Dull. Tedious. Contrived. My 10 Least Favourite Booker Prize Winners

Having decided on my list of 10 favourite Booker Prize winning novels, it’s time to reveal the 10 books that were the least interesting, enjoyable or memorable.

The first four are easy – they are the titles that were so lacking in appeal that I couldn’t even finish reading them. The remaining six are books that either I struggled to complete or I read to the end but wondered why I bothered.

The Famished Road

Ben Okri

This was a book so bad that I couldn’t get beyond page 80. The style of the opening paragraph was a warning sign that this book would be a challenge:

In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

In my review of The Famished Road I commented that this paragraph read like a poor pastiche of the opening of Genesis. The book went on to introduce elements of magical realism – a style I struggle with but can read if it’s well done. Such was not the case with this book however.

Okri main character is an abiku or spirit child who lives in an unnamed city which most likely is from his home country of Nigeria. It’s a book that reflects on the country’s post-colonial experience.

The book has been called a landmark text for its use of a particular kind of African  magical realism. The African traditions it describes would have made the book interesting but the text was so over-blown and confusing, I lost all patience.

  • Won Booker Prize in 1991
  • Other view/s

Personally, I’m amazed that the judges even finished the thing, let alone decided to give it the prize.

Sam Jordison, The Guardian

Okri’s tale is a beautifully rendered allegory, enriched by its African setting, of love powerful enough to defy even death and his minions.

Kirkus Reviews

A History of Seven Killings 

Marlon James

This book relates the story of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (never referred to by name, only as  “the singer”) and its aftermath. I knew it was written partly in Jamaican patois but once I ‘tuned in” that didn’t present a problem.

The real difficulty was that it has a vast array of characters – the cast list at the beginning shows 75 names. Around a dozen of these jump in to tell their story. One is an American journalist, another is a kid called Bam Bam who saw his father shot in the head. There are several gangsters and a prostitute.

Since their appearances are often short, I kept forgetting who they all were. That plus the non linear narrative made the whole book far too confusing. I gave up after about 120 pages.

  • Won Booker Prize in 2015
  • Other view/s

It would be a challenge to keep faith with so many tumultuously occupied characters even if they were not being systematically divested of sympathetic qualities; as it is, the negativity becomes a slog.

Hannah McGill, The independent

It’s like a Tarantino remake of “The Harder They Come”, but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner…epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex.’

New York Times

This book is startling in its range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation. It is a representation of political times and places, from the CIA intervention in Jamaica to the early years of crack gangs in New York and Miami.

Michael Wood, Chair of Booker Prize judges

The Finkler Question

Howard Jacobson

What a dreary book this turned out to be. So dreary I gave up on it around the 150 page mark.

The narrative revolves around Julian Treslove, a man who once worked on the kind of BBC Radio 3 programmes that attract only the dedicated few listeners. When his star faded he began working as a celebrity lookalike.

Treslove has an identity problem. He wants to be a Jew so that he can experience the sense of belonging possessed by his two closest friends who are Jewish. In essence the novel deals with his obsession with the meaning of Jewishness, politically, socially, culturally etc.

This is a novel which has one idea and constantly nibbles away at it without ever getting any further forward. I was desperate for something – anything – to happen but gave up the hope that it ever would.

  • Won Booker Prize in 2010
  • Other view/s

… full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer.

Edward Docx, The Guardian

… very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad and very subtle.

Chair of judges, Sir Andrew Motion

 G

John Berger

I had never heard of this book when I started to read it in 2018. It’s probably one of the lesser-known Booker Prize winners. It will remain an unknown to me since I found I disliked it so much I simply could not get far into the narrative.

Set in pre-First World War Europe, the novel follows the escapades of G, an offspring of an Italian merchant. Essentially he’s a Cassanova type figure whose sexual liaisons and ‘conquests’ we are meant to find interesting.

