Category Archives: Book prizes

Brilliant memoir of optimism and courage: The Salt Path

Salt PathRaynor Winn had never given much thought to the problem of homelessness.

But at the age of 50, she and her husband Moth became one of the estimated 280,000 households in the UK without a roof over their head.

The Winns lost their livelihood – and their home – when an investment in a friend’s business went sour. An obdurate legal system refused to allow them to present key evidence showing they were not liable for that firm’s debts.

Bailiffs were instructed to seize the Welsh farmhouse the couple had rebuilt from a pile of stones and turned into a thriving holiday business. Worse news followed.  Moth was diagnosed with CBD, a rare degenerative brain disease. The specialist told him that death usually comes six to eight years after the onset – and that he’d probably been suffering for six already..

While hiding under the stairs as the bailiffs banged on the door, Raynor discovered a copy of Five Hundred Mile Walkies, an account by Paddy Dillon of walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path with his dog.

The book became the catalyst for their own journey. When they took their first steps on that same path almost everything they possessed went with them:  a small tent bought on eBay, a couple of cheap, thin sleeping bags, some basic cooking equipment and a change of clothes.  In their pocket they had £115 in cash and a bankcard to collect £48 a week in tax credits.

south-west-coast-path

The route of the South West Coastal Path

They had no plan beyond starting in Minehead and following the path down to Land’s End and then along the southern coastline to Poole in Dorset. A plan for their future would emerge they hoped. Until it did,  they would just put one foot in front of the other.

Ill-prepared mentally, and physically one obstacle they never expected to encounter was the prejudice – and sometimes hostility  – of people they met along their way.

Only a few days into their journey a boisterous dog sent Raynor flat onto her face in the street and her precious coins rolling down the hill .  “You tramps should learn how to control yourselves. Rolling around in the street – it’s disgusting,” shouted the dog owner.  Raynor at that point began to lose what little sense of herself she had remaining :

A tramp. A homeless tramp. A few weeks earlier I’d owned my own home, my own business, a flock of sheep, a garden, land, an Aga, washing machines, a lawn mower. I had responsibilities, respect, pride. The illusions of life had rolled away as quickly as the pound coins.

Often the strangers they encountered would physically recoil when told why the Winns were walking the path, gathering their children and dogs towards them as if they feared harm. The word ‘homeless’ was the trigger.  So Moth changed their story, explaining they had sold their home to go looking for adventure wherever the wind took them. The response was telling; they became people to be admired not feared or despised. They were two ‘inspirational’ oldies having an adventure of a lifetime.

What was the difference between the two stories? Only one word, but one word that in the public perception meant everything: ‘sold’. We could  be homeless having sold our home and put money in the bank, and be inspirational. Or we could be homeless, having lost our home and become penniless, and be social pariahs.

The Salt Path

A stretch of the South West Coastal path

All of this makes it sound that The Salt Path will be a gloomy book. But it’s actually brimming with humour because Raynor Winn has a tremendous sense of the absurd (like the  man walking his tortoise) and of the beauty of nature. At times their situation is desperate: days with little more to eat than noodles and fudge to keep them plodding on; nights when their flimsy tent perched on the edge of a cliff is almost whipped from in a storm.

But in between there are the joys of moonlit swims, of dolphins and translucent fish. And the generosity of strangers who provided them with a place to camp or to stay and with food. Together they help her and Moth come to terms with their situation.

The Salt Path is a sobering reminder of easy it is to fall out of mainstream society and to become an outsider. It’s a remarkable story; thoughtful, honest, unflinching; about human strength and endurance.


The Salt Path, published by Michael Joseph, was shortlisted for the Costa Book of the Year.  Raynor and her husband Moth live in Cornwall close to the South West Coastal Path.  Their experience has been an inspiration to other homeless people as recounted in this article in The Big Issue magazine.

An American Marriage fails to do justice to injustice [review]

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

An American MarriageAn American Marriage was on multiple “must read” lists the year it was published.

