Having decided on my list of 10 favourite Booker Prize winning novels, it’s time to reveal the 10 books that were the least interesting, enjoyable or memorable.
The first four are easy – they are the titles that were so lacking in appeal that I couldn’t even finish reading them. The remaining six are books that either I struggled to complete or I read to the end but wondered why I bothered.
The Famished Road
This was a book so bad that I couldn’t get beyond page 80. The style of the opening paragraph was a warning sign that this book would be a challenge:
In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.
In my review of The Famished Road I commented that this paragraph read like a poor pastiche of the opening of Genesis. The book went on to introduce elements of magical realism – a style I struggle with but can read if it’s well done. Such was not the case with this book however.
Okri main character is an abiku or spirit child who lives in an unnamed city which most likely is from his home country of Nigeria. It’s a book that reflects on the country’s post-colonial experience.
The book has been called a landmark text for its use of a particular kind of African magical realism. The African traditions it describes would have made the book interesting but the text was so over-blown and confusing, I lost all patience.
- Won Booker Prize in 1991
- Other view/s
Personally, I’m amazed that the judges even finished the thing, let alone decided to give it the prize.Sam Jordison, The Guardian
Okri’s tale is a beautifully rendered allegory, enriched by its African setting, of love powerful enough to defy even death and his minions.Kirkus Reviews
A History of Seven Killings
This book 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 up after about 120 pages.
- Won Booker Prize in 2015
- Other view/s
It would be a challenge to keep faith with so many tumultuously occupied characters even if they were not being systematically divested of sympathetic qualities; as it is, the negativity becomes a slog.Hannah McGill, The independent
It’s like a Tarantino remake of “The Harder They Come”, but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner…epic in every sense of that word: sweeping, mythic, over-the-top, colossal and dizzyingly complex.’New York Times
This book is startling in its range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation. It is a representation of political times and places, from the CIA intervention in Jamaica to the early years of crack gangs in New York and Miami.Michael Wood, Chair of Booker Prize judges
The Finkler Question
What a dreary book this turned out to be. So dreary I gave up on it around the 150 page mark.
The narrative revolves around Julian Treslove, a man who once worked on the kind of BBC Radio 3 programmes that attract only the dedicated few listeners. When his star faded he began working as a celebrity lookalike.
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. In essence the novel deals with his obsession with the meaning of Jewishness, politically, socially, culturally etc.
This is a novel which has one idea and constantly nibbles away at it without ever getting any further forward. I was desperate for something – anything – to happen but gave up the hope that it ever would.
- Won Booker Prize in 2010
- Other view/s
… full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer.Edward Docx, The Guardian
… very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad and very subtle.Chair of judges, Sir Andrew Motion
I had never heard of this book when I started to read it in 2018. It’s probably one of the lesser-known Booker Prize winners. It will remain an unknown to me since I found I disliked it so much I simply could not get far into the narrative.
Set in pre-First World War Europe, the novel follows the escapades of G, an offspring of an Italian merchant. Essentially he’s a Cassanova type figure whose sexual liaisons and ‘conquests’ we are meant to find interesting.
They were not. The Kirkus reviewer (see quote below) seemed to suggest that this is my fault because I am a “common reader” unable to appreciate the subtleties of the book. Sounds a bit of a harsh judgement, and bordering on elitism.
- Won Booker Prize in 1972
- Other view/s
Ultimately (and ignoring the common reader whom it will defeat) it is an arresting, inordinately vital, impersonal, and remarkable work.Kirkus Review
… if you can tolerate ambiguity and a haphazard structure there is much to enjoy in G.Lisa, ANZLitLovers
I’m probably wading into controversial waters by including Salman Rushdie’s novel in my list of least favourite Booker Prize winners. It not only won the prize in 1981, it was named the “Booker of Bookers” in 1993 to mark the 25th anniversary of the prize and again in 2003 for the 40th anniversary.
The book falls into the category for me of books that I admire but do not enjoy. There was a huge amount to admire – the ingenuity of a central character with special powers born on the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that the newly independent state of India is born. Then there’s the scale – more than 60 years in the turbulent history of India and Pakistan. And lastly, the blend of styles, comedy with history; Christian with Islamic and Hindu references and almost an encylopaedia’s worth of facts.
It was overpowering at times and I kept losing track of where I was in the narrative.