They were not. The Kirkus reviewer (see quote below) seemed to suggest that this is my fault because I am a “common reader” unable to appreciate the subtleties of the book. Sounds a bit of a harsh judgement, and bordering on elitism.

  • Won Booker Prize in 1972
  • Other view/s

Ultimately (and ignoring the common reader whom it will defeat) it is an arresting, inordinately vital, impersonal, and remarkable work.

Kirkus Review

… if you can tolerate ambiguity and a haphazard structure there is much to enjoy in G.

Lisa, ANZLitLovers

Midnight’s Children

Salman Rushdie

I’m probably wading into controversial waters by including Salman Rushdie’s novel in my list of least favourite Booker Prize winners. It not only won the prize in 1981, it was named the “Booker of Bookers” in 1993 to mark the 25th anniversary of the prize and again in 2003 for the 40th anniversary.

The book falls into the category for me of books that I admire but do not enjoy. There was a huge amount to admire – the ingenuity of a central character with special powers born on the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that the newly independent state of India is born. Then there’s the scale – more than 60 years in the turbulent history of India and Pakistan. And lastly, the blend of styles, comedy with history;  Christian with Islamic and Hindu references and almost an encylopaedia’s worth of facts.

It was overpowering at times and I kept losing track of where I was in the narrative.

Maybe at a different time this novel would have gelled more with me. It certainly has a large fan club since it twice topped the public poll in those Booker of Booker award.

  • Won the Booker Prize in 1981
  • Other view/s

… conveyed in Indian English prose that pulsates between the tumultuous and the fantastic. A page of Rushdie is a rich, jewel-encrusted tapestry of allusions, puns, in-jokes, asides, and the unconsidered trifles of popular culture.

The Guardian

… we can celebrate Midnight’s Children as an English novel: a brilliant and endearing one, the latest of India’s many contributions to English fiction, and the most remarkable of them all.

London Review of Books

Saville

David Storey

My review of Saville described it as a “jaw-droppingly tedious tale” that I was glad to finish.

The premise for the novel sounded promising: it’s a tale of a boy who tries to rise above his roots in a South Yorkshire mining community. It being 1930s Britain the most pressing consideration is how to keep his parents and brothers above the poverty line. Plenty of subject matter for a hard hitting novel but instead the potential was lost by over-written scenes, mediocre dialogue and scrappy characterisation.

  • Won Booker Prize in 1976
  • Other view/s

His [Saville’s father] speech may be weighed down by unconvincing Yorkshire-isms, but Storey is still able to show us his heart. In short, he writes wonderfully far more often than he writes badly.

The Guardian

The Line Of Beauty

Alun Hollinghurst

To reach the end of The Line of Beauty you have to read a lot about sex, drugs and champagne- fuelled parties.

It’s a novel set in Britain in the 1980s; the era of Margaret Thatcher, economic euphoria and ultra confidence among the privileged governing classes. This is also the decade that saw  the emergence of the Aids/HIV crisis.

Into this world steps Nick Guest, a young homosexual who comes from a middle class background. He moves into the house of an up and coming MP, giving him the ability to mingle with aristocrats and politicians. It’s not all hedonistic fun however, this is the period when HIV/AIDS began to make its presence felt.

The first half of the novel rambles along through a series of country house parties and assignations with sexual partners in parks. It wasn’t until the second half when Nick’s ex lover is diagnosed as HIV positive, that it perked up. But it was too little, too late.

  • Won Booker Prize in 2004
  • Other view/s

… brilliant recreation of that bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch …

The Independent

If Nick’s aesthetic detachment occasionally seems to reduce the novel’s emotional stakes, it nonetheless fuels Hollinghurst’s sumptuous writing and his bravura evocation of an entire era.

The New Yorker

Offshore

Penelope Fitzgerald

An indication of how little an impression this book made upon me, is that I remember absolutely nothing about the plot. All I recall is that it features a set of characters who live in houseboats on The Thames. I have a vague feeling that at some point there is a fire on board one of these dwellings. I loved the cover artwork of the edition I had but the contents left me underwhelmed.

