I’ve never met Joslyn except through her blog Chronic Bibliophilia. Her home is in Massachusetts, USA. Mine is in Wales, UK. Thousands of miles separate us physically but we are united by one thing – our interest in the novels that win what’s considered one of the most prestigious prizes in the literary world: The Booker Prize. Over the last few years each of us has been reading through the list of winners.
Which of these are our favourites – we asked each other that question and came up with vastly different answers. Here we chat about the progress we’ve made and pick our top 3 titles from the winners we’ve read so far.
Joslyn’s Top 3 Booker winners
Joslyn @Chronic Bibliophilia
Born and raised in the US, my lifelong bibliophila was initially heavily biased towards American works, a bias imposed by convenience rather than ideology. As I child, I aspired to read all of the Newbery Medal winners – awarded annually for the most distinguished American children’s book. Though that project didn’t survive adolescence, in my early adulthood I found myself formulating a similar goal – to read all of the Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction. Again, this was a prestigious list of feted works by Americans. When I actually completed the Pulitzer project in 2012, I felt compelled to expand my reading horizons and to take on a new challenge. Two UK-led prizes – the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize – shimmered in front of me like irresistible bait. I was hooked. Within a few years, I finished these prize lists, as well.
To my mind the Booker’s Prize list is one list that is particularly fraught with inconsistencies – stocked equally with exquisite masterpieces and near misses. Though there are a number of award winners which were quickly read and forgotten, however, some of the finest works on this list remain among the top books I’ve read.
Selecting the creme de la creme was a painful process, but eventually I arrived at what, for now at least, are my top three Booker Prize winners – “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, “Possession” by A.S. Byatt, and “The Bone People” by Keri Hulme.
“Life of Pi” by Yann Martel
In “Life of Pi”, Yann Martel spins an engaging story, an epic reminiscent of the Odyssey for its magic and mystery. Pi, a young Indian boy, is lost at sea after the cargo ship upon which he, his family, and their zoo animals, were attempting to emigrate, sinks. Pi valiantly finds his way to the one and only lifeboat, but soon he realizes that he is not alone. Far from bringing him comfort, his newly discovered companions put him in even graver danger. This story is full of bigger-than-life events and, as a reader, I willingly suspended disbelief early on, finding myself taking for granted the possibilities (and impossibilities) laid out throughout the tale.
“The Bone People” by Keri Hulme
1985’s winner, “The Bone People”, also has its mystical moments as it explores the intersection of a dwindling Maori culture and the crush of modernity. Kerewin is a misanthrope, shut off in an odd cottage of her own making, eschewing any interaction with the outside world. Her peace, self-torturous though it seems, is interrupted when a young mute boy finds his way into her home and gradually into her steely heart. Keri Hulme has written what I suspect is a partly autobiographical story of isolation, culture, and the definition of family. The main characters are troubling and troubled, finding themselves and each other in a complicated world. The storytelling is beautiful, painful, and heart-stopping
“Possession” by A.S. Byatt
The book nerd and researcher in me was immediately tantalized by this book. “Possession” tells the story of two literary scholars who discover and dissect letters between two tragic latter-day poets. It is part mystery, part scholarship, part romance, crafted in intricate and dazzling measure, woven like a centuries-old tapestry full of impossible detail and discovery. Byatt explores the interplay between passion and ambition, desire and drive. I was astounded by how good this book was. The experience was visceral, the story deeply moving.
About Chronic Bibliophilia
For as far back as I can remember, reading has been more than a past time for me. Reading is breakfast; it is a hot shower; it is sleep on the perfect pillow. Sure, I could go a day without it. But why on earth would I? Chronic Bibliophilia chronicles my journey as I endeavor to become a ridiculously well-read human being. This blog provides reflections, reviews, and recommendations from a reading list focused on supporting and highlighting the voices that continue to face suppression. I believe that this project has changed not just what I read, but how I read and how I think. I hope you’ll join me on my literary odyssey. Click here to visit Chronic Bibliophilia and to sign up to follow the blog.