Maybe at a different time this novel would have gelled more with me. It certainly has a large fan club since it twice topped the public poll in those Booker of Booker award.
- Won the Booker Prize in 1981
- Other view/s
… conveyed in Indian English prose that pulsates between the tumultuous and the fantastic. A page of Rushdie is a rich, jewel-encrusted tapestry of allusions, puns, in-jokes, asides, and the unconsidered trifles of popular culture.
… we can celebrate Midnight’s Children as an English novel: a brilliant and endearing one, the latest of India’s many contributions to English fiction, and the most remarkable of them all.London Review of Books
My review of Saville described it as a “jaw-droppingly tedious tale” that I was glad to finish.
The premise for the novel sounded promising: it’s a tale of a boy who tries to rise above his roots in a South Yorkshire mining community. It being 1930s Britain the most pressing consideration is how to keep his parents and brothers above the poverty line. Plenty of subject matter for a hard hitting novel but instead the potential was lost by over-written scenes, mediocre dialogue and scrappy characterisation.
- Won Booker Prize in 1976
- Other view/s
His [Saville’s father] speech may be weighed down by unconvincing Yorkshire-isms, but Storey is still able to show us his heart. In short, he writes wonderfully far more often than he writes badly.The Guardian
The Line Of Beauty
To reach the end of The Line of Beauty you have to read a lot about sex, drugs and champagne- fuelled parties.
It’s a novel set in Britain in the 1980s; the era of Margaret Thatcher, economic euphoria and ultra confidence among the privileged governing classes. This is also the decade that saw the emergence of the Aids/HIV crisis.
Into this world steps Nick Guest, a young homosexual who comes from a middle class background. He moves into the house of an up and coming MP, giving him the ability to mingle with aristocrats and politicians. It’s not all hedonistic fun however, this is the period when HIV/AIDS began to make its presence felt.
The first half of the novel rambles along through a series of country house parties and assignations with sexual partners in parks. It wasn’t until the second half when Nick’s ex lover is diagnosed as HIV positive, that it perked up. But it was too little, too late.
- Won Booker Prize in 2004
- Other view/s
… brilliant recreation of that bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch …The Independent
If Nick’s aesthetic detachment occasionally seems to reduce the novel’s emotional stakes, it nonetheless fuels Hollinghurst’s sumptuous writing and his bravura evocation of an entire era.The New Yorker
An indication of how little an impression this book made upon me, is that I remember absolutely nothing about the plot. All I recall is that it features a set of characters who live in houseboats on The Thames. I have a vague feeling that at some point there is a fire on board one of these dwellings. I loved the cover artwork of the edition I had but the contents left me underwhelmed.
- Winner of Booker Prize in 1979
- Other view/s
Fitzgerald is adept at evoking the atmosphere of late 1960s London with rich period detail but beyond this the book feels slight and inconclusive, meandering along with only the sketchiest plot.The Guardian
One of most impressive things about Offshore stems from Fitzgerald’s ability to treat her characters with sympathy despite their failings.Jacqui: JacquiWine’s Journal
The only book by an author from Wales to have won the Booker Prize, The Elected Member is a book that began well.
Its focus is on a seemingly respectable Jewish family whose beloved son succumbs to the effects of drug addiction. There is one particularly memorable scene where he suffers delusions caused by withdrawal from the drugs and imagines there are silver creatures climbing all over his bedroom.
If the book had maintained the same quality it would not be on my list of least favourite Booker Prize winners. Unfortunately the novel went down hill and ended in a far too neat conclusion. .
- Won Booker Prize in 1970
- Other view/s
The Elected Member is a worthy winner and a brave choice for the Booker prize, but not a masterpiece. It’s probably best summed up by the author herself, and her typically terse assessment of her own writing: “Better than most, not as good as some.The Guardian
Something To Answer For
P H Newby
This was the first book to win a Booker Prize. It was up against strong competition from Iris Murdoch (The Nice and the Good) and Muriel Spark (The Public Image). I find it interesting that both those contenders are authors who are still being read today but the winner remains largely unknown.
It’s a very odd book because you don’t really know whether what you are reading can be trusted. We can say with certainty that it’s set in Port Said, a city in the throes of the Suez Crisis. But even the main character doesn’t know what’s happening to him when he travels there to attend a funeral. He’s not even sure he knows his true name.
Beyond some episodes. of black humour, I didn’t find much in this novel to keep me entertained.
