Category Archives: Irish authors

Milkman by Anna Burns #BookerPrize

MilkmanImagine 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”.

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.

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.

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.


About the Book

Milkman, by Anna Burns, was published by Faber and Faber in 2018.  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. From the opening page her words pull us into the daily violence of her world — threats of murder, people killed by state hit squads — while responding to the everyday realities of her life as a young woman, negotiating a way between the demands of family, friends and lovers in an unsettled time.”

About the Author

Anna Burns

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 four years ago 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

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith #bookreview

vicar of wakefieldThe Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith was one of the most popular and widely read 18th-century novels among Victorians.

I wonder what appealed most to them in this tale of  the misfortunes that beset a country priest and his family, the humour or its emphasis on the strength of the family as a social institution?

It’s a rather ‘gentle’ comedy about one of life’s innocents, Dr. Charles Primrose, whose blissful family existence is brutally interrupted when the merchant investor to whom he has entrusted his family’s fortune, absconds with all the money.  As a consequence his eldest son’s wedding with the daughter of a wealthy family is called off as a consequence. The rest of the family have to move to a more humble parish. Further mishaps follow: fire destroys their new home; a daughter is abducted by a scoundrel squire and a son is thrown into jail accused of involvement in a duel.

What’s so funny about this you might well wonder? It’s certainly not laugh out loud material, rather the kind that just makes you smile as you find Dr Primrose stumble into yet another situation that he doesn’t fully understand.

He’s a kind, good natured and well-meaning kind of man at heart. One whose spirit is dampened, but never extinguished by all the calamaties he experiences. When his money has gone he entreats his family to focus on happiness rather than trappings of gentility and to find “that every situation in life might bring its own particular pleasures.” Nothing gives him more delight than to be surrounded by his family near the fireside and he extols the virtues of married life at every opportunity.

The family is one of the key themes of the novel though Goldsmith also touches on class and gender and of course, faith. Ultimately this is a tale about a man whose devotion to his faith , though tested, doesn’t falter and who is rewarded for such devotion.

Was it an enjoyable book to read?

Not really.

I was on the point of giving up a few times. I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters or what became of them and I found the moral homilies and sermons irritating.  It was rather a dull book I thought and not one I would recommend.

I read it only because it was on my Classics Club list and it coincided with the ReadingIreland month hosted by Cathy at 746books.com


About the book

The Vicar of Wakefield was published in 1766 though is believed to have been written a few years earlier. According to James Boswell, Goldsmith’s biographer, the author was in some financial difficulties at the time and unable to pay the rent on his accommodation. He asked Samuel Johnson for help, mentioning he had written a book. Johnson sold a share to the bookseller Francis Newbery,  enabling Goldsmith to pay off his debts. Newberry then sat on the book for about two years.

About the author

Oliver Goldsmith was an Irish novelist, playwright and poet, whose best known work is  The Vicar of Wakefield . If however you went through the UK education system during the 60s and 70s, you may remember being forced to study another of his works:  She Stoops to Conquer . That was supposed to be a comedy too but the only reaction I can remember from my classmates is one of groans.

 

WWWednesday 27 February, 2019

WWWednesday is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words . It’s intended as a weekly meme but I get around to only once a month. This month’s post comes from New Zealand which is part one of  the longest holiday I’ve ever taken in my life. My reading material was chosen weeks ago and as always I wonder if I made the right choices…

What are you currently reading? 

 

 

This is the 2018 Booker Prize winner and for once the judges’ decision was considered to be the right one. It’s a strange novel. None of the characters are named (they just get referred to as ‘third brother’ or ‘almost boyfriend’) and the story takes place in an unnamed town in an unnamed country. It’s not too difficult to work out however that it’s set in Anna Burns’ native Belfast during the 1970s, a time of sectarian conflict (known as The Troubles). Thought it’s a relatively slim novel, my progress is slow because it requires a lot of concentration to follow the stream of consciousness style.

