Blog Archives

Crystal ball gazing for Booker prize 2015

Tomorrow sees the announcement of the Man Booker Prize longlist for 2015. I was hesitating from making some predictions of what we might see since a) my previous attempts at anticipating the winners and losers have not exactly been stellar and b) I’m struggling to think of 13 titles which is the traditional number on the longlist.

But having scratched my head for several hours I’ve come up with a few that meet the stipulation that only novels written originally in English and published in the UK (regardless of the author’s nationality) can enter. The book has to have been published between October 2014 and September 2015.

First up are two novels I hope don’t win. I know that sounds a bit mean and disrespectful to the author if either is truly considered the best of the last 12 months. But neither of these books interests me and if it wins I will have to read it as part of my Booker Prize project.

Buried GiantI do expect to see The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro on the longest, and probably on the shortlist, given his stature and the fact this is his first novel for 10 years. It’s attracted widespread acclaim. I had planned to read it and even to see the great man at the Hay Festival but then discovered that much of it was a fantasy and it contained non human creatures that talk (a bug bear of mine). My library reservation was cancelled.

 

A God in RuinsAnother prediction I hope doesn’t materialise is Kate Atkinson’s A God in RuinsThis is another book I’ve not read but since it’s a companion to her earlier novel Life after Life which I could not finish (I got completely bored with it ) I’m not keen to read this one. I may be lucky here since she hasn’t made it to the longlist in the past and she’s written far better novels.

 

 

And now to the books I would like to see at least long listed.

Flood of FireFlood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh. This is the third novel in the Ibis Trilogy which began with Sea of Poppies set against a background of the Opium Wars in China. His latest novel Flood of Fire returns to the outbreak of that time and follows a cast of characters through to China’s devastating defeat and Britain’s seizure of Hong Kong. Ghosh is someone who meticulously researches his novel and brings the historic period to life through some well-drawn characters. I’m relatively new to his novels but have enjoyed everything I’ve read so far.

 

god help the childThe change in rules which came about last year means that American authors can now enter the Booker Prize. Which means we could see Toni Morrison, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature and 1998 Pulitzer Prize, enter the fray with God Help the Child. Robinson is known as an author of epic themes and for raising the American consciousness. In her latest novel she explores how the sufferings of childhood shape the life of the adult, about the nature of beauty and veneration of being black.

I’m saving my favourite for last….

Norah WebsterNorah Webster by Colm Tóibín, a tremendous study of grief and the rebuilding of a life in 1960s Eire. Norah is recently widowed, left with four children, little money, no job and far too many people trying to tell her how best to organise her life from here on. It’s a story told in chronological order, following Norah’s consciousness as she shapes her new life inch by inch. Tóibín is no stranger to the Booker Prize – he’s been on the shortlist three times:  in 1999 for The Blackwater Lightship, in 2004 for The Master’ and 2014 for The Testament of Mary. Could this be his lucky year??

If you don’t trust my predictions and would like some alternative crystal ball views take a look at:

 

The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh

Glass PalaceThree families. Three countries. More than 100 years. In The Glass Palace Amitav Ghosh takes us on a journey across cultures and generations, navigating some significant milestones in history but never losing sight of the people who loved, laughed and cried through political upheaval, invasion and war.

It’s the human dimension that grabs our attention as the book opens.  Rajkumar, a poor orphaned Burmese boy, finds himself in the royal palace on the day in 1885 when British soldiers storm the gates and forcibly evict the royal household. He befriends Dolly, one of the young women in the queen’s entourage and guides her to safety. She stays in his mind and his heart throughout the following years as he slowly builds a business in wood logging. When his position is secure as the head of teak trading empire,  he goes in search of her in her new home with the exiled royals in India . The remainder of the book traces their life together in Burma, India and Malaysia, their ambitions and disappointments and the fluctuating fortunes of their children and grand-children.

