The day after I started reading Vernon God Little a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at a music festival in Las Vegas, causing multiple fatalities and injuries. It made reading this book about a (fictional) mass killing at a school inMartirio, Texas, especially thought-provoking because it opened up questions about the way in which society respond to such events.
In the aftermath of Las Vegas, the initial desire was to understand ‘What happened?” and “How could this have happened?” This was quickly replaced by questions of responsibility. ‘Who is to blame?” and “How could they have let this happen?” asked people around the world. This need to identify the person or people responsible and bring them swiftly to account for their failings, is a response that has become all too common in a world which has in recent years experienced a multitude of calamities.
The ‘blame culture’ is very evident in Vernon God Little. Jesus Navarro, a college student, shot and killed 16 students at his school before turning the gun on himself. His 15-year-old friend Vernon becomes the town’s scapegoat and is almost immediately charged as an accessory to the crime. As the book begins, Vernon has been taken into custody and is being questioned by police officers who are under pressure from an angry and grieving community to identify the guilty party. Vernon steadfastly maintains his innocence but his behaviour over the course of the following few months, simply acts as further evidence to the police and the news media that he is guilty. He flees to Mexico but is captured and put on trial as Texas’ most notorious serial killer. As a death row prisoner his fate will be decided in a Big Brother-style programme.
This is a story told from Vernon’s point of view. You’d think, given the subject matter, that this would be a fairly somber tale but actually it contains a surprising amount of humour. I don’t mean humour of the belly-aching, laugh out loud kind, but the type that has you wincing — if you’ve ever watched eposides of the BBC sit com The Office (the original British version that is) you’ll have an idea of what I mean. The behaviour of the central character is ludicrously funny but we also cringe at some of his antics. We laugh with Vernon and at him but often feel guilty about the latter because he’s in essence a nice kid whose been given a rough deal. His father disappeared some years previously and his mother is, well let’s be kind and say she’s not really there. Instead of protecting her son and doing her damnest to get him the best legal help possible, she goes all dewy-eyed about a video repairman who masquerades as a news reporter. “Lally” Ledesma is clearly a sleaze who befriends Vernon only to further his own career but Vernon’s mother doesn’t see the damage this guy is doing to her son. Vernon isn’t well served by the girl he fancies — she leads him on then shops him in order to further her own aspirations to be a media personality — or by his mother’s friends. They’re more concerned with junk television and, perhaps aptly in a town nicknamed ‘the barbecue-sauce capital of Texas’, stuffing their faces with ribs and fried chicken. Vernon’s mother and her chums fret endlessly about whether he is getting enough to eat. Her closest friend Palmyra is a wonderful larger-than-life character who bellows at police officers when she finds they’re not feeding him enough:
So the door flies open. Pam wobbles in, bolt upright like she has books on her head. It’s on account of her center of gravity.
‘Vernie, you eatin rebs? What did you eat today?’
‘O Lord, we better go by the Barn’
Doesn’t matter what you tell her, she’s going by Bar-B-Chew Barn believe me.
Pam just molds into the car. Her soul’s already knotted over the choice of side-orders you can tell.
No-one in this novel really comes across in a positive light however; they’re either fat, stupid or conniving. In fact, Vernon God Little is rather scathing about American society in general, portraying it as full of slobbish incompetent law enforcers and gun-obsessed gullible citizens. Everything in this world can be turned into a form of entertainment — even the death penalty. One of the most chilling plot developments comes when Ledesma sells an idea to a television network for a Big Brother style series where viewers get to decide the fate of prisoners on death row. Prisoners are given coaching on how to act when the cameras are installed in their cells.
Internet viewers will be able to choose which cells to watch, and change camera angles and all. On regular TV there’ll be edited highlights of the day’s action. Then the general public will vote by phone or internet. They’ll vote for who should die next. The cuter we act, the more we entertain, the longer we might live.
I wish I could believe such an idea will never materialise outside the world of fiction. But then who could have imagined a program about a bunch of misfits who live together in a custom-built home under constant surveillance??
No wonder that at the end, Vernon wonders: “What kind of a life was that? A bunch of movies, and people talking about movies, and shows about people talking about movies.”
So what did I make of this book? It was certainly an odd book. Frequently loopy, barmy and just plain whacky, it was a tale told with gusto and zest. But the initial novelty of this style wore off half way through and, as much as I was interested in its ideas, I just wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible.
About the book: Vernon God Little was the debut novel by DBC Pierre. Published in 2003 it won the Booker Prize the same year in the face of competition from Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut and Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.
About the author: D.B.C. Pierre (the pen name of Peter Warren Finlay) has a ‘colourful’ history, admitting to being a drug-taking, hard-drinking, law-breaking tearaway in his past. His misspent youth gave him his nickname of Dirty But Clean (hence the DBC…). Part American, part Australian he now lives in Ireland.
Why I read this book: It was one of the remaining books to read in my Booker Prize project. Just six more to go..
Of all the books long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker prize, Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor was the one I most wanted to read. Having done so I’m at a loss to understand why the Booker judges failed to select this for the shortlist. Not for the first time it seems the judges’ idea of what makes an outstanding novel is a mile apart from my own thinking.
Reservoir 13 is quite simply an extraordinary novel. It gives an innovative twist to the device of a missing girl; has a meticulously plotted structure and a mesmeric poetic style of writing.
The springboard is the disappearance of 13 year old Rebecca Shaw from the holiday cottage in England’s Peak District where she is spending New Year’s Eve with her parents. Initially it seems the novel is treading a familiar path; one which traces the ensuing search, the grief of the girl’s family and the shock of the community before the revelation of what happened to Rebecca. So we get police helicopters buzzing overhead, villagers turning out to sweep the frozen moors and divers trawling through the reservoirs. It’s all in vain. Rebecca Shaw is nowhere to be found. Not that day or in the following weeks, months and even years. McGregor keeps alive the possibility that she may be found however; tantalising us with the discovery of a navy-blue body-warmer identical to the one Rebecca wore the night she disappeared; several mentions of disused lead mines and characters who have secrets they would prefer lay undiscovered.
McGregor’s stroke of ingenuity is to make us think this is all adding up to be a murder mystery/crime kind of novel, while all the time writing an entirely different of book. What Reservoir 13 is about is essentially the ebb and flow of life in a rural community showing how, despite a human tragedy, life does go on. Cows are milked, crops planted and harvested, tea rooms opened, kilns fired. Babies are born; children grow up and experiment with drugs and sex; people fall in and out of love; some fall sick; others die. Some villagers leave, others return. In the immediate aftermath of Rebecca’s disappearance, the villagers scale back on some of their time-honoured traditions and festivities as a mark of respect for her family. But as the years pass and still she is not found, they make a return appearance on the calendar: the charity dance in spring, well dressing in mid summer; the cricket match against the neigbouring village; harvest festival; the winter pantomime and fireworks at New Year
McGregor follows the daily lives of a large set of villagers, watching them deal with small and not-so-small sorrows and disappointments over the course of 13 years. Child pornography; depression; marital discord; examination failures and successes; all human life is recorded in this novel. There’s Irene who puts on a brave face even when her special needs son becomes violent; Jackson the farmer, who rules his sons’ lives from his sick bed and Jones the school caretaker whose protective attitude towards his boilerhouse is suspicious. None of these villagers dominate the novel; there is in fact no central character. Often all we get is a fleeting glimpse of their lives, a single sentence or a short conversation alone signalling their attitudes, their vulnerabilities and how their lives are changing. It’s a style that calls for careful reading — blink and you can easily miss some essential detail.
The cycle of human life is echoed in the rhythms of the natural world — the flowering of trees and wild plants, mating and hibernation of wildlife and weather conditions marking the changing of the seasons.
The swallows returned in numbers, and could be seen flying in and out of the open doors at the lambing shed at the Jacksons’ and the cowsheds over at Thompson’s, and the outbuildings up at the Hunter’s land. … There was rain and the river was high and the hawthorn by the lower meadows came out foaming white. The cow parsley was thick along the footpaths and the shade deepened under the trees.
Through meticulous layering of details and repetition Reservoir 13 marks the turning of the years. Every chapter, each of which takes us one year on, begins in the same way: a sentence noting the fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Yet with a few small changes McGregor shows how life is changing for this community.
Chapter 2, which marks the first anniversary of Rebecca’s disappearance begins
At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but they were too far off for the sound to carry to the few who’d come out to watch.
By year 4, the villagers are in more of a celebration mood:
At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks on the television in the pub and dancing in the street outside.
Almost a decade later however, after New Year’s Eve is marked by arson attacks at a caravan and the allotments, the villagers are more cautious about their celebrations:
At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but no one in the village even lifted their heads to look.
McGregor’s prose is rhythmic and measured, seeming simple on the surface yet with such precision and detail that you feel immersed in the life of this community and drawn towards its inhabitants. It’s the kind of writing that can easily sweep you along. I forced myself to slow down, reading just one chapter a night so I could savour it more fully.
Even while absorbed in their own lives, the village can never completely forget what happened on that one night so many years ago. Periodically McGregor reminds us of the girl’s disappearance, even in the final chapter some 13 years after her disappearance we are told:
The missing girl had not yet been forgotten. The girl’s name was Rebecca or Becky or Beks. She had been looked for everywhere. … It was no good.
This is in short a wonderful novel. The best I have read this year.
About the book: Reservoir 13 was published in 2017 by 4th Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins. My version is in hardback and was borrowed from my local library.
About the author: Jon McGregor is the author of four novels and a story collection. He is the winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, Betty Trask Prize, and Somerset Maugham Award, and has twice been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, where he edits the Letters Page, a literary journal in letters. He was born in Bermuda in 1976, grew up in Norfolk, and now lives in Nottingham, England.
Until I read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, I knew only three things about its protagonist Ned Kelly:
- He was an outlaw in Australia
- He was hanged for his crimes
- In his final shootout he wore a helmet made from iron with slits for his eyes
Carey’s novel takes us way beyond those headline facts and into the mind of the man whose first encounter with the law happened when he was just thirteen years old and he was charged with the assault and robbery of a Chinese pig and fowl trader. By the time Ned Kelly was 25 he had progressed to cattle thieving, bank robberies and murder. How this child of a dirt-poor Irish immigrant family became one of the most wanted men in Australia and the stuff of legends is the premise of True History of the Kelly Gang.
Based partly on historical documents including the Jerilderie Letter written by Kelly to a fellow outlaw, the novel begins with a 12-year-old boy forced to grow up quickly when his father dies. As head of the family, Ned is fiercely protective of his mother and siblings, putting his heart and soul into building fences around their farm in Victoria and clearing the land to protect crops and livestock. Manoeuvred by his mother to become an apprentice to the infamous bushranger Harry Power, Ned is drawn increasingly into a life of crime. He fights with his mother’s suitors and the police, and when he shoots a treacherous police officer in self-defense, Ned is forced to flee into the wild bush country. With his younger brother and two friends he commits audacious crimes, all the while gaining widespread support from poor oppressed farmers and remaining one step ahead of the forces of law and order.