Former US President Barak Obama apparently said it was one of his favourite books of the year. Jones then achieved the Holy Grail when her novel was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club (inclusion in which is guaranteed to generate a major hike in sales).

The novel subsequently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019. 

What seems to have appealed most is the way An American Marriage tackles the effects of racial injustice but from perspective of how it threatens to destroy a relationship. The Women’s Prize for Fiction judges called it an “exquisite” novel, “a story of love, loss and loyalty, the resilience of the human spirit painted on a big political canvas – that shines a light on today’s America. “

The relationship in focus is that of Celestial and Roy. They are a young middle-class African-American couple who’ve been married for a year.

There have been some ups and downs as in all marriages, or as Celestial describes it, their marriage is “a fine spun tapestry, fragile but fixable.”  Generally though life is looking pretty good.

Roy’s a sales rep for a textbook company and seems to have a promising career ahead of him. She’s an artist specialising in custom-made baby dolls and hoping to open her own shop.

It takes just 15 minutes one night to turn all their plans upside down.

On a trip to visit his parents in Louisiana, they spend the night at a motel. They argue, he goes outside to cool off but is back in 15 minutes. Later that night police break down the door of their room and haul Roy into custody on charge of raping a fellow guest. He’s sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Incarceration for a crime both know Roy did not commit, puts the marriage under strain. When he’s freed eventually he’s ready to pick up the marriage where they left off. But Celestial has found love in another quarter.

Wrongful conviction

Jones sets a fast pace at the start of An American Marriage.

One chapter is all it takes to get Roy into jail. There’s no time wasted on recounting his arrest, questioning by police or a trial. Instead we get drawn straight into the effect this wrongful conviction has on the young people.

Jones relates this through three narrators: Celestial, Roy, and Andre, a childhood friend who later becomes something more. A large proportion of the early narrative comes in the form of letters exchanged between Celestial and Roy.

And that was where I experienced my first difficulty with this book.

Flaws in An American Marriage

The letters simply didn’t feel authentic to me because the writing style is belaboured. It would be far more natural for a twenty-something year old to write  “I’ve never seen even seen one” rather than “I have never ….” or to say “then I’d know” rather than “then I would know what to do….”   Roy’s letters in particular  felt like correspondence to a stranger rather than to a wife.

When we discussed this at a book club meeting, a few members commented that the stilted style probably reflects the fact Roy knows that prisoners’ letters are vetted. It’s a fair point but I still found these letters irritating at times.

Equally irritating was the author’s tendency to include platitudes throughout the book. This one for example:

“A marriage is more than your heart, it’s your life.”

Or how about

“Marriage is like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk. You have the limb, freshly sliced, dripping sap, and smelling of springtime, and then you have the mother tree  stripped of her protective bark, gouged and ready to receive this new addition…”

Commentary on race and injustice

On one level An American Marriage is intended as a state-of-the-nation kind of book; a commentary on race and justice in twenty-first century America.  It’s clear that Roy’s ethnicity plays a significant part in the miscarriage of justice he experiences. On another level it’s an examination of what happens when a marriage is put to the severest of tests.

Initially both are hopeful about the future and try hard to keep things as they were. Celestial wants to recount word for word, their last conversation before his arrest so that “we can pick up where we left off.” But their optimism wanes, the affection dwindles and  bitterness sweeps in. The question in the final chapters is whether the marriage can ever be put back together.

An American Marriage has many of the elements that would make for an excellent piece of fiction but it never delivers. The injustice issue is never explored to any depth so we’re left to focus on the marriage and the individuals within that relationship. Interesting but not rivetting.

I can understand why this book has resonated with many readers. But I don’t think it’s special enough  to have won the Women’s Prize. Certainly not when the truly remarkable novel  Milkman by Anna Burns is in the frame.

Tayari Jones: Key Facts  

  • Tayari Jones was born in Atlanta, Georgia.
  • She is currently a member of the English faculty at Emory University in the city.
  • She had three novels published before An American Marriage.
  • Her  debut novel, Leaving Atlanta, was written when she was a graduate student. It’s a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-81. 
  • Her second novel The Untelling and her third Silver Sparrow are  also set in Atlanta.