Clearly this is a family saga on a grand scale. Its settings range from the rubber plantations of Malaysia, to the Burmese teak forests and the bustling cityscape of Rangoon and Singapore. But it’s also a history of a tumultuous period in history in south east Asia, covering the rise and fall of the British Empire in the region, the second world war and India’s struggle for independence.  One of the themes of the novel looks at the way indigenous populations fight against oppression from an alien nation. In case readers needed reminding that the fight for liberty and freedom is still an issue today as it was in the nineteenth century, the novel ends with the figure of Aung San Suu Kyi on the lawn of her home where she was under house arrest.

Little wonder that Ghosh took five years to research and write The Glass Palace.

I read hundreds of books, memoirs, travelogues, gazetteers, articles and notebooks, published and unpublished; I travelled thousands of miles, visiting and re-visiting, so far as possible, all the settings and locations that figure in this novel; I sought out scores of people in India, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. (source: http://www.amitavghosh.com/glasspalace_r.html)

It’s an impressive achievement. For me the earliest part of the novel was the most interesting, largely because of the strength of Ghosh’s characterisation. We see this not just in his principal characters Dolly and Rajkumar but in some of the smaller players, I loved the image of the exiled King Thebaw who with no kingdom to rule, resorts to supervising the movement of boats across the bay below his deteriorating palace in Ratnagiri. Later chapters, where the focus switches to the second, and then third generation, were less engaging. By then I was losing track of who was who as the parallel narratives of various children and grandchildren and friends got more and more tangled in my head. By the time we got to World War 2 and the Japanese invasion it felt as if the human dimension was subsumed in favour of details about the historical events.

I’m still glad I read it the novel however. It is complex at times and a few of the characters seemed too lightly sketched but Ghosh had a such a masterful ability to conjure up a culture in rich and beautiful detail that I forgave him for those lapses.  He’s an author I certainly want to read again, most likely Sea of Poppies, which has come highly recommended by Alex at Thinking in Fragments. It’s set against a background of China’s opium wars in the nineteenth century; could be a perfect read for my next trip to that part of the world.

EndNote: There is a short extract from The Glass Palace available on line at http://www.amitavghosh.com/glasspalace.html

 

 

 

Sunday Salon: literature from around the world project

blog globe small 1Last year I created a personal challenge to read more literature from parts of the world outside the UK and North America. The World Literature challenge started with countries along the Equator and the Prime Meridian and I made these part of an overall challenge to read books from 50 different countries by the end of 2018.

I changed the course somewhat a few months ago and decided I wanted this to be more of a project and a general direction rather than a challenge with a set target and a deadline. That way it would feel less that I was reading something simply to meet a goal.

I’m so glad I made that switch. It’s been much more rewarding to pick up a book knowing I wanted to read it rather than feeling compelled to read it just because it was the next country on my list. And I can mix up that reading with my other projects on reading more classics and reading the Booker prize winners.

The past few weeks have seen me read novels from Somalia, New Zealand and India. All three were by authors I had never read before. All three have given me insights into cultures and issues outside my own experience. Maybe it’s a cliche to say that they’ve broadened my horizons but it’s nevertheless true.  Nurradin Farah’s The Fractured Rib dealt with the problems of being a woman in Somalia including that of arranged marriages and circumcision; Keri Hulme’s The Bone People introduced me to Maori legends while also highlighting the issue of child abuse and Amitav Ghosh brought the history of Burma to my attention in The Glass Palace.

So far I’ve read books from 13 different countries, six of them from Equatorial countries.  Not all of them have been remarkable or particularly rewarding of course but I did find some authors whose work I now know I want to further explore.

Next on my horizon will be Afghanistan via And the Mountains Echoed, the third novel by the Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini and then possibly Uganda with Moses Isegawa’s first novel, Abyssinian Chronicles. The first is a definite since I’m reviewing it for Shiny New Books magazine. But you never know where my wanderlust will take me after that and I may change my literary travel plans in favour of Latin America or China or Italy or ……….. 

 

%d bloggers like this: