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3 Booker Prize Winners Worth Re-Reading

There were a number of Booker Prize winning novels I read before I began this blog and my project to work my way through all the winners. As I’m approaching the end of that project I thought I’d write some short reviews of those pre-blog books.

I seldom re-read contemporary fiction (I don’t know why, but the classics seem to lend them selves far more to re-reading. ) But these are three that I would definitely consider reading a second time.

The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending: Booker Prize winner 2011

This 2011 Booker Prize winner was my first experience of Julian Barnes .

It’s a slim novel, beautifully paced and very readable yet it gets you thinking about some of the issues well after you reachthe last page.

The Sense of an Ending is narrated by Tony Webster, a retired man of around 60 years old. He reflects on his life and in particular his relationship with Adrian Finn, a boy he met at school. Adrian was the most intellectually advanced and gifted boy in his coterie.

But a rather odd girl called Veronica comes between them. Tony takes her defection to Adrian badly, heaping curses upon the pair. And then he learns Adrian has killed himself.

Years later Adrian’s diary is bequeathed to Tony. He believes it will unlock the mystery of why Adrian died. But first he will have to do battle with Veronica.

This is very much a reflective novel about a man who is trying to make sense of his life. His frustrations and anger come to the fore but so too does regret and his feeling of being on the fringe of life. “You just don’t get it. You never will.” is the barb Veronica most frequently throws at him. Tony does have a selective memory however and even by the end you feel that he is still a puzzle to himself.

The Sense of an Ending is a compact novel which meditates on the complexity of the human struggle to deal with regret and loss.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Blind Assassin: Booker Prize Winner 2000

Until I read this 2000 Booker Prize winner, my only experience with Margaret Atwood was through The Handmaids’ Tale. Although there is a sci fi aspect to The Blind Assassin, it couldn’t have been more different.

It has a complicated structure with three plot strands and multiple time frames.

The over-arching device is that this book is the memoir of Iris Chase, from her beginning as the daughter of a prosperous family, through a loveless marriage and into solitary and brooding old age. As she nears the end of her life she is determined to set down her version of the stories and scandals that have long swirled around her and her family.

Her younger sister Laura killed herself in 1945, 10 days after the end of the war. Iris published her sister’s novel The Blind Assassin posthumously. a decision which propelled Laura to fame but Iris to a life of isolation.

Interposed with Iris’s reminiscences are passages from that novel,  about an upper-class married woman and her lover, a hack writer and a political radical, who spins a science fiction tale (also entitled The Blind Assassin) during their clandestine meetings. 

Confused?? It’s not surprising.

Reading this novel is a giddy experience. We get Iris’ narrative, Laura’s novel, extracts from the pulp science-fiction stories the hero of Laura’s book tells his lover and newspaper reports on events.

In the hands of a less able novelist, this mix of narrative forms would be a mess. But Atwood handles it with authority and aplomb. It’s quite an extraordinary novel.

 

Amsterdam : A Novel by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam : Booker Prize winner 1998

Ian McEwan won the 1998 Booker Prize with his story of a euthanasia pact between a composer and a newspaper editor that ultimately destroys their long-term friendship.

It’s rather a dark novel from the beginning which takes place at a funeral where the two men agree that if one of them is left helpless by a medical condition, the other will ease his exit from this world.

The rest of the novel sees each man take decisions with far-reaching consequences. The editor publishes private photographs revealing a political scandal. The composer leaves the scene of a rape because he can’t waste time when he has a symphony to finish.

This is a novel which reads like a psychological thriller at times; particularly in the final chapters in Amsterdam where the friends meet for a show-down. But it’s the way the novel deals with moral ambiguities that I enjoyed the most.

I read Amsterdam in 2000 and it’s one of my favourite novels by Ian McEwan. It’s one of the Booker Prize winners I think warrants a second read.

3 lousy books to confuse and frustrate

I thought when I retired that I’d not only have oodles of time available to read but that I’d be quite prompt with my reviews.  Neither has proved to be the case.

Instead of filling my days with reading and blogging, I’m juggling Pilates classes, the gym, gardening, National Trust volunteering, coffee shop visits with friend. Not that I’m complaining. It just means I have less time available to write content for the blog.

It’s been getting steadily worse over the last two years. Despite best intentions about wanting to do justice to each book I know I’m never going to catch up if I try and write full reviews for everything.

So I’m going to be sharing some mini reviews until I get the backlog down to a reasonable level.

Let’s start with three books that turned out to be so disappointing I had to abandon them well before the end.