Intense novel shows a city in turmoil: Milkman by Anna Burns [Review]

Milkman by Anna Burns

 

The Troubles in Ireland

Imagine a world where it’s dangerous to be different.

Where people with cameras lurk in bushes to capture your every action.

Where masked  paramilitary “heroes” dole out summary justice to suspected informers.

Where almost every family you know has seen brothers, sons, sisters, fathers killed.

We’re not talking here about a fictionalised nightmarish dystopian society where every vestige of normality has broken down. The world of Anna Burns’ Milkman is an all too real place. It’s one where, though she represents them in a highly imaginative manner, these atrocities did occur.

She never names the town in which she sets the novel, nor even the country. But it’s evident she is describing her home city of Belfast, Northern Ireland during the 1970s. This was a time when the country was embroiled in sectarian warfare and the city of Belfast was at the heart of what became labelled as “The Troubles”.

Dangerous to read and walk

Anna Burns tackles the conflict through the eyes of an unnamed 18-year-old girl. She’s an oddity in her neighbourhood because she has no interest in marriage or babies and she reads books.   She reads while she walks, usually 19th century novels.

I didn’t see anything wrong with this but it became something else to be added as further proof against me. ‘Reading-while-walking’ was definitely on the list.

This unusual behaviour draws the attention of one of the high-ups in the paramilitary organisation – Milkman – a man who begins to shadow her and treat her as if she’s his property.  He has the disconcerting habit of turning up when she least expects him: when she’s out running, as she leaves her French evening classes. He’s creepy and threatening (he says he’ll kill her boyfriend unless she ends that relationship) but in this city it doesn’t do to cross such a powerful figure.

Having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack by something that wasn’t there?

The predicament of the narrator, known only as “middle sister”, intensifies when rumours begin that she’s having an affair with this older married man. She’s now “beyond the pale” in the eyes of her community. They daren’t openly attack her for fear of retribution upon their own families but they can still make their distaste evident. Even a simple task like buying chips for her sisters’ supper becomes loaded with hostility.

A City in Turmoil

Milkman is a powerful and intense novel about a city in turmoil and a population  fearful they will make just one wrong comment or take one false step.  Even groceries are loaded with meaning. There is “the right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’.”  Distrust of state forces is universal but so too is distrust of hospitals.

It’s not a novel that dazzled me initially. In fact I was frustrated because none of the characters were named. Instead they all have labels: “third brother-in-law”, “tablets girl”, “nuclear boy” and “maybe-boyfriend”. It felt an unnecessary artifice; the product of an author trying to be ‘too clever for their own good.’

But the book slowly wormed its way into my imagination and the more I read, the more entranced I became. Light eventually dawned that what was initially an irritant was actually a strength of the novel. The very namelessness made the novel more sinister, as if the world Burns is describing is impossible to comprehend in normal terms and where individual expression and identity have been lost among the violence and political speak.

Powerful voice of narrator

The narrator is a tremendous creation. She tries to maintain a chippy devil-may-care attitude but she is left isolated and ground down by the association with the milkman

Few people other than “the real milkman” come to her help or speak up on her behalf. She tries to reach out for help but “Ma”, “Maybe-Boyfriend” and “Oldest Friend” all believe the rumours, seeing her as a  Jezebel involved in an affair with a older, married man, rather than the innocent victim of  a creepy stalker.  She even comes to doubt her own version of events: “Was he actually doing anything?” she wonders. “Was anything happening?”

It was not until years later that she more fully appreciates what had happened:

I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man,” … “Also by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.”

Milkman is a strange novel. When it was announced as the winner of the Booker Prize in 2018, there were many comments about how ‘challenging’ it was to read. It was compared with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy because of its stream of consciousness, digressive narrative and non linear structure.   It’s certainly unconventional.  It’s definitely original. I consider it one of the best and most deserving winners of the Booker Prize in recent years.


