Category Archives: Man Booker Prize
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.
One 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 thinking 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.
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.
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…..
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.
Come 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.
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).
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….
J.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.
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.
I’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!”
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
It 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 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.
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.
Nine 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.
Author: All That Man Is by David Szalay
Published: 2016 by Jonathan Cape
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 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?
Is it possible to enjoy a book and appreciate the skill that went into creation and yet finish it not being entirely convinced I understood everything that was contained within its pages? That was my experience with The Many by Wyl Menmuir, long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. It’s a slim novel but one that contains such a multiplicity of symbols and ideas that makes a second reading a necessity.
For a novel that has Gothic overtones, the beginning is appropriately an omen in the form of smoke seen rising from an abandoned clifftop dwelling. The house which overlooks the harbour of a small, unnamed fishing village in Cornwall has been empty for 10 years following the death of its owner, Perran, a man who it appears still casts a powerful influence over the village. Now the house has been bought by an outsider (an ’emmet’ in local parlance) and the villagers doubt he will last long. They’re not exactly welcoming to the stranger, perhaps seeing him as yet another city dweller buying homes along the coast as weekend cottages to the detriment of locals who can’t afford those prices.
The newcomer is Timothy Buchanan, a Londoner, who bought the derelict property sight unseen and now plans to make it habitable so his wife can join him. It’s a bizarre choice because the house is clearly in a very bad way, with stained curtains, peeling paint, no heating and the smell of dampness. Timothy doesn’t seem to have the means to pay workmen to get the house in order but he doesn’t have the skill or inclination to the do the work himself either. It’s not even as though this is an idyllic spot – an early morning swim on his first day in residence finds him fighting for breath at the unexpected icy temperature and the force of the waves. The following day he learns there is something even more sinister in the water. “If the tide doesn’t get you, the chems will. You want to stay healthy past forty, alive past fifty, you’ll remember to stay well out of the water, ” advises Ethan, one of the local fishermen.
The relationship between Ethan and Timothy develops over time though its not one that is easily fathomed. Ethan is still grieving for Perran, and suffering over what he could have done to prevent his death. Though he steadfastly refuses to answer Timothy’s pushy questions about what happened to the Perran, he thaws enough to invite the visitor onto his boat for a fishing trip and to break the cordon. The ‘chems’ are every present though in the form of heavy pollution by “biological agents and contaminants” that has impacted the fishing grounds and the villagers’ livelihoods. Instead of healthy specimens the nets catch malformed creatures:
The dogfish look burned, as though with acid, their eye sockets elongated and deep, showing through to the bone at the ends and there are white lesions down the side of each body. Their rough black skin is dull and flaked away in patches, the fins thin and ragged where there should be muscle …
A later expedition brings in fish that are:
… colourless and long, and their scales …. are translucent… Beneath the skin, the outlines of organs are visible, shadows in the pale flesh…. in some of them bunches of roe shine through the distended skin of their underbellies.
This is a community that is trapped, isolated and it seems on the verge of disaster. Large container ships loom on the horizon, forming a cordon beyond which the fishermen are ordered by the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture not to sail. Nor can they sell their catches on the open market. Instead men in suits carrying large wads of cash are there to great them and take the stock every time the fleet arrives back in the harbour. Overseeing their transaction is a woman in a grey coat.
The woman in grey is just one of the unsettling and unexplained elements of this book. She never utters a word, she simply stands on the cliff like some spectral figure. Timothy initially thinks of her like a lighthouse beam that periodically illuminates the sea on a dark night. Later he comes to wonder if she is some kind of guardian angel watching over the village. The mystery woman becomes even more mysterious towards the end of the book when Timothy discovers her on her knees as if in prayer, tracing patterns on a road with her fingertips.
But by then Menmuir has built such a web of hallucinatory experiences that it’s not clear whether there really is a woman in grey or she is a figment of Timothy’s imagination, fuelled by a fever that bests him? Is it the aftermath of a traumatic event in his past or a traumatic event that might happen in the future? Does Ethan really see cracks appear suddenly in the protective harbour wall and run down the beach, early warning signs of a disaster to come that will wipe out not only the houses, but the villagers across whose faces and bodies he sees scars appear?