- Winner of Booker Prize in 1969
- Other view/s
It’s beautifully written, shot through with crisp, mordant wit, and Newby plays out his narrative with consummate skill to ensure it baffles and intrigues, leaving the readers hooked and thrashing about for meaning, desperate for him to reel things in.The Guardian
What’s your favourite Booker Prize winner of all time?
I’ve been asked that question many times over since I embarked on my Booker Prize project. Now I’ve finished the project, I thought the time had come to try and come up with an answer.
It wasn’t easy. The genres, styles and themes among the 50 winners are so different I couldn’t see how I could possibly weigh one up against another. There’s also the issue that it’s several years since I read some of the winners so I can only vaguely remember the story and the characters.
But that gave me an inkling of how to identify my favourites. I could use memory and recall as my test.
And so the question I asked myself was this: Which books spontaneously rise to mind when I think about my most enjoyable Booker Prize titles?
The ten books I’ve selected are that I think of as in the premiere league of Booker winners. They are the books that were not only delightful when I first read them, they’ve stayed with me ever since. I don’t recall all the details of the plots or the characters’s names. What I do remember is the emotional reaction they provoked: from joy and laughter to sadness and
The Remains of the Day
This is a beguiling yet painful portrait of a man who in a sense is a tragic figure. Kazuo Ishiguro beautifully paints a picture of Stevens, the devoted head butler at Darlington Hall. He is a man so relentless in his pursuit of “dignity” that he denies his own feelings and capacity for any close personal relationship. As a consequence, he misses the one opportunity he has for happiness.
- Won Booker Prize in 1989
- Favourite quote:
But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently? One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way.
The Narrow Road To The Deep North
In this haunting novel, Flanagan takes us into one of the bleakest and harshest episodes in World War 2 – the forced- labour construction of the Thailand-Burma death railway.
His protagonist is a surgeon who battles and fails to save the lives of his fellow prisoners of war. His courage makes him a legendary figure in Australia when he returns home yet he feels himself to be a coward and a fraud. Flanagan astutely avoids a simplistic good versus evil depiction of characters on opposite sides of a war, showing instead that human nature is never uni-dimensional.
- Won Booker Prize in 2014
- Favourite quote:
He felt shame and he felt loss and he felt his life had only ever been shame and loss, it was as though the light was now going, his mother was calling out ‘Boy! Boy!’ But he could not find her, he was returning to hell and it was a hell he could never escape.
Bring Up The Bodies
I thought it would be hard to equal the stupendous Wolf Hall, the first of Mantel’s “Thomas Cromwell” trilogy. But Mantel rose to the occasion with another novel that takes us even deeper into the murky world of a man who rose from blacksmith’s son to become King Henry VIII’s right hand man.
Cromwell has to juggle the needs of a King who has tired of his second wife and her inability to produce the required heir, with the necessity of safeguarding the nation and protecting his own career. His solution is Machiavellian and bloody.
This is historical fiction at its most breathtaking; a novel that makes history gripping and personal.
- Won Booker Prize in 2012
- Favourite quote:
What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.”
The English Patient
If ever a novel divided opinion, it is The English Patient. I thought this book about four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war, was outstanding. But other readers disliked the disjoined nature of the narrative and thought the prose was “flat’. That was a long way from my own experience. My review described it as “a tale of healing and renewal, of nationality and identity, and of belonging and isolation told through beautifully constructed prose.“
- Won Booker Prize in 1992
- Favourite quote:
She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.
J M Coetzee
J M Coetzee’s second Booker Prize winning novel examines the issues that beset the new South Africa, a country only recently released from the oppression of apartheid.
The theme of exploitation is shown through a predatory university professor who loses his job when he embarks on an affair with one of his students. He’s already feeling out of synch with the new way of life but that sense of dislocation is exacerbated when he and his daughter are subjected to a savage attack at her smallholding.
The professor is a loathsome character but Coetzee shows a way in which it’s possible to sympathise even with an unsympathetic human being.
- Won the Booker Prize in 1999
- Favourite quote
But the truth, he knows, is otherwise. His pleasure in living has been snuffed out. Like a leaf on a stream, like a puffball on a breeze, he has begun to float towards his end. He sees it quite clearly, and it fills him with (the word will not go away) despair.