Reading Through the Night by Jane Tompkins

Published by University of Virginia Press., June 2019.  My copy was provided by Net Galley in exchange for a fair review.

Reading through the nightJane Tompkins was a literature professor but when she succumbed to myalgic encephalomyelitis (also known as chronic fatigue syndrome), reading was about the only activity she could manage.

Her relationship with books and the experience of reading changed substantially. She began to examine whether instead of reading for pleasure, a close examination of a book could provide profound insights into her life.

Her path of introspection begins with Sir Vidia’s Shadow by Paul Theroux, a memoir of his friendship and falling out with the Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul.

The book contains a detailed discussion of this book and Tompkins reactions to different episodes.

I happen to have read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Theroux’s book so I could relate to some of Tompkins’ comments. But she went overboard with page after page of commentary and analysis. I had been expecting to learn about the power of reading to sustain people through difficult times. But this felt more like an academic paper tracing patterns of feelings and behaviours.

I kept thinking surely she would move on to other books or authors. But not a bit of it. Tompkins became so enthused by learning about Theroux that she then progressed to another of his books (The Old Patagonian Express) . And so we were treated to yet another detailed analysis.

At which point (about 25% of the way into the book) I decided enough was enough.

The Midwife by Katja Kettu

the midwifePublished by Amazon Crossing 2016.  My copy was provided by Net Galley in exchange for a fair review.

The synopsis of this book sounded promising. It takes place in the final years of World War II when the Soviet Union and Germany are fighting for control of Finland. This is the backdrop for a romance between a woman nicknamed “Weird-Eye” ,who works as a midwife, and a war photographer who works for the SS.

Unfortunately the author seems to think her readers are deeply interested in the details of Finnish history at this time. Her book begins with a detailed timeline of events the significance of which was lost on me. When the narrative does get underway it becomes even more confusing – the narrative is written in the first person but it switches perspectives between different characters whose identity is not immediately obvious. Too confusing to be a pleasurable experience.  Abandoned after 10%.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

seven killingsPublished by OneWorld Publications in 2015.

This won the Booker Prize in 2015. It relates the story of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (never referred to by name, only as  “the singer”) and its aftermath. I knew it was written partly in Jamaican patois but once I ‘tuned in” that didn’t present a problem.

The real difficulty was that it has a vast array of characters – the cast list at the beginning shows 75 names. Around a dozen of these jump in to tell their story. One is an American journalist, another is a kid called Bam Bam who saw his father shot in the head. There are several gangsters and a prostitute. Since their appearances are often short, I kept forgetting who they all were. That plus the non linear narrative made the whole book far too confusing.

I gave it a good shot but in the end decided I had far more enjoyable books waiting on the shelves.

 

What’s so funny about loneliness? [review]

The Next Big Thing  by Anita Brookner

 

The Next Big Thing

 

The Next Big Thing is another Anita Brookner novel which provides a penetrating portrait of loneliness.

This time her subject is a 73-year-old man who has led a quiet and unremarkable life.

Julius Fitz fled Berlin with his parents and his brother, settling in London with the aid of a benefactor who provided a home and employment in his music shop. Now the shop has been sold, forcing Julius to retire and contemplate how to make use of this unexpected freedom.

Has this all come too late?

“He was not trained for freedom, that was the problem, had not been brought up for it,” he reflects. And in fact he has nothing in place that will help him.

Though he’s comfortably well off he is alone. He was married once but his wife’s liveliness crumbled under the strain of cramped living conditions and the increasing neediness of Julius’ parents.

He has no friends, no-one to really talk to beyond mundane interactions in shops and on park benches. His only contacts are his solicitor and his ex-wife Josie, both of whom he meets occasionally for lunch and dinner.

Search for purpose

The plot revolves around Julius’ attempts to find some purpose in his life.

He considers various options: he could remarry, he could leave London and move to Paris. He imagines himself as a regular guest on a chat show during which he impresses the audience with his remarkable insights on art.

The plans all fizzle into nothing because Julius is a ditherer. He tries to fill his days but walks, excursions to buy the newspaper and a visit to the local park, don’t amount to much. His present existence he reflects is one “in which nothing happened nor could be expected to happen.” 

He does take a brief holiday to Paris, hoping to revisit the places he once enjoyed as a young man. But of course the city has changed, as has Julius, so the trip is not a success. Feeling his age, and a strong sense of disappointment, he returns home earlier than planned.

Not until he receives an appeal for financial help from his cousin Fanny with whom he was once infatuated, does he find anything close to real purpose. He sees himself rushing to her aid.

Uncertainty and doubt

But then Julius, being Julius, having given up his flat and made his travel plans, begins to have doubts. Throughout his life he has adjusted his needs to suit the requirements of others , surrendering in the process “that part of himself that others could not and would not supply, and in so doing had forgone his right to respect.”

A reunion with Fanny he thinks, may be yet another case where he his good nature is in danger of being taken for granted. Her letters are full of self-pity and self-centred, he can’t expect much in the way of empathy. And yet wouldn’t a relationship with Fanny  –– even if only as a companion for whom he has to foot the bill – be preferable to his current existence?

The Next Big Thing is a wholly introspective novel, delivered at a rather slow pace.

Whole chapters elapse between when Julius has an idea and when he puts it into action. It takes him ages to visit a doctor to discuss the ‘funny turn’ he had when at dinner with his solicitor. Even longer to get around to taking the medication he was prescribed.

It was difficult to feel a lot of empathy for him because he is so ponderous. Instead of being sympathetic towards his predicament I just ended up frustrated by his prevarications and passivity. Brookner’s narrative style is so matter of fact, it added even more distance.

The covers of some editions apparently proclaimed this novel to be Anita Brookner’s “funniest yet.”

I suppose they were thinking of a few scenes which show Julius completely misreading a situation. During the appointment with his doctor, for example, he begins pontificating on the similarity of his symptoms and the overwhelming feeling of strangeness  experienced by Freud during a visit to the Acropolis.  The doctor is more of a practical man, rather more keen in addressing problems of high blood pressure than having a philosophical discussion.

On another occasion Julius ogles a young woman  who has moved into an adjacent flat, reaching out and stroking her arm, completely oblivious to the inappropriate nature of his action. In another context maybe – just maybe – one of these could be considered mildly amusing but the second just made me cringe.

The Next Big Thing is unfortunately not one of the best novels Anita Brookner has produced even though the Booker judges thought so highly of it that they included it on the 2002 longlist.

 

Intense novel shows a city in turmoil: Milkman by Anna Burns [Review]

Milkman by Anna Burns

 

The Troubles in Ireland

Imagine a world where it’s dangerous to be different.

Where people with cameras lurk in bushes to capture your every action.

Where masked  paramilitary “heroes” dole out summary justice to suspected informers.

Where almost every family you know has seen brothers, sons, sisters, fathers killed.

We’re not talking here about a fictionalised nightmarish dystopian society where every vestige of normality has broken down. The world of Anna Burns’ Milkman is an all too real place. It’s one where, though she represents them in a highly imaginative manner, these atrocities did occur.

She never names the town in which she sets the novel, nor even the country. But it’s evident she is describing her home city of Belfast, Northern Ireland during the 1970s. This was a time when the country was embroiled in sectarian warfare and the city of Belfast was at the heart of what became labelled as “The Troubles”.

Dangerous to read and walk

Anna Burns tackles the conflict through the eyes of an unnamed 18-year-old girl. She’s an oddity in her neighbourhood because she has no interest in marriage or babies and she reads books.   She reads while she walks, usually 19th century novels.

I didn’t see anything wrong with this but it became something else to be added as further proof against me. ‘Reading-while-walking’ was definitely on the list.

This unusual behaviour draws the attention of one of the high-ups in the paramilitary organisation – Milkman – a man who begins to shadow her and treat her as if she’s his property.  He has the disconcerting habit of turning up when she least expects him: when she’s out running, as she leaves her French evening classes. He’s creepy and threatening (he says he’ll kill her boyfriend unless she ends that relationship) but in this city it doesn’t do to cross such a powerful figure.

Having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack by something that wasn’t there?

The predicament of the narrator, known only as “middle sister”, intensifies when rumours begin that she’s having an affair with this older married man. She’s now “beyond the pale” in the eyes of her community. They daren’t openly attack her for fear of retribution upon their own families but they can still make their distaste evident. Even a simple task like buying chips for her sisters’ supper becomes loaded with hostility.

A City in Turmoil

Milkman is a powerful and intense novel about a city in turmoil and a population  fearful they will make just one wrong comment or take one false step.  Even groceries are loaded with meaning. There is “the right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were ‘our shops’ and ‘their shops’.”  Distrust of state forces is universal but so too is distrust of hospitals.

It’s not a novel that dazzled me initially. In fact I was frustrated because none of the characters were named. Instead they all have labels: “third brother-in-law”, “tablets girl”, “nuclear boy” and “maybe-boyfriend”. It felt an unnecessary artifice; the product of an author trying to be ‘too clever for their own good.’