I’m from Wales which for those of you who are geographically challenged, is a country within the UK. I’m one of those people that helps keep the publishing industry afloat since I simply cannot resist buying books. I’ve been like this ever since I was a child, saving up my pocket money just so I could by the latest Enid Blyton. Naturally my tastes have evolved since then … My adventures in the world of the Booker prize started just over five years ago. I’m not exactly sure what triggered the idea – probably I’d just heard something on the radio about the latest winner – but I started to think about the whole question of why some novels are deemed ‘better’ than others. Maybe, I thought, if I read all the winners of one of the most prestigious literary prizes, I might find the answer. Although I’ve now read 39 of the winners the answer is still proving elusive.
Reaction to Joslyn’s choices
It’s been fascinating to see how different Joslyn’s choices are from my own. I enjoyed Life of Pi, far more than I expected to given that relies on magical realism which not my favourite technique. I didn’t rate it as highly as Joslyn does however – it’s currently ranked at number 13 on my list of the Booker titles I’ve read. Possession trails a long way behind at number 31 in my list. I appreciated A. S Byatt’s ability to weave the Victorian era and the contemporary period stories together but looking back at my review I see that I didn’t find the characters very convincing and the poetry I found tedious. The Bone People, is currently ranking at number 28 in my list. I would have ranked it higher if Keri Hulme hadn’t gone and introduced a set of mystical creatures right towards the end. It spoiled what was otherwise an intriguing novel that kept me engaged even if sometimes I wasn’t sure what I was reading.
Karen’s Top 3 Booker winners
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
The winner in 2012, this is the follow up to her 2009 Booker winning novel Wolf Hall, a novel which broke the mold in terms of historical fiction. Mantel was by no means the first author to write a fictionalised biography of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s right hand man. What made Wolf Hall novel so distinctive was how Mantel went behind the mask of Cromwell’s actions and into his head, revealing the complexity of his character and what it takes to navigate the treacherous waters of the King’s court. Bring Up the Bodies takes us further by showing how Cromwell has to decide if he is willing to do whatever is necessary to serve the King even if that means putting integrity and honesty to one side.
It’s a stunning novel from a writer at the top of her game.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
Given the fact this is a novel set against a backdrop of the notorious death railway in Burma, I was expecting it to be an uncomfortable read. But this is a novel that ranges far beyond savagery and survival to ask profound questions about culpability and forgiveness. Its central character is an army surgeon who is damaged by his experience as a prisoner of war. Rather than make the Japanese camp commanders a one dimensional portrait of evil, Flanagan gives them a voice that recognises their helplessness to act according to their own sense of humanity in the face of orders from their Emperor. It’s a haunting story that well deserved to win the prize in 2014
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
This novel, the Booker winner in 1992, is a beautifully paced tale of four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war. One is a man burned beyond recognition during the North African campaign of World War 2; a Canadian Army nurse who is traumatised by what she has witnessed in the conflict, a Sikh British Army sapper and a thief. They come together in the bomb-damaged ruins of an Italian monastery, hoping to heal their wounds and repair emotional scars. What I loved about this novel was how Ondaatje wraps multiple themes, of identity and nationality, of belonging and isolation, into a relatively short book.
Joslyn’s reaction to Karen’s choices
I, too, found Mantel’s Booker winners riveting. Both works are weighty and complex, but remarkably approachable – no small feat for a collective 1000 pages set in the 1500s. Haunting is exactly the right word to describe The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This book is chilling and devastating in a way that I did find a bit uncomfortable, but appropriately so. Flanagan tells his story in raw detail, offering the reader no quarter and no chance to avoid its intended impact. A brutal read, but an absolutely worthy one. I am a fan of Ondaatje’s works, though I preferred his In the Skin of a Lion, which explores many of the same themes. Where The English Patient fell a bit short for me was in its ability to elicit emotion; the narrative was cast in a ‘romantic’ haze that felt a bit …lacking. In spite of that criticism, Ondaatje’s beautiful and deliberate storytelling are on full display in this novel.
|What do you think of our choices?
If you’ve read any of the six titles we picked, what did you think of them? Would you rate them as highly as we did? Are there other Booker winners that you would put in your list of top 3?