I was very irritated by Milkman initially. None of the characters had a recognisable name – they were all known by labels like “third brother-in-law”, “tablets girl”, “nuclear boy” and “maybe-boyfriend”. It felt like an unnecessary artifice. But gradually the book wormed its way into my affection and I ended up feeling this was one of the most deserving winners of the prize in recent years.
It’s set in an un-named city (though it’s obviously Belfast) where paramilitary forces rule the streets and mete out summary justice to suspected informers. An 18 year-old-girl unwittingly becomes the target for the affections of one of the big cheeses in the paramilitary operation. He treats her like his property, putting her beyond the pale in her community.
It’s a very powerful novel about a city in turmoil and a population fearful they will make just one wrong comment or take one false step.
- Won Booker Prize in 2018
- Favourite quote
People always said you’d better be careful. Though how, when things are out of your hands, when things were never really in your hands, when things are stacked against you, does a person – the little person down here on the earth – be that?
The Siege of Krishnapur
J. G. Farrell
The first of two Booker Prizes awarded to the Irish author J G Farrell, is based on the real experiences of British subjects during the Indian rebellion of 1857. Farrell shows both the physical and mental traumas suffered by the British colonists who tried to defend their Residency against rebel Indian soldiers. He doesn’t hold back on any details about appalling insects, dwindling rations, the stink of decay and cholera and intolerable heat. And yet the novel is written with such tremendous wit that at times it’s hilarious.
- Won Booker Prize in 1973
- Favourite quote
We look on past ages with condescension, as a mere preparation for us….but what if we are a mere after-glow of them?”
The Sea, The Sea
I’d had a few false starts with Irish Murdoch before taking The Sea The Sea off my bookshelves. The experiences had left me feeling she was too damn difficult and obscure. This novel was therefore a revelation – there was a Murdoch novel I could enjoy!. I did more than enjoy it, I revelled in the ridiculous central figure of Charles Arrowby, an esteemed London theatre director who “kidnaps” a former girlfriend because he is convinced she is unhappy in her marriage. He’s as deluded about her as he is is about his dolphin-like swimming skills and his gastronomic abilities.
- Winner of Booker Prize in 1978
- Favourite quote:
We are all such shocking poseurs, so good at inflating the importance of what we think we value.
Life of Pi
An unusual choice since I am not a fan of magical realism or fantasy. But this adventure tale, despite the preposterous nature of its plot, won me over in ways that I could never have foretold.
Martel takes a 16-year-old Indian boy and shipwrecks him in the Pacific. He ends up in a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a seasick Bengal tiger. From this predicament, Martel weaves a tale that asks questions about identity and faith and ends by challenging readers to think whether they believe what they have read.
- Won Booker Prize in 2001
- Favourite quote
I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.
Lively took a risk with this novel by making her central character such an opinionated, selfish, competitive, headstrong woman. But it works brilliantly as does her start, stop, rewind, fast forward approach to the narrative.
Her protagonist is an elderly woman who lies dying in a hospital. She is no ordinary woman but 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. It’s one laden with poignancy.
- Winner of Booker Prize in 1987
- Favourite quote:
We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes – our language is the language of everything we have read. Shakespeare and the Authorised Version surface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous. I never cease to wonder at it. That words are more durable than anything, that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken, shelter parasitic on the most unlikely hosts, survive and survive and survive.”
I thought it would take me two years at most. My project to read all the Booker Prize winners actually ended up taking eight years.
If this had been a government-funded and managed project, I’d be basking in congratulations for coming in only six years behind schedule. Instead I’m just relieved and thankful that I did make it to the finishing line.
It wasn’t until I was deep into the project that the magnitude of what I was seeking to do became apparent.
Between 1969 when the prize was inaugurated, and 2015, which I decided would be my cut off year, there were fifty winning novels (in 2010 the Lost Booker Prize was awarded in addition to the annual prize). Of those, up the start of the project I had read just four Booker winning books.
That left a total of 134,400 pages left for me to read spread among 44 different authors (some authors won the prize more than once).
A tall order but I made it. And now I’ve crossed that finishing line it’s time to reflect on the highs and lows of the experience.
Obviously one “low” is that it took me significantly longer than anticipated to finish the project. It never at any time felt like one of those chores that you keep deferring but I got distracted because I discovered so many other books that appealed more at the time. For that I “blame” all you bloggers who kept enticing me with non Booker prize books. Shame on you….
