What are you currently reading?
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.
The 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.
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.
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).
Now I’ve managed to close the lid on 2018 (see my wrap up post here), its time to turn my attention to 2019.
I’ve been wrestling with the question of whether to join some of the many challenges that are available. But on balance I decided that last year’s experiment with “Reading Naked” (by which I mean picking my next book randomly) was liberating so I plan to continue using that approach this year.
That doesn’t mean my year will be entirely without structure. But I’ll focus on projects rather than challenges. Challenges usually involve meeting a specific goal – reading a targeted number of books for example, or specified categories of books by a set date. I prefer the more open-ended nature of a project that I create for myself, where I get to decide on the scope and parameters. I want the flexibility to go wherever my mood takes me.
Here’s how the year ahead could pan out.
I’m going for simplicity; largely avoiding specific goals in favour of general directions. Most of these are continuations of existing projects and activities but – just to ring the changes – I’m going to start two new activities.
Booker Talk Team Expands
Booker Talk is approaching its 7th anniversary. I’m marking this milestone by expanding the team. Two new faces will be making an appearance on this site shortly, contributing reviews and articles on reading, authors and books.
Cerian Fishlock is currently studying for an MA in Publishing. She’s an Agatha Christie fan who’s desperate to find a modern author that can match the Queen of Crime . She loves novels with a psychological edge and “if that can be combined with defeating the patriarchy, even better.”
Edward Colley is a retired newspaper editor and graphic designer with an eclectic taste in books. He counts Thomas Hardy among his favourite authors. In between reading fiction he enjoys biographies and travel writing .
Connecting with Welsh authors/publishers
For the past year I’ve been trying to support and promote literature from my home country of Wales, through reviews and the odd feature article on this site. Now I’m going a step further by creating a new series where we get to know some of the authors based in Wales.
I’m calling this new series Cwtch Corner. The idea is to get into a conversation with an author about their favourite authors and books, how and where they get their inspiration and what readers can expect from their own novel/s. This is a spot where authors could pitch their work to potential readers.
Never seen that word Cwtch before? It’s a word used in the Welsh language to describe a physical place – a small cubbyhole for example or a small room in a pub. But it also denotes a form of affection, love and caring. Think of it like a cuddle or a hug. So authors taking part in Cwtch Corner are hopefully going to find the experience a bit like being wrapped in a warm embrace.
I’m reaching out to authors to participate at the moment but if you know someone you think might be interested just ask them to contact me via Twitter using @bookertalk. Please note however that I am not intending to feature self-published authors.
During a recent bout of “squaring away” (otherwise known as a “tidy up”) I found my copy of Winifred Holtby’s best known novel: South Riding. It’s set in the world of her upbringing in Yorkshire in which she creates a fictional rural community struggling with the effects of the depression.
Into this community steps a new headmistress with a vision of making changes and putting her school on the map. She needs to win over some of the most powerful local figures including a gentleman farmer whose world is falling apart, Mrs Beddows, the first alderman of the district and Councillor Snaith, a cunning and manipulative fellow member of the council.
So far this is proving to be a marvellous and engrossing tale.
What did you recently finish reading?
The only 2018 Booker contender I managed to read this year was The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. The title comes from the name of a strip joint where Romy Hall, a young single mother once worked. Now she is in a women’s correctional facility in California, serving two life sentences for murder. The novel, written in an unforgettable, direct voice, is an unflinching indictment of the prison system. It’s not a book that you can really say you ‘enjoy’.
Usually I find this a difficult question to answer because I don’t like planning ahead. But on this occasion, it couldn’t been easier. As soon as I heard about Michael Ondaatje’s new novel Warlight, I put in my reservation at the library. It’s just become available but such is the interest from other readers, there’s no chance of renewing the loan. So my default this is my next read though I can honestly say I’m being pushed into this choice.
What a disappointment The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Booker Prize, turned out to be. It was so dull at times that I was tempted to abandon it in preference for the ingredients panel of a cereal packet.
It’s meant to be a novel reflecting on the nature of Britain in the 1980s, the era of Margaret Thatcher and a time of economic euphoria and ultra confidence among the privileged governing classes. This is also the decade that saw the emergence of the Aids/HIV crisis.
Alan Hollinghurst tackles both topics via the story of Nick Guest, a young homosexual who comes from a middle class background but has mingled with the great and the good during his time at Oxford university. He’s invited by his friend Toby, the son of a rising Tory MP (Gerald Fedden) to move into their upmarket family house as a lodger while he undertakes his postgraduate research on Henry James. His presence in the house gives Nick a chance to mingle with aristocrats and politicians, to party in castles, holiday in French chateaux and even to dance with the Prime Minister.