  • Winner of Booker Prize in 1979
  • Other view/s

Fitzgerald is adept at evoking the atmosphere of late 1960s London with rich period detail but beyond this the book feels slight and inconclusive, meandering along with only the sketchiest plot.

The Guardian

One of most impressive things about Offshore stems from Fitzgerald’s ability to treat her characters with sympathy despite their failings.

Jacqui: JacquiWine’s Journal

Elected Member

Bernice Rubens

The only book by an author from Wales to have won the Booker Prize, The Elected Member is a book that began well.

Its focus is on a seemingly respectable Jewish family whose beloved son succumbs to the effects of drug addiction. There is one particularly memorable scene where he suffers delusions caused by withdrawal from the drugs and imagines there are silver creatures climbing all over his bedroom.

If the book had maintained the same quality it would not be on my list of least favourite Booker Prize winners. Unfortunately the novel went down hill and ended in a far too neat conclusion. .

  • Won Booker Prize in 1970
  • Other view/s

The Elected Member is a worthy winner and a brave choice for the Booker prize, but not a masterpiece. It’s probably best summed up by the author herself, and her typically terse assessment of her own writing: “Better than most, not as good as some.

The Guardian

Something To Answer For

P H Newby

This was the first book to win a Booker Prize. It was up against strong competition from Iris Murdoch (The Nice and the Good) and Muriel Spark (The Public Image). I find it interesting that both those contenders are authors who are still being read today but the winner remains largely unknown.

It’s a very odd book because you don’t really know whether what you are reading can be trusted. We can say with certainty that it’s set in Port Said, a city in the throes of the Suez Crisis. But even the main character doesn’t know what’s happening to him when he travels there to attend a funeral. He’s not even sure he knows his true name.

Beyond some episodes. of black humour, I didn’t find much in this novel to keep me entertained.

  • Winner of Booker Prize in 1969
  • Other view/s

It’s beautifully written, shot through with crisp, mordant wit, and Newby plays out his narrative with consummate skill to ensure it baffles and intrigues, leaving the readers hooked and thrashing about for meaning, desperate for him to reel things in.

The Guardian

Sample Saturday: Bargain Shop Buys

My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three books on my TBR shelves that I bought in charity shops or bargain book shops. They still all bear their price stickers…..

As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.

My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru

I bought this in a discount book shop in Michigan during one of my frequent work trips. I knew the name of Hari Kunzru as one of Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists” , chosen in the same year the accolade was awarded to Zadie Smith and Monica Ali. When I saw this priced at $2 it seemed too good to miss the opportunity to experience a “new British talent”.

Here’s the synopsis from the back cover:

Chris Carver is living a lie. His wife, their teenage daughter and everyone in their circle know him as Michael Frame, suburban dad. They have no idea that as a radical student in the sixties he briefly became a terrorist – protestin the Vietnam War by setting bombs around London. And then one day a ghost from his past turns up on his doorstep, forcing Chris on the run …

I’ve read a few pages from the beginning of the book which takes place on Chris/Michael’s 50th birthday. While his family are out collecting stuff for his party, he hurriedly packs his clothes and passport and drives off in his car. Clearly the narrative is going to wind back to a surprise encounter with a person from his past.

I notice from the author’s explanation that the book is loosely based on some revolutionary underground movements active in London in the 1970s. It’s a topic I don’t know much about but I’m interested enough to keep this on the shelves.

The Verdict: Keep

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

A charity shop purchase made the year after I read (and loved) her novel Bel Canto (the link takes you to my review). I don’t know anything about the book other than it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2012.