But honestly I should have known from the start that I am not the kind of person that sets a goal or comes up with a project and is able to stick to it utterly and completely. I have a butterfly mind and am easily distracted. So it was a bit of a stupid idea really to think that I would read Booker winners exclusively for any length of time.
I embarked on this project having heard a radio debate about the merits (or otherwise) of the winner that had just been announced. It got me thinking about what made some books prize-worthy and others popular but not lauded for their literary merit.
In the post launching the project I mused:
Would I get a better understanding of why some books passed the test for the judges, and others fell by the way? Were there some novels that were considered wonderful and exceptional at the time – but have not proved enduring?
The second question proved much easier to answer than the first.
There are definitely some winners that have not stood the test of time. The very first winner in fact falls into that category.
Something to Answer For by P.H Newby was the first book I tackled in my project. I found it a baffling tale of a man in Port Said at the time of the Suez Crisis. It’s still in print but not widely read. Some of the other earlier winners like Holiday by Stanley Middleton, the winner in 1974, have suffered a similar fate.
Spotting A Prize Winner – An Impossible Task?
Did I get a better understanding why some books passed the test for the judges, and others fell by the way? Not at all. I know which winners I thought deserved the prize but there were plenty of others that I wouldn’t have considered remarkable in any way.
It didn’t help that the judges themselves were not clear.
In 2011 the judges announced they wanted books that had a high ‘readability’ factor. But there was such a backlash to their pronouncement (they were accused of “dumbing down”) that the following year they switched to emphasising “re-readability.” The 2020 award was mired in further controversy when the judges broke their own rules and seemed to award the prize to Margaret Attwood for her body of work rather than for the submitted novel, The Testaments.
If anything, my project has led me to believe that the “best book” does not always walk off with the prize in competitions. There’s no accurate way of measuring artistic quality or weighing up the merits of books across vastly different genres. One book wins because the judgement process is skewed towards consensus. The most powerful and persuasive voices prevail. Quieter voices arguing in favour of an entirely different choice, are drowned out. On a different day with a different set of judges, the result could have been entirely different.
Though I didn’t end up with a clear answer to my initial question, I don’t regret undertaking this project.
I read many books I would never have read otherwise. A few, like The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan and The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje were stunning.
I discovered authors I had never read previously. Some of them, especially Anne Enright, J G Farrell and Peter Carey, are people whose work I want to read more extensively.
Admittedly there were some duds. But out of 46 books there were only four where I failed completely. Despite my best efforts, I simply couldn’t finish The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James; How Late It Was How Late by James Kellman and The Famished Road by Ben Okri.
When I launched the project I called it “a mad idea.” Now I’ve reached the end I don’t think it was mad at all.
Would I do it again but with a different prize? At the moment the answer is a resounding no. But ask me again in a year from now and you might get a different answer. See I told you I have a butterfly mind and can’t stick with anything for very long!
The wine has long gone, the applause has died, guest appearances on TV and radio wind down or at least change in nature (think Western Daily Press instead of The Times). And then what??
The romantic idealists among us would have the winning novelist retreat to a remote Scottish Highland’s cottage to work on their next prize-winner.
What are the chances they will find succeed?
Authors who have managed to win the Booker accolade a second time are in a very elite group. Only four in the 50 years since the prize was inaugurated.
Double Booker Winners
Hilary Mantel became the first woman to twice win the Booker Prize. Wolf Hall, the first of her “Thomas Cromwell” series won in 2009 and the second, Bring Up The Bodies in 2012.
More recently, Margaret Atwood had the unusual honour of being the first person to ever share the prize. She won the Booker Prize in her own right with Blind Assassin in 2000 and then her novel Testaments shared it with Bernardine Evaristo in 2019.
Almost Made It
There have been many authors who, having won the top accolade, went on to get pipped at the prize post.
Salman Rushdie won the Booker Prize in 1981 with Midnight’s Children but go further than the shortlist with his controversial novel Satanic Verses . Ian McEwan won the prize with Amsterdam and was shortlisted for a later novel, Saturday. Having walked off with the prize for The Gathering, Irish author Anne Enright was longlisted for the 2015 prize with The Green Road.
But most other winners, like Ben Okri, Keri Hulme and Yann Martel had their moment of glory and then fizzled out. They’ve continued to write of course but never achieved a repeat of that moment in the spotlight.
Who will win the 2020 award?