But the book slowly wormed its way into my imagination and the more I read, the more entranced I became. Light eventually dawned that what was initially an irritant was actually a strength of the novel. The very namelessness made the novel more sinister, as if the world Burns is describing is impossible to comprehend in normal terms and where individual expression and identity have been lost among the violence and political speak.

Powerful voice of narrator

The narrator is a tremendous creation. She tries to maintain a chippy devil-may-care attitude but she is left isolated and ground down by the association with the milkman

Few people other than “the real milkman” come to her help or speak up on her behalf. She tries to reach out for help but “Ma”, “Maybe-Boyfriend” and “Oldest Friend” all believe the rumours, seeing her as a  Jezebel involved in an affair with a older, married man, rather than the innocent victim of  a creepy stalker.  She even comes to doubt her own version of events: “Was he actually doing anything?” she wonders. “Was anything happening?”

It was not until years later that she more fully appreciates what had happened:

I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man,” … “Also by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.”

Milkman is a strange novel. When it was announced as the winner of the Booker Prize in 2018, there were many comments about how ‘challenging’ it was to read. It was compared with Sterne’s Tristram Shandy because of its stream of consciousness, digressive narrative and non linear structure.   It’s certainly unconventional.  It’s definitely original. I consider it one of the best and most deserving winners of the Booker Prize in recent years.


Milkman: Key Facts

Milkman by Anna Burns

  • Milkman, by Anna Burns, was published by Faber and Faber in 2018.
  • The Chair of the Booker judges,  Kwame Anthony Appiah, described the language as ” simply marvellous;  beginning with the distinctive and consistently realised voice of the funny, resilient, astute, plain-spoken, first-person protagonist.”
  • Milkman was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019

Anna Burns: Key Facts 

  • Anna Burns has drawn on her upbringing in a working-class, Catholic family in the troubled city of Belfast in all three of her novels – Milkman, Little Constructions (2007) and No Bones. 
  • She wrote Milkman while suffering excruciating back pain and struggling to make ends meet (she resorted to using food banks which she thanks in the acknowledgments of the book).
  • She is considering using part of her Booker prize money to pay for treatment on her back. If it’s not successful she has said, she doesn’t feel she will be able to write again.

Why I read Milkman

Although I have a cut off date of 2015 for my Booker prize reading project, I do read the later winners if they appeal to me. Milkman was the first since 2015 which held any appeal.

It just about qualifies for ReadingIrelandMonth2019 hosted by Cathy at 746books.com

Reading Horizons: Episode 15

Reading Horizons, 27 February 2019

What are you currently reading? 

This is the 2018 Booker Prize winner and for once the judges’ decision was considered to be the right one. It’s a strange novel. None of the characters are named (they just get referred to as ‘third brother’ or ‘almost boyfriend’) and the story takes place in an unnamed town in an unnamed country. It’s not too difficult to work out however that it’s set in Anna Burns’ native Belfast during the 1970s, a time of sectarian conflict (known as The Troubles). Thought it’s a relatively slim novel, my progress is slow because it requires a lot of concentration to follow the stream of consciousness style.

What did you recently finish reading? 

I enjoyed an earlier novel by Adiga (the Booker prize winning White Tiger) but The Last Man in the Tower didn’t work as well. The plot involves an attempt by Dharmen Shah, the head of a construction company to build two prestigious apartment blocks which will transform the fortunes of a slum area of Mumbai. He offers vastly generous compensation offers to people who occupy some run down towers that stand in the way.  Shah is confident he can win the tenants over. But he hasn’t reckoned with “Masterji”, a former schoolteacher who doesn’t want to move, and doesn’t want Shah’s money. The battle lines are drawn.

What do you think you’ll read next?

16 trees of the sommeGiven the luggage weight allowance I decided to pack just three books for my trip. The only one left to read is Thirteen Trees of The Somme by Lars Mytting. It’s part mystery part family saga set in the Shetland Islands.

My plan was to replenish the stock by visiting some of the book shops in New Zealand and Australia, particularly hoping to get some local authors that are not easy to come by in the UK.

So far I’ve found just one book shop and the prices are far higher than I expected – about double what I’d expect to pay in the UK. So unless I find some second hand shops  I’ll be relying on the stack of e-books I’ve brought with me as back ups.


