Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Latecomers by Anita Brookner [book review]

the latecomersNothing much happens in Anita Brookner’s eighth novel The Latecomers. But then Brookner is almost always an author who is concerned with more how people feel than what they do.

This time her focus is on two men, Thomas Hartmann and Thomas Fibich, both Jewish refugees on the Kindertransports from Germany who meet at an unpleasant boarding school in England. Despite very different personalities they develop a friendship that will last some 50 years.  and bond with each other in a wretched boarding school. have very different personalities.

Fibich is a man of simple tastes, whose digestive system is fragile. Consequently dinners with Hartmann’s Aunt Marie and her famed dish of braised tongue à l’orientale are a torture for him. He’s a brooding figure who cannot leave the past behind him. So haunted is he by the loss of his parents in his childhood, tht he seeks the help of a psychoanalyst. In middle age he takes a spontaneous decision to return to Berlin, to the railway station where he last saw them. If he was hoping for peace and reconciliation he is sadly disappointed.

Where Fibich is timid, Hartmann is confident and bold. He lives for the present not the past which for him is another country. He has “consigned to the dust, or to the repository that can only be approached in dreams,” all troublesome memories, and is now “deliberately euphoric.” A man of the senses who loves luxury, he is captured perfectly in the opening sentence of the book :

Hartmann, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue, and, while it was dissolving, lit his first cigarette.

From schooldays, this unlikely pair progress to become business partners in a greeting’s card company. So close is their bond that when they marry they end up living in the same apartment building.

Naturally Hartmann is the first to get married, to a woman who on the surface seems the perfect match for his appreciation of the finer things in life. Yvette loves to be the centre of attention. She knows how to make a comfortable home but is too self-centered to form a strong relationship with her daughter. Fibich does make it to the altar eventually but the match isn’t one of deep emotion or passion. He meets Christine when she visits Aunt Marie and the two find solace together when the older woman falls ill and dies.

Ironically the children of these two marriages seem to have been mixed up at birth.  It’s a shock to Fibich and his shy, plain wife Christine that their only son Toto turns out to be a force of nature, a dazzling creature so alien to their own reserved natures. They watch him and wonder why couldn’t they have had a child as docile as Yvette and Harmann’s daughter Marianne.   It’s the girl’s very docility however that irritates Yvette. Give her Toto any day in place of this child who always looks frumpy and has to be cojouled to get any social life.

The contrasts between these four make The Latecomers a delightful book. At times it’s humerous but never at the expense of either pair. Instead Brookner gives us a detailed and very warm portrait of friendship, marriage and parenthood.  There are no shocks in this book, no sudden revelations or disasters. Reading Brookner is often like putting on a favourite pair of shoes. You know they will never let you down.

 

 

Bleeding Heart Square by Andrew Taylor [Book Review]

bleeding heart square

Andrew Taylor’s Bleeding Heart Square has the feel of a Dickens or a Wilkie Collins’ novel. We’re on familiar ground with its plot of a dark and convoluted murder mystery and its setting of a grubby corner of London. The cast of larger than life characters equally wouldn’t feel out of place in Woman in White or Our Mutual Friend.

Taylor may hark to the past but he gives his murder mystery a modern twist by overlaying  a twentieth-century political dimension.

The year is 1934. The British fascism movement is in its infancy but making its presence felt. Anyone who voices dissent to their views gets beaten up  by the blackshirted followers of their leader, Oswald Mosely.

Violence on the streets is paralleled by bullying, oppressive behaviour in the home.

Lydia Langstone, a young, privileged society wife, decides she will no longer endure the abusive behaviour of her feeble-minded husband who looks “… like a sinister Boy Scout, his emotional and intellectual development doomed to remain for ever somewhere between 13 and 14 years old”.

Marcus Langstone is trying to wheedle his way into Oswald Mosely’s inner circle. Convinced that Mosely will soon become the country’s leader, he sees himself as his right hand man with a key role in government.  No-one will get in his way, especially not his aristocratic wife whom he despises. But Lydia is more than his match. She walks out of her comfortable marital home in Mayfair. leaving behind most of her clothes and jewels, and seeks refuge in the decaying cul-de-sac of Bleeding Heart Square. It was once  the site of a medieval palace, but now reeks of cabbage and drains.

Her father is no help; he’s a drunkard and a sponger who steers rather too close to the edge of legality. But Lydia has no-where else to go. She just has to learn to cook and clean, to economise and find some way of earning a living.   In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she finds a kindred spirit.

Unwittingly Lydia has stepped into a mystery that begins to take hold of her. Why is a plain-clothes policeman keeping a close eye on the square? What happened to Miss Penhow, the middle-aged, wealthy spinster who owns the house? She supposedly vanished to America four years earlier after signing over all her property to  one Joseph Serridge. Someone has now started to send packages of maggot-infested meat to Serridge.  Is there a connection to the legend that the Devil once danced in Bleeding Heart Square and left a murdered woman behind him?