Nick is a charmer, an aesthete who is entranced by beauty in all its forms. A piece of furniture, a Gauguin painting; the shape of a man’s buttocks and especially the double “S” shape of the ogee, the double curve cited by Hogarth as the “line of beauty”. Where the Feddens see art as a commodity, Nick appreciates beauty for its own sake.
Over the course of the novel, we see the changing nature of his relationship with the Feddens. But more fundamentally we also witness the development of Nick’s sexuality. The Feddens accept his sexuality if only to the extent of never mentioning it but when it threatens their privileged lives and Gerald’s prospects of high office, they turn on him. The tolerated lodger becomes persona non grata.
Hypocrisy is just one of the themes explored in The Line of Beauty. The book also considers the relationship between politics and homosexuality, the bubble world of the the Conservatives in the 1980s (summed up by one civil servant “The economy’s in ruins, no one’s got a job, and we just don’t care, it’s bliss.”) and, of course, the nature of beauty.
So why do I say the novel is boring?
Firstly it’s incredibly slow especially in the first of the three sections which takes place in 1983 when Nick is in the first few months of his stay at the Feddens’ Knightsbridge home. He takes a lover for the first time, meeting him in secret in public parks and quiet streets.
Part 2 is an improvement. We now move forward to 1986 when Nick is in a relationship with Wani Ouradi, the wealthy son of a Lebanese businessman, with whom he enters the world of drugs and promiscuity.
Part 3 takes place just one year later when his lover has been diagnosed as HIV positive and deteriorating rapidly and the Feddens world is about to disintegrate.
The drama doesn’t materialise in any meaningful way until more than halfway through that second part. Until then we’re subjected to a series of eventful country-house parties and family gatherings where Nick is still very much the outsider (his surname – Guest – is a clue to his real status). They’re considerably more sedate than his other social interactions which involve sex and drugs.
The problem here is that the interest in a decadent lifestyle declined for me as rapidly as my appetite for a second ice-cream. Sex is seldom far from Nick’s mind. He only has to see a man in a street and he immediately imagines him as a sexual partner. But how many times do we need to know this? How many times do we need to read a passage describing furtive coke-snorting and sexual encounters? The repetitive nature of this book made it hard to enjoy.
One critic in The Independent thought The Line of Beauty was “fabulous” and Hollinghurt’s recreation of a “bigoted, nepotistic, racist, callous and mean-spirited epoch” was “brilliant”. Not for the first time I find myself considerably at odds with critics and with the judges of the Booker Prize.
The Girl in the Red Coat is the debut novel by Kate Hamer. It garnered a lot of positive comment when it was published in 2015. Hamer was a finalist in both the Costa Book Award for First Novel and the Dagger Award and the novel was selected as the Wales Book of the Year.
The red coat of the title refers to the garment worn by eight-year-old Carmel on the day she went missing at a story-telling festival. She is spirited away by a man who claims to be her estranged grandfather. As Beth, her mother, desperately searches for her, Carmel realises that her kidnapper has not taken her at random: he believes she has a special gift.
This is a novel told in alternating perspectives of the grieving mother and the missing daughter. I started reading it yesterday and am finding it gripping.
Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford was the book I ended up with via the recent Classic Club Spin.
For years I’ve heard Mitford’s work described as brilliantly witty and irreverent in the way it portrays the upper classes in England between the two world wars. Some parts of Love in a Cold Climate did deliver well-time timed comic dialogue and I enjoyed the characterisations of Lady Montdore and Cedric, the outré homosexual heir to her husband’s estate, but overall I was underwhelmed by this book.
While on holiday I’d planned to read the latest novel by Andrew Miller —Now We Shall Be Entirely Free — but the download from the NetGalley site to my Kindle app hasn’t worked. Since I’m having to rely on the usual slow Internet speeds in hotels, I haven’t been able to figure out where the problem lies. So that’s going to be moved back in the queue.
Instead I think it’s time to pick up another of the Booker prize winners. I started How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman last year and — once I’d got used to the strong Glaswegian dialect — began to enjoy it but for reasons that now escape me I put it down and never finished the book.