Milkman: Key Facts

Milkman by Anna Burns

  • Milkman, by Anna Burns, was published by Faber and Faber in 2018.
  • The Chair of the Booker judges,  Kwame Anthony Appiah, described the language as ” simply marvellous;  beginning with the distinctive and consistently realised voice of the funny, resilient, astute, plain-spoken, first-person protagonist.”
  • Milkman was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019

Anna Burns: Key Facts 

  • Anna Burns has drawn on her upbringing in a working-class, Catholic family in the troubled city of Belfast in all three of her novels – Milkman, Little Constructions (2007) and No Bones. 
  • She wrote Milkman while suffering excruciating back pain and struggling to make ends meet (she resorted to using food banks which she thanks in the acknowledgments of the book).
  • She is considering using part of her Booker prize money to pay for treatment on her back. If it’s not successful she has said, she doesn’t feel she will be able to write again.

Why I read Milkman

Although I have a cut off date of 2015 for my Booker prize reading project, I do read the later winners if they appeal to me. Milkman was the first since 2015 which held any appeal.

It just about qualifies for ReadingIrelandMonth2019 hosted by Cathy at 746books.com

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

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

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

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

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

Education in life

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

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

In the footsteps of a spy

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

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

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

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

Memorable Atmosphere

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

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

There is a poignancy too in this novel.

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

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

Questions of morality

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

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

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

Reading Horizons: Episode 13

Reading Horizons,  12 December, 2018

What are you currently reading? 

I have multiple books on the go at the moment.

I’m meant to be reading A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James because it is one of only two unread titles in my Booker prize project. However, I’m finding it hard going because it has so many different characters (75 in total), several of whom pop up at different points to tell their part of the story. I keep forgetting who all these people are and have to refer to the character list to discover whether the current narrator is the local CIA head, a Colombian drug gang member, a hooker or a journalist. Adding to the difficulty is that parts of the narration are in Jamaican patois. So it’s not the ideal novel to read late at night…..

Which is why I’m also reading The Next Big Thing by Anita Brookner. It’s another of her intense character portraits about loneliness and characters who long for something else in their lives. Hertz Fritz has led a very unremarkable life. Now 73 years old he ponders what he is going to do with the time he has remaining. He could leave London and move to Paris. He could become a regular guest on a chat show about art. He could remarry. He knows he needs to do something. But what???  He’s such a ditherer that I want to shake him out of his apathy and his constant worries about his health.

I’m also continuing to read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. It’s packed so full of information that I’m not able to absorb more than a few pages at a time. It’s fascinating however. I’ve learned why caffeine is absolutely the last thing you want to ingest in the evening (it blocks the hormone that tells us we need to sleep), and what happens during the different phases of sleep.

What did you recently finish reading? 

I’d never heard of Elizabeth Jolley until I saw her mentioned by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog who held an Elizabeth Jolley reading week earlier this year. She sounded so good I immediately bought two of her books.

The first – Sugar Daddy was extremely funny at times but the humour was nicely balanced with some disquieting themes. I had high expectations that my other purchase Miss Peabody’s Inheritance would be just as enjoyable. And I have certainly not been disappointed.

This is a novel within a novel about Miss Peabody, a lonely middle-aged spinster who has a boring office job and lives with her overbearing, bedridden mother. The only excitement in her life is a correspondence she begins with a writer of romance novels in Australia. Through the letters Miss Peabody is drawn into the world of the author’s newest novel. My review of this book will follow soonish….

What do you think you’ll read next?

It’s going to take me a few weeks to finish the Marlon James I suspect but in the meantime I have the next book club choice to read by early in January. We’ve chosen The Librarian by Salley Vickers. The description tells me this is about a new children’s librarian in the small town of East Mole who is on a mission to improve the lives of local children by giving them just the right books. Then she begins a scandalous affair with a married doctor. Not sure about the romance aspect of this but if this book features books then it has to be worth reading doesn’t it? 