Questions abound within this novel. Reading it feels like being constantly on the edge of things, being allowed to peek in but denied access to the core of its meaning. One thing I was certain of, this is not a novel that has a happily resolved ending. Throughout the atmosphere is of impending doom not simply for this one village but for all communities dependent on natural resources for their living. Is Mynmuir giving us a taste of the future or of the present? Yet another of the unresolved questions buzzing around my head long after I got to the final page.
Author: The Many by Wyn Mynmuir
Published: 2016 by
My copy: I tried to buy this shortly after it was announced as a long listed title for the ManBooker prize 2016 but such was the low level of copies printed, that the publishers ran out of stock and need an emergency second print run. It was worth the wait however….
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
There was no way I could read all 13 of the long listed titles for this year’s Man Booker Prize in the short time available until the shortlisting is announced on September 13. But I did want to get a flavour of the contenders so read a few of them and then a sample of the rest.
Here are my reactions….
Paul Beatty – The Sellout: described as a satire of post-racial America. I couldn’t get hold of a copy of this or a sample. But having read the review by Mookes and Gripes I’m glad because I doubt I would have appreciated it and probably not been able to finish it.
J.M. Coetzee – The Schooldays of Jesus: Coetzee is a two-times Booker winner so it’s no surprise to find he is being strongly tipped for the shortlist. This novel is a follow-up to his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus. It’s set in a nameless country where everyone speaks Spanish and where refugees arrive on boats, are given new names and identities, and are “washed clean” of all their old memories and associations. The plot is rather thin – this is more a novel about ideas than a story. I’ve only just started reading it so it’s hard to give a verdict other than I find the narrative style irritating at times particularly so in the middle of dialogue where we get this clumsy construction of ‘He, Simon …’ repeatedly.
A.L. Kennedy – Serious Sweet : a London love story between two decent but troubled individuals that is told over the course of 24 hours. I read the first two chapters as a sample of this novel. By the end of the first chapter I decided I wasn’t interested enough to read on – it focuses on Jon Sigurdsson, a civil servant who seems to be going through an emotionally disturbed period. He’s in his garden early morning and is trying to free a bird trapped in some netting. The metaphor for his own situation is clumsy and over-blown. The second chapter where we meet Meg Williams, a bankrupt accountant is far more interesting. Will I read it? Probably not.
Deborah Levy – Hot Milk: another novel I sampled. It’s described as a“richly mythic” tale of mothers and daughters but the first chapter seemed rather banal to me. The narrator Sofia is in a rented beach house in Spain where she is accompanying her mother who is seeking a cure for a mysterious illness that confines her to a wheelchair. Sofia is clearly dominated by her mother so escapes to the beach where she encounters Juan, the beach guard and has a boring conversation with him about jelly fish. Will I read any more of this one – absolutely not. Will it make the shortlist? It doesn’t deserve to but stranger things have happened with the Booker.
Graeme Macrae Burnet – His Bloody Project: Features a brutal triple murder in a remote northern crofting community in 1869. This is an odd choice for the judges, maybe not quite as highbrow literary as many of the choices in the past. The chapters I’ve dipped into have been fast paced and chock full of atmosphere. I have an electronic copy that I snaffled up as a bargain the day after the long-listing so yes, this is one I plan to read. Sometime. I don’t see it making the final list however.
Ian McGuire – The North Water: a closely detailed story of violence that breaks out between desperate men on a doomed whaling expedition into the Arctic. This was the second of the Booker list I read and what a scorcher it proved to be. A page turner but one that has more literary merit than most page turning novels. It might make the shortlist – a short while ago it was a favourite with the bookies. But if it makes it to the ultimate prize then I promise to go and read Moby Dick as a penance.
David Means – Hystopia: the novel imagines a history in which John F Kennedy was not assassinated, the Vietnam war drags on and there is a government initiative to wipe the trauma from the memories of returning soldiers.I read a sample of this and was thoroughly confused. It has multiple editor notes as the preface which supposedly explains the story but I ended up more confused and felt it was just trying to be too darn clever for its own good. Many blogger reviews I’ve seen since then all indicate that the confusion doesn’t go away the further you read. I don’t mind being challenged by a book – its the easy novels that frustrate me – but when someone is just trying to show off their ability and they forget they have a reader, I get annoyed. So no I will not be reading this one. I suspect it will make the shortlist though just because the Booker judges do like novels that try to be be inventive.