The answers come and the pieces of the puzzle slowly fall into place as we follow Miss Penhow’s story, told as extracts from an old notebook. In parallel we track Lydia’s own attempts to find the truth, despite the risk this presents to her own safety.

It’s a complex plot handled well with plenty of red herrings to keep up the suspense.  My one criticism of Bleeding Heart Square is that it does take a while to reach the resolution. But that gives us even more time to enjoy the rich period atmosphere as the novel moves from corner house cafe, to solicitors’ offices, quiet villages and the crypt of a nearby church.  Taylor skilfully handles the novel’s biggest set piece: a meeting organised by the British Union Fascists that descends into a violent anti-Semitic riot.

At its heart (sorry for the pun) Bleeding Heart Square is a delightful old-fashioned yarn of murder committed for the sake of money. In many ways this is a throw back to the Golden Age of crime and mystery fiction. But Taylor gives the familiar device a fresh edge by surrounding it with political and social themes.

Chief of course is the birth of Fascism but Taylor’s novel also examines the position of women in 1930s Britain.  Women had fought the right to vote sixteen years earlier but true independence was still a long way into the future.  Women like Miss Penhow were prey to the unscrupulous while many others found themselves in exactly the same predicament as Lydia:  trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage. As Taylor shows, her options are limited. She has no skills to use to make her financially independent and no experience of domestic chores. Though divorce was possible, it was a step undertaken with grave risks to the woman’s reputation. Thus almost everyone  in Bleeding Heart Square urges her to return to the abusive Marcus.

The Britain of Bleeding Heart Square is however a Britain on the cusp of events that will radically change the nature of the country. While there are points in the novel where the consequences of the First World War are mentioned the omens of a greater conflict to come loom even larger.

Footnotes

About the Author: Andrew Taylor was born in East Anglia, England and studied at  Cambridge before getting an MA in library sciences from University College London. His first novel, Caroline Miniscule was published in 1982 and is a modern-day treasure hunt featuring a history student. He is probably best known for his 2003 novel The American Boy which won the Crime Writers’ Association of Britain’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award.

The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa [book review]

German GirlBerlin in 1939 is a city of fear. Wealth, status and intelligence count for nothing in the face of hostility and antipathy towards people of the Jewish faith. For many families the only option is to flee the country. But who will take them? Other countries are not falling over themselves to provide a refuge.

For the Rosenthal family, salvation beckons when they gain coveted visas enabling them to enter Cuba, from where they will head to the United States.  Leaving their classy apartment and precious heirlooms behind to be snaffled by the Nazi regime, they board the SS St. Louis, a luxurious transatlantic liner, and head for asylum. But before they can dock, the Cuban government changes its mind, leaving the 900 passengers in limbo.

After a tense period 12 -year-old Hannah Rosenthal and her mother are allowed entry but her professor father is barred because he has a different type of visa. The ship’s captain has little choice but to return to Europe with almost a full complement of passengers. Professor Rosenthal and Hannah’s best friend Leo sail away from Cuba, fearing imprisonment or death.

Reading this as a piece of fiction is an emotionally-engaging experience. But it’s made more so by the knowledge that The German Girl is based on a little-known episode that, until the early part of this century, was not even publicly acknowledged. The author Armando Lucas Correa, who is editor-in-chief of People en Español, has clearly based his debut novel on extensive research. The back of the book comes with an extensive historical note about the whole episode and what happened to the passengers after they left Cuba. But what touched me was to find a page bearing the signatures of all the passengers on the ship and numerous photographs showing them on board the ship.

Correa has chosen to tell his story through the eyes of two teenage girls. Hannah Rosenthal is a thoughtful but determined girl, fiercely loyal to her friend Leo and devoted to her father. Her relationship with her mother is more distant. Hannah constantly comments on how her mother acts as if she is on a stage, choosing her outfits carefully and deliberately waiting to be the last to board the ship so that all eyes will be upon her. She begins her story in dramatic fashion:   “I was almost twelve years old when I decided to kill my parents.”

It’s a reflection of her desperation and unhappiness at having to love her home in Berlin even though she is frightened by the red and black flags draped along every street. Leo is her salvation, a street-wise kid who always seems to know what is going on and who extracts Hannah’s promise that she will never forget him.

Alternating with Hannah’s story is that of Anna Rosen, a 12-year-old girl in present-day New York. Anna’s father died in the attack on the World Trade Centre before Anna was born. Her mother has retreated into herself and the girl is left to suffer alone. One day she receives a package from great-aunt Hannah in Cuba who had acted as a surrogate mother to Anna’s late father. The package contains photographs taken on board a ship. In search of anything that will help her connect with her father, Anna and her mother travel to  Cuba to meet Hannah and hear her story. What she reveals is that even in Cuba they were never allowed to forget they were ‘outsiders’.