The big question now is whether Hilary Mantel can achieve the extraordinary and win for a third time with the final episode in the trilogy: The Mirror and The Light. I’m reading it currently and it’s every bit as good as the first two titles in the trilogy.
But we will have to wait until July 28 when the longlist is announced to get even a sniff of the competition for the 2020 winner. That’s assuming the announcement is not postponed as it was for the winner of the International Booker Prize because readers were having difficulties getting hold of books.
This will be an extraordinary year clearly – as a result of Covid-19, publishers have pushed back the publication dates of many titles that could be prize contenders. The entry rules say all submitted titles have to be published by end of September 2020. So I suspect when the longlist does come out, there will be many books on that list which are yet to be published.
We’ve got used to that in recent years. It’s rare that all the books on the longlist have been published by the time the announcement is made. But this year we may find the majority are yet to hit the bookshops.
If publication dates get pushed out beyond late September some of publishers who submitted titles for consideration back in March might have to pull out and re-enter next year. Unless of course the judges decide in these unprecedented times that they need to be more flexible with the rules.
So far there has been silence from the Booker Prize organisers.
This article was first published in 2012. It has been updated to reflect recent winners of the Booker Prize.
I tried, I really tried to read all the way to the end of How Late It Was How Late. I made it, but it was incredibly hard going and several times I was ready to throw in the towel.
The issue wasn’t the rawness of the text. After a time I simply became immured to the frequency with which James Kelman used the F word. In case you’re interested, some columnists did a count and got to 4,000 instances. In my edition that equates to ten uses per page….
I even got used to the strong Glaswegian dialect used by his central character, a habitual drunk and petty criminal called Sammy Samuels. I kept imagining I was hearing Billy Connolly in one of his rants…
Here’s a typical passage that will give you a flavour of the style of this book. Any oddities are not of my making – it’s just the way the book is written. This snippet comes from early in the novel where Sammy, having woken up in an alley after a two-day drinking binge gets into a fight with some soldiers. Taken into police custody he’s so badly beaten he becomes blind.
He didnay even know what day it was. Jesus. The big mouth man he always had to blab. If that was him for another night
Jesus christ. She would be really worried now. He aye had to blab. How come he aye had to blab! Just stupit. Stupit. She would be worrying. Doesnay matter the situation, how it was, that was past tense, she would worry. Cause he had nay place to go and she knew it. Ye’re talking from whenever it was the now back to last Friday morning man that’s how long it was; four maybe five days, including the Saturday. Fucking Saturday! Saturday was a blank. A blank.
Confused? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. The ‘she’ in the passage turns out to be a woman called Helen with whom he’s been living. But when he eventually gets back to the flat she’s disappeared. Where and why, we don’t know. Half the time even Sammy doesn’t really have a clue what’s going on.
Bleak and Bizarre
For a book that deals with someone already in the dregs of society whose life suddenly turns much worse when he is blinded, How Late It Was, How Late is understandably dark. But it can also be quite funny in a black comedy kind of way.
Sammy for example cobbles together a kind of walking stick so he can tap his way along the streets. Then he realises it needs to be painted white. No problem, he has plenty of paint in his flat. Just one issue remains – how will he know which can is white?
Sammy bizarrely doesn’t seem all that fazed by his blindness initially. He just thinks it’s weird, an ‘initial wee flurry of excitement but no what ye would call panic-stations.” He’s more concerned about the fact someone stole his new leather shoes while he was in his drunken stupor, leaving him with badly fitting cheap trainers.
He’s remarkably philosophical about his run ins with the police – he’s clearly been down that road before and knows the score. But when he tries to get some disability compensation for his blindness he enters an unknown world of absurdity and obfuscation in the form of the welfare system. All he wants to do is claim some money so he can buy food but instead he gets a lecture on ‘Dysfunctional Benefits’ and ‘Community Gratuity’. And ends up empty handed except for a warning about making false statements alleging police violence
Flashes of humour didn’t however provide enough compensation for the fact that for most of the time I found the book was a slog. Page after page of stream of consciousness, interrupted occasionally by a strange third person voice, but without the
Condemned By Critics
I didn’t dislike it as intensely however as some of the critics who castigated How Late It Was How Late when it was published and was named as the Booker Prize winner in 1994..
Simon Jenkins, The Times columnist, for example described Kelman as “illiterate savage” who had done no more than “transcribe the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk”. One of the Booker Prize judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, declared that the book was unreadably bad and said that the awarding of the prize, Britain’s most important, was a “disgrace.”
