The God of Small Things has become one of the best novels I’ve read all year.

Footnotes

About the book: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy was published by Flamingo in the UK in 1997. It went on to win the Booker Prize in 1997, was listed as one of the New York Times Notable Books of the Year that same year and reached fourth position on the New York Times Bestsellers list for Independent Fiction.

About the author: The God of Small Things is semi-autobiographical, reflecting Arundhati Roy’s childhood experiences in Aymanam, Kerala. Though its success gave her financial security she turned her back on fiction writing to devote herself to political activism.  She is a spokesperson of the anti-globalization/alter-globalization movement and a vehement critic of neo-imperialism and U.S. foreign policy.  Late in 2016 Hamish Hamilton UK and Penguin India announced she was working on a new novel – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – with a publication date of June 2017.

Why I read this book: It’s one of the Booker Prize winners I hadn’t got around to reading. 

 

 

 

 

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I wouldn’t like to be drawn against Graeme Macrae Burnet in any game that requires participants to keep a straight face while lying through one’s teeth. He’d be far too good for me to spot if he was telling porkies.  Not that I know the man personally you understand – I’m basing my depiction of his character entirely on the subterfuge he concocts in his novel His Bloody Project. 

This is a book that is written to make you think it’s a true story. It’s subtitled “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae” for one thing and contains a preface declaring that these  documents relate to a murder trial that the author uncovered while researching his family history.  The  documents ‘found’ in the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness include a manuscript in “handwriting… admirably clear with only the most occasional crossings-out and false starts” about a triple murder.  Burnet keeps up the fiction that this is a ‘true’ story through the rest of the book, presenting it in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial. And so we get witness statements, a written account by Roderick Macrae, the 17-year-old crofter  accused of the murders, an extract from a (fictional) investigation by the (real) pioneering criminologist James Bruce Thomson and local newspaper accounts of the trial.

But this is neither a story about one of his ancestors nor a fictionalised account of a real incident. However, according to a newspaper interview with Burnet there is some grain of truth in His Bloody Project. In the novel, for example two of Roderick Macrae’s uncles die in a shipwreck – a similar accident befell two of Burnet’s own family around the same time as the novel is set and close to the location of the fictional tragedy. There actually was a triple murder committed some forty years earlier by a crofter just like Roderick Macrae but both these incidents only came to light after Burnet had finished the first draft of his novel.

This is one ingeniously plotted novel. We know from the early part of the book that Roderick is in prison accused of beating to death the local constable Lachlan Mackenzie who had waged a war of intimation against his father. There is no question that Roderick is the culprit – he was seen with blood on his hands and he confessed to his actions. In his testimony he says “I carried out these acts with the sole purpose of delivering from father from the tribulations he had lately suffered.” What we don’t know at the start of the book is who the other two victims are nor why he might have killed them. His former teacher describes him as an exceptionally intelligent boy who could have gone on to greater things but for his father’s insistence that he works on the land. Neighbours however describe him as a bit of an idiot, a lad who was always “wrong in the head.” Did he intend to kill or did he suffer a temporary loss of sanity, a form of moral insanity so that he is not responsible in law for his actions?  The prison doctor and a criminologist are brought in to give their opinions on the state of his mind, leading to some blackly funny dialogue about whether all murderers share common physical characteristics.

The book’s pretence at veracity is one of the pleasures of reading His Bloody Project. Along with that we have the presence of not just one, but several unreliable narrators to keep us wondering where truth lies. Add to the mix the fact Macrae brings into focus the hardships of life for poor crofting families in the Highlands of Scotland who have to scratch a living from impoverished soil, and you have a highly enjoyable reading experience. A minor niggle for me was the lucidity of Macrae’s testimony – he makes an apology at the outset for “the poverty of my vocabulary and rudeness of style’ and then proceeds to turn in some fluid and perfectly grammatical prose. Even the schoolteacher’s assessment of the boy’s superior intellect didn’t convince me that a boy from such a poor background with little formal education beyond a village school could write so coherently.  Overall it didn’t markedly spoil my enjoyment of what was in essence a well conceived and well executed novel that I highly recommend.