The dual time narrative unfortunately didn’t work for me. I can see why Correa chose that approach, drawing parallels between the loss that both girls experience and the way they have to grow up quickly to look after their mothers. But Anna’s narrative had little of the drama and pathos that I found with Hannah’s story and the connections were often forced. In fact I don’t think the book would have suffered at all if Anna had been eliminated.

The German Girl was at times a frustrating experience because of that dual-narrator issue but it did get me thinking about the way, even today, refugees are treated.

Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe [book review]

Missing fayOne of the best novels I read in 2017 was Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor. The jumping off point for that book was the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl on New Year’s Eve while on holiday in England’s Peak District.

In similar vein Adam Thorpe’s novel Missing Fay begins with the disappearance of a teenage schoolgirl and examines the way in which her life touches some of the people in her neighbourhood.

Neither novel has a central protagonist. Nor do they end with any resolution about what happened to the girl. This is not crime fiction but an exploration of the ways in which her disappearance affects the community in which she lives.

McGregor’s novel contains a myriad of characters. Thorpe gives us six: a shop manager, a bookshop owner, an eco-warrier dad, a retired steel worker, a Romanian healthcare assistant and a burned out television executive who has joined a silent monastic order as a postulant.

Most of these characters see Fay fleetingly, as a face on a “Have you seen this girl?” poster. Howard, the steelworker, catches a glimpse of her as she runs with her dog through a local park. Cosmina, the Romanian finds a discarded coat in the woodland although only in retrospect does she wonder if this belonged to Fay.  Chris the postulant dreams of her as a flaming angel flying through the air to land in the monastery’s lake.

Only Sheena, who manages a pricey children’s clothing boutique for yummy-mummy customers, spends any quality time with the girl. When Fay arrives on her threshold one morning, Sheena anticipates she’ll be as useless as all the other work experience students that have crossed her path.  Fay comes from a dysfunctional family and lives in the city’s less desirable housing estate. Her mum spends the day in bed nursing her deep depression while Fay’s pot-smoking step dad busks around town when he’s not involved in some shady affairs. Sheena discovers that despite the pressure the girl is under, Fay is intelligent, charming and funny.

The six stories initially seem to have little to link them (beyond the obvious reference to Fay’s disappearance) but Thorpe has cleverly planted connections throughout the novel and drops lots of hints. Fudge and the monastery crop up at several points. Chris, the would-be monk, makes it for the gift shop. Sheena eats it. Eco-Warrior David takes his family to the monastery. Does the blue car that a few people mention seeing around, have any connection to Fay’s disappearance? Who is the creepy looking guy she sees lurking in the bushes – is it Howard who has taken himself to the park in between a pub crawl with his mates?  The significance of these apparently random references only becomes apparent once you’ve read a few stories.

The fact we don’t instantly pick up on some clues adds a further layer to the meaning of the book’s title. We ‘miss’ these signs just as much as the six people in the story let Fay slip out of their consciousness. Missing Fay isn’t about a physical disappearance but how through our lives we fail to connect with each other. Opportunities are missed, signs are misread aplenty in this novel.

That’s not the only message Thorpe conveys through his novel. Attitudes towards immigrants feature largely. But we also get the futility of attempts to ‘save’ the planet. David and his wife vouchsafe consumerism and are determined to raise their children in a way that makes minimal impact on the environment. But when he looks upon a wind farm he reluctantly admits that it is “a hopeless gesture, really, against the infinite kilowattage of nature herself”.

I’ll admit that I wasn’t excited to read this book when my book club selected it for this month purely because I thought it would be too similar to Reservoir 13. But it was a lot more enjoyable than expected. McGregor’s work stands out because its so beautifully crafted and the imagery is wonderful. But Thorpe’s novel certainly deserves attention.

Here’s my review of Reservoir 13

Booker Prize winners – the books that got away

Americanah

Robbed of the Booker Prize?

 

As a run up to the 50th anniversary of the Booker Prize, the team at the Sunday Times’ Culture magazine, asked whether the judges had always made the right decision. The article is available here.

Their conclusion? A resounding no.

Out of the 49 years when the prize has been awarded,  the Culture team agreed with only 12 of the winning titles. In all remaining 37 years, they believe the Booker judges overlooked a far superior novel.

They were in agreement on:

1973: The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G Farrell, describing it as a book that is “brilliantly imagined, surprisingly funny”

1980: Rites of Passage by William Golding “complex dissection of society”

1981: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie “Rushdie has never written a better novel … it is sumptuous, exuberant and funny.”