Wyl Menmuir –The Many: this a short novel that punches above the weight of its page count. It tells the story of a man who moves to an abandoned house in an isolated Cornish village whose future is threatened by pollution of their fishing grounds. The longer he stays, the more uncomfortable and bizarre life becomes. It took me a while to get hold of a copy because the novel is published by Salt who had only printed 1,000 copies and were overwhelmed by demand when The Many got long listed. But oh boy was this worth the wait. It’s atmospheric in a chilling sense because we don’t get to know why the fishing waters are polluted and there is some mystery about the previous occupant of the house. Will it make the shortlist – it deserves a place I think.
Ottessa Moshfegh– Eileen: set in the 1960s, this tells the story of an unhappy young woman and a bitterly cold Massachusetts winter. The sample I read did intrigue me – it is a first person narration by Eileen who is living a pretty miserable life with her alcoholic father in a squalid home. Her only escapes are the trips she takes in her battered down car to the liquor store and her work at at a correctional facility for boys. I’ve seen mixed reactions to this novel but it might be one that I’m interested to read more about. Whether it makes the shortlist I have no idea, not having read enough of it to judge.
Virginia Reeves – Work Like Any Other: 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. I don’t know what it is about the synopsis for this book but it didn’t encourage me to even get a sample…….
Elizabeth Strout – My Name Is Lucy Barton: a striking story about a relationship between mother and daughter. Simply one of the best novels I’ve read so far – see my review here. Will it make it to the next round? Maybe.
David Szalay – All That Man Is: This is an odd novel. Actually I’m not even sure that I can call it a novel though that’s the description used by the publishers. It felt to me a collection of stories about nine different men, all at various stages of their lives. There is only one really clear connection between them – and that’s between the young man in story number one and the old man in the final story who turns out to be his grandfather. Some of these pieces have appeared either in full or partially in either Granta or the Paris Review which makes me think that rather than conceived holistically from the start, the author is trying to make connections between each character in retrospect. Not one I expect to see on the shortlist even if Szalay has been named previously as a Granta Best Young British Novelist.
Madeleine Thien – Do Not Say We Have Nothing: relates the story of musicians who suffered during and after China’s Cultural Revolution. Another case where I had to rely upon a sample since it’s not available through the library system or NetGalley and I refuse to shed out a lot of money on hard cover fiction even though I am a sucker for novels that pull back the curtain on Chinese culture. The first chapter introduces us to the narrator Li-ling lives with her mother in Vancouver. Her father disappeared some years earlier, and subsequently committed suicide. His wife keeps all his papers in boxes under the kitchen table which she pores over to try and make sense of what happened to him. The arrival into the Vancouver apartment of a teenage relative forced to flee China following the suppression of the Tiananmen Square uprising, enables Li-ling to assemble the story of her father and his profound but troubled relationship with his wife’s family. What I’ve read was enough to whet my appetite to this is going onto the wishlist for when I can find a reasonably priced copy. Will it get shortlisted – maybe….
Other bloggers have been far more diligent than I have in reading the longlist so do go and check out their reviews.
It’s Bloody. Raw. Violent. Bleak.
The North Water by Ian McGuire long listed for the Man Booker 2016, is a gripping novel that oozes darkness on every page. Exactly what’s needed from a thriller. Add to that a fantastic sense of 1840’s andy a sublime rendition of the Arctic landscape and you have the best historical thriller I’ve read for years by a long way.
Is The North Water a Booker winner though? Is it even a shortlist candidate? I’m thinking a definite no to the first question and only a maybe to the second. Why? Because as exceptionally well written as this novel is, it’s not a very literary piece of prose and doesn’t push the boundaries of its genre in a way I expect a Booker winner to do. Within its own genre it’s a magnificent accomplishment. Maybe thats what the judges are looking for – excellence and readability in one hit. But when I stack it up against previous winners I don’t see it in contention.