Reading Horizons is linked to WWWednesday, a meme  hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. It involves answering 3 questions:

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

In a Free State by V S Naipaul #Bookreview

V S Naipaul’s In a Free State, which won the Booker prize in 1971, is set in an unnamed African country (the author later wrote that it was a mixture of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda) which has recently won its independence. Now there is conflict between the popular, but weak, king – who is in hiding – and the power-hungry president who runs the army. They are of different tribes and the enmity is old and deep.

free state coverThe power struggle, in its final throws, forms the backdrop to the story. But there are no obvious signs of these turbulent events in the capital, where the book opens and we are introduced to the central character, Bobby, who has been attending a conference.

He is driving south – where evidence of the unrest is all too apparent – to a government encampment where he lives and works as a civil servant. With him, hitching a ride, is Linda, the wife of a colleague. The pair belong to the white colonist class whose era is at an end and is now witnessing the dangerous divisions emerging in the new postcolonial nation.

The gated compound to which the couple are returning no longer offers the undisturbed security of the colonial years. As villages around burn and supporters of the king are rounded up, the increasingly fragile nature of the safety of their sanctuary becomes apparent.

The over-riding theme of the novel is one of displacement. In seeking, and winning, freedom the indigenous people are at odds with each other because of old tribal loyalties. The example of their former colonial masters won’t fit this new nation and this provokes resentment of the old regime and its representatives. As hostility rises to the surface the expats begin to pack their bags; Africa erupts around them, their idyll is over.

The principal characters, away from their native countries, experience an element of alienation aggravated by racial tension and sudden shifts of power around them. These elements feed into both the narrative and the exchanges of the road trip at the heart of this novel and have clearly influenced the personalities of the dysfunctional travellers over time.

Bobby is a troubled homosexual with a history of mental problems. His intense, unexplained, dislike for Linda bubbles under and sometimes boils over during the course of the journey. His companion’s superficial exuberance veils an unhappy marriage and a string of adulterous liaisons. An air of doom hangs over the whole as the drive becomes a race against time to reach safety as civil war threatens at every turn.

An encounter with an army convoy forces the couple to make an overnight stop in a crumbling lakeside hotel run by an eccentric retired British colonel whose nasty bullying of his native staff is redolent of the past relationship between colonial master and indigenous population. Pushing the symbolism further, it is clear that soon Africa will reclaim this decaying resort – abandoned by the expats who once saw a very different future there ­– and the raging colonel will fall at the hands of his resentful servants.

As the road trip continues it becomes clear that Bobby, Linda and all the other white expats can no longer rely on the status of privileged outsiders. Bobby’s brutal beating at the hands of one of the president’s soldier underscores the point that some of those who were once victims are now ready for revenge.

A sense of displacement

Naipaul’s biographer, Patrick French, offers this observation: “In a Free State is a disconcerting piece of writing, so taught and ambiguous that the author’s point of view is never apparent.”

Material for the novel came from Naipaul’s nine months in Uganda in 1966. At the invitation of the Farfield Foundation he took up the role of writer-in-residence at Makerere University.

The displaced international characters and restricted campus setting of the university are elements used in In a Free State and this sense of displacement was something the writer himself felt keenly on his return to London. Thousands of miles from his motherland – which he had left in 1950 – and between homes, Naipaul felt rootless. He began wandering the world.

In his introduction to the 2007 edition of the novel, Naipaul recalls how he often undertook the “spectacular day-long drive from Kampala in Uganda to Nairobi in Kenya.” The idea for the story came to him on one of the return journeys.

Memories of his Ugandan sojourn returned to him in 1969, when his wanderings had brought him to Victoria, British Columbia. Here he began writing the novel – a task that would be continued, and completed, in England.

free state naipaul

Naipaul: “Depression touches everyone in the novel.”

In 2007 Naipaul reflected: “In a Free State … was conceived and written during a time of intense personal depression that lasted two or three years.” The depression, he said, “touches everyone in the novel, the bar boys, the waiters and even the Africans seen on the road.”

The impartiality of the writing is deliberately contrived. The author said: “I was not responsible for the world I was discovering. I was recording what I had discovered. I had no point of view. I think I just laid out the material, the evidence, and left people to make up their mind.”


V S (Vidia) Naipaul, who died in August 2018 aged 85, was born in Trinidad, the descendant of Hindu Indians who immigrated to the island as indentured servants. His father was a journalist and author. Vidia won a scholarship to Oxford in 1950 and settled in England, though he travelled extensively. Knighted in 1990, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.

Recommended fiction by the same author: A House for Mr Biswas (1961), The Enigma of Arrival (1987), Half a Life (2001). Non-fiction: An Area of Darkness (1965).

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