What did you recently finish reading? The Last Man in the Tower by Arvind Adiga

 

I enjoyed an earlier novel by Adiga (the Booker prize winning White Tiger) but The Last Man in the Tower didn’t work as well. The plot involves an attempt by Dharmen Shah, the head of a construction company to build two prestigious apartment blocks which will transform the fortunes of a slum area of Mumbai. He offers vastly generous compensation offers to people who occupy some run down towers that stand in the way.  Shah is confident he can win the tenants over. But he hasn’t reckoned with “Masterji”, a former schoolteacher who doesn’t want to move, and doesn’t want Shah’s money. The battle lines are drawn.

What do you think you’ll read next?

Given the luggage weight allowance I decided to pack just three books for my trip. The only one left to read is Thirteen Trees of The Somme by Lars Mytting. It’s part mystery part family saga set in the Shetland IslandsMy plan was to replenish the stock by visiting some of the book shops in New Zealand and Australia, particularly hoping to get some local authors that are not easy to come by in the UK. So far I’ve found just one book shop and the prices are far higher than I expected – about double what I’d expect to pay in the UK. So unless I find some second hand shops  I’ll be relying on the stack of e-books I’ve brought with me as back ups.

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan [book review]

Low and Quet SeaWere it not for the Booker Prize I’m not sure I would have ever experienced Donal Ryan’s work.

He was long listed in 2013 with The Spinning Heart, winning The Guardian first book award the same year. Narrated by 21 victims of Ireland’s economic crash; it reveals the impact of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger on the inhabitants of an unnamed rural town.  In my review I described it as “technically adroit … with pitch perfect characterisation.”

That same description can be equally applied to his latest novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea, which is on this year’s Booker Prize long list.

I thought it would be hard to beat The Spinning Heart but Ryan has done it with From a Low and Quiet Sea . 

The cast of characters has been significantly trimmed. We’re now focused on three men all of whom have something missing in their lives: a Syrian refugee, a crooked lobbyist and a young man dealing with the heartache of a lost love.

Each man is given their own section in the novel.

Farouk is a doctor who escapes from Syria with his wife and daughter in the hope of finding a more stable, peaceful life in western Europe. Too late, they discover they have been duped and instead of being let to safety are left adrift at sea in the midst of a storm.  Ryan apparently wrote this story after hearing a news report about a Syrian doctor who paid what he thought was a high-end smuggler to get him out of the country.  Though short, this  was  an engrossing story in exquisitely evocative prose

They speak to each other through tunnels that extend from their roots . . . sending their messages cell by cell . . . If a tree is starving, its neighbour will send it food. No one knows how this can be, but it is . . . They know the rule, the only one that’s real and must be kept. What’s the rule? You know. I’ve told you lots of times before. Be kind.

The style and pace change markedly for section two which features Lampy, a young man who is pining after the girl he loved who dumped him when she went off to college. He works in a care home, occassionally driving the old inhabitants to their medical appointments. He lives with his mother and grandfather Dixie – a man who loves taking people in the pub down a peg of two. Lampy is frequently frustrated by the old man yet also loves him, feeling “ a strange thrill of pride. His grandfather was wicked; when he was in form his tongue could slice the world in two.”

And finally we get to John, a ruthless man involved in very shady dealings, who is full of remorse for long-ago relationship with a younger woman. He tells his own story through the medium of the confessional, revealing how his family life fell apart when his brother died and he became obsessed with a young woman he met in a bar.

At first it seems these stories have no relationship to each other. It’s only in the fourth – and final – section that they are drawn together in a way that surprised me. To say more would be to spoil the experience of this book for other readers.

From a Low and Quiet Sea is a brief book but it’s one that lingers in the mind. Every character has a unique voice, from melancholy to matter of fact confession but there is also humour  – there’s a wonderfully funny scene on the bus where the old people grumble because the vehicle breaks down. It’s so good I’m tempted to read it again soon which is something that I rarely do.