1988: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey ” a wonderful feat of storytelling”

1989: Remains of the Day by Kazou Ishiguro “a subtle classic … moving and perceptive”

1996: Last Orders by Graham Swift ” a quietly authentic triumph”

1997: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy “totally engrossing”

1999: Disgrace by J. M Coetzee – Culture calls this his masterpiece

2004: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. The Culture team had little to say other than they thought the Booker judges were ‘spot on’ in their decision

2008: White Tiger by Arvind Adiga, the right choice among a list of strong contenders

2012: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Culture thought this was curiously flat and leaden but they didn’t have an alternative

2017: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders “a worthy winner’ though there were a number of other books that would have been just as deserving.

Some of these are among my favourites from the Booker Prize so I’m not going to disagree with the Culture journalists. Disgrace is uncomfortable reading but it’s a very powerful novel about post apartheid South Africa. The God of Small Things is a book full of glorious characters and Remains of the Day is just perfection.

I’m also in agreement with some of their alternative winners: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which they say should have won in 2013, is indeed a far superior book to the actual winner Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (I thought it readable but not special). Similarly Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson knocks spots off the 1985 winner The Bone People by Keri Hulme though Winterson never even made it to the shortlist.  How the judges managed to choose The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis over Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a complete mystery to me. I enjoyed the Amis but Atwood’s novel stands out as a truly imaginative venture into a dark dystopian world.

But there are also many years where the Culture team’s preference is for a book I don’t believe did deserve to win the Booker.

Brooklyn

One the Booker judges overlooked?

Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn instead of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall seems a very strange choice for example. Ditto David Lodge’s Changing Places is an enjoyable read but doesn’t stand out as remarkable so I wouldn’t rate it higher than the actual winner, Heat and Dust by Ruth Jhabvala.

The choice that really made my eyebrows arch was 2014 which, according to Culture, should have been won by Anthony Doerr’s All the Light we Cannot See instead of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.   I couldn’t even finish Doerr’s novel; it was far too heavily laden with adjectives and contained many anachronistic Americans whereas Flanagan’s novel was beautifully written and engrossing from start to finish.

I suspect this is one of those exercises where you could get a different result for every group of people you asked to participate. Each of us will have our favourites as well as titles that we struggled to understand what it was even doing on the short or long list (Ben Okri’s The Famished Road falls into that category for me).

Over at Goodreads, there is a group called The Mookse and the Gripes which whose members do their own rankings and then combine the results. Their league table from this collective effort puts Remains of the Day in top position out of all the Booker winners.  Midnight’s Children comes in at number 2 and then there is a surprise for the third slot – Troubles by J. G Farrell which is a book I thoroughly enjoyed though didn’t think as good as his other Booker winner The Seige of Krishnapur.

If you want to make up your own mind on whether the winners were worthy of the prestige conferred by Booker Prize success, take a look at the reviews published at Shiny New Books as their way of marking the Booker anniversary.  The posts are published by decade – here is the most recent.   By the time you’ll have got through all that reading, the longlist for this year’s award will be announced (actual announcement day is July 24th).

To mark the Booker anniversary this year I’m going to do two things:

  • finish reading the list of winners. It’s taken me far longer than I expected to read all the winners but I’m nearly there.
  • run my own ‘did it deserve the prize?’ series of posts. I’ll do these decade by decade starting next week and asking you all to join in with your own thoughts. I’ll give you a hint as to what some of my choices could be – take a look at a post I wrote last year where I selected my top 3 Booker titles of all time.

 

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge [book review]

 

Moon Cakes

Traditional Chinese Moon Cakes

Bean paste is a stable of Asian cuisine but I suspect for Westerners it’s an acquired taste. I tried the sweet variety a few times when I happened to be in China during the Moon Cake festival when the tradition is to present friends, colleagues and families with baked pastries  filled with a paste made from red bean paste. (international brands like Haagen Daz have muscled in with an ice-cream version).

But my colleagues wanted me to experience the traditional version.  The texture was fine but I would have liked a little extra sweetness. Nothing to really dislike but would I swap them for the British tradition of Hot Cross Buns? Sorry but no.

However, I never got to try the hot, spicy version of bean paste, a concoction relished by the inhabitants of Yan Ge’s fictional town of Pringle in The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. The spicier and the more the paste makes them sweat, the better they like it.

 The thing is, the townsfolk grew up with a hole in their tongues. In fact, they were almost born eating Sichuan pepper powder. Even rice porridge needed mala: the numbing, tingling ma of Sichuan pepper and the hot, spicy la of the chilli. They could not imagine life without that numbing-hot duo.

The paste is made in huge fermentation vats which contain “a bubbling mixture of broad beans which had been left to go mouldy  to which were added crushed chilli pepper and seasonings like star anise, bay leaves and great handfuls of salt. As the days went by in the hot sunshine, the chilli peppers fermented, releasing their oil and a smell which was at first fragrant, then sour.”

It’s upon this product that the fortune of the Duan-Xue family is based. Youngest son  Shengqiang was destined from an early age to run the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory. His clever, handsome older brother, Duan Zhiming, got to leave the town and become a university professor and his sister Coral Xue built a career as a TV news presenter.