Footnotes

The Book: His Bloody Project was published in 2015 by the small independent publisher Saraband. It went on to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016.  Though it was considered an outsider because it fell into the genre of crime fiction (which isn’t a genre the Booker judges tend to select), it beat off strong competition to get onto the shortlist.

The Author: Born and brought up in Kilmarnock, Graeme Macrae Burnet worked for several years as an English teacher in Prague, Bordeaux, Porto and London, before returning to Glasgow and working for eight years for various independent television companies. His first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (Contraband, 2014), received a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust. His Bloody Project is his second novel. His third is currently in progress.

Why I read this book: The day the Booker longlist was published I noticed this book was available an an e-version at a ridiculously low price so I bought it intending to read it before the shortlist announcement. I started it but got the impression it would be one of those books that has crucial information at the beginning so you need to keep turning back – which I find impossible to do on an e-reader. I requested a hard copy instead from the library but it arrived when I was out of the country and then I didn’t have time to read it so back it went unopened. But clearly the fates were determined I would read this because in February my sister turns up to visit me in hospital with a paperback copy, declaring “you really should read this.” Who could argue with that? So third time lucky for Mr Burnet…

 

 

Booker Prize Project – the end in sight

Booker prize finish line

Approaching the finishing line

Five years ago I embarked on a project to read all the Booker Prize winners since the inception of the prize in 1969. I’d already read a number of them like The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. Though I didn’t set myself any deadline I thought, with a little effort, I’d be done in two years. Well clearly that never happened. I am however in the homeward straight now with just 11 titles remaining to be read. Until now I’ve purposefully avoided reading the winners in date order – and I don’t plan to do that for the final batch. I am however pontificating whether to reserve to the very end, one book that has been universally praised so I end on a high note.

Here’s what I have still to read: (I’m discounting the 2016 winner since I have to stop somewhere).

Winners 21st century 

2015A History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)
2010 – The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)
2004 – The Line of Beauty (Hollinghurst)
2003 – Vernon God Little (D.B. C Pierre)
2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang (Peter Carey)

Winners 20th century 
1997 – The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)
1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)
1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)
1992 – Sacred Hunger (Barry Unsworth)
1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)
1972 – G. (John Berger)

 The ones I am least looking forward to are  How Late It Was, How Late  by James Kelman and  A History of Seven Killings by Marlon James purely because contain a high quota of local dialect – working class Scottish dialect in the case of Kelman and Jamaican dialect in the case of Marlon James).

My question to you good people is – what should I read next? Of the remaining 11 titles there is nothing that is really calling out strongly ‘read me next’. I’m tempted by The Finkler Question since I dipped into it last year and enjoyed what I found (though I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea). I also embarked on The Conservationist but found that hard to get into so put to one side for now.

Out of my remaining list are there any you would recommend? Anything you’ve read that was a stand out novel for you? Conversely are there any on this list that you’d suggest leaving until last?

Snapshot February 2017

february-2017

Another episode in my series where I take a snapshot of my reading life on the first day of each month. It’s a way of keeping track of the year though there is little chance I will forget February 1, 2017. It’s the day I came home from hospital to begin a 12 week program of recovery from liver surgery. The next few months are going to be rather challenging. Either I will throttle my husband because he’s such a bad nurse or he will throttle me because I am a totally impossible patient. Joking aside though, despite the excellent care from the medical and nursing teams at the hospital, it is wonderful to be home  and in my own bed.