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by The Broke and the Bookish requires me to list 10 novels on my to read list this Spring. An impossible task I fear for one who finds planning and reading do not make for happy bedfellows. I’ve tried – really I have (quit rolling those eyes would you please) over the last five years. I have pledged my allegiance to various challenges short and long and dutifully listed what I would read as my entry ticket to such events. The list making is the fun part. After that it all goes down hill rapidly. The minute a book title goes on a list, I seem to lose all interest in reading it and instead much prefer something lurking in the darker recesses of the bookcase. So I’ve given up essentially and just read what takes my fancy at the time.
My list of 10 is therefore offered with full disclosure that I might read all of these. I might read some of them. It’s conceivable, being as fickle as I am, that I will read none of them. I reserve the right to completely change my mind in the next few weeks (scratch that, I mean next few hours). The most likely one I will read is the book I drew in the Classic Club Spin – Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith.
My one and only commitment is that whatever I do read, it will be from the collection of books I already own – this is in support of my 2017 goals.
Hell’s Gate by the French author Lauren Gaude is due for publication by Gallic Books in April.I have a NetGalley copy for review. Gallic describes it as “A thrilling story of love, loss, revenge and redemption in Naples and beyond.”
GhostBird by Carol Lovekin: Another title by the independent Welsh publisher Honno Press that I picked up as part of my plan to read more fiction from my fellow countrymen and women. This was Waterstones Wales and Welsh Independent Bookshops
Book of the Month in April 2016.
Good Behaviour by Molly Keane: One of the titles I have in mind for Reading Ireland 2017 – I’ve read only one novel by Keane (Devoted Ladies – under her other name of M.J Farrell) so I’m keen to see if this one resonates more with me.
When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen, translated from Finnish by Lola Rogers. It’s described by The Independent newspaper as a tense family drama. I was more interested in their assessment that “When The Doves Disappeared is indeed a thrilling page-turner but it is equally a shattering family drama and an unsparing deconstruction of history.” I bought this as part of my quest to broaden my reading horizons with authors from many parts of the world.
Twilight in Djakarta by Mochtar Lubis, I picked up a second hand copy of this about four years ago. Its one of only two books I own by an author from Indonesia. The cover has a rather dark, retro feel which apparently matches the mood of the book. It was published about 50 years ago, having been smuggled out of Indonesia where the author was held under house arrest, and depicts social and political events in the capital during the run up to a national election.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. A historical thriller that was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016. I meant to read it before shortlist was announced and got a bargain electronic copy but it wasnt the right format – I wanted to be able to flick back to previous chapters etc which is never easy on an e reader. But now my sister donated her print copy to me, I have no more excuses.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (note that I erroneously had this attributed to Dodi Smith until an astute reader spotted the error). I know, I know, you are astounded I have never read this classic. So am I. And so I will. At some point
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. One of the remaining titles on my Booker project list. It has its fans and its detractors. I’ve read the opening chapter and enjoyed it.
Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth. Another Booker prize winner that has been highly recommended by many of you who follow this blog.
How many of these will I actually read? I dare you to make a forecast…..
Five years ago I embarked on a project to read all the Booker Prize winners since the inception of the prize in 1969. I’d already read a number of them like The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. Though I didn’t set myself any deadline I thought, with a little effort, I’d be done in two years. Well clearly that never happened. I am however in the homeward straight now with just 11 titles remaining to be read. Until now I’ve purposefully avoided reading the winners in date order – and I don’t plan to do that for the final batch. I am however pontificating whether to reserve to the very end, one book that has been universally praised so I end on a high note.
Here’s what I have still to read: (I’m discounting the 2016 winner since I have to stop somewhere).
Winners 21st century
2015 – A History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)
2010 – The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)
2004 – The Line of Beauty (Hollinghurst)
2003 – Vernon God Little (D.B. C Pierre)
2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang (Peter Carey)
Winners 20th century
1997 – The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)
1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)
1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)
1992 – Sacred Hunger (Barry Unsworth)
1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)
1972 – G. (John Berger)
The ones I am least looking forward to are How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman and A History of Seven Killings by Marlon James purely because contain a high quota of local dialect – working class Scottish dialect in the case of Kelman and Jamaican dialect in the case of Marlon James).