True History of the Kelly Gang is an imaginative reconstruction of Ned Kelly’s life story in his own words. Dedicated to the baby daughter he has never seen, Kelly wants to set the record straight. He promises her at the beginning that his history “will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false” and the word ‘True’ in the title further seeks to persuade us that this is an definitive and authoritative account of his life and of the injustices suffered by the Irish in Australia.
He repeatedly represents himself as a person who was pushed into the life of an outlaw by forces beyond his control. “What choice did I have?” he asks, when he kills the constable who heads the local police station. At other times he reflects on how he has been betrayed by the dishonesty of others. He operates to a code of ethics that will not let him see his brother imprisoned for an act that he Ned committed, and that drives him to rob banks to raise money for the release of his mother from what he considers an unlawful imprisonment. All of this is in strong contrast to the lack of princples he witness among the police, judges and fellow settlers.
All of this is rendered in a style that is striking. Carey’s narrative has a directness and immediacy of tone that makes it hard to resist Kelly’s portrait of himself as a man who had the stuffing knocked out of him as a child. Coming out of a stint of hard labour in prison he reflects:
I were 17 yr old when I came out of prison 6ft 2in. broad of shoulder my hands as hard as the hammers we had swung inside the walls of Beecworth Goal. I had a mighty beard and was a child no more although in truth I do not know what childhood or youth I ever had. What remained if any were finally taken away inside that goal boiled off me like fat and marrow is rendered within the tallow pot.
The raggedness of this style of writing with its lack of punctuation and free flow from one thought to another took me a little time to get used to but once any initial reservations were overcome, I got swept along. Kelly may have lacked a formal education but he knows how to tell a story and to describe the environment in which he lives and hides. Here are a few examples I picked out:
“Many is the night I have sat by the roaring river the rain never ending them logs so green bubbling and spitting blazing in a rage no rain can staunch.”
“The clouds was light but queerly yellow on their edges as they moved across the ageless constellations.”
“Curtains of bark hung from the trunks like shredded skin”
These moments together with flashes of humour and reflections on the Irish experience were welcome contrasts to the torrent of detail about cattle thieving, double crossing, run-ins with the law and shoot-outs. Ned Kelly seems to have perfect recall of every stage of his life and every conversation and to want to tell us about every single detail. I got a bit tired of this three quarters of the way through. Though I did enjoy it, less would certainly have more with this book.
About this book: True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey was first published in 2000 by the University of Queensland Press. It won the Booker Prize in 2001. My copy is a paperback published by Mackays of Chatham.
About the author: Born in Australia in 1943, Peter Carey is the author of six previous novels and a collection of stories. He won the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda; his other honors include the Commonwealth Prize and the Miles Franklin Award. He became only the second author to win the Booker Prize twice.
Why I read this book: it’s one of the few remaining books on my Booker Prize project. I included it in my 20booksofsummer project for 2017.
It’s 210 years since an Act of Parliament abolished the slave trade in Britain, a trade upon which many personal fortunes were made; mansions, stately homes and churches built and Britain’s major ports, cities and canals developed. It’s estimated that by the early 1800s as many as one in six of the wealthiest Britons derived at least some of their fortunes from slavery. This is a period of British history which still causes controversy today – earlier this year campaigners vowed to erase the name of Edward Colston from the streets of Bristol because the buildings he bequeathed to the city were funded through his involvement in the slave trade.
The profit motive that propelled merchants and investors like Colston is the theme explored in Sacred Hunger, the 1992 Booker-prize winning novel by Barry Unsworth. It begins with the ambition of one man, William Kemp, a leading merchant in Liverpool who believes the time is ripe for the city and its entrepreneurs to reap the rewards of trade across the Atlantic and Africa. So confident is he that he has a new ship built to carry firearms to the west coast of Africa, intending to trade them for slaves to be transported and sold in the West Indies in exchange for a cargo of sugar to be taken back to England.
He knows it will be a risky endeavour. So he equips the Liverpool Merchant with special features: guns on its quarterdecks mounted so they can be trained down to quell slave revolts and thickened rails to make death leaps more difficult. In his captain Saul Thurso he finds a man who will not hesitate to act in whatever way necessary to maintain order. Yet Kemp likes to think he is also a caring man so he recruits his nephew Matthew Paris as ship’s doctor, “for reasons of humanity”, much to Thurso’s astonishment and disgust.
It’s through the eyes of this doctor that we witness events on board ship once it sets sail. Paris is a complex character. In between binding the wounds of crew members and treating the symptoms of venereal disease and bloody flux (severe dysentery), he spends his time at sea reading Voltaire and Pope. His thoughts turn constantly to his wife and his feelings of guilt for the part he played in her premature death. His objection to the profit motive, the inhumanity of slavery and the treatment of the human cargo put him at loggerheads with the Captain.
When an artist and philosopher called Deblanc joins the ship in West Africa, Paris finds he has someone with whom he can debate the legitimacy of the profit motive behind the voyage. Deblanc tells Paris how the lust for profit becomes legitimised:
Money is sacred as everyone knows… So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking only to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.
Paris becomes increasingly disquiet about his own role in assisting the slave traders:
I have assisted in the suffering inflicted on these innocent people and in doing so joined the ranks of those that degrade the unoffending… We have taken everything from them and only for the sake of profit—that sacred hunger… which justifies everything, sanctifies all purposes.
Thurso decides to jettison the captured slaves, the insurance money being more attractive than their prospects for sale in their sickened condition. It’s the breaking point for Paris who leads a rebellion and forms a settlement off the coast of Florida where crew members and slaves live together on equal terms. They share the few remaining women slaves, communicate via a trade pidgin and trade with local Indians.