I’m not the only blogger to have enjoyed this book. Check out the reviews at A Life in Books and DolceBellezza.net

Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty

Midwinter BreakThere’s an oft-quoted comment that only the people involved really know what is going in any relationship. In the case of the Gilmores,  the key people in Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break, it seems only one of the duo has this insight.

Gerry and Stella Gilmore are taking a short trip to Amsterdam. Gerry thinks they’re going to do the usual tourist activities like visiting Anne Frank’s house and the Rijksmuseum. What he doesn’t know is that Stella has an agenda of her own, one in which Gerry plays no part. It transpires that the title of the book refers not merely their long weekend break in Amsterdam, but to the threat of a rupture in their marriage.

As MacLaverty takes us from the perspective of one to the other, it becomes evident to us — if not to the people concerned — how much their marriage is based on familiarity and routine.  And on secrets.

Every time they have a lift to themselves, they kiss between floors – it is just a little thing they do. Whenever they’re out walking, they hold hands in case she falls. Each day they share updates on their various aches and pains; a discussion which has become so institutionalised it even has its own name — the Ailment Hour. Stella likes to do crosswords and have an afternoon nap to compensate for her insomnia.

Gerry’s secret pleasure is of the liquid variety. Never happier than when he has a glass of something in his hand. Unless it’s a bottle in his pocket. He thinks he’s being so smart when he hides the glass from her site or slips out of the hotel bedroom at night to hide his empty bottles in a litter bin. But he’s forgotten that Stella’s a smart woman.

She’s been keeping her secret for decades. One that takes the story back to their home land of Ireland during the period of The Troubles. They left the country after Stella was injured in a street shooting incident, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Her close shave with death set her on a spiritual path where in her remaining years, she wants to live “a more valuable life” and “make a contribution, however small” to the world. Now, in Amsterdam, she is attempting to fulfil a promise even though that means she must set Gerry aside.

MacLaverty’s attention to detail as he dissects this marriage is evident. Nothing this couple does, however small, seems to escape attention from the packet of Werther’s Originals they share at take-off to the pleated paper wrapping the bar of hotel soap and the colour of spit after red wine.

It was an enjoyable read overall though two factors spoiled it rather. One was that  MacLaverty’s unhurried pace and careful attention to each moment of the weekend, sometimes ran away with him. Towards the end of the book for example Gerry reflects on all the things about Stella that he admires. Chief of which is it seems the depth and breadth of her knowledge bank. Not enough to just tell us this, we have to have a list of every single thing that she knows:

She knew that the full name of the Litany recited after the rosary of benediction was th Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She knew that Albert Pierrepoint’s father was also a hangman, that farinaceous meant floury when applied to potatoes but that flowery language could not be described as such, as farinaceous… She knew the recipes for mushroom stroganoff and spaghetti carbonara and about forty-two other dishes without looking at a cookery book … Oh and that a Sitzprobe was nothing medical but the rehearsal for an opera.

And on and on this goes. For four whole pages…. Very tiresome indeed and totally unnecessary.

The second aspect that prevented this being an out and out success for me was the premise for Stella’s decision to leave Gerry. We learn that as she lay wounded in Ireland, she prayed that her unborn child would be saved, making a vow that if the child lived she would be in debt to her Lord for the rest of her life. Now in Amsterdam she visits the Begijnhof, home of a Catholic sisterhood, with the intention of fulfilling that vow by taking up residence and living a life of piety and good works. This didn’t ring true for me if she felt that strongly, wouldn’t she have followed through on the promise much earlier –  not wait 30 years?

It’s a shame because otherwise this was a good story full of close observation of the reality of life.