The matriarch of the family, the formidable “Gran”, is approaching  her eightieth birthday so the siblings re-unite to organise a celebration that must be grand and classy, as befitting the family’s status, but absolutely not tacky. Skeletons come out of the closet and old rivalries are re-awakened as the big day gets nearer.

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is essentially a tale of a family with secrets. It’s told through the eyes of  Xingxing, the daughter of Shengqiang and his glamorous wife Anqin. It’s clear she looks upon her father with affection yet the tone is irreverent for Xingxing holds no illusions about his propensity to drink and smoke heavily nor his serial womanising. Sex, nights out with his friends and plenty of food are what keep him sane as he tries to juggle the demands of his wife and mother (and keep his mistress hidden). The result is a series of humorous incidents which culminate in a personal crisis for Shengqiang and a threat to his mother’s reputation.

chilli bean clanI found my sympathies going towards Shengqiang despite his attitude towards women. As a young man his bossy mother pushed into a lowly job at the chilli bean factory , insisting he had to earn his spurs the hard way, stirring the giant fermentation vessels  Little wonder that Shengqiang has always felt he was second fiddle to his brother whose achievements his mother never lets him forget. His mother even chose his wife for him, deciding that Anqin’s family associations with the Party could help further her own family’s fortunes.

Shengqiang longs for a time when life was so much simpler. When he could hang out with his gang, play poker, get drunk and end up in a fight. But he, like the town in which he grew up has changed.  Gone are the stalls and pushcarts where he could get noodles or cold dressed rabbit and chilli turnips spring rolls, Sichuan eggy pancakes and griddled buns. Gone too are the scissor menders and knife-grinders. Even the familiar faces from his boyhood have gone in the name of ‘progress.’

… the whole of Pringle Town had changed. The cypresses and camphor trees of his childhood had been chopped down, the squeezed-in streets had been wrenched wider (but only a tad) and bright blue railings kept motorized and non motorized vehicles apart. … The result was that neither ars nor bicycles could get through.  And as if that were not bad enough, the edges of the streets were ostentatiously ‘greened’ with saplings brought in from god knows where. … Worst of all the passers-by changed. It dawned on Dad that, without him being aware of it happening, the people walking up and down the street were strangers.

I suspect many of us who lived in small towns have seen similar declines as family-owned shops have been edged out by the big brands clustered on the fringes in souless precincts.

If only Dad had been allowed to tell his own story.  Having his daughter as the narraor proved an issue for me. I know omniscient narrators can’t be everywhere and we make some allowances when they still relay conversations that they couldn’t possibly have heard. Xingxing tries to get around this by occasionally slipping in a remark about how she got her information from her parents, her gran and her father  It’s believable up to a point but the further I got into the book, the more this issue niggled. No matter how close a relationship she had with Shengqiang I can’t believe he would have shared that amount of detail about his visits to a prostitute when he was younger or how he sated his sexual appetite with his mistress.

Words Without Borders described The Chilli Bean Paste Clan as China’s “best untranslated book” when it was published in 2014. It’s taken four years for the English translation by Nicky Harman to appear via Balestier Press. Asymptote Book Club members like myself got to read it when the club chose it for their May selection. It’s not a book I would have chosen personally although I would like to read more works by Chinese authors. I enjoyed it overall – it fitted my mood at the time – though its not a book I am likely to recall in a few year’s time.

Footnotes

Yan Ge has twelve young adult books to her name. She has been called one of the most exciting writers to emerge from contemporary China. She is the winner of an English PEN award. The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is intended as the first part of a trilogy of adult fiction

 

The Sugar Mother by Elizabeth Jolley [book review]

Beware of the book’s seductive charm. Once you’ve been lured in, the door slams shut behind you and its not easy to emerge with your perceptions entirely unchanged …

Sugar motherThis quote from the New York Times Book Review, on the back cover of my copy of The Sugar Mother, perfectly reflects my reaction to Elizabeth Jolley’s novel.

It’s one of those novels that grabs you from the start, not because of any shock-inducing event or dramatic moment, but because it’s clear this is a writer who understands how to make odd characters spring to life. As you read further you get so swept along by the humour of this tale of a pathetically fussy professor and his relationship with the newcomers next door that you almost miss the undercurrents. The humour never completely goes away but it’s countered by some elements that left me with an uneasy sensation.

There’s no feeling of apprehension at the start of the book however as we meet the Pages : Edwin, a middle-aged professor whose obsessed about his health, and his much younger wife Cecilia. She’s a successful obstetrician who is embarking on a fellowship year abroad. She has taken care to leave Edwin in good hands, arranging for their set of friends to host him at regular dinners so that he doesn’t get lonely.