Here’s the synopsis from the back cover:

Among the tangled waterways and giant anacondas of the Brazilian Rio Negro, an enigmatic scientist is developing a drug that could alter the lives of women for ever. But Dr Annick Swenson’s work is shrouded in mystery – especially from her investors. When Anders Eckman, a mild-mannered lab researcher is sent to investigate, a curt letter reporting his death is all that returns. Now Marina Singh, Anders’s colleague and former student of Dr Swenson, must retrace her friends perilous steps and uncover the secrets hidden among the remotest tribes of the rainforest.

It sounds promising; I’m drawn by the idea of a quest and the culture clash in the rainforest. I just hope that anacondas don’t make much of an appearance since I have an aversion to snakes…

The Verdict: Keep

Bad Dirt by Annie Proux

The cheapest book of the three, it’s also the one where I’m struggling to understand why I wanted to add it to my bookshelves. I’ve only ever read The Shipping News by her and while I enjoyed it at the time, it didn’t leave me feeling I was keen to read anything else she has written.

It’s a book apparently set in a community in Wyoming, where she has made her home. I clearly bought it thinking it was a novel but it wasn’t until the very end of the back cover blurb that I now see its a collection of short stories.

They are about a set of characters who live in “an isolated expanse of wasters and dreamers where the inhabitants say there’s no place like home. Where men grow bears competitively and where Bible classes wonder ‘What kind of furniture would Jesus pick?”

It sounds as if it could too easily veer towards caricature for my taste. Plus, since I am not a fan of short stories at all, I know it not one for me. I don’t feel too bad about letting this one go – it cost me all of £1.

The Verdict: Abandon

So that’s one fewer book on the TBR shelves again this week. Thanks to everyone who weighed in last week on my question about whether to keep The Accidental by Ali Smith – you persuaded me to let it remain for now.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham: Absolute Perfection

Is there a more exquisite novel than The Hours by Michael Cunningham? Its premise is ingenious, the prose beautifully nuanced and its trio of female characters deftly and cleverly intertwined. I loved the film version but to say I adored the book is an understatement.

In The Hours, Cunningham weaves together the lives of three women separated by decades and geography, telling their story through the events of just one day for each person.

In June 1923, Virginia Woolf wrestles with the opening of her new novel. Her working title is The Hours ( it will be published as Mrs Dalloway.) She persuades her husband that her feelings of depression will be eased by relinquishing their Richmond country life for the hubbub of London. 

In 1949, Sally Brown, a young wife and mother fights her own feelings of despair at the monotony of her life in a Los Angeles suburb. She makes a cake for her husband’s birthday, leaves her son with a childminder and escapes to a hotel to read Mrs Dalloway. 

On a summer’s day in 1990, Clarissa Vaughan steps out of her Greenwich village apartment. She “has flowers to buy and a party to give.” It will be a celebration for her ex lover Richard who has won a prestigious poetry prize. 

Party. Flowers. Clarissa. Sound familiar? 

We are of course in the realm of Mrs Dalloway with a re-enactment of its famous opening line: 

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Cunningham’s section on Virginia Woolf in fact comes to an end with Woolf writing that very sentence. And its how he begins the section focused on Mrs Brown as she lies on her bed reading, what else but Mrs Dalloway. 

This is one of the many connections Cunningham makes to Woolf’s novel and to its author. If you know the original book, you could easily spend a few hours picking up on the references.

As an example. Woolf has her character startled by the sound of a car backfiring as she walks through the streets of London. She thinks she spots someone famous in the car: “Was it the Prince of Wales’s, the Queen’s, the Prime Minister’s?” In The Hours, Clarissa (who by the way is nicknamed Mrs Dalloway by Richard) is distracted by a loud noise from a film set. And then she spots someone famous emerging from a trailer “Meryl Streep? Vanessa Redgrave?”

Homage to Virginia Woolf

Recognising these allusions is great fun but Cunningham isn’t using them simply to show off his intimate knowledge with the text of Mrs Dalloway. His book isn’t a re-creation of the earlier work but more of a homage to Woolf’s examination of one woman and how she questions her capacity for to be happy.