My question to you good people is – what should I read next? Of the remaining 11 titles there is nothing that is really calling out strongly ‘read me next’. I’m tempted by The Finkler Question since I dipped into it last year and enjoyed what I found (though I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea). I also embarked on The Conservationist but found that hard to get into so put to one side for now.
Out of my remaining list are there any you would recommend? Anything you’ve read that was a stand out novel for you? Conversely are there any on this list that you’d suggest leaving until last?
In Penelope Lively’s Booker-prize winning Moon Tiger, an elderly woman lies dying in a hospital somewhere in the UK. As the nursing staff suspect from her rambling utterances, she is no ordinary woman. She is Claudia Hampton, 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.
The question immediately confronting her is how best to tell this story. Claudia is clear that her readers should not expect a linear narrative nor to encounter just one Claudia. “I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water,” she declares. “The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and re-shuffled, there is no sequence, everything happens at once.”
This statement becomes a metaphor for the way Penelope Lively constructs her own narrative. Instead of a linear progression we get a kind of fragmented monologue from Claudia (the results of her medication or her ageing mind?) interposed with the comments of an omniscient narrator. Some episodes are relayed multiple times from the – often conflicting – viewpoints of different people who are reaching into their own memories. Claudia – and hence Penelope Lively – orchestrate these people as if they were providing stage directions for a set of characters in a play.
Mother, Gordon, Sylvia, Jasper, Lisa. Mother will drop out before long, retiring gracefully and with minimum fuss after an illness in 1962. Others as yet unnamed will come and go. Some more than others; one above all. In life as in history the unexpected lies waiting, grinning from around corners. Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.
Females do in fact play second fiddle to the male characters in Moon Tiger. For this is a story that revolves around Claudia’s relationship with three men: her brother Gordon against whom she competes intellectually; her first lover Jasper by whom she bears a child; and Tom, a British tank commander she meets and falls in love with in Egypt while reporting on Rommel’s desert campaign. Their time together is confined to one weekend during Tom’s leave from the front but it is enough for them to begin to make plans for the future, for marriage and children. Shortly afterwards Claudia learns of Tom’s death during the Battle of El Amamein. Now, after many decades, Claudia vividly recalls details of this precious weekend, the ring he bought her and the Moon Tiger mosquito coil that sent coils of smoke into the night as they lay in bed on their last night together.
Lively takes two risks with this novel. First of all she chooses as her protagonist a character who it is difficult to like. Claudia is an opinionated, selfish, competitive, headstrong woman who doesn’t seem to feel any strong emotional attachment to her daughter Lisa, leaving her in the hands of her grandmother while she goes off on her reporting assignments. She also has a questionable relationship with her brother that might disturb some people. But then we get Lively’s inventive form of story-telling where the narrative seems to start, stop, rewind and then fast forward. It’s a tricky technique to get right. It makes for a difficult to understand opening chapter compounded by the fact we don’t know the characters being mentioned. But once Lively gets into her stride, the result is rather wonderful. And she succeeds, against the odds, in providing a story laden with atmosphere and poignancy (nowhere more so than in the final few pages).
It’s a novel that captivated me with its exploration of the difficulties of producing a history even if it is one’s own; of sifting through and trying to reconcile memories with facts. I’m sure it’s one that will withstand a second reading but in the meantime I’m left with an abiding image of an old woman in bed watching darkness fall on bare branches outside her room… and remembering.
The Book: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively was first published by Andre Deutsch in 1987. My paperback edition was published by Penguin in 2010. It won the Booker Prize in that year against competition from Iris Murdoch and Chinua Achebe. A recording of Penelope Lively talking about Moon Tiger is available as a podcast from the BBC World Book Club via this link.
The Author: Penelope Lively grew up in Egypt though moved to England to take up a place at Oxford University. She was twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize with her first novel The Road to Lichfield in 1977 and then According to Mark in 1994.