Reading

dominionOne of the essential tasks for my hospital stay was to select the books I would take with me. Note the plural there. I fully expected to be spending hours unable to do anything other than have my nose in a book so of course needed several options. Since hospital wards are not known for their storage space I constrained myself to two initially – the 600-plus page alternative history thriller Dominion by C. J Sansom and A Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. But I put aside a pile of another 8 books for my husband to bring with him on his daily visits. What was I the-time-travelers-guidethinking of??? Hospitals are no more suited to reading than jet aircraft. Just when you’ve recovered enough to even feel like picking up a book there’s always someone with needle/thermometer/ blood pressure monitor in hand clamouring for attention. After seven nights I hadn’t even got half way through Dominion. Ian Mortimer’s re-creation of the smells and sounds of fourteenth century England was despatched home without being opened.

State of my personal library

One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books ( I thought it was 299 but then discovered my list of ebooks was incorrect) and a plan to hold off from adding to that number for the first six months of the year. I was doing extremely well up until the end of January, finishing six books from my shelves and managing to resist the temptation of a local library sale and daily promotions from booksellers. But then my sister turned up in hospital having bought me three books so now as of Feb I, the personal library stands at 315 – a net improvement of just 3. Of the books I read in January, the stand out was Narcopolis by Jeet Thayli, a Booker prize shortlisted title that was an intense experience.

Wishing for…

My self imposed restriction on book buying hasn’t stopped me from adding new titles to my Goodreads wishlist. Additions in January included a biography: Charlotte Bronte: a Fiery Heart by Claire Harman; Human Acts by Han Kang (though I have yet to read her earlier novel The Vegetarian) and a Japanese crime thriller The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino and a book I keep seeing reviewed in a very positive way:  A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

 

 

Snapshot December 2016

I can’t believe I let December 1, 2016 come and go without marking it with a snapshot of  what I’m reading, thinking about reading, buying. It got to almost half way through the month before I even realised I had forgotten. So let me do a quick re-wind…..

Reading

After the dreary experience of  Little Women I needed a complete change of pace and subject.  Waking Lions by  the Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen was certainly far removed from the domestic world of Alcott – this is a novel set in Israel in which a doctor accidentally kills a man in a hit and run accident – and is then blackmailed for his actions. It had a lot of promise early on but got bogged down too much in detail.

rich-in-asiaCome December 1, my attention had turned back to the Booker prize project. I picked up The Conservationist by Nadime Gordiver about which I had heard good things. The fact that it’s set in South Africa was another plus point. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood but it didn’t do much for me – I found the untagged dialogue confusing and I’m not really sure where the book is going. So I put it to one side and picked up How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid instead. It was just the change I needed with its bold, humorous narrator who speaks directly to his main character and mocks the culture of self help books. Quite delicious.

Buying

As you’d expect at this time of the year, I’ve been very active with the book purchases. I try to get everyone in the family a book of some description – this year my mum is getting Our Souls at Night By Kent Haruf and Brooklyn by Colm Toibin; my husband is going to be opening a veritable mini library which includes Keeping On Keeping On, the latest collection of memoirs  by Alan Bennett. This is certain to be a hit because it’s a follow on from Writing Home and Untold Stories, both of which had him laughing out loud at times. My dad is getting the Little Hummingbird Cafe cookery book – though he has hundreds of cake recipes in his repertoire having been a professional baker for 40 years he still likes to see what other people create and to have a go himself.

Of course, having to go shopping on line for other people does mean I get tempted myself. It doesn’t help that so many ‘best of’ lists come out around now. I tried to be judicious knowing that I will be unwrapping some book gifts on Dec 25 and the fact my TBR has just jumped over 200. But I still succumbed to Kindle versions of The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney, Tender is the Night by F. Scott. Fitzgerald (hope I like it more than Great Gatsby) and A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale (I didn’t care for his most recent novel A Place Called Winter but still think he deserves another go).

Watching

I feel rather adrift at the moment. No more episodes of The Crown which was a stupendous series on Netflix. No more riveting episodes of The Missing. No more Great British Bake Off.  I’ve been trying to like the BBC new series Rillington about the mass murderer Reginald Christie but its not a patch on the film 10 Rillington Place with Richard Attenborough. Fortunately we have Wolf Hall (the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s award winning novels about Thomas Cromwell) to keep our spirits alive….