What are you currently reading: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
I’m reading The Line of Beauty because it won the Booker Prize in 2004. I’m down to the last four in my project to read all the winners. I’ve found Hollinghurst’s book a bit of a struggle to the extent that I debated more than once whether to give up on the novel. Consequently it has taken me weeks to get to within the last 100 pages. To be fair it improved in the second half but it will never get on my list of favourite Booker winners.
Bloomsbury describe it as “a sweeping novel about class, sex, and money during four extraordinary years of change and tragedy.” The years of change is a reference to the fact the book is set during the ‘reign’ of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. There’s a tremendous amount of sex in this book – the central character is either thinking about it or engaged in the act – which would disturb many readers I suspect. My biggest beef about the book is that it was just boring for a large part of the time.
What did you recently finish reading: Beartown by Fredrick Backman
This was the selection for one of my book clubs this month. The contrast with Line of Beauty could not be greater. Beartown is set in a small Swedish town that’s seen better days. The locals are crazy about ice hockey and pinning their hopes that their highly talented junior hockey team win national honours, a success that can herald an economic revival for their community. All is going great until suddenly a terrible incident changes everything, setting one part of the community directly at odds with another. There
Enjoyable to read though I think I know as much as I need to about ice hockey for now.
What will you be reading next?
This is usually a difficult question for me since I don’t like to plan too far in advance. But I have to this week because I’m off on holiday at the weekend and so will need to decide what comes with me in my luggage.
There is one title that will definitely be making the trip to Germany.
Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love was selected for me as a result of the Classics Club spin and which, the ‘rules’ say I need to read by August 31.
Another possible companion is the book I bought today. Lullaby by Leila Slimani is next month’s book club. The Guardian newspaper tells me that “This tense, deftly written novel about a perfect nanny’s transition into a monster will take your breath away.” I’m hesitating though because it’s not a very long novel.
On the e-reader I have the latest novel by Andrew Miller, author of Pure, which I thought was an outstanding novel. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, begins on a winter’s night in 1809 when a naval captain fresh from a campaign against Napolean’s forces, is carried unconscious into a house. He is traumatised by what he witnessed in that campaign. Miller is superb at re-creating the past so I’m looking forward to reading this.
So that’s how the reading horizon looks for me. What’s on your horizon this month?
As a run up to the 50th anniversary of the Booker Prize, the team at the Sunday Times’ Culture magazine, asked whether the judges had always made the right decision. The article is available here.
Their conclusion? A resounding no.
Out of the 49 years when the prize has been awarded, the Culture team agreed with only 12 of the winning titles. In all remaining 37 years, they believe the Booker judges overlooked a far superior novel.
They were in agreement on:
1973: The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G Farrell, describing it as a book that is “brilliantly imagined, surprisingly funny”
1980: Rites of Passage by William Golding “complex dissection of society”
1981: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie “Rushdie has never written a better novel … it is sumptuous, exuberant and funny.”
1988: Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey ” a wonderful feat of storytelling”
1989: Remains of the Day by Kazou Ishiguro “a subtle classic … moving and perceptive”
1996: Last Orders by Graham Swift ” a quietly authentic triumph”
1997: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy “totally engrossing”
1999: Disgrace by J. M Coetzee – Culture calls this his masterpiece
2004: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. The Culture team had little to say other than they thought the Booker judges were ‘spot on’ in their decision
2008: White Tiger by Arvind Adiga, the right choice among a list of strong contenders
2012: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Culture thought this was curiously flat and leaden but they didn’t have an alternative
2017: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders “a worthy winner’ though there were a number of other books that would have been just as deserving.
Some of these are among my favourites from the Booker Prize so I’m not going to disagree with the Culture journalists. Disgrace is uncomfortable reading but it’s a very powerful novel about post apartheid South Africa. The God of Small Things is a book full of glorious characters and Remains of the Day is just perfection.
I’m also in agreement with some of their alternative winners: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which they say should have won in 2013, is indeed a far superior book to the actual winner Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (I thought it readable but not special). Similarly Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson knocks spots off the 1985 winner The Bone People by Keri Hulme though Winterson never even made it to the shortlist. How the judges managed to choose The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis over Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a complete mystery to me. I enjoyed the Amis but Atwood’s novel stands out as a truly imaginative venture into a dark dystopian world.
But there are also many years where the Culture team’s preference is for a book I don’t believe did deserve to win the Booker.
Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn instead of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall seems a very strange choice for example. Ditto David Lodge’s Changing Places is an enjoyable read but doesn’t stand out as remarkable so I wouldn’t rate it higher than the actual winner, Heat and Dust by Ruth Jhabvala.