But….. those comments shouldn’t be taken as a reason to push this book to one side. For if you love plot driven novels, especially ones which are as meticulously constructed as this one and as persuasively authentic in terms of period detail, this is definitely a book to add to the wishlist.
Be warned, some the language may be considered ‘ripe’ but recognise this is a book with a seafaring cast of characters used to hardship and calling a spade a spade. There are also some passages that are not for the squeamish since McGuire pulls no punches about the brutal and bloody business of whaling in the 1840s nor of the harshness of character such work engenders. But this isn’t gratuitous blood and guts stuff, this is a novel realistic about a business in which only the most nimble, selfish and ruthless whalers will survive.
The most ruthless of them is Henry Drax. He’s a harpooner on the whaling ship The Volunteer which is about to set off from England on a six month voyage to Greenland. Within the first few pages we get the measure of this character. He’s killed a man who crossed him in a bar, and beaten unconscious and raped a young black street urchin without hesitation or consciousness. Death to Drax is a pleasure a matter of pride when executed to perfection.
Drax goes swiftly through the motions; one action following the next, passionless and precise, machine like, but not mechanical. He grasps onto the world like a dog biting into a bone – nothing is obscure to him, nothing is separate from his fierce and surly appetites. What the nigger boy used to be has now disappeared. He is gone completely and something else, something wholly different, has appeared instead.
The opening scene is a portent of the ills that will befall The Volunteer once the voyage is underway. Further omens follow: the captain is the only survivor of a previous whale boat disaster (the only crew member among 18 to survive) which makes his new crew rather jittery and they are not even aware of a secret discussion he olds with the boat’s owner. Then there is a new surgeon Patrick Sumner, nursing a wound from his days with the army in India. He claims he wants a period of calm (a whaling mission seems a bit of odd way to get recuperation) before claiming an inherited piece of land in Ireland. But he has rather too much of an affection for laudanam and his own dark role in a tragedy which caused his dismissal from the regiment under a cloud.
Sumner is the only character who really evolves and develops through the novel. The other characters exist mainly to propel the book forward and to set up some tension so we are not clear who are the good guys and who is not to be trusted. Sumner finds he is no match for wilds of Alaska and its animal inhabitants. There time on the ice fields sees them hunt bears and slaughter seals and whales but ultimately their natural skills and inner resources prove inadequate when faced with the unrelenting, indifferent force of nature. Only Sumner learns to adapt but even then the change is his persona is not permanent.
All of this is a story told in a language that is far from subtle but superbly evocative. McGuire has a talent for creating descriptions that are visceral, sensory and direct.
Many of the memorable images relate to the crew’s battle with the animals that inhabit the ice field but they also relate to the landscape itself.
Here are a few examples:
A sea captain shoots a crew member , splattering “an aureole of purplish brain matter” on the wall.
When the sailors kill a polar bear:
… a great purple gout of blood comes steaming to the surface and spreads like India ink across her ragged white coat. The air is filled with a foetid blast of butchery and excrement.
Later in the book when Sumner pursues a cub bear for miles across the ice field he is spooked by a cry behind him:
… a sudden uprising bellow, a vast symphonic how, pained, primeval, yet human nonetheless; a cry beyond words and language it seems to him, choral, chronic, like the conjoined voices of the damned.
Returning one evening to a missionary’s lonely hut, Sumner sees the borealis
… unwinding across the night sky in peristaltic bands of green and purple, like the loosely coiled innards of a far-fetched mythic beast.
Within a few pages Sumner will get rather close to the innards of the missionary when he has to operate on an abscessed stomach releasing a cataract of “foul and flocculent pus”. Yuk…
This is a novel best not read when you’ve just eaten or are about to eat ….
But don’t let that put you off. You can always do the equivalent of my tactic faced with a gory bit on TV or in a film and hide behind a cushion…
Author: The North Water by Ian McGuire
Published: 2016 by Simon and Schuster
Length: 326 pages
My copy: borrowed from the library so I could at least read some of the Man Booker 2016 long listed titles
Other reviewers thoughts: Not all bloggers have rated this book as highly as I did. For other persectives take a look at alternative reviews see The Readers’ Room via this link and Bellezza’s thoughts here