Reading Horizons is linked to WWWednesday, a meme  hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It involves answering 3 questions:

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner [book review]

The Mars RoomShould I be so unfortunate to find myself  detained in one of Her Majesty’s prisons, I will at least, thanks to Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, have several survival strategies at my fingertips.

I will know for example that it’s possible to smuggle pills by using peanut butter to attach them to the roof of your mouth.

I’ll know how to send and receive contraband through the air vents and toilet system (making sure of course to wrap everything tightly in plastic).

And, to make up for the absence of real alcohol, I will be able to brew hooch from ketchup sachets, fruit juice cartons and a sock stuffed with bread (necessary to create the yeast) even if the result does look and smell like vomit. The secret is that  “… you got to double decant it ….. It’s got to breathe.”

Kushner displays an impressive knowledge of life inside a women’s correctional facility in California; the strip-searches, shacklings and lock downs and the rules that govern every moment and every aspect of the women’s lives.

There are lists of rules scattered through the book

No orange clothing

No clothing in any shade of blue

No white clothing

No yellow clothing

No beige or khaki clothing

No green clothing

No red clothing

No purple clothing

Wouldn’t it just have been simpler to tell these inmates what they could wear??

There are even rules about rules.

The failure to report a rule violation … is also a rule violation. The failure to report a rule violation of a failure to report a rule violation is another rule violation.

The Mars Room is a powerful indictment of the penal system as seen through a 29-year-old single mother who has been convicted of murder. We first encounter Romy Hall as she is taken by bus to the Stanville correctional facility where she will serve two consecutive life sentences with an additional six years for endangering her young son.

She’s already learned not to cry. Two years earlier on her first night in jail after her arrest she had cried uncontrollably, believing her life was over though hoping desperately that it was all a dream. But now she knows there is no point in looking ahead.

 I don’t plan on living a long life. Or a short life, necessarily. I have no plans at all. The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not. But not having plans doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets.

From this point, the novel moves backwards and forwards in time,  tracing her childhood and early years in the “fog-banked, treeless and bleak” streets of San Francisco. The city she inhabited is one tourists don’t get to see, a city of brothels, dive bars, casinos and strip joints, the seediest of all being The Mars Room where she worked as a lap dancer.  The man she killed was one of the regulars at the club. When he began turning up at her local supermarket and shadowing her home, she did a disappearing act only for him to track her down. The night she killed him her young son was asleep in her arms.

The Mars Room is predominantly Rachel’s story though there are narratives from two men associated with the penal system. One is a corrupt police officer now behind bars who takes pride in the crimes he committed and the other is a bit of an idealist brought in to teach literature in the prison. Neither of these interludes was anywhere as engrossing as Rachel’s own story and her interactions with fellow inmates.

What a fascinating bunch they are: the resident ultra bully Teardrop; Conan, a trans woman who uses woodwork classes to make dildos; the baby-killer Laura Lipp and, on death row, the former model Betty LaFrance,  chief brewer of the ketchup moonshine. When they’re on stage, the book comes alive.

Unfortunately, while there is much to admire in The Mars Room, it’s attraction began to fade for me in the final section. Up until this point we’d been exposed to the injustice at the heart of Romy’s situation. The court never heard how she was terrified by the man she killed because the lawyer appointed to take her case was incompetent. Once convicted she has no recourse for an appeal and no-one willing to help her when her son is taken into care.

Kushner’s narrative gives full exposure to the way the justice system has broken down. There is a wealth of information to explain how her fellow inmates are also victims; nudged into crime as a result of poverty, drugs and abuse. After a while it feels like we’re being beaten over the head until we understand the point. I found myself skipping paragraphs (never a good sign). And then it ends with a moment of epiphany that simply didn’t ring true. What started as a book that impressed me with its directness just seemed to dissolve without reaching any resolution.

I can see why the Booker Prize judges put it on the shortlist but for me it was a book that was good in parts but ultimately didn’t live up to its initial promise.

 

 

 

 

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