About the Author

Bernard MacLaverty comes from Northern Ireland.  His novels include Lamb, Cal, Grace Notes (shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize) and The Anatomy School. He has written five books of short stories. Midwinter Break was published in 2017

Why I read this book

It was selected for one of the book clubs I’ve joined. The general reaction was very favourable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle [Booker prize]

Is it possible to appreciate a novel and yet not particularly enjoy reading it? To admire the technical prowess of the author and their creativity but be missing the buzz of having a pleasurable experience?

That’s certainly been my reaction to a few of the novels I’ve read as part of my Booker prize project. I’m thinking in particular of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children but to a lesser extent I had the same feeling when I read  In A Free State by V. S Naipaul and S Byatt’s Possession: A Romance  . 

paddy clarkeIt’s happened again with my latest Booker prize read; the 1993 winner Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

This is a tale of one year in the life of 10-year-old Paddy Clarke who lives with his mum, dad, younger brother Francis (aka Sinbad) and baby sister Deidre in the fictional suburb of Barrytown, North Dublin. It begins with him as a mischievous boy who roams around Barrytown with his mates and ends with him becoming “the man of the house” when his parents split up and dad leaves th family home.

In between lie multiple adventures and episodes involving interactions with family members, friends and teachers. Paddy and his best mate Kevin (the instigator of most of their adventures) like to start fires, write their names in wet cement, harass elderly ladies and occasionally steal from shops.  Their playgrounds are the bushes surrounding the neighbours’ gardens and building sites which sprout and then disappear.

We got material from our houses and made headbands. Mine was a tartan one, with a seagull’s feather. We took off our jumpers and shirts and vests. James O’Keefe took off his trousers and rode through Bayside in his underpants. His skin was stuck to the saddle when he was getting off, from the sweat; you could hear the skin clinging to the plastic. We threw his trousers onto the roof of a garage, and his shirt and his vest. We put his jumper down a shore.

Paddy is an exuberant narrator who tells his tale in a sporadic, fragmented style that shifts from one event to another with seemingly little connection. What holds everything together however are the glimpses we get of Paddy trying to make sense of the changes in his world, particularly in the relationship between his parents.

He stays awake every night to listen for raised voices coming from the kitchen or the bedroom.  He doesn’t understand the shouting and the screamed whispers. But he does want them to stop. At first he tries sheer force of will:

—— Stop.

There was a gap. It had worked; I’d forced them to stop. Da came out and went in to the television. I knew the wait of his steps and the time between them, then I saw him.

They didn’t slam any doors: it was over.

When that stops working he decides to become a model student, even if that means getting on Kevin’s bad side. He reasons that if he works hard in school there’d be no reason for his parents to argue. But gradually, when he sees his father hit his mother, he realises that his efforts have been in vain.

He’s a complex boy, often picking on his brother Sinbad, burning his mouth with lighter fuel and kicking him in bed at night. It’s all a front. Paddy doesn’t want to hurt the child, he just wants him to stay awake, to have someone to talk to rather than just listen to the arguments downstairs.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is very much a novel in the Bildungsroman mode. Paddy is  pushed into growing up but he only does so to a limited extent. His knowledge of the world is beginning to change. He sees change but doesn’t understand it. He just knows that his playground is getting smaller, disappearing under concrete. He knows his parents are going their separate ways. But the why eludes him. Understandable really given that he’s still just 10 when the novel ends.

Boyle’s ability to make Paddy an authentic voice is impressive. He captures the bravado and the insecurities superbly. There were some points at which I wanted to laugh out loud (the steeplechase game they play around the neighbours’ gardens is a hoot). And times when I felt saddened by the pain this boy endures.

Plenty to applaud therefore in this novel. So why didn’t I enjoy it more? I think it comes down to my feeling that the narrative was repetitive. Anecdote piled on top of anecdote on top of anecdote with not enough variation for me.  I found I was skimming a lot of paragraphs which is never a good sign. I did find it endearing and touching at the end (where the significance of the book’s title becomes apparent) but getting to that point was often hard work.

Footnotes

About the Book:  Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle was published in 1993 by Secker and Warburg. It won the Booker Prize that year.

About the Author:> Doyle was born in Dublin which has been the setting for many of his novels. He spent several years as an English and geography teacher before becoming a full-time writer in 1993. Doyle’s first three novels, The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990) and The Van (1991) comprise The Barrytown Trilogy, a trilogy centred on the Rabbitte family. All three novels were made into successful films.

Why I read this book:Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is one of the five titles remaining to be read from my Booker Prize project. Since March is ReadingIrelandmonth hosted by Cathy at 746books.com it seemed like a good time to dust it off the shelves.

Bookends #3 March 2018

Article: 21st century women writers

My chosen article this week was published by The New York Times to mark Women’s History Month. In Vanguard Books by Women their staff writers considered which women writers in the 21st century are at the helm of new paths in writing. They wanted to identify those women who are opening new realms and whose works ” suggest and embody unexplored possibilities in form, feeling and knowledge.”

They ended up with a list of 15 books that they considered remarkable. From Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah to Zadie Smith’s NW, Hang Kang’s The Vegetarian and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado which seems to be a curious blend of fantasy, police procedural and horror. They admit the choices are idiosyncratic and there are numerous good books that were not included. Even so some of the selections are strange. Why choose NW when On Beauty or White Teeth were infinitely better? Why not Ali Smith whose How to Be Both surely counts as inventive? And what possessed them to leave out Hilary Mantel who has surely broken the mould for historical fiction?

What do you think – do you agree with the list or think there are some glaring omissions?

Book: The Fisher Child by Philip Casey 

A little away day to Dublin this week gave me a good excuse to pop into a bookshop. Just at the point where I had to admit I was lost (despite having a map) I saw Books Upstairs, one of the shops Cathy at 746books recommended, and apparently the oldest independent bookstore in the city. What a friendly team they have in the shop – not only did they put me on the right path to my destination but they shared their deep knowledge of contemporary Irish writers. I could have bought at least half a dozen but I my laptop bag was already too heavy so I had to limit it to just one – a novel by Philip Casey, a writer who was a regular at Books Upstairs until his death in February this year.

This is the blurb:

The Fisher Child is in three parts. In the first, Kate is happily married to Dan, both of them second-generation Irish and comfortable in their middle-class north London lives. They have two children, a boy and a girl, with another one on the way. But when Meg is born, Dan cannot accept her as his child, and retreats to Ireland in bewilderment. In Wexford, his family are partaking in the the bi-centenary commemoration of the 1798 Rebellion, and he learns about his ancestor Hugh Byrne, a rebel who was forced to flee Ireland, presumably to America. Dan will never know what the reader discovers in part two – that Hugh had not settled in America but in the Caribbean island of Montserrat, where he fell in love with Ama, a black slave whose genes have lain hidden in Dan’s family for two centuries.

Blog Post: A stranded reader

Blogger Harriet Devine had a miserable experience recently which she wrote about in this post. It’s a miserable enough experience having your travel documents, credit cards and cash stolen. Add to the misery the fact that you can’t get home until replacement documents are issued (you may be on a warm, sunny Mediterranean island but even paradise palls when you have no money to spend). But imagine having to endure that without anything decent to read! The bookcases in some hotels may be full of paperbacks other visitors have left behind but they are seldom the kind of book I want to read. And so it proved for poor Harriet….

 

Booker Prize shortlist brings some surprises

The Man Booker Prize judges announced the shortlist for the 2017 prize today and sprung a few surprises.

The first and by far the biggest surprise is that Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead which has been hoovering up prizes everywhere else is missing from the list. That was the bookie’s favourite up until this morning. Its omission has taken many in the book world by surprise. Waterstones fiction buyer Chris White commented to the Guardian newspaper: “We’re all used by now to the Booker judges delivering surprises but the omission of The Underground Railroad from the final six certainly ranks among the biggest shocks I’ve witnessed. I think that, when we look back at 2017, we may see this as the one which got away”. He obviously isn’t a reader of BookerTalk because he would have seen from my post earlier this week that people I would class as knowledgeable though not professional readers didn’t rate it that highly.