Why I read this book: It is part of my Booker Prize project
Narcopolis by the Indian author Jeet Thayil is a tale of obsession told through the blue haze of opium smoke and the white lines of and heroin powder. It’s a strange, often confusing, yet compulsive debut novel that largely revolves around the owner and clients of an opium house on Shuklaji Street in Bombay.
As the book opens we’re introduced to the owner Rashid and his assistant Dimple who it transpires has been a eunuch since early childhood. She’s an expert in the art of preparing the pipes for clients, an expertise acquired through a friendship with Mr. Lee, a former soldier who fled communist China and ended up in Bombay.
As the years pass Rashid’s business thrives as its reputation grows, and not just among the local population. Western travellers make a bee line for the shabby joint once word gets around about the quality of the opium on offer and the meticulous care with which Dimple prepares her pipes. Thayil makes life in this joint all very cosy sounding. To enter through the door in a narrow street is to be insulated from shoddy brothels and beggars, and “roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris and the poor, everywhere the poor and deranged stumbled in their rags.” The gentleman’s club atmosphere changes however when heroin arrives, grabbing both Rashid and Dimple in its savage claws. They begin the rapid descent into a life governed by the ever increasing need for stronger doses – their descent mirroring the disintegration of the city into riots and aggression.
Narcopolis is a dazzling novel, as seductive as the drugs that permeate every page and told in a way that destabilises the reading experience. So many times as I read this novel I was unsure whether the events described were ones the characters experienced for real or were the hallucinatory results of their close acquaintance with opium and heroin. For much of the book this narrator is high on drugs so it’s probably not surprising that the text is full of long rambling multi-clause passages like the single sentence running over seven pages with which Narcopolis opens.
It’s a world Thayil knows intimately having spent two decades of his life as an opium addict. He treats his people with sympathy and understanding :
An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency? The saint talks to flowers, a daffodil, say, and he sees the yellow of it. He receives its scent through his eyes. Yes, he thinks, you are my muse, I take heart from your stubbornness, a drop of water, a dab of sunshine, and there you are with your gorgeous blooms. He enjoys flowers but he worships trees. He wants to be the banyan’s slave. He wants to think of time the way a tree does, a decade as nothing more than some slight addition to his girth. He connives with birds, and gets his daily news from the sound the wind makes in the leaves. When he’s hungry he stands in the forest waiting for the fall of a mango. His ambition is the opposite of ambition. Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time. He wants to die, or, at the very least, to not live.
Reading Narcopolis is an intense experience that is best approached by following the advice Dimple gives her clients when they first bend their lips to her opium pipe “pull deep and keep pulling, don’t stop …”
The book: Narcopolis was published by Faber & Faber Ltd in 2012. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in that year.
The author: Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is a performance poet, songwriter and guitarist, and has published four collections of poetry. Narcopolis is his debut novel. It apparently took him 5 years to complete.In this You Tube video you can hear him talking about the novel and how he navigated the tricky subject of writing about drugs without glamourising them.
Why I read this: The Chutes and Ladders challenge run by The Readers Room required me to read something associated with India. This happened to be number 113 on my shelf of unread books having bought it at very low cost in 2013.
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday hosted by Broke and Bookish asks for ten authors whose work I read for the first time this year. At first I thought I would struggle to get to 10 but a quick look at my list of reviews and books read shows I had way more than 10. Some of them were Booker prize contenders, others were authors that I’ve heard about a lot through other bloggers. So here is my list of the best….
- Huraki Murakami: I’d been nervous about Murakami because of his use of magical realism but Norwegian Wood was recommended by a work colleague. Excellent choice that has given me the courage to read something else by this author.
- Barbara Pym: this is a name thats been on my radar screen for a long time based purely on the number of bloggers I see who enjoy her work. Some Tame Gazelle was a delightful introduction.
- Elizabeth Strout: I’m not entirely sure how I came across her and read My Name is Lucy Barton. It was certainly before she was shortlisted for the Booker. Some of her backlist has gone on my wishlist as a result.