What she couldn’t have predicted was that their new neighbours, Mrs Botts and her twenty-something-year old buxom daughter Leila, would make a move on Edwin almost the minute she leaves. It start’s innocently enough. They’re locked out of their new home and since they have no-where else to go, Edwin offers them refuge in his home.

Mrs Botts is a wily old bird for whom the naive Edwin, for all his intelligence is no match.  His future at the university seems unstable but at home with the Botts’ women he feels like a lord of the manor. The fool becomes obsessed with Leila, jumping readily at the idea planted by Mrs B that the girl could become a “sugar” mother (a lovely Malapropism) for Edwin and his childless wife. Edwin’s growing  infatuation with Leila sees him become more distant with Cecelia, avoiding her phone calls and pulling out of a trip to visit her in Europe. There is no way this can turn out well….

Edwin is a delightful character. An annoying individual who painstakingly documents all his ailments in a book which has separate pages for each part of the body, he is just as pernickety about finding the perfect quotes for his lectures. But he’s also a rather pathetic character who doesn’t fit in with the hip lifestyle embraced by his wife and her friends. The first flush of love between him and Cecilia has vanished:

The feeling of being special and chosen and cared for was gradually absorbed, he realised now, in the more important matter of appearances. How they were seen by other people began to mean more to them and they must, all the time, have been meaning less to each other and thinking only of the next thing they were going to do. Things which would be evaluated by other people and measured against standards which were not necessarily their own.

The ‘swinging’ parties with their friends, which presumably were meant to bring an added spark to their relationship, have lost all meaning for Edwin.

The evening, in the pattern of doing things, was endless, hours of jokes and anecdotes, mostly with double meanings. They would eat and drink and talk too much in loud voices and play foolish games … and would end with the ritual of keys in the ring since that was the way of broad-minded couples …

His growing disenchantment with life makes him ripe for emotional and financial exploitation at the hands of Mrs Bott.

But perhaps we shouldn’t expend too much sympathy on Edwin. I know Leila is older than Lolita but there is still something unsettling about the way this 54-year-old lusts after the body of the much younger girl. He treats her as a child one moment, making her hot drinks  to help her sleep, and then caressing and fondling her at every possible opportunity.  So caught up is he in his desire and – the boost to his ego – that he is blind to reality even when  a close friend raises an alarm bell about the cost of having these women in his house. I wanted to throttle him at times, and shake him out of his blind faith in the domestic bliss he imagines he has with the Botts, but right at the end I did feel my sympathies return.

The Sugar Mother is a novel which is full of unexpected delights. It’s the first time I’ve read anything by Elizabeth Jolley – I hadn’t even heard of her until Lisa at ANZLitLovers decided to host an Elizabeth Jolley reading week. But now I’m hungry to read more…..Luckily I had already bought an earlier work; Miss Peabody’s Inheritance.

 

 

 

The Whale Caller by Zakes Mda [bookreview]

The Whale CallerThe world of literature abounds with tales of love triangles but I’ve never before come across one involving rivalry for the affection of a whale. Yes I do mean whale as in marine mammal.

How can anyone be jealous of a whale you might wonder? Well this one is special. She’s a large Southern Right who swims each year close to the coast of South Africa on her migration from waters close to Antartica to warmer climes further north. The path takes her near to Hermanus on the southern cape, home to a man who’s become rather attracted to her: The Whale Caller.

This is a man so enchanted with these creatures that he’s perfected the arm of using a kelp horn to communicate with them. One in particular, that he names Sharisha, seems to respond to his calls, showing off by loptailing and rolling and blowing in time with the horn. He becomes rather obsessed with her, sinking into despondency when she swims away, not to return for months.

On the morning of her departure, the Whale Caller is at the rocks to bid her an emotionally charged farewell.

Sharisha responded with her own love calls. She rocked in the water in a mating dance. The Whale Caller stood up and rocked on the rocks. He raised his left leg, turned and twisted on one spot, then sampled the foot down. He did the same with the right leg. he repeated the dance in rapid success for a long time, whilst blowing the sounds of the whining winds.  ….Sharisha did not seem to tire either. She was creating a whirlwind on there water by making a complicated  combination of rocking, breaching  and lobtailing.

As the Whale Caller progresses he becomes the object of affection of a woman from Hermanus. Saluni is the village drunk, a wild-looking woman with missing teeth and laddered stockings, who seems to be everywhere he goes. Despite her disapproval of the Whale Caller’s obsession with Sharisha, the pair end up as an item sharing a tiny dwelling he calls the Wendy House.

It’s rather one sided relationship.  Throughout the novel the Whale Caller experiences conflicting emotions — he tries to love Saluni but every time the lure of Sharisa proves too strong. Saluni tries every trick in her book to win over this man —  seducing him, tantalising his taste buds with window shopping in grocery stores —  but it’s to no avail. His mind is filled with Sharisa. Saluni decides to change tack, she will not be beaten by a creature she sees as nothing more than “a big fish”.  As she executes her revenge the becomes significantly darker: blindness, a catastrophic storm; desperate attempts to save a beached whale and a murder all ensue.