The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G Farrell #ManBooker

seigeJ.G Farrell is a writer whose work I was completely oblivious to until I started on my project to read all the past winners of the Booker Prize.

The Siege of Krishnapur is part of a series of novels known as the Empire Trilogy (the two other titles are Troubles and The Singapore Grip), which deal with the political and human consequences of British colonial rule. The Siege of Krishnapur is based on the real experience of British subjects during the Indian rebellion of 1857 (what has become known as “the Indian Mutiny“).

At first the remote British colonial outpost at Krishnapur is  blissfully unaware of what lies ahead so they continue with their rounds of soirees  and discussions about pseudo scientific concepts like phrenology. By the time news comes of an impending attack it’s too late to flee so these representatives of the British Raj stiffen their sinews, batten down the hatches and wait for relief. Surrounded by beautiful furniture and artwork, and confident in the ability of the Empire to prevail,  the idiots have no idea what it really means to be under siege and the level of deprivation they will endure.  For a time they are able to preserve their Victorian stiff upper lips, the women strive to maintain the social hierarchy and the men posture and preen, joshing about the best way to fire at the Indian attackers – someone has the bizarre idea when ammunition runs out for their cannons, they should fill them with cooking implements  and fire those instead.

But as the weeks turn into months with no relief in sight, the old standards crack in the face of flying musket balls and insects, dwindling supplies of food and dirty water, disease and death,  Religious beliefs are questioned, valuable items of furniture have to be burned; old ideals are challenged. The deterioration is vividly portrayed – the latter stages of the novel are permeated with the smell of rotting bodies (human and animal) and the image of emaciated people. The atmosphere is one of impending doom.

Most of the characters are condescending and racists but Farrell gives us the ability to sympathise with them, particularly with the character of the Collector. He’s a man who is initially presented as a pompous eccentric, a believer in progress who is often found daydreaming of the  the Great Exhibition when he is not admiring his Louis XVI table and books.

 

What an advantage that knowledge can be stored in books! The knowledge lies there like hermetically sealed provisions waiting for the day when you may need a meal. Surely what the Collector was doing as he pored over his military manuals, was proving the superiority of the European way of doing things, of European culture itself. This was a culture so flexible that whatever he needed was there in a book at his elbow. An ordinary sort of man, he could, with the help of an oil-lamp, turn himself into a great military engineer, a bishop, an explorer or a General overnight, if the fancy took him.

By the end he has risen above banalities to become a leader capable of bravery and the common sense lacking in those around him. His eyes have been opened to the true significance of his beloved Exhibition and what it really represented:

He, too, [had] suffered from an occasionally enlightening vision which came to him from the dim past and which he must have suppressed at the time . . . The extraordinary array of chains and fetters, manacles and shackles exhibited by Birmingham for export to America’s slave states, for instance . . . Why had he not thought more about such exhibits? Well, he had never pretended that science and industry were good in themselves, of course . . . They still had to be used correctly. All the same he should have thought a great deal more about what lay behind the exhibits.

Farrell of course is poking fun at the colonial concept with its pretensions and supreme confidence in the Empire’s military and moral superiority. Few of these characters emerge with any dignity yet Farrell makes us feel sympathetic towards them. Much of the novel is witty and funny – hard to achieve given the subject matter but he makes it work.

A well-deserved winner of the Booker Prize in 1973 and one of the best winners I’ve read.

Footnotes

The Book: The Siege of Krishnapur is book number 2 in the Empire Trilogy by J.G Farrell

Published: 1973. My version is a 1993 edition published by Phoenix

Length: 314 pages

The Author: J.G Farrell was born in Liverpool of Irish parents. He was a teacher for many years, combining this with his writing. In 1979, he left London to live in southwestern Ireland. A few months later he was drowned after being swept from the rocks by a rogue wave while angling. He is one of the few authors to have scored a double with the Booker. In 2010 Troubles, which is set against the background of the Irish War of Independence ,was named as the first  (to date the only)  winner of the Lost Booker title – this was a title awarded by a public vote when, because of a change in the award rules, books published in 1970 had not been eligible.