A decade later, William Kemp’s son Erasmus learns of this settlement and resolves to recapture the slaves for they are, in his eyes, his property. Book 2 of Sacred Hunger traces his journey across the Atlantic to seek retribution against his cousin, bring him to justice and reclaim the remaining slaves. Like his now-dead father, Erasmus is motivated by money and finds in Florida that the promise of land and wealth is equally compelling to the Governor of this British colony and the local Indian tribal chiefs.
The story moves at a smart pace, especially in the first book. There is a large and colourful cast of characters from the crewmen duped in wharfside brothels into joining the ship to Thurso whose glaring eyes and propensity for flogging make him an imposing figure. Unsworth provides so much detail that we feel we too are pitching and rolling through the waves or clambering up the mainmast. Fortunately the book doesn’t get so authentic that we experience the stink of the slave’s quarters in the bottom of the hull.
Sacred Hunger is long at 600 pages but doesn’t feel unnecessarily drawn out. It’s page after page of solid adventure, realistic 18th century dialogue and vivid prose which works without recourse to any experimentation with form. In Book 1 which takes us as far as Thurso’s murder of the slaves, Unsworth varies the tempo by alternating episodes on the Liverpool Merchant with scenes of a failed romance and a family scandal in Liverpool.
Book One was a joy to read but I wasn’t as enthralled by the considerably shorter Book 2. Most of this later section is set in Florida where the hoped for utopia of a settlement of equals is clearly breaking down despite Paris’ attempt to convince the settlers that “White man, black man, all free man, all bradder, lie tagedder dis place, all same boat.” The problem for me was that so much of this section is conveyed in that kind of pidgin language. It’s understandable since it brings home the point about how difficult it is for the English and Africans to communicate but it made for some frustrating reading. Overall though this was still a good read and will find a place in the top half of my favourite Booker titles I’m sure.
About the book: Sacred Hunger is a historical novel by Barry Unsworth first published in 1992 by Hamish Hamilton. It shared the Booker Prize that year with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (one of my all-time favourite Booker winners).
About the author: Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham. After university he served in the Royal Corps of Signals, then became a teacher and novelist. He worked as a lecturer in English at a London technical college and the universities of Athens and Istanbul. He was writer in residence at the University of Liverpool. In later years he made his home in Umbria, Italy. He died in Perugia, at age 81, of lung cancer.
Earlier in the week I asked for help in working out which of the remaining 8 Booker titles from my list I should read next. And also was there a standout novel with which to end.
Thanks to everyone who weighed in on this. As I expected, opinions were divided, proof if ever any were needed that reading is a highly personal experience.
Some clear trends did emerge however.
G. the 1972 winner by J Berger got zero votes of confidence which is not surprising since it had been read by only one person: Susan at A Life in Books. Only one other person seemed to be aware of Berger’s work: Kelly at Kellysbookishramblings has G on her TBR shelves..
Also not universally recommended is the 1974 winner The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer. Lisa of ANZitlovers gave it a resounding vote of confidence calling it “a brave book written by a brave woman who exposed the day to day reality of apartheid to the international stage” and Bookbii described it as an “excellent, if challenging book.” Countering this however is Alison, a blogger from South Africa who commented : Nadine Gordimer is a Sacred Icon in South African literature, but I’ve always found her books very heavy going.”
Local connections certainly played a part in reactions to James Kelman’s 1994 winner How Late It Was, How Late “Don’t be put off Kelman,” said Weezelle at BooksandLeaves. My (Scottish) husband says that the criticism aimed at him comes from certain parts of the British Isles who were educated in certain institutions that may or may not have a particular elitist view of the world. Even for me as a non-Scot, I loved this book.” Col, a Glaswegian, loved the book but admitted to maybe a little bias since it is set in her home city and the language is thus very familiar.
The jury delivered a minority verdict on Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre. Some of you really enjoyed it, calling variously “a riot’ and “bonkers” but others declared they hated it and Paul Fulcher thought it “lightweight and completely unworthy of the prize.”
What did you recommend?
Top of the poll was Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, the 1993 winner by Roddy Doyle with nine votes in favour and no negative reactions. Kim at Reading Matters described it as “one of my all time favourites. ” Many of you commented on its readability – a description that would have pleased the judges of the 2011 prize but was dismissed by many of the literary great and the good asa sign of dumbing down of the prize. But what’s wrong with saying a book is readable? I’m more than confident that people reading this blog don’t mean these are “simple” books or superficial. Maybe we mean they are less challenging in form or subject but still require engagement of the brain.
Also described as an easy and very readable book is The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst which won the Booker Prize in 2004. It attracted 6 votes, a draw with The True History of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey.
The novel that had me most curious to hear your reactions was the most recent winner on my list: the 2015 winner A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Although it attracted only 4 votes in its favour there were none against which surprised me because I’ve seen many other reviews commenting on how complex a novel this is structurally and how tough it can be to tune into the Jamaican dialect. Yet one commenter said it was “An astonishingly good book, that stays with you long after you’ve read it. Yes, there is extreme violence, some of the dialect is hard to understand, and the politics can be confusing. It is not an easy read – but worth the effort.
Where does this take me?
I’m going to save The Line of Beauty and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha until the end since they were so highly recommended. It would be tempting to leave one of the least favourite novels to the end but I really do not want to mark the completion of this project by reading something I don’t enjoy. I’m going to make The True History of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey by next choice given it has had a positive reaction. After that I’m going to let my mood dictate what I choose, trying to space out the more challenging reads where I can.