- Anne Enright: Irish authors can sometimes overdo the misery but Enright hit just the right note with her Booker prize winning The Gathering
- Amelie Nothomb : A Belgian author recommended by a work colleague. Fear and Trembling is actually set in Japan which was her home for many years. A quirky novel about the cultural protocols in that country, particularly as they affect women.
- Graham Swift: I finally got around to reading his Booker prize winning novel Last Orders and was taken by his ability to create multi-layered characters.
- Yoko Ogawa: Another author whose quirky style kept me engaged when I read The Housekeeper and the Professor
And now for three authors that, were it not for the Booker Prize, I wouldn’t have discovered this year. They were all long listed or shortlisted.
- Ian McGuire: Superb story telling was on display in The North Water
- Wyl Menmuir: I read his novella The Many and was bowled over.It’s an atmospheric story that is also a bit of a puzzle.
- Madeleine Thien: If I say her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing should have won the Booker prize, you’ll understand how much I rated this book.
I could pretend that I was up at dawn to greet the first of May in the time honoured way, followed by a bit of a caper around the village maypole. I did neither of these. Nor did I go and watch any Morris Men in action or take part in a May Queen parade. No doubt these things were going on somewhere in the UK today though I suspect there were more people heading to the shopping malls than the village green.
So what was I doing on the first of this month??
I finally got around today to finishing Devoted Ladies by M.J Farrell (otherwise known as Molly Keane), a novel which shocked readers at the time because it featured a lesbian relationship. I’d read about two thirds of it by the time I took off for my long trip to USA but it hadn’t grabbed my interest so I left it behind. Today when I picked it up I found it a lot more interesting and I could see why Keane has such a strong following. I still feel the book sagged in the middle and I wanted a lot more about the tense relationship and battle of wills between Jane and Jessica and less about two cousins Piggy and Hester who live in a run down country house in Ireland. I’m glad however I didn’t give up on it if only because of the way in the final pages Keane showed even a faintly ridiculous figure like Piggy could not forever tolerate being the butt of everyone’s jokes. If this is an indication of Keane’s ability to create deep and complex characters, I’ll be keen to look for more of her work.
On the Horizon
I’m toying with opening The Gathering by Anne Enright, which won the 2007 Booker Prize. It was her fourth novel and somewhat of a surprise winner – although the unanimous choice of the judges it had been considered an outsider. This is a novel in which the Hegarty siblings gather in Dublin for the wake of their brother Liam, an alcoholic who killed himself. His sister Veronica uses the opportunity to look through her family’s history to try and make sense of his death. I’ve read the first few pages just to get a feeling for the book and have fallen in love with the immediacy of Enright’s style.
My other option is another Booker prize winner, Life & Times of Michael K by J. M Coetzee which was the 1983 winner. It’s a short work which traces a journey made by Michael K, a poor man with a cleft lip, from Cape Town where he works as a gardener to his mother’s rural birthplace. Along the way he encounters hardship and hostility. I’ve read only one other book by Coetzee (Disgrace which also won the Booker prize) and loved his style so am hoping Michael K will prove just as rewarding.
Keiran Desai’s novel The Inheritance of Loss was a controversial winner of the Booker Prize in 2006. The controversy had nothing to do with the fact she had been considered an outsider for the prize or that some critics were less than enamoured with her book. The issue was one of setting and in particular how she had represented the community of Kalimpong, a town in the Himalayas. The town’s residents were outraged at her depiction of a 1980s bloody and chaotic rebellion by the ethnic Nepalese inhabitants. Kiran Desai was accused of including “condescending statements” and portraying the Nepalese as little better than criminals, thieves and fools. Calls were made to burn or ban her book.
It’s true that Kiran Desai doesn’t paint her Nepal characters in a very positive light. But then she doesn’t seem to have sympathy for most of the people in her novel. We encounter over-privileged Indians who try to adopt a mantel of culture by using English terms and mannerisms, English settlers who are racist and desperately cling to the past and ignorant tourists who use the most desperate hovels to add authenticity to their holiday snaps while ignoring the poverty under their noses. Nearly every character becomes humiliated and in turn humiliates others. It’s an unflinching, unsentimental portrayal of what happens when people lose their way.