Another surprise is that established authors like Zadie Smith,  Arundhati Roy, Sebastian Barry and Kamila Shamsi have all been pushed aside in favour of first time novelists. George Saunders who makes it to the list with Lincoln in the Bardo (now the bookie’s favourite to win) has only previously written short stories. He, together with Fiona Mozley, a part-time book shop worker from the UK who apparently wrote part of her book on her phone while commuting and American Emily Fridlund  will now go head to head against the big names of Paul Auster and Ali Smith (neither of whom have won the Booker in previous years).

Continuing the trend from recent years two independent publishers are featured among the shortlisted titles.

The judges, chaired by Baroness Lola Young, said at a press conference that “the novels [chosen], each in their own way, challenge and subtly shift our preconceptions – about the nature of love, about the experience of time, about questions of identity and even death.”

So what do the critics and followers of the Booker Prize make of the shortlist?

A number remarked on the lack of geographic breadth of the selected authors. The judges were apparently challenged at the press conference about the Americanisation of the prize.  Three of the shortlisted writers are from the US. Baroness Young ejected the accusation.  “… nationality is not an issue in terms of how we decide on a winner – it’s what is in our opinion the best book in these six. All we can say is that we judge the books submitted to us, and make our judgment not based on nationality or gender, but what is written on the pages,” she said.

Former Booker judge Alex Clark, writing in The Guardian called the shortlist ‘daring’. The choices, he said, seem “to reject conventional realism and celebrate precarious and unstable narratives…”

Toby Lichtig writing for the Times Literary Supplement noted that neither of his two favourites was selected (Underground Railroad and Reservoir 13) while the inclusion of Auster would “raise a few eyebrows” because while it ” is a work of towering ambition” for some readers it was also one of” towering self-regard”. Writing in the TLS, James Campbell found it to be lacking in “rhythm, tone, vivacity, wit. To name just four things”.

The Mookes and the Bookish group over at Goodreads greeted the announcement of the shortlist with astonishment  “…the longlist had restored my faith in the Booker. The shortlist has successfully re-destroyed it!” said one member. Several were dismayed that two of their favourite reads Solar Bones and Home Fire didn’t make it and questioned why Elmet was on the list because they didn’t find it any more noteworthy than some other debut novels that were eligible.

The prize for 2017 looks wide open although Ladbrokes are giving the edge to Saunders. Interesting to see Elmet in joint second place – is she going to be the dark horse?

Booker 2017 betting.png

Whoever wins it’s certain to be a decision that will not please everyone but twas ever thus.

The 2017 Shortlist

4 3 2 1  by Paul Auster (US)  

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US)

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (UK-Pakistan)

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US)   Watch a video from Foyles about this book

Autumn by Ali Smith (UK)   Read an interview with Ali Smith

The 2017 winner will be announced on Tuesday 17 October

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson [bookreviews]

We Have Always Lived in the CastleIt’s taken me long enough to get around to reading the novel considered to be Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but it was well worth the wait.

How could it be otherwise when the novel begins with one of the strangest introductions to a narrator I’ve come across in a long while.

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.

Amidst the humdrum detail about hygiene and dogs there are some clues in that mention of deadly fungus that this is a dark and strange novel. And it gets darker and stranger once we learn that the reason “everyone else in our family is dead” is because they were the victims of poisoning six years previously.  Someone put arsenic into the sugar bowl and then the family sprinkled it on their fruit dessert.