Thanks for all your help.
The countdown has begun for my project to read all the Booker Prize winners since the inception of the prize in 1969. I’ve read 40 of the winners, abandoned two which means there are just eight remaining ( I decided to call a halt in 2015).
It’s taken far longer than I anticipated when I started more than 5 years ago. If you’re a book blogger you can blame yourself for my slow progress – you would insist in pushing other titles under my nose that I felt I absolutely had to read. In other words I got distracted a few times. But I’m determined to wrap this up before the end of the year.
I’m just not sure what to read next particularly since some of the remaining titles sound challenging. A Brief History of Seven Killings, the 2015 winner is ” a difficult book with a stop-start structure ,” and cast of around 75 characters according to The Guardian reviewer. One of the Booker judges declared the 1994 winner How Late it Was How Late to be “crap” while The Guardian review considered the novel “brilliant, sometimes quite funny, but more often a miserable slog…. confusing, claustrophobic and miserable” . I started The Conservationist at the end of last year but found it confusing so set aside temporarily.
Here’s a little request – can you help me work my way through the final eight by letting me know if you’ve read any of these and how you found the experience? I especially want to make the final Booker I read to be a firework and not a damp squib. So are there any rockets in this list?
For those of you who don’t know these books, here are the Goodreads synopsis for each one
2015 – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)
“…a masterfully written novel that explores the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the late 1970s.
On December 3, 1976, just before the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert, gunmen stormed his house, machine guns blazing. The attack nearly killed the Reggae superstar, his wife, and his manager, and injured several others. Marley would go on to perform at the free concert on December 5, but he left the country the next day, not to return for two years.
Deftly spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters—assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts—A Brief History of Seven Killings is the fictional exploration of that dangerous and unstable time and its bloody aftermath, from the streets and slums of Kingston in the 70s, to the crack wars in 80s New York, to a radically altered Jamaica in the 90s.
2004 – The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst)
In the summer of 1983, twenty-year-old Nick Guest moves into an attic room in the Notting Hill home of the Feddens: conservative Member of Parliament Gerald, his wealthy wife Rachel, and their two children, Toby-whom Nick had idolized at Oxford-and Catherine, highly critical of her family’s assumptions and ambitions.
As the boom years of the eighties unfold, Nick, an innocent in the world of politics and money, finds his life altered by the rising fortunes of this glamorous family. His two vividly contrasting love affairs, one with a young black clerk and one with a Lebanese millionaire, dramatize the dangers and rewards of his own private pursuit of beauty, a pursuit as compelling to Nick as the desire for power and riches among his friends.
Richly textured, emotionally charged, disarmingly comic,
2003 – Vernon God Little (DBC Pierre)
Named as one of the 100 Best Things in the World by GQmagazine in 2003, the riotous adventures of Vernon Gregory Little in small town Texas and beachfront Mexico mark one of the most spectacular, irreverent and bizarre debuts of the twenty-first century so far. Its depiction of innocence and simple humanity (all seasoned with a dash of dysfunctional profanity) in an evil world is never less than astonishing. The only novel to be set in the barbecue sauce capital of Central Texas, Vernon God Little suggests that desperate times throw up the most unlikely of heroes.
2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang (Peter Carey)
Told in the form of a journal justifying Ned Kelly to the daughter he would never meet, this is a mesmerising act of historical imagining by one of the most popular novelists at work today.
1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)
One Sunday morning in Glasgow, shoplifting ex-con Sammy awakens in an alley, wearing another man’s shoes and trying to remember his two-day drinking binge. He gets in a scrap with some soldiers and revives in a jail cell, badly beaten and, he slowly discovers, completely blind. And things get worse: his girlfriend disappears, the police question him for a crime they won’t name, and his stab at disability compensation embroils him in the Kafkaesque red tape of the welfare bureaucracy. Told in the utterly uncensored language of the Scottish working class, this is a dark and subtly political parable of struggle and survival, rich with irony and black humour.
1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)
“Sometimes when nothing happened it was really getting ready to happen.” Irish Paddy rampages through Barrytown streets with like-minded hooligans, playing cowboys, etching names in wet concrete, setting fires. The gang are not bad boys, just restless. When his parents argue, Paddy stays up all night to keep them safe. Change always comes, not always for the better
1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)
“The winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature paints a fascinating portrait of a “conservationist” left only with the possibility of self-preservation, a subtle and detailed study of the forces and relationships that seethe in South Africa today.”
1972 – G. (J Berger)
John Berger relates the story of “G.,” a young man forging an energetic sexual career in Europe during the early years of this century. With profound compassion, Berger explores the hearts and minds of both men and women, and what happens during sex, to reveal the conditions of the Don Juan’s success: his essential loneliness, the quiet cumulation in each of his sexual experiences of all of those that precede it, the tenderness that infuses even the briefest of his encounters, and the way women experience their own extraordinariness through their moments with him. All of this Berger sets against the turbulent backdrop of Garibaldi and the failed revolution of Milanese workers in 1898, the Boer War, and the first flight across the Alps, making G. a brilliant novel about the search for intimacy in history’s private moments.
I approached J. M Coetzee’s Booker Prize winning novella The Life & Times of Michael K hoping against hope it would be easier to penetrate than the last novel I read by him: The Schooldays of Jesus. I found the latter simply baffling as you can tell from my review. The Life & Times of Michael K fortunately proved more straightforward though I can’t say that reading it was a wholly satisfying experience.