Why I read this: It is part of my Booker Prize project. 

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien #Bookerprize

madeleinetheinI’m surprised there hasn’t been much on line chatter about Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. Amidst the chatter about the contenders for the 2016 Man Booker Prize she seems to have been overlooked and yet this is one novel that deserves to be read more widely.

This is a novel about what happens when a political regime flex its ideological muscles and dictate how individuals should live their lives. The regime in question is the Communist Party of China under the direction of Chairman Mao and his successors. If you’ve read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, you’ll already have a good grounding in the history of the People’s Republic of China and the disastrous consequences of projects like The Great Leap Forward.

Thien’s novel covers some of the same historical period as Chang’s account but is more contemporary since it includes the build up to the Tianenman Square massacre of 1989. This is the background against which she sets her story of three talented musicians  whose lives are turned upside down when the government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order.

This is an astonishingly ambitious novel not only because of the vast swathe of history that Thien covers but because of the large number of characters she introduces and the blend of fact and fiction. Her characters are people who are who leap off the page and in whose company you delight.  – from the wonderfully named Big Mother Knife and Swirl to the unassuming Sparrow (one of the musicians) and his talented daughter Zhuli. They have to manoeuvre every subtle change in ideology, trying to make sense of their world and all the time longing to keep hold of the western music they revere.

The only life that matters is in your mind. The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book. Silence, too, is a kind of music. Silence will last.

I know some bloggers thought some sections the book dragged but that wasn’t my experience. It’s definitely a book that you have to read with full attention because of its dual time narrative which switches between and the vast array of ideas woven into the text. Thien seems to have constructed her narrative along musical principles. She introduces a motif or a theme; explores it, expands it and then lets it fade away only to return to it at a later stage though in a slightly different note. So compellingly does she write about the music adored by Sparrow, his daughter and his mentee that I felt compelled to get a copy of some of the key pieces – especially Bach’s Goldberg Variations whose recordings by Glenn Gould with whom the trio feel a particular affinity.

There is another musical reference which I didn’t discover until reading a few other reviews of the novel. The title is an adaptation from the Chinese translation of the L’Internationale, the 19th century song adopted by socialist and worker groups worldwide. “Do not say that we have nothing, / We shall be the masters of the world!”

 

Footnotes

Author: Do Not Say we Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Published: 2016 by Granta Books.

Length: 473 pages

My copy: Provided by Shiny News Books for whom I wrote a  more detailed review 

 

 

 

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis: A book to divide a nation

old-devilsIt was a surprise to many when Kinglsey Amis won the Booker Prize in 1986 for The Old Devils for this was an author who, according to the wisdom of the masses, was long past his prime. I don’t know what the reaction was in Wales but I suspect the commentary there may have concentrated on his portrayal of the country than the quality of his writing. My countrymen do tend to get a bit huffy about how our nation is represented. But then we are known for our hot tempers (not for nothing is our national symbol a fire breathing dragon) and we do tend to take offence at implied slights to our national pride….

What in The Old Devils would have got the Welsh feathers ruffled? This is a tale about a bunch of old university mates who are mostly retired and, having been regular drinkers in the past, naturally gravitate to a pub called The Bible to while away the hours chewing the fat and carping about anything and everything. The drinking seems to begin well before lunch (not too long after breakfast in fact) and lasts as long as they can keep going into the night.  Not to be outdone, their wives gather in one or other’s homes to neck down a few bottles of vino.

Your average Celt wouldn’t turn a hair about heavy drinking, gossipy characters. They’re the kind of people who can be spied propping up the bar in many a grimy establishment throughout Wales. What would really get them hot under the collar however is how Amis tackles a theme about Welsh identity.