Southern backed whale

A southern right whale. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

It’s this  vengeful element which occupies the second half that won me over to the novel. Until then The Whale Caller felt somewhat unbelievable as well as repetitive. But Zakes Mda turns up the emotional dial, showing how love can so easily become malice. The Whale Caller irritated me early on. How could he not see that the love of a living, breathing real woman was infinitely better than a few tricks by a whale whom he sees for just a few months a year?  But then we begin to feel his genuine  pain and sorrow at what happens to his beloved Sharisha and his sense of a personal responsibility.

The Whale Caller isn’t simply a love story albeit a rather unusual one. It’s also a reflection on man’s relationship with nature. The Whale Caller has a genuine love for these creatures and despises the tourists who flock to Hermanus to watch them for a short time before heading to their next destination.  It’s good news for the local businesses but the visitor’s desire for thrills threatens the very thing they have come to watch. Whale watching trips become so popular the government has to introduce regulations to ensure boats don’t get too close to the whales. The Whale Caller feels a sense of foreboding at what this portends dismay.

There is no doubt that this boat-based whale watching will be abused. And no-one will be out there at sea to enforce the regulations. Soon the ultimate prize for a boat trip will be the touching of a whale. … As far as he is concerned these boat-based whale watchers are no different from the whalers of old. They might as well carry harpoons and tryputs in those boats. 

it’s a prescient warning and one which can apply just as much to other situations in which man and nature come together. African safaris are now unfortunately spoiled in many cases by enthusiastic mini bus drivers who crowd around a lion and her cubs, hemming them in and edging ever closer so the tourists on board can get their Instagram shot.

I’m not pretending to be holier-than-thou. I’m just as fascinated by seeing these magnificent creatures but have no desire to get so close that it frightens them nor do I have any interest in petting baby cheetahs and ‘tamed’ leopards. Nature deserves respect, not to be treated like some interactive display in a theme park. A sentiment with which I suspect Zakes Mda would heartily agree…. 

Footnotes

The Whale Caller was published by Penguin Random House South Africa in 2005 and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It’s the fifth novel by Zakes Mda, who was born in the Eastern Cape of South Africa but spent his early childhood in Soweto.  He is a prolific writer whose work has been translated into twenty languages. he is based on Ohio, USA, where he is a professor. The Whale Caller was released as a film in 2017 . I read this book because it was recommended by an assistant in a bookstore in Stellenbosch, South Africa when I walked into the shop in December 2017 and asked for recommendations of local authors. It proved a good decision…

 

An alternative Golden Booker Prize

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize. Apart from a big party to celebrate the event in July, the Booker Prize organisers are also staging a ‘Best of the Booker’ award. They’re calling it the Golden Booker Prize, an award which will “crown the best work of fiction from the last five decades of the prize, as chosen by five judges and then voted for by the public.”

Now there are a few odd things about this celebration.

One is that the first Booker Prize was awarded 49 years ago this year, not 50. So where did they get the idea this was a golden anniversary year – it’s not clear from their website but I am assuming they are taking their starting point an announcement of the inauguration of the prize or maybe the judging process itself.

Stranger still is the process they are using to determine which book/author gets the ultimate prize.

Five judges have been put in place. Each has a remit to review the prize winners from one decade and decide which of them has “best stood the test of time”.  The shortlist announced on May 26 is really therefore just one person’s point of view. What a missed opportunity. A more robust process would have been for all judges to have reviewed all the winners  and debated/discussed their merits before choosing a shortlist?

But what’s done is done and we have five shortlisted titles.

1970s: In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul

1980s: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

1990s: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

2000s: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

2010s: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.

goldenbooker.jpg

Have they made the right choices? Having read all bar 4 of the Booker prize winners since it was first awarded in 1969 and all of these shortlisted titles except for Lincoln in the Bardo, I feel somewhat qualified to give an opinion.

I’m pleased to see that one of my top three Booker titles has made it to the shortlist. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje was selected by the novelist Kamila Shamsie because she felt ‘it has everything”. She specifically calls out its characterisation, intricate structure and the way it makes readers think about love and friendship. My own take on this is that it’s a  beautifully paced tale of four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war.  It’s short but rich in themes and has a very strong emotional pull.

Also delighted to see Hilary Mantel on the shortlist even though I thought her later novel, Bring Up the Bodies (another of my top 3 ) was stronger than Wolf Hall.   The judge for this decade, broadcaster and novelist Simon Mayo called Wolf Hall “fantastically readable and unbelievably complicated.” I’m not going to argue with that assessment – Mantel’s achievement was to take a historical figure typically portrayed as cold, distant and manipulative, and make him human. But in Bring Up the Bodies, I think we get an even stronger sense of the moral and ethical dilemmas confronted by her protagonist Thomas Cromwell as he seeks to serve his master the King. Bring Up the Bodies just missed out inclusion in the assessment for the 2000s where it would have been pitted directly against Wolf Hall. Instead it was evaluated by a different judge who perhaps didn’t have Mayo’s declared love of historical fiction.