It started in a promising fashion with the introduction to Michael, a simple man who has spent his childhood in institutions and works as a gardener in Cape Town. Michael tends to his mother, a domestic servant to a wealthy family. Michael is a man deformed by a hare lip, a disfigurement which makes people look down on him. They view him as a simpleton, as a doctor later explains:
He is a simpleton, and not even an interesting simpleton. He is a poor helpless soul who has been permitted to wander out on the battlefield, if I may use that word, the battlefield of life, when he should have ben shut away in an institution with high walls, stuffing cushions or watering the flower beds.
Lacking in intellectual power he might be but Michael is a good son who wants to do right by his mother. When she becomes very sick and decides she wants to return to her birthplace, he quits his job so he can take her home. But the country has descended into civil war and martial law has been imposed so he cannot get the proper permits for travel out of the city. He builds a shoddy rickshaw in which he pushes his mother through the streets and onto the main highways out into the countryside. It’s an arduous journey. The roads are full of armed convoys from whom they must hide and other travellers who want to steel their possessions. At night they have to sleep hidden among straggling roots and wet bracken with only cold food to eat. His mother’s health declines further but when she dies Michael resolves to carry on alone to deliver his mother’s ashes.
He finds the farm at Prince Albert where his mother once lived but it is abandoned and desolate. Soon, Michael is living in a dug-out, communing with nature, making a garden where he grows melons and barely surviving. His melon-growing might have been highly allegorical but if so its significance was rather lost on me.
Every so often Michael’s quiet and happy existence is disrupted by a war he feels is nothing to do with him. He finds himself in and out of prison and labour camps that have sprung up all over the country, forced to work, and to answer questions he does not understand. His act of defiance is to rejecting the food his captors give him and then to escape, managing to return to the apartment where he and his mother lived in Cape Town. He is still the mute and simple man he was at the beginning, he acknowledges. But he has learned some things from his experiences. One was how to be a better farmer.
The mistake I made, he thought, going back in time, was not to have had plenty of seeds, a different packet of seeds for each pocket…. Then my mistake was to plant all my seeds together in one patch. I should have planted them one at a time spread out over miles of veld in patches of soil no larger than my hand, and drawn a map and kept it with me at all times so that every night I could make a tour of the sites to water them.
And that he is happiest when left alone. Everywhere he goes there are people who want to exercise their form of charity upon him, asking him questions.
They want me to open my heart and tell them the story of a life lived in cages. They want to hear all abut the cages I have lived in as if I were a budgie or a white mouse or a monkey. … When my story was finished people would have shaken their heads and been sorry and angry and plied me with food and drink;women would have taken me into their beds and mothered me in the dark. … I have escaped the camps; perhaps, if I lie low, I will escape the charity too.
That reflection and Michael’s interpretation of his experiences represented the flaw in this book for me. They come in the final pages of the novel and feel totally out of character. We’re now far removed from the man described by a doctor in the labour camp as ”an original soul . . . untouched by doctrine, untouched by history . . . evading the peace and the war . . . drifting through time”. Michael along the way acquires sufficient deep insight to ask searching questions and pass comments about whether his time in a camp is a process of self-education.
I understood this was a novel about passive resistance to oppression and about survival but Coetzee had me perplexed by his ending with its last-minute imposition of a “message”. He makes Michael ask: “Is that the moral of it all…that there is time for everything? Is that how morals come?”. Completely out of character, clumsy and unnecessary. Spoiling an otherwise reasonable yarn.
About the book: The Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee was published in 1983 by Secker and Warburg. My copy is a paperback edition published by Vintage in 2004. The novel won the Booker Prize in 1983.
About the author: John Maxwell “J. M.” Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940. Apart from his fictional writings he is also an essayist, linguist, translator. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. He relocated to Australia in 2002, becoming an Australian citizen four years later. He has an impressive record with the Booker prize, the first author to receive the prize twice ( the other was Disgrace in 1999 (reviewed here). His novel Summertime, was shortlisted and was hotly tipped to win but ultimately lost out to Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. He made the longlist in 2003 for Elizabeth Costello, 2005 for Slow Man and again in 2016 with The Schooldays of Jesus.
Why I read this book: Quite simply I read it because it was one of the books I hadn’t got around to on my Booker prize project
The year is 1815. Like thousands of other young men looking to start a new life, Edmund Talbot boards a ship destined for a British colony. With the help of his godfather patron he is to join the staff of the Governor’s office in Australia. To amuse his godfather he begins to write a journal. In it he records his impressions of the ship which is a creaking and ancient former warship, not affording the naive young man anything like the standard of accommodation he was expecting (his ‘cabin’ is more akin to a hutch).
But this doesn’t curb the enthusiasm of this young dandy. He may be a novice in maritime life but Edmund is an enthusiastic student who wants to learn the ways of the men onboard.
“I have laid my Marine Dictionary by my pillow; for I am determined to speak the tarry language as perfectly as any of these rolling fellows”
With wit and energy he describes daily life aboard ship, the disdain he feels for the bad manners of his fellow passengers (who are generally beneath him in the social hierarchy) and the mounting tensions between officers, crew and passengers. His observations are mixed with salacious gossip and details of his own sexual encounters.
His curiosity is awakened by one passenger in particular, the Reverend James Colley, who, for reasons we don’t discover until he end of the novel, is despised by the captain. Edmund initially tries to support the parson but is ultimately repelled by Colley’s over-eager attempts at friendship. Colley also falls foul of the sailors who, in the seclusion of the fo’castle, exact their revenge, delivering the parson into a “hell of degradation” involving a crossing-the-line ceremony. The shame Colley feels at his treatment is so deep he never recovers.