The focal point is a crumbling, isolated house at the foot of Mount Kanchenjunga , the third highest mountain in the Himalayas. It’s occupied by a cranky retired judge and his orphaned granddaughter, Sai. They have few acquaintances other than a Swiss priest Father Potty and two anglophone sisters. Lacking the knowledge or ability to provide the love and warmth his granddaughter needs, the judge hands over her care to the cook and her education to Gyan, a young Nepali maths tutor. Their burgeoning romance is throttled almost at its birth when insurgency erupts in the mountains and Gyan is swept along in the demands for Ghorka independence.
Woven into this story is another thread about the cook’s son Biju who wants to make a new life outside of India. He joins a cruise ship which deposits him in New York. While his father imagines his son is on his way to a successful and lucrative career in catering, the reality is that Biju is an illegal worker, sweating a living in filthy rat-infested basement kitchens around New York. Coming into contact with other illegals his eyes are opened to what the world really thinks of his proud nation:
From other kitchens, he was learning what the world thought of Indians:
In Tanzania,if they could, they would throw them out like they did in Uganda.
In Madagascar, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Nigeria, if they could, they would throw them out.
In Fiji, if they could, they would throw them out.
In China, they hate them.
In Hong Kong.
They don’t like them.
In Guadeloupe — they love us there?
These stories of loss and guilt are told with varying success. Desai’s prose seems to work best when she is dealing with a setting, whether it’s the beauty of the Himalayas or the grime of New York’s lower class restaurants. At the beginning we get a vivid picture of the judge’s decaying mansion, used as a metaphor for the disintegration of the old social order. Built on a site chosen “for a view that could die the human heart to spiritual heights” it was once the epitome of high class workmanship and style. But now the roof leaks, fungus grows in many of the rooms and the plumbing is held together with bamboo splints and rubber bands. Even the robbers who come creeping over the grass in search of guns are shocked by its shabbiness.
Their noses wrinkled from the gamy mouse stench of a small place, although the ceiling had the rect of public monument and the rooms were spacious in the old manner of wealth, windows placed for snow views. They peered at a certificate issued by Cambridge University that had almost vanished into an overlay of brown stains blooming upon walls that had swelled with moisture and billowed forth like sails. The storeroom supplies and what seemed like an unreasonable number of emptied tuna fish cans had been piled on a broken Ping-Pong table in the kitchen, and only a corner of the kitchen was used since it was meant originally for the slaving minions not the one left over servant.
‘House needs a lot of repairs,’ the boys advised.
The Inheritance of Loss is less effective when it comes to characterisation. Desai doesn’t offer much hope for her individuals, little sense that they will grow or achieve resolution and redemption. But I found it hard to care overly much about any of them. The romance between Sai and Gyan began as an evocation of the sweetness of first love and then descends into bitterness but it still felt very flat. Biju’s predicament in the dankness of America’s underbelly felt authentic but Desai didn’t bring anything to this theme that we haven’t seen many times over.
The effect overall was of reading something admirable and enjoyable at times yet I couldn’t escape the sense that there was something missing.
Why I read this
The Inheritance of Loss is part of my Booker prize project in which I am reading all the winners of the Man Booker prize.
I can’t prevaricate any longer. The cobwebs are starting to settle on the brain already and if I leave it much longer I will never remember my top books from 2015.
The outstanding book of the year was almost, but not quite, the last one I read – Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient. It’s a beautifully written story of four damaged characters who end up in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War 2. I enjoyed reading his most recent novel The Cat’s Table a few years ago but The English Patient was in a totally different league. Now I want to dig out the film version again ..
Other favourites from the year were: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton which has to be the most gloriously produced book I’ve experienced for many years. The cover design showing a miniature of the house that features in the book, was so delightful I went in search for some info on the illustrator and came across a fascinating little video about how a design company made the house. Old Goriot by Honore de Balzac was my first experience of this author but will certainly not be my last. Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton was as moving on a re-read as it was decades ago when I opened the pages for the first time. Three discoveries came in the form of The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw and from the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar and The Redemption of Galen Pike, a tremendous short story collection by Carys Davies. I don’t usually care for short stories but Davies’ book knocks spots off all other collections I’ve read.