But that flip into a new decade meant it was up against the final title in my top 3 – The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Lincoln in the Bardo was a hot tip to win the prize last year but it wasn’t universally praised – some readers and bloggers found it too fragmented. Flanagan’s novel however I thought exceptionally well constructed even though it moved across time periods and countries. Leaving this off the shortlist was a miss I thought by the judge, poet Hollie McNish.

What of the choices to represent the remaining decades?

For the 1970s the writer and editor Robert McCrum judged In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul  as the best of the decade. I think he drew the short-straw by being given the 1970s since there were few, in my opinion, stand out winners. Naipaul’s book was one I read early on in my Booker Project and you can maybe gauge my reaction to it from the fact that I haven’t as yet posted a review. I recall it being a strange novel where often I wasn’t absolutely sure what was happening.

My own choice would be Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea which slightly has the edge over Paul Scott’s Staying on. I never thought I would be gunning for Murdoch since I’d always thought her work difficult to penetrate but The Sea The Sea was a revelation.

As for the 1980s, I know the popular opinion in the blogosphere is that the judge Lemn Sissay made a mistake in overlooking Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I did read it though it was a struggle. I did appreciate the inventiveness of the novel but the truth is I just didn’t enjoy it so my vote would go to The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro for its superbly understated portrayal of a man who has suppressed his emotions for so long he cannot let them go even when this is to the detriment of his happiness.

So if I’d been the judges ( I expect a call from the Booker people any day now) my shortlist would be:

1970s: The Sea The Sea by Irish Murdoch

1980s: The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

1990s: The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

2000s: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (I know I said earlier that Bring up the Bodies is better but that’s in a different decade)

2010s: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan

What would your shortlist look like?

The reading public now get a chance to make their preferences know via the public vote which is open until June 25. Vote here 

 

Searching for Schindler by Thomas Keneally

Searching for SchindlerBut for serendipity, the world may never have heard the remarkable true-life story of Oskar Schindler, the man who saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jewish people during World War 2.

It would never have become a novel that went on to win the Booker Prize for Thomas Keneally in 1982.

It would never have become an Oscar-winning film directed by Steven Spielberg in 1993.

The fates however determined that one evening in 1980, the Australian author Thomas Keneally would walk into the leather goods shop in Beverley Hills in search of a replacement briefcase. Discovering that his customer was an author, the elderly, very talkative and inquisitive Polish proprietor pitched him a story he said the world needed to hear.

In Searching for Oskar, Keneally looks back at the unusual genesis for his award-winning novel and his many subsequent meetings with Leopold Poldek. Poldek owed his life and that of his wife to Schindler. In gratitude he wanted the world to know how Schindler had risked his own life to protect many Jews from concentration camps and certain death.

In essence this is a memoir of how Schindler’s Ark came to be written, the battle with the publishers over their preferred title for the American edition (it came out as Schindler’s List in America only), Keneally’s struggle to write the screen play (Spielberg eventually gave the job to someone else) and the long gap before the film version got into production.

For much of the early section of the book he traces the steps he and Leopold took together to track down some of those survivors and capture their stories. There were times when this threatened to become a dull list of names and places but fortunately Poldek is such a remarkable individual that whenever he is present, the book comes alive. Keneally is more than once mortified by the behaviour of his travelling companion but is also charmed by him. On one trip to Warsaw (still part of a Soviet state) Keneally is terrified that Poldek’s insistence he change his currency on the black market will land him behind bars. Another time he waits in acute embarrassment when Poldek remonstrates with a hotel clerk that had the temerity to charge them for photocopying (the bill seemed to be less than $5).

The Independent newspaper in the UK was less than flattering about Searching for Oskar, implying that it was written because Keneally wanted to cash in on the success of Schindler’s Ark. The reviewer calls it ‘tedious’, ‘banal’, ‘cliched’ and ‘clumsy’, a book in fact that should never have been published.

I think that’s too harsh a critique. Searching for Oskar does have its faults – for example, Keneally dwells far too much on some famine relief trips he made to Ethiopia while waiting for Speilberg to begin filming, These sections felt as if he was just padding out of the book. But I did find some other insights interesting – like the issue of whether in writing Schindler’s Ark he was producing a work of fiction or a biography – and some of the insights into Schindler’s character that were not captured in the novel or film. I finished reading Keneally’s memoir with a huge admiration for the determination shown by Poldek in ensuring the story came to public attention and Schindler got the credit he deserved.

 

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