And it’s at this point that the light and frothy tone of the novel suddenly changes and it becomes a much more disturbing narrative. Golding, it’s clear, has led his readers up and down the garden path in the first half of the book. Talbot’s journal paints the parson as an absurd man with a hacked-about haircut and ill-fitting wig at whom we are invited to laugh. It’s hard not to when Colley is seen dead drunk, naked, “his mind only lightly linked to his understanding”, crying out “joy, joy, joy” and attempting to bless his fellow passengers.
But after his shaming, we get to read Colley’s own journal and slowly this young parson is transformed into a sympathetic, sweet-natured man. His wild haircut is explained by the fact that his sister tried to cut it one last time before he boarded ship and they parted, but was crying so much that she could hardly see what she was doing. All the laughs we’ve had at Colley’s expense now seem hollow as we learn about the many other cruelties that Edmund failed to notice or failed to understand.
By the end of the novel, we like Edmund, feel complicit in Colley’s downfall. It was his own aggressive behaviour towards Colley which made others on board feel it was ok to bully this man. The truth of his death however never comes to light because the captain’s inquiry is a whitewash and Edmund is so compromised he’s left with no option but to hide the facts from Colley’s sister. The boy who ends the novel is a far wiser, more mature creature than the one we encounter at the beginning.
With lack of sleep and too much understanding I grow a little crazy, I think, like all men at sea who live too close to each other and too close thereby to all that is monstrous under the sun and moon.
There were many enjoyable features of this novel. Firstly Golding’s use of the two journals disrupted the trajectory of the novel and turned what could otherwise have been a pleasant, if unremarkable, tale about a young snob, into a fascinating narrative. Everything about this book feels authentic, from the language and the events described to the choice of typeface with cracked edge letters and slightly rough paper in my edition. And then we get the themes of shame and class consciousness which undercut the comedy of Edmund’s naivety. Golding shows that even within the confines of a ship that “streams with sea water, rain and other fouler liquids’, the British class structure prevails. For all the humour of the first half of the book, Rites of Passage is a quite disquieting novel.
The Novel: Rites of Passage is the first title in the To the Ends of the Earth trilogy —Rites of Passage (1980), Close Quarters (1987), and Fire Down Below (1989. They are all set on a British former man-of-war ship that is transporting migrants to Australia in the early 19th century. Rites of Passage won the Booker Prize in 1980 against fierce competition from Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers.
The Author: William Golding is best known as the author of the 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. In 1983 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Why I read this book: It won the Booker Prize so naturally I had to read this as part of my project. I did so during a short break in the city of Salisbury, Wiltshire unaware that I was staying just a few hundred yards from the school where Golding taught between 1939 and 1961. I made the connection when walking past the school and noticed this plaque.
I tried my best but around page 150 The Finkler Question and I parted company. It’s become only the second Booker Prize winning title that I have failed to finish — in case you’re wondering, the other was The Famished Road by Ben Okri, a book so bad I couldn’t even make it past page 80 (my review explains what I hated about this book).
The Finkler Question is the story of Julian Treslove, a man who once worked on the kind of BBC Radio 3 programmes that no-one ever listens to (if you discount the insomniac man and his dog in the Outer Hebrides). He’s come down in the world and is now making a living as a celebrity lookalike. Not that he resembles anyone famous especially, he just looks like all kinds of people in general. Treslove is a man much inclined to introspection who attacks an idea with the determination and perseverance of a dog with a bone. 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.
One of them, Sam Finkler, has become a celebrity as the author of popular mainstream books on philosophy. Treslove resents his friend’s success and hi-jacks his surname Finkler as a shorthand descriptor for the word “Jew” because “It took away the stigma ….The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins.” Another, much older friend, is Libor Sevcik, an elderly ex-Hollywood journalist who is in mourning for his beautiful dead wife.
In essence the novel deals with Treslove’s obsession with the meaning of Jewishness, politically, socially, culturally etc. He sees it as a club to which his friends belong but from which he has always felt ostracised. But on his way home from dinner with his two pals he is mugged by a woman whose parting words, Treslove believes, are “You Jew”. He takes it as a sign that his attacker knows more than he does —t hat he is, as he has always desired to be — Jewish.
A lot of the novel up to page 150 is taken up with Treslove looking for further confirmation of his Jewishness and with the reactions of friends and family. In between we get discussions between Finkler and Sevcik about the state of Israel. Sevcik is pro, pronouncing the word “as a holdy utterance like the cough of God” whereas the anti-Israel Finkler makes it sound as if the word denoted an illness. They’ve debated the subject so many times even they sound rather tired of it – Finkler responds with a resigned “Here we go, Holocaust, Holocaust” whenever the subject comes up, attracting the equally resigned repost from Libor “Here we go, here we go, more of the self-hating Jew stuff.”
According to The Guardian reviewer The Finkler Question is “full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding.” To me it was just dull, repetitive and self-indulgent. It seemed to move forward at snail’s pace with endless dialogue about what makes a person a Jew. Howard Jacobson opens up an interesting line of questioning here. Is Jewishness a state of mind inherent from the time of birth? Or is it a state of mind acquired over time. Or a set of behaviours? At one conversation Treslove fails to persuade Libor that his boyhood interest in opera and the violin is significant.
That doesn’t make you Jewish. Wagner listened to opera and wanted to play the violin. Hitler loved opera and wanted to play the violin. … You don’t have to be Jewish to like music.
Interesting yes but Jacobson milks this approach, returning to the same kind of conversation over and over again without ever reaching a decision to act. It’s quite tedious. By the time I’d reached page 150 I’d had enough of Treslove’s persistent introspection. He’s not a character I cared enough about to want to know whether his deliberations reached any satisfactory conclusion. I just wanted to grab him by the scruff of his neck and shake some sense into him.