This largely centres on the character of Alun Weaver. He prefers this spelling of his first name to the more Anglicised ‘Alan’ since it’s an easy way to emphasis his Welsh credentials. He’s the only one of the old gang to leave Wales, making a career for himself in London as a writer and an expert on a poet called Brydan (a thinly disguised Dylan Thomas). But now after a 30 year absence he’s announced his return to his old stamping ground in South Wales intending to set up home with his wife. Cue lots of anxiety from those wives of the Old Devils who indulged in affairs with him and are either hoping for  a re-run or mortified with embarrassment about meeting him again.

Alun is what is often labelled as a “professional Welshman”, (or as one of his friends describes him “an up-market media Welshman”) the kind of person who gets trotted out whenever the BBC or its ilk need someone to comment on Welsh culture and society.  They don’t actually live in the country but feel compelled at every opportunity to parade their Welshness and love of ‘the old country’. Amis makes him a figure of ridicule, an ageing lothario with questionable literary skills, who essentially wants Wales to remain in some kind of time warp.

That was the whole point, to stress continuity, to set one’s face against anything that could be called modernism and to show that the old subject, life in the local villages, in the peculiar South-Wales amalgam of town and country, had never gone away…

The Old Devils probably wouldn't appreciate the gentrification of a boozer like this

The Old Devils probably wouldn’t appreciate the gentrification of a boozer like this

The last thing the local soaks want is to bottle Wales in aspic; they want change but they recognise a balance needs to be struck. A balance between the kind of Anglicised ubiquity which means  “Everywhere new here is the same as new things in England, whether it’s the university or the restaurants or the supermarkets or what you buy there. … Is there anything in here to tell you you’re in Wales?”  and the Disneyfication that Alun would seem favour in his books. One of the braver Devils  confronts him head on, accusing him of ruining Wales.

Turning it into a charade, an act, a place full of leeks and laver-bread and chapels and wonderful old characters who speak their own highly idiosyncratic and often curiously erudite kind of language.

Such carping doesn’t disguise the fact that between these men there does exist a close bond that approaches love and affection. Nor does Amis’s satire come without a degree of affection and understanding for these characters. He makes us laugh but there is a poignancy for these guys whose brains don’t want to acknowledge their best days are over though their bodies tell them otherwise. There are some wonderful cameos of the gang dealing with the infirmities that come with age including the difficulties of getting dressed when an expanding girth gets in the way of something as simple as putting on a pair of socks.

At one time this had come after instead of before putting his underpants on, but he had noted that that way round he kept tearing them with his toenails. … The socks went on in the bathroom with the aid of a particular low table, height being critical. Heel on table, sock completely on as far as heel, toes on table, sock round heel and up. …. Pants on in the bedroom, heel and toe like the socks but at floor level, spot of talc around the scrotum, then trousers two mornings out of every three or so. On the third or so morning he would find chocolate, cream, jam or some combination from his bedtime snack smeared over the pair in use and he would have to return to the bathroom specifically to its mirror for guidance in fixing the braces on the front of the fresh trousers, an area which needless to say had been well out of his direct view these many years.

It’s passages like this that show clearly how insult and ridicule can be transformed into high comic art. and how Amis,  is a master of that art. Even if there is a segment of the population that takes umbrage at his depiction of Wales, they surely have to acknowledge that with The Old Devils, there is clearly old life in that old devil Amis.

Without doubt one of the most enjoyable of the Booker prize winners I’ve read. And no, you don’t even need to be born in Wales to appreciate its humour.

Footnotes

Author: The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

Published: 1986  by Hutchinson. Now available as a Vintage Classic imprint

Length: 384 pages

My copy: A rather battered orange coloured Penguin version that in fact belongs to my husband and has stayed with us through more than one house move because he loves it so much.

Why I read this: This links to my Booker prize project so I was always going to read it but was given a nudge by the 20booksofsummer challenge.

All That Man Is by David Szalay: #ManBooker 2016 shortlisted

DavidSzalayNine men. Separated by time, place and attitude but all at a critical turning point in their lives. Decisions they make now – or in some cases fail to make – will have long lasting consequences. Such is the premise of All That Man Is by David Szalay where each of the nine sections of the book focuses on a different individual and a different stage of their lives.