The inter-textuality is impressive but so too is the use of imagery and metaphor throughout The Hours. The yellow flowers Virginia Woolf places around the grave of a small bird, are echoed in the yellow flowers Laura Brown ices onto her cake and the blossoms bought by Clarissa’s lover.

Throughout the book we’re treated to some beautifully nuanced and unforgettable scenes. Laura’s afternoon escape to a Los Angeles hotel; Virginia’s ritual burial of a small bird and Clarissa’s anguish when she witnesses Richard’s death.

Struggle to Find Meaning

Every woman’s life is delicately examined, showing them striving to find meaning in their lives. If I had to pick a favourite it would be Laura Brown, a woman torn between her deep love for her son and her resentment against the confining nature of motherhood and marriage. She tries hard to be the perfect wife, putting on a false face of happiness in front of her son, but deep down is is desperately unhappy.

Reading for her is not about losing herself or escaping from her reality, but about discovering her true nature. She knows she should be getting started with her daily chores but instead she settles back against the pillows.

One more page, she decides, just one more. … She will permit herself another minute here, in bed, before entering the day. She will allow herself just a little more time. She is taken by a wave of feeling, a sea-swell, that rises from under her breast and buoys her, floats her gently, as if she were a sea creature thrown back from the sand where it had beached itself – as if she had been returned from a realm of crushing gravity to her true medium, the suck and swell of saltwater, that weightless brilliance.

Isn’t this a tremendous illustration of the transformative power of reading?

I could go on at length about the multiple ways in which I was enthralled by The Hours. But I don’t want to bore you all so I’ll just say that this is fiction at its best, a story of humanity related insightfully and sensitively. Simply superb.

10 Stellar Booker Prize Winners

What’s your favourite Booker Prize winner of all time?

I’ve been asked that question many times over since I embarked on my Booker Prize project. Now I’ve finished the project, I thought the time had come to try and come up with an answer.

It wasn’t easy. The genres, styles and themes among the 50 winners are so different I couldn’t see how I could possibly weigh one up against another. There’s also the issue that it’s several years since I read some of the winners so I can only vaguely remember the story and the characters.

But that gave me an inkling of how to identify my favourites. I could use memory and recall as my test.

And so the question I asked myself was this: Which books spontaneously rise to mind when I think about my most enjoyable Booker Prize titles?

The ten books I’ve selected are that I think of as in the premiere league of Booker winners. They are the books that were not only delightful when I first read them, they’ve stayed with me ever since. I don’t recall all the details of the plots or the characters’s names. What I do remember is the emotional reaction they provoked: from joy and laughter to sadness and

The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a beguiling yet painful portrait of a man who in a sense is a tragic figure. Kazuo Ishiguro beautifully paints a picture of Stevens, the devoted head butler at Darlington Hall. He is a man so relentless in his pursuit of “dignity” that he denies his own feelings and capacity for any close personal relationship. As a consequence, he misses the one opportunity he has for happiness.

  • Won Booker Prize in 1989
  • Favourite quote:

But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently? One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way. 

The Narrow Road To The Deep North

Richard Flanagan

In this haunting novel, Flanagan takes us into one of the bleakest and harshest episodes in World War 2 – the forced- labour construction of the Thailand-Burma death railway.

His protagonist is a surgeon who battles and fails to save the lives of his fellow prisoners of war. His courage makes him a legendary figure in Australia when he returns home yet he feels himself to be a coward and a fraud. Flanagan astutely avoids a simplistic good versus evil depiction of characters on opposite sides of a war, showing instead that human nature is never uni-dimensional.

  • Won Booker Prize in 2014
  • Favourite quote:

He felt shame and he felt loss and he felt his life had only ever been shame and loss, it was as though the light was now going, his mother was calling out ‘Boy! Boy!’ But he could not find her, he was returning to hell and it was a hell he could never escape.