Kelman hit back in his acceptance speech at the Booker awards ceremony. “… my culture and my language have the right to exist and no one has the authority to dismiss that… A fine line can exist between elitism and racism. On matters concerning language and culture, the distance can sometimes cease to exist altogether.”
He has a good point. No author should feel stifled because of an elitist view of what is ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ language. Kelman is writing from his own experience, of the people he saw around him while growing up on a housing estate in Glasgow. It’s a city notorious for straight talking, hard living and dark humour. Did the critics seriously expect Kelman to have a central figure who uses Queen’s English or received pronunciation?
I didn’t enjoy How Late It Was How Late, but neither did I feel it deserved the level of criticism levied at Kelman. It’s not a book to everyone’s taste but he has to be admired for his boldness and ingenuity.
Saville by David Storey
I reached the end of David Storey’s Booker Prize winning novel Saville with an enormous sense of relief.
No longer would my evenings be marred by having to plod through this jaw-droppingly tedious tale.
I don’t understand why I didn’t give up on it well before the end since there are only so many pages of over-written scenes, mediocre dialogue and scrappy characterisation I can take.
This had all three in abundance over the course of its 500 plus pages. It also had a protagonist about whom I cared not one jot. The best part came in the opening few scenes where a miner and his new wife arrive in some northern colliery town and spend the day cleaning their meagre little home.
After that it was downhill all the way.
Working Class Struggle
Saville is a tale of a boy from a South Yorkshire mining family in the late 1930s. Colin Saville manages to win a scholarship for grammar school; plays sport, has a few run ins with the teacher and meets a few girls. Instead of university he opts for the faster track of teacher training so he can begin earning some money to keep his parents and two brothers just above the poverty line. But he feels constrained by his home and his upbringing; taking his frustrations out on his siblings.
By the time he decides what to do with his life, we’re at the end of the book and by then – frankly – I simply didn’t care.
Desperately Hoping Something Will Happen
Colin Saville just isn’t portrayed in a way that makes me want to take any interest. There’s never any sense of the inner turmoil he supposedly feels in reaction to some of the events that happen to him. Even when his fiancé ditches him for a more wealthy friend, he seems to react as if someone has just told him the number 6 bus left 30 minutes ago. Having the story relayed through an omniscient narrator doesn’t help.
But I also just kept waiting for something – anything– to happen that would lift the story from the realms of the mediocre.
I was still waiting when I reached the end.
According to one retrospective critical review, Storey’s work mixes realism with psychological extremism. I must have been asleep during those chapters because those elements completely escaped my attention.
If ever there was a book that needed a bit fat blue editor’s pencil to walk all over it, this one was it…..even a scene that according to James Campbell in the Guardian is one of the most memorable (when his friend Stafford visits his home and is treated to a tea of bread, butter and tinned fruit) felt over-written.
This has to be the most deadly dull of all the Booker Prize winners I’ve read. How Saville won the Booker Prize in 1976, I’m at a loss to understand.
Alternative views of Saville
I was curious what some literary experts and reviewers thought of this book.
The reaction at the time of publication was surprisingly enthusiastic.
Jeremy Brooks at the Sunday Times said that reading Saville “is like drinking pure spring water from cupped hands”.
It has no false notes, no heaviness of emphasis, no editorial manipulations of plot to prove a point. One becomes so totally involved in the lives of these people that their every word and action becomes charged with meaning…. Reminiscent of a nineteenth-century classic.’ –
His counterpart at The Times newspaper also gave it a rave review, calling it “mesmerically readable, Saville is a revelation.” The Sunday Telegraph declared Saville to be “A feast of a book.”
I started to wonder whether this is a novel that resonated in the 1970s but no longer spoke to a twenty-first century reader but so few reviews have been written about Saville in recent years that I can’t answer that question.
All I found was that in 2008 Sam Jordison at The Guardian ( a reviewer I admire) thought Saville was a “class act”. He was so completely immersed in the book that he felt he was parting from a friend when he reached the end.
When David Storey died in 2017 many of the obituaries described him as a great post- war novelist whose raw, realist plays and novels dealt with the north-south divide and family conflict.
I seem to be a lone voice…..
This review appeared originally in 2012. This is an update – the content is substantially the same but I have added sub headings to make it easier to read.