It begins with 17-year-old Simon who is on holiday, criss-crossing Europe with his friend and ticking off places of culture before beginning his university course. Being rather earnest he has no idea how to interact with girls and no clue that the married woman who offers them a room is also offering to initiate him into the mysteries of sex.  Off he goes to bed (alone) with his copy of Henry James’ The Ambassadors leaving his friend to take advantage of the opportunity.

Simon’s 73-year-old great grandfather is the final character in the book. He’s a retired government mandarin holed up in his holiday home in Italy to aid his recovery from an operation. Alone he contemplates  “the nightmarish fact of ageing and dying.” and that the “only purpose in life now, it seems, is to stave off physical decay and death for as long as possible”  Not surprisingly he feels depressed at the diminishment of his abilities and a recognition that he and his wife are as strangers with separate lives.

In between these two portraits we encounter a Danish tabloid journalist faced with an ethical dilemma when he learns of a story that could mean the end of his friend’s political ambitions. There’s also a lonely Russian oligarch who contemplates suicide when his fortune disappears because of an ill-judged court case; a bodyguard who falls for the woman he is meant to protect on her nightly visits to hotels to entertain rich men; a lazy Belgian whose holiday in Cyrprus is enlivened by a convivial daughter and mother and a mediaeval academic dismayed when his Cypriot girlfriend reveals she is pregnant, While the stories all relate to England in some way, none of them are actually in the place of their birth when we meet them. All appear to be in transit of some kind.

The emotional pull of these stories is varied with according to the detail with with Szalay portrays the  internal lives of his men. The character of the Russian billionaire Aleksandr is particularly well done – this is a man who went from an existence as a modest figure in the Soviet machine to the world’s number one iron-ore magnate. Now he can’t even afford to pay for dinner for his financial advisor and when asked what hobbies he will pursue now the bubble of his business empire has burst, all he can recall is that his Who’s Who entry lists his interests as ‘wealth’ and ‘power’. For all this man’s wealth and influence in the past we can’t help feeling just a tad sorry for him when, in search of company, he resorts to muscling in on his bodyguard’s microwaved rogan josh.

Over and over we witness these men questioning the purpose of their lives and what happens to them next. The answer often seems to be a bleak one. Billionaire Aleksandr is miserable because he thinks he has lost the meaning of life, James, a property developer hoping to make his next deal the big one, feels he can already see all the way to the end of his life; ‘he already knows everything that is going to happen, that it is all now entirely predictable.” For the medievalist the ideal scenario would be that everything just stays the same; one in which he continues to present and publish his research on the finer points of spoken dialect in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and enjoys weekends with his girlfriend in some of Europe’s finest cities. Ideally he would prefer to be in a distant time, immersing himself in the world of Chaucer’s contemporaries and maybe even a cloistered life. What he doesn’t bargain on is finding that his girlfriend is pregnant and reluctant to fall in line with his preference for an abortion. The tense relationship between this two played out over the course of a few days in quiet country hostelries and cathedral naves is finely tuned and multilayered.

For all the glittering highspots however, this is a book that never really came together for me. The stories felt disparate and there was no overarching cohesive theme. At the end of it I still wasnt clear what point  Szalay was trying to make and what view of the world he wanted to convey other than life is miserable. I think we could have got to that conclusion without having to read 400 pages.

Minus a strong theme that glues these stories into an insightful view of the state of man in the 21st century,  they remained just that – stories. Not a novel. Perhaps the key lies in the fact that a number of them were had been published in Granta magazine – at some point  Szalay must have decided to wrap these into a book. The Man Booker prize judges may have been convinced that the result constituted ‘a novel’ otherwise they wouldn’t have shortlisted it for the 2016 award but I’m not.

Footnotes

Author: All That Man Is by David Szalay

Published: 2016 by Jonathan Cape

Length:448 pages

My copy: I received an electronic copy of this from the publishers via Net Galley in return for an honest review

Other reviews: A number of bloggers have reviewed this in the run up to the announcement of the Booker Prize. Check out the following. If I missed anyone do let me know

The Readers’ Room

Mookes and Gripes

 

Man Booker 2016 shortlist announced

Man Booker 2016-LogoThe Man Booker judges have just announced their 2016 shortlist. Reading the announcement is a good sign for me that I should give up on this prediction lark. I’m clearly useless at it. About as useless as I am deciding what is a prize winning novel. I thought North Water could make it (got that wrong) and was rooting for The Many (also wrong). But they went for His Bloody Project which I didn’t think they would given the genre -the publishing house of Contraband must be dancing all through the streets of Scotland at this. They are a minuscule company -I’m not sure how accurate this is but I heard at one point they have one employee! The judges also selected a book that I would hesitate to call a novel – All That a Man Is. Mercifully they spared us Hystopia though it’s a surprise given the judges said they chose writers that  “take[s] risks with language and form”

Out went the twice-previous winner J.M. Coetzee with The Schooldays of Jesus (I’m reading this at the moment and agree with the judges). Out also is The Many by Wyl Menmuir that I reviewed yesterday. Maybe the judges were not comfortable with a novel that generated so many unanswered questions? Out also is the Pullitzer prize winner Elizabeth Strout – I’m not too surprised at that. It was a really good read but not particularly innovative in its form.

The shortlist is: 

  • Paul Beatty (US) – The Sellout (Oneworld): described as a satire of post-racial America. My thoughts: Not read this even as a sample. Early reviews which indicated it was ‘funnyish’ in a heavy- handed, obvious way, were an indication this wouldn’t appeal to me. 
  • Deborah Levy (UK) – Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton): described as a“richly mythic” tale of mothers and daughters My thoughts: I read the first chapter but there was nothing in it that captured my interest. Rather surprised to see it on the shortlist – it must have developed in a more interesting way than the first chapter indicated. 
  • Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) – His Bloody Project (Contraband): Features a brutal triple murder in a remote northern crofting community in 1869. My thoughts: This is next on my list to read. 
  • 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. My thoughts: The first chapter had me hooked by its depiction of a plain daughter who has no life outside looking after her alcoholic father and her work at a correctional institution. On my list to read. 
  • David Szalay (Canada-UK) – All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape): My thoughts: Some of the character portrayals of nine different men at different stages of their lives worked better than others. But I still don’t understand what the overarching idea was and I’m surprised to see it on the shortlist.
  • Madeleine Thien (Canada) – Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books): My thoughts: although I read only the first chapter it was enough to indicate that this story of musicians who suffered during and after China’s Cultural Revolution is one I want to read. Now my challenge is to get hold of  a copy at reasonable cost.

It’s a good list in terms of mix of styles and themes and interesting in that it contains only one biggish name in the form of Deborah Levy (previously shortlisted for Swimming Home) Moshfegh at 35 years old is the youngest author.

The novels that didn’t make it from the longlist:

  • 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. My thoughts: I didn’t like the sound of this so didn’t read it 
  • J.M. Coetzee (South African) – The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker): this is an allegorical novel which is a follow-up to his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus. My thoughts: I’m 75% of the way through this and still baffled by the point of it 
  • 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.My thoughts: I’ve read only the first two chapters and wasnt wowed. 
  • Elizabeth Strout (US) – My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking): a striking story about a relationship between mother and daughter. My thoughts: Simply one of the best novels I’ve read so far – see my review here 
  • 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. My thoughts: Although perplexing because the significance of some episodes and characters is unclear, this is a totally engrossing read. 
  • 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. My thoughts: a brilliant novel, harsh and brutal at times but with superb imagery and  a high class page-turner
  • 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. My thoughts: I read only the prologue and was already baffled by the idea of using multiple editor notes to try and explain the premise of the novel. Why not just tell the story? 
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