Bring Up The Bodies

Hilary Mantel

I thought it would be hard to equal the stupendous Wolf Hall, the first of Mantel’s “Thomas Cromwell” trilogy. But Mantel rose to the occasion with another novel that takes us even deeper into the murky world of a man who rose from blacksmith’s son to become King Henry VIII’s right hand man.

Cromwell has to juggle the needs of a King who has tired of his second wife and her inability to produce the required heir, with the necessity of safeguarding the nation and protecting his own career. His solution is Machiavellian and bloody.

This is historical fiction  at its most breathtaking; a novel that makes history gripping and personal.

  • Won Booker Prize in 2012
  • Favourite quote:

What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.”

 The English Patient 

Michael Ondaatje

If ever a novel divided opinion, it is The English Patient. I thought this book about four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war, was outstanding. But other readers disliked the disjoined nature of the narrative and thought the prose was “flat’. That was a long way from my own experience. My review described it as “a tale of healing and renewal, of nationality and identity, and of belonging and isolation told through beautifully constructed prose.

  • Won Booker Prize in 1992
  • Favourite quote:

She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.

Disgrace

J M Coetzee

J M Coetzee’s second Booker Prize winning novel examines the issues that beset the new South Africa, a country only recently released from the oppression of apartheid.

The theme of exploitation is shown through a predatory university professor who loses his job when he embarks on an affair with one of his students. He’s already feeling out of synch with the new way of life but that sense of dislocation is exacerbated when he and his daughter are subjected to a savage attack at her smallholding.

The professor is a loathsome character but Coetzee shows a way in which it’s possible to sympathise even with an unsympathetic human being.

  • Won the Booker Prize in 1999
  • Favourite quote

But the truth, he knows, is otherwise. His pleasure in living has been snuffed out. Like a leaf on a stream, like a puffball on a breeze, he has begun to float towards his end. He sees it quite clearly, and it fills him with (the word will not go away) despair.

Milkman 

Anna Burns

I was very irritated by Milkman initially. None of the characters had a recognisable name – they were all known by labels like “third brother-in-law”, “tablets girl”, “nuclear boy” and “maybe-boyfriend”. It felt like an unnecessary artifice. But gradually the book wormed its way into my affection and I ended up feeling this was one of the most deserving winners of the prize in recent years.

It’s set in an un-named city (though it’s obviously Belfast) where paramilitary forces rule the streets and mete out summary justice to suspected informers. An 18 year-old-girl unwittingly becomes the target for the affections of one of the big cheeses in the paramilitary operation. He treats her like his property, putting her beyond the pale in her community.

It’s a very powerful novel about a city in turmoil and a population fearful they will make just one wrong comment or take one false step. 

  • Won Booker Prize in 2018
  • Favourite quote

People always said you’d better be careful. Though how, when things are out of your hands, when things were never really in your hands, when things are stacked against you, does a person – the little person down here on the earth – be that?

The Siege of Krishnapur 

J. G. Farrell

The first of two Booker Prizes awarded to the Irish author J G Farrell, is based on the real experiences of British subjects during the Indian rebellion of 1857. Farrell shows both the physical and mental traumas suffered by the British colonists who tried to defend their Residency against rebel Indian soldiers. He doesn’t hold back on any details about appalling insects, dwindling rations, the stink of decay and cholera and intolerable heat. And yet the novel is written with such tremendous wit that at times it’s hilarious.

  • Won Booker Prize in 1973
  • Favourite quote

We look on past ages with condescension, as a mere preparation for us….but what if we are a mere after-glow of them?”

The Sea, The Sea

Iris Murdoch

I’d had a few false starts with Irish Murdoch before taking The Sea The Sea off my bookshelves. The experiences had left me feeling she was too damn difficult and obscure. This novel was therefore a revelation – there was a Murdoch novel I could enjoy!. I did more than enjoy it, I revelled in the ridiculous central figure of Charles Arrowby,  an esteemed London theatre director who “kidnaps” a former girlfriend because he is convinced she is unhappy in her marriage. He’s as deluded about her as he is is about his dolphin-like swimming skills and his gastronomic abilities.

  • Winner of Booker Prize in 1978
  • Favourite quote:

We are all such shocking poseurs, so good at inflating the importance of what we think we value.

Life of Pi

Yann Martel

An unusual choice since I am not a fan of magical realism or fantasy. But this adventure tale, despite the preposterous nature of its plot, won me over in ways that I could never have foretold.

Martel takes a 16-year-old Indian boy and shipwrecks him in the Pacific. He ends up in a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a seasick Bengal tiger. From this predicament, Martel weaves a tale that asks questions about identity and faith and ends by challenging readers to think whether they believe what they have read.

  • Won Booker Prize in 2001
  • Favourite quote

I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.

Moon Tiger

Penelope Lively

Lively took a risk with this novel by making her central character such an opinionated, selfish, competitive, headstrong woman. But it works brilliantly as does her start, stop, rewind, fast forward approach to the narrative.

Her protagonist is an elderly woman who lies dying in a hospital. She is no ordinary woman but an esteemed war journalist during World War II who went on to become a published historian. Now lying on her bed she decides to construct in her head a history of the world and at the same time her own history. It’s one laden with poignancy.

  • Winner of Booker Prize in 1987
  • Favourite quote:

We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes – our language is the language of everything we have read. Shakespeare and the Authorised Version surface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous. I never cease to wonder at it. That words are more durable than anything, that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken, shelter parasitic on the most unlikely hosts, survive and survive and survive.”

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami [book review]

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is not a book for people who prefer unambiguity in their reading material. This is Haruki Murakami’s thirteenth novel and not only is it filled with an enigmatic character and his obscure dreams, but the ending leaves his future unresolved.

The character in question is a young man whose life is haunted by a great loss in his adolescent years. Tsukuru Tazaki is a 36-year-old railway engineer with an abiding passion for train stations. He can sit for hours in a station watching the ebb and flow of passengers and the rhythm of train arrivals and departures.

His is an empty life. After work he retreats either to a train station or to his apartment where he listens to music. He has no friends and all his relationships with women have come to nothing. He feels as if the real Tsukuru Tazaki passed away years earlier, leaving only a shell:

… a container that for the sake of convenience was labelled with the same name – but its contents had been replaced.

It was not always so. In his high school years, he had been part of a close-knit quintet; an “orderly, harmonious community” of two girls, three boys. They did everything together, wanting no other friends to disturb their harmony.

Until one day during Tsukuru’s second year in college when those friends abruptly cut all relationships with him. No warning. No explanation. No room for compromise. Just silence. The ostracism left him feeling suicidal, then guilty “as an empty person, lacking in colour and identity.”

Quest For Truth

Now sixteen years later his new girlfriend, Sara Kimoto, encourages him to come face-to-face with the past, to seek out his former friends to mend the relationships and discover why they rejected him. She won’t commit to a relationship with Tsukuru unless he can move past that issue. And so he goes on a pilgrimage to track down those friends and discover the truth.

This is only the second novel I’ve read by Haruki Murakami. I’ve avoided him largely because his novels are frequently surrealistic  and contain large doses of magical realism. more minimalist novels. But Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage attracted me because it sounded more in the style of Norwegian Wood which I loved.

Like so much of Japanese fiction this novel contains themes of alienation and loneliness, embedded into an atmosphere of loss and longing.

Tsukuru is an intelligent, respected in his career and comfortably well off but there is a huge gap in his life. Not only did he lose is school friends, but the college friend who helped him deal with the loss suddenly disappears. Tsukuru as a result feels “fated to always be alone”

He is a man who doesn’t seem fully connected to the world. I don’t mean that he is “other worldly” in a sense of coming from an imaginary universe. He just exists on the fringe of a real and whole life.

