Something to Answer For By P.H. Newby: Confusing First Winner Of The Booker Prize

Front cover of Something To Answer For by P H Newby

By the time I’d struggled to the last page of Something to Answer For  by P H Newby, there was little I felt sure about any longer. 

All I could be certain of was that Newby’s novel is set in Port Said and concerns a character called Townrow. He arrives in the city, which is then in the throes of the Suez Crisis, to see the widow of a recently deceased friend. The widow thinks her husband was murdered and wants Townrow’s help to find the truth.

But his journey to Port Said is a convoluted one. He stops over in Rome where he gets into an argument about Hitler’s Final Solution, then lands in Cairo where he makes a stupid remark that sees him interrogated and held in a police cell. When he does finally make it to Port Said, he gets so drunk in a bar he passes out, is attacked and ends up with a head and eye injury.

Truth or Dreams?

But who exactly is Townrow? Somewhere in the narrative there is a clue that he has been embezzling from a fund he is meant to be managing. Is he Irish? Is he married? He recalls both “facts” at different points in the narrative. But he doesn’t seem absolutely sure if either is true or if he’s merely dreaming.

From the point at which he is hit on the head, nothing he says can be relied upon. He operates in a a dream-like state where he recalls events (like his friend’s funeral) that have yet to happen.   The borders between truth and reality become ever more distinct as the novel progresses.

This is a confusing narrative that borders on comedy yet also deals with issues of responsibility, national identity and the sunset of the British Empire. For the reader it’s a baffling experience.

Baffling, but not rewarding.

One critic who reviewed the book at the time of its publication, described it as beautifully written and a tour de force of comic writing. There were certainly some passages that gave me a glimmer of hope that the book would improve. But they were simply transitory experiences before I was propelled into yet another labyrinth. By the end I suspected P H Newby had experienced more fun writing his book than I did in reading it.

Something To Answer For by P H Newby: Endnotes

Portrait photograph of P H Newby, author of Something To Answer For

About the Book

Something to Answer For is a 1968 novel which would have entirely disappeared from our awareness if it hadn’t been the winner of the inaugural  Booker Prize in 1969. The book was reissued by Faber & Faber in 2008 in the “Faber Finds” line and again in 2018.

About The Author

Given his low profile, I was surprised to find that P H Newby had written 13 books by the time of his Booker Prize success. After service in World War 2 (in France and Egypt) he taught English Literature at Fouad 1st University, Cairo.

He returned to England and joined the BBC in 1949, beginning as a radio producer and going on to become Director of Programmes and finally Managing Director for BBC Radio. He was awarded  a CBE for his work in that capacity.

Despite what most people would have considered a demanding job, he was a prolific writer, at one time producing a new book every year. His rate of output apparently was one of the reasons why other writers dismissed him as a second rate artist. Literature was meant to be crafted slowly and painstakingly in the mode of Flaubert, not rattled out like a production factory, they sniffed. Little wonder that Graham Greene called Newby  A fine writer who has never had the full recognition he deserves. ” 

It was left to Newby’s friend, Anthony Thwaite to redress the balance.  In an obituary he called P H Newby “One of the best English novelists of the second half of the century.”

Why I Read This Book

I had never heard of P H Newby or Something To Answer For until I embarked on my Booker Prize Project and discovered this was the first winner of the prize. I’ve rated it as one of the least interesting winners in the history of the prize.

This review was posted originally in 2012. This is an updated version which incorporates biographical information about the author and an updated image of the book cover . Paragraphs of text have been shortened to improve readability.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on June 24, 2020, in British authors, Man Booker Prize and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Ha! I read it because I needed to “visit” the Suez Canal for my Around the World challenge and felt exactly the same about it as you. I wonder if anyone would still be reading it if it hadn’t won the Booker…

  2. I don’t know whether this will help anyone to work out what was going on, but I reviewed this in the days before I had my own blog, on The Complete Booker: http://completebooker.blogspot.com/2008/12/something-to-answer-for-by-ph-newby.html

  3. Sometimes it is very hard to figure out where big news outlet book reviewers are coming from in their praise for a book. I have not heard of this author. Interesting review. I wonder why the judges liked it so much.

  4. A lot of what you write, makes this sound like just the right book for me – but then, it sounds like P.H. Newby never really gets it together.

    • I found it hard to keep track of what was happening. I know the person who writes the Guardian blog highly rated it though…. Karen Heenan-Davies

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      • I went and read the Guardian blog post about it and it does sound like the author intended to baffle his reader and leave readers desperately searching for meaning. I guess it all depends on whether you like that type of book or not. I’m still intrigued by the book, I have to admit …

  1. Pingback: The first #Bookerprize winner: P H Newby : BookerTalk

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