Mary Katherine (known as Merricat) survived because she’d been sent to bed as punishment for some misdemeanour or other so never partook of the family dinner that claimed the lives of her parents, an aunt and her brother. Her elderly uncle Julian did eat the poisoned sugar but fortunately only in a small quantity so he survived while Constance who didn’t ingest any sugar was arrested for, though eventually acquitted of, the crime. Now the remaining three members live in isolation in a large rambling house out of the sight of villagers. Constance hasn’t left their home since her acquittal while Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair, obsessively writes and re-writes notes for his memoirs about his relatives’ deaths. It’s left to Merricat to brave the hostility of suspicious villagers when she does the weekly grocery shopping and visits the library, their taunting song ringing in her ears as she passes:

“Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!”

It’s a peaceful if restricted existence disrupted by the arrival of cousin Charles, a man against whom Merricat takes an instant dislike because she suspects he is visiting only to get his hands on the family’s money. When she thinks Constance is failling for his charms, she plots the several ways in which she could get rid of him.

I could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web and watch him tangled and helpless and struggling, shut into the body of a dying buzzing fly; I could wish him dead until he died. I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth. I could bury him in the hole where my box of silver dollars had been so safe until he came; if he was under the ground I could walk over him stamping my feet.

The revenge she eventually enacts is rather more dangerous than turning him into an insect. It brings the wrath of the whole village against the sisters, culminating in violence and pushing them even further into reclusiveness.

Jackson tells this story in a style that’s sparing yet evocative using a narrator who is an arch deceiver. She’s childlike in her belief that she can protect her family with lucky days and magic rituals which include burying relics and nailing items to trees. She spends her days parading the boundaries of their home marking it out with fetishes and totems made from scraps and trinkets. Yet she is a perceptive commentator on the people and places that surround her. On her trip into the village she observes:

In this village men stayed young and did the gossiping and he women aged wih grey evil weariness and stood silently waiting for the men to get up and come home.

All of the village was of a piece, a time, and a style; it was as though the people needed the ugliness of the village, and fed on it. The houses and the stores seemed to have been set up in contemptuous haste to provide shelter for the drab and the unpleasant.

 

Together Merricat and Shirley Jackson lead readers a merry dance with a trail of clues about the events of that night six years previously. Who did put the arsenic into the sugar bowl? Why did Constance wash out the sugar bowl before the police arrived, on the pretext there was a spider in it? It’s not until the book is almost over that the truth is revealed.

In true Gothic traditionWe Have Always Lived in the Castle features a rambling ruin of a house and a tyrranical figure in the form of cousin Charles. It does have a haunting quality but there are no chain-rattling ghosts or spectral figures. Jackson is too fine a writer to resort to such devices.  Yet We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a disturbing, unsettling novel, maybe even more so because of  the very absence of those devices. It’s as if the largely domestic focus makes the events more disquieting, particularly when you force yourself to stop being seduced by Merricat’s tomboy persona and begin to wonder about her true nature.

To say more however would spoil the pleasure of reading this book for others.

Footnotes

About this book: We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson’s final work and was published three years before her death in 1965.  It was named by Time magazine as one of the “Ten Best Novels” of 1962. The first film version is due for release later in 2017.

About the author: Shirley Hardie Jackson was born in San Fransisco in 1916. Her first novel, The Road Through the Wall was publised in 1948.  Also published in 1948 was the story The Lottery which established her reputation as a master of the horror tale. Although popular and well regarded during her lifetime, the 1980s saw more scholarly interest in Jackson’s work and her influence on other writers become more appreciate (she has been cited as an influence on a diverse set of authors, including Neil Gaiman and Stephen King) . According to the post-feminist critic Elaine Showalter, Jackson’s work is the single most important mid-twentieth-century body of literary output yet to have its value reevaluated by critics in the present day. She died in 1965.

Why I read this book: Quite simply it’s one that regularly appeared on blog sites as a highly recommended novel.  It was one of my #20booksofsummer books and is on my Classics Club list. I’m now encouraged to read her other landmark text – The Haunting of Hill House published in 1959.

Booker Prize 2017 – who will make the shortlist?