About the Book: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010. Jacobson was the rank outsider for the £50,000 prize – the money was on Emma Donaghue to win with Room or Tom McCarthy’s C .
About the author: Howard Jacobson was born in 1942 in Manchester, UK. He went to Cambridge university studying English under the tutelage of F.R Leavis. He pursued an academic career in Australia and then the UK. His first novel Coming from Behind, was published when he was in his 40s.
If you’d asked me a few weeks ago whether I’d be likely to enjoy a novel about everything from Zen and the meaning of time to the Japanese tsunami and environmental degradation, I’d probably have said no way. But not only did I enjoy A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki it’s turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.
This is a novel that addresses big themes that transcend cultures and borders yet it starts at the level of one individual. In a Tokyo cafe where waitresses dress up as French maids, 16 year old Nao (pronounced as “now”) Yasutani pours out her thoughts into a diary. Her journal is an attempt to deal with the severe loneliness and feelings of alienation she has experienced since her father lost his lucrative hi-tech job in Silicon Valley, California and the family had to move back to Japan. They live in a one bed room apartment; her mother sits for hours in front of a tank of jellyfish at the aquarium, her father, unable to get a job, has attempted suicide. Nao has been bullied, ostracised and humiliated at school and is herself contemplating suicide. But first she will write the life story of her 104-year-old grandmother Jiko, a nun who lives in a remote Buddhist temple in north-eastern Japan.
More than a decade later, the diary, wrapped in a Hello Kitty lunchbox and freezer bags covered in barnacles, is washed ashore on an island in British Columbia where it’s discovered by Ruth, an author. As she reads the Nao’s words Ruth becomes sucked into the mystery of the girl’s life. How has the diary wound up here on the other side of the world? Did it float across the Pacific on one of the huge gyres of waste she learns about from her husband Oliver? How long had the package been tossed about in the sea? What happened to Nao – did she kill herself or was she a victim of the tsunami in 2011? Can Ruth find and save her? Questions that compel Ruth to frantically hunt the Internet, seek insight from local marine experts and help with translation. Each time she thinks she is making progress, she hits another dead end.
The novel oscillates between first person excerpts from Nao’s diary and third person narration in which Ruth reacts to the diary and the other documents. New layers of story emerge and new connections are made. In the lunchbox, Ruth discovers letters from Jiko’s son, Haruki, a young man forced to give up his studies and become a kamikaze pilot during the last days of the Second World War. In the letters, written in French so his commanding officers cannot understand them, he reveals his fears about the task he has been ordered to undertake. The package also contains Haruki’s watch which miraculously still keeps time.
Time of course is one of the threads that holds the novel together. The slippery nature of time is one of Nao’s preoccupations. She calls herself a “time being. … someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and everyone of us who is, or was, or ever will be.” She captures her thoughts about her “last days on Earth” in a diary bound within the covers of an old copy of Proust’s A la Recherché du Temps Perdu. As she recounts her past, she wonders not only who will read her story, but also when she will catch up to her present and what catching up will feel like. At the same time, she seems to believe that “now” is an impossibility because it keeps disappearing:
In the time it takes to say now, now is already over. It’s already then. Then is the opposite of now. So saying now obliterates its meaning, turning it into exactly what it isn’t. It’s like the word is committing suicide or something.
She invites her imagined reader to count the moments of the now with her. Across the years and across the ocean Ruth tries to keep in time with Nao, forcing herself to slow down the pace at which she reads the journal. Reading it at the same pace at which Nao wrote it, will she reasons, enable her to “more closely replicate Nao’s experience.” It’s left to Ruth’s husband Oliver to provide a logical explanation for the conflation of past and present she experiences, using the experiment known as Schrödinger’s cat as evidence that an object (or Nao herself) may be simultaneously both alive and dead.
Philosophical explorations of quantum mechanics, discussions about crow species and the anatomy of barnacles populate A Tale for the Time Being. It’s a dizzying array of ideas which sometimes threaten to overwhelm the reader (especially if you also pay attention to the 163 footnotes and six appendices). What holds it all together is Nao’s voice. She’s a direct and engaging narrator, holding little back in her account of her fears for her father and the despair when a disturbing film about her goes viral through social media. What saves her is her relationship with her grandmother. During a summer holiday at the temple Nao learns how to control her anger, empty her mind and express gratitude for the simplest things in life. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for this girl in her pain and her desire for love.
If you want a novel that deals with both the big and the small issues, A Tale for the Time Being ticks all the boxes. It’s quite mesmerising in scope but at the heart of it is a young girl reaching out across time and space for help.
About the Book: A Tale for the Time Being is Ozeki’s third novel. It was longlisted for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Award and shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize.
About the Author: A native of Connecticut, Ruth Ozeki immersed herself in English and Asian Studies college and through extensive travel in Asia. After working in cinematic set design and television production, she became an independent filmmaker. Ozeki’s two earlier novels, My Year of Meats and All Over Creation, were both recognized as Notable Books by The New York Times. An ordained Zen Buddhist priest, Ozeki divides her time between New York and British Columbia. There are numerous parallels between the author and the character of Ruth in A Tale for the Time Being – aside from sharing a name, they are each married to a man called Oliver, have a mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s, a moody cat and have a house on an island in Desolation Sound.
Why I read this book: I heard about this book when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was considered to be a strong contender (though some reviewers said they felt the section set in British Columbia was weaker than the Tokyo sections). I never got around to reading it but then found a copy in a library sale. It’s one of the books on my 20booksofsummer reading list.