The Colourless Outsider

As a young boy he was puzzled why his four friends wanted to be his pals. He was the only member of the group who didn’t have a colour as part of his surname. He didn’t have a striking personality nor any qualities or talents that made him stand out. In fact “everything about him was middling, pallid, lacking in colour.” Towards the end of the novel, Tsukuru realises that he lives “as if he were a refugee from his own life”.

I loved the melancholic atmosphere and found Tsukuru a deeply affecting character. It was hard not to sympathise with his feelings of bewilderment when his friends cut him dead and refuse any explanation. We can all imagine the pain of suddenly being abandoned by people who were once your closest friends, people who now treat you as if you never existed.

You hope that by the end of his pilgrimage to his home town and to Finland, that his quest for the truth will bring him happiness. But Murakami leaves us dangling with the kind of ending that is open to interpretation. The final scene has a real emotional pull but tantalisingly we don’t know whether Tsukuru does finally gain some colour in his life.

Sample Saturday: Literary Prize Contenders

My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three books on my TBR shelves that were short or long-listed for some of the major literary prizes.

As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.

The Accidental by Ali Smith

This 2005 novel by the Scottish author Ali Smith was Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year. It follows a middle-class English family whose holiday in a small Norfolk village is disrupted when Amber turns up on their doorstep claiming her car has broken down.  Her arrival has a profound effect on all the family members.

It’s written largely in stream-of-consciousness and free indirect style, with multiple narrators I think. The first is the family’s 12 year old daughter Astrid.

I’ve read a later novel by Ali Smith – How To Be Both – which I loved but I’m not sure about this one. Child narrators are such tricky things to get right – the few pages I’ve read of this novel make her seem quite precocious.

The Verdict: Undecided. I need your help to make a decision. Should I keep or let go?

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

If you like authors who can combine great storytelling with erudition, Umberto Eco is probably your man. He was a scholar of medieval studies and semiotics until he published one novel, The Name of The Rose, which propelled him into the world of best selling, intelligent fiction which a story of a series of murders in a late-medieval monastery. 

The Prague Cemetery is his sixth novel, published in 2010 and shortlisted for the International Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012. It tells the story of a notorious antisemitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – document which purported to describe a meeting in Prague during which Jewish leaders discussed their plans for world domination.

According to the back cover, The Daily Telegraph called this book “an extremely readable narrative of betrayal, terrorism, murder …” But I can’t find the full version of the review to see if that extract was a fair representation of what the reviewer thought of the book as a whole.

I did find The Guardian review which commented: “Once again, [Eco] includes a great deal of eclectic learning, organised (to a greater or lesser extent) around a potboiler plot.” That sounded pretty good but the reviewer then went on to call the book “a tiring plod.”

I don’t much care for books that are plodding so this is headed for the charity shop.

The Verdict: Ditch

Maps For Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam

Nadeem Aslam is a British Pakistani novelist who won the Betty Trask Award with his first novel Season of the Rainbirds. Maps for Lost Lovers is his second novel and was shortlisted for  the International Dublin Literary Award and longlisted for the Booker Prize.

It’s is set in the midst of an immigrant Pakistani community in a northern English town where a pair of lovers disappear and are believed murdered. According to the blurb the novel “opens the heart of a family at the crossroads of culture, community, nationality and religion and exoresses their pain in a language that is arrestingly poetic.”

I’m tempted by this one. It’s the portrayal of the immigrant communities that have grown up in many parts of England, that is drawing me to this book. This is a world captured so memorably by Monica Ali in Brick Lane but I’ve yet to find anything set in a different part of the country.

The Verdict: Keep

So that’s one fewer book on the TBR shelves. It’s not going to make any dent in the overall tally however because I’ve been on a buying spree in recent weeks. Did I make the right choices?? What would you save from these three??

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