The Booker Prize judges will announce tomorrow which six books will make it to the shortlist for the 2016 prize. For the first time in the five years since I started this blog when the longlist was announced I discovered I hadn’t read any of the 13 longlisted titles. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise really since this year I’ve focused on reading more from my TBR and consequently a lot less contemporary fiction. But neither did I feel excited enough this year to rush out and acquire a few of the longlist titles. I did get electronic samples of most of them and have decided which interest me the most: Home Fire, Reservoir 13, Autumn, Lincoln in the Bardo and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.  I might even be able to read one or two before the final announcement.

So essentially I’ve been following the prize as a backseat passenger this year. Fortunately there are a few highly dedicated groups and individuals who have taken more of an interest and have been working their way through the list over the past few months.

The Mookse and the Gripes is a very lively Goodreads group of 51 contributors. Based on their scores for each individual book, they’re anticipating that the six shortlisted titles will be:

1 Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
2 Home Fire
by Kamila Shamsi
3 Reservoir 13  by Jon McGregor
4 Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

5 Autumn 
by Ali Smith
6 Days without End 
by Sebastian Barry

They ranked the remaining seven titles as follows:

7 Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Exit West by Hamid
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
10 4321  by Paul Auster
11 
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
12 Elmet by Fiona Mozley
13 History of Wolves   
by Emily Fridlund

Over at The Reader’s Room a smaller but no less dedicated team have ranked the novels according to the quality of writing quality; originality; character development; plot development and readers’ overall enjoyment.

1.  Autumn by Ali Smith
2. Exit West by Hamid
3. 4321 by Paul Auster
4. Lincoln in the Bardo
 by George Saunders
5. Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
6. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsi
7. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
8. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
9. Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
10. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
11. Swing Time by Zadie Smith
12. Elmet by Fiona Mozley
13. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Astonishingly, given the large number of readers of these books, there is a large level of agreement between the Goodreads group and the Reader’s Room. Four of the titles: Solar Bones,  Home Fire, Lincoln in the Bardo and Autumn appear in both lists as likely shortlist contenders.

Where they part company is over Reservoir 13, Exit West and Days without End. 

Reader’s Room reviewers liked the style of Reservoir 13 which was reminiscent of poetry but thought there wasn’t enough character or plot development. Exit West was gauged by one reviewer to “convey incredible depth and emotion” by subtly using magical realism. Only two reviewers for the Reader’s Room read Paul Auster’s 4321 – both commented on its length (900 pages approx) but found it engaging, complex and written in a style bordering on perfection. Over at Goodreads, Paul one reviewer commented that Reservoir 13 was “A wonderful novel — modest in its scope but all the more powerful for it” and a breath of fresh air compared to the over-blown novels that have won in recent years. Another reviewer said it was the most compelling read of the year. There were mixed reviews for Exit West – a number of people thought the writing dull (others completely disagreed) and the migrant experience not fully developed or not realistic. As for 1234,  the length of the book was an issue with a lot of the reviewers – several thought it could easily have been trimmed by 100 or 150 pages without suffering. A few commented that the basic structure of the novel – relaying the vastly different lives of four identical boys formed from the same DNA – was confusing at times but also felt repetitive.

What was interesting for me about both lists was that Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad which was “the” book of 2016, doesn’t come higher on any of the lists. This is the novel that won  the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the Heartland Prize and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Yet several reviewers didn’t find it to be as innovative as they expected. Will the Booker Prize represent one hurdle too far for this novel?

Not according to Ladbrokes, the bookmakers, who have Whitehead’s novel as the clear favourite to win.

But then, as John Dugdale pointed out in an article for The Guardian an entry in the bookmakers’ lists isn’t any guarantee of success.

The National (an online magazine) has also taken out their crystal ball and come up with a list of who they’d like to see on the shortlist.  They are the only ones to put The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and Swing Time in the frame.

The field is clearly wide open as it were.

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