Were there any duds? Well yes, a few. Three were so bad I couldn’t finish them: In the Light of What we Know by Zia Haider Rahman; Between Tides by V.Y. Mudimbe and The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende.
That’s 2015 done.
What’s on the horizon for 2016?
Despite all the reading challenges I’ve seen in the last few weeks (I’ve been keeping a list here and it’s upwards of 30) I’m trying really really really hard to resist temptation. I like the idea of them but the reality is that I’m really hopeless at sticking with them. The minute I feel I have to follow a list, my interest in the books drops off markedly. Even if the title was one that excited me when I bought it, the minute it gets written on a list starts to make it feel too much like a chore or a ‘to do’ list for work. Hence why I managed just 8 out of the 12 books on the TBR Challenge I joined last year. I was all ready to join a Reading Shakespeare challenge but I’ve changed my mind.
I prefer the idea of reading projects rather than challenges. They somehow sound more relaxed and I can go entirely at my own pace. I have three on the go at the moment which are steadily making progress. I’m just over the half way mark with my Classics Club project, have read 27 of the 46 Booker-prize winners and novels from 30 countries around the world as part of my World of Literature Project.
2016 is going to be all about completion.
I plan to make it a year where I finish at least one of these (the Booker prize). I may even get close to finishing the Classics Club but I won’t make that a goal because I want space to be flexible, to go with the flow of whatever takes my fancy. I also want time to dip into a few short projects – Ali’s #Woolfalong reading project is perfect since I already have 4 Woolf titles in the bookshelves. Later in the year there’ll be a Reading Ireland month and a Spanish literature month which are already tickling my fancy. The beauty of these projects is that they’re short and free of pressure to read a particular number of books or to make lists in advance.
Here’s to a year of unconstrained delight……
Another 1st of the month today and once again I forgot to mark the occasion with the traditional saying “pinch, punch, first of the month”. This custom seems centuries old, coming from a time when there was a strong belief in the existence of witches. It was thought that salt would make a witch weak, so the pinch part is pinching of the salt, and the punch part was to banish the witch. The witch would be weak from the salt so the punch was to banish her.
I have my own little tradition to mark today however which is to capture what I’m reading, listening to and watching.
I’ve been riding the Booker Prize wave recently. Last week I finished The Sea The Sea by Iris Murdoch which was so much more enjoyable than I ever expected. Now I’m half way through The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje which was the joint winner of the prize in 1992 (only the second time in the history of the prize that it was split between two novels.) Set in 1945, it features four damaged people who take refuge in a damaged villa north of Florence as Europe emerges from the war. In an upstairs room lies a horrifically burned man. His name is unknown but his memory is intact and it takes him back to the North African desert and the woman he loved. Every page of this novel is a delightful experience of witnessing a masterful writer at his best. One to savour slowly….
My journey to work has been in the company of a couple of trembling, over excited women over the past few weeks. Throw in a ruined mansion, an overbearing servant, a blind man and the result is a sensation novel which turns on a secret involving illegitimacy. Dead Secret was the fourth published novel from the pen of Wilkie Collins. It’s the novel that immediately preceded his acclaimed Woman in White and what a difference between the two works. Where Woman in White is meticulously constructed and has some memorable characters (including the magnificent Count Fosco), Dead Secret is considerably over-written and the secret is very obvious to readers even if the characters themselves are not quick on the uptake. The only enjoyable aspects are the characters of the vicar’s friend (a man so feeble a slight breeze gives him palpitations) and a villainous male servant.
The energetic figure of Simon Scharma is bouncing across the screen in the BookerTalk household as we re-visit his superb series A History of Britain. Schama wrote and presented the episodes himself. His jocular style and very mobile facial expressions don’t appeal to everyone but I enjoy his story-telling, thematic approach. Much more engaging than dusty professors in tweed jackets that used to front BBC programs in decades past or the celeb presenters who turn up frequently now (reading everything to camera since they have no clue about the subject personally).