The choice that really made my eyebrows arch was 2014 which, according to Culture, should have been won by Anthony Doerr’s All the Light we Cannot See instead of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. I couldn’t even finish Doerr’s novel; it was far too heavily laden with adjectives and contained many anachronistic Americans whereas Flanagan’s novel was beautifully written and engrossing from start to finish.
I suspect this is one of those exercises where you could get a different result for every group of people you asked to participate. Each of us will have our favourites as well as titles that we struggled to understand what it was even doing on the short or long list (Ben Okri’s The Famished Road falls into that category for me).
Over at Goodreads, there is a group called The Mookse and the Gripes which whose members do their own rankings and then combine the results. Their league table from this collective effort puts Remains of the Day in top position out of all the Booker winners. Midnight’s Children comes in at number 2 and then there is a surprise for the third slot – Troubles by J. G Farrell which is a book I thoroughly enjoyed though didn’t think as good as his other Booker winner The Seige of Krishnapur.
If you want to make up your own mind on whether the winners were worthy of the prestige conferred by Booker Prize success, take a look at the reviews published at Shiny New Books as their way of marking the Booker anniversary. The posts are published by decade – here is the most recent. By the time you’ll have got through all that reading, the longlist for this year’s award will be announced (actual announcement day is July 24th).
To mark the Booker anniversary this year I’m going to do two things:
2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize. Apart from a big party to celebrate the event in July, the Booker Prize organisers are also staging a ‘Best of the Booker’ award. They’re calling it the Golden Booker Prize, an award which will “crown the best work of fiction from the last five decades of the prize, as chosen by five judges and then voted for by the public.”
Now there are a few odd things about this celebration.
One is that the first Booker Prize was awarded 49 years ago this year, not 50. So where did they get the idea this was a golden anniversary year – it’s not clear from their website but I am assuming they are taking their starting point an announcement of the inauguration of the prize or maybe the judging process itself.
Stranger still is the process they are using to determine which book/author gets the ultimate prize.
Five judges have been put in place. Each has a remit to review the prize winners from one decade and decide which of them has “best stood the test of time”. The shortlist announced on May 26 is really therefore just one person’s point of view. What a missed opportunity. A more robust process would have been for all judges to have reviewed all the winners and debated/discussed their merits before choosing a shortlist?
But what’s done is done and we have five shortlisted titles.
1970s: In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul
1980s: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
1990s: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
2000s: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
2010s: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.
Have they made the right choices? Having read all bar 4 of the Booker prize winners since it was first awarded in 1969 and all of these shortlisted titles except for Lincoln in the Bardo, I feel somewhat qualified to give an opinion.
I’m pleased to see that one of my top three Booker titles has made it to the shortlist. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje was selected by the novelist Kamila Shamsie because she felt ‘it has everything”. She specifically calls out its characterisation, intricate structure and the way it makes readers think about love and friendship. My own take on this is that it’s a beautifully paced tale of four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war. It’s short but rich in themes and has a very strong emotional pull.
Also delighted to see Hilary Mantel on the shortlist even though I thought her later novel, Bring Up the Bodies (another of my top 3 ) was stronger than Wolf Hall. The judge for this decade, broadcaster and novelist Simon Mayo called Wolf Hall “fantastically readable and unbelievably complicated.” I’m not going to argue with that assessment – Mantel’s achievement was to take a historical figure typically portrayed as cold, distant and manipulative, and make him human. But in Bring Up the Bodies, I think we get an even stronger sense of the moral and ethical dilemmas confronted by her protagonist Thomas Cromwell as he seeks to serve his master the King. Bring Up the Bodies just missed out inclusion in the assessment for the 2000s where it would have been pitted directly against Wolf Hall. Instead it was evaluated by a different judge who perhaps didn’t have Mayo’s declared love of historical fiction.
But that flip into a new decade meant it was up against the final title in my top 3 – The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Lincoln in the Bardo was a hot tip to win the prize last year but it wasn’t universally praised – some readers and bloggers found it too fragmented. Flanagan’s novel however I thought exceptionally well constructed even though it moved across time periods and countries. Leaving this off the shortlist was a miss I thought by the judge, poet Hollie McNish.
What of the choices to represent the remaining decades?
For the 1970s the writer and editor Robert McCrum judged In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul as the best of the decade. I think he drew the short-straw by being given the 1970s since there were few, in my opinion, stand out winners. Naipaul’s book was one I read early on in my Booker Project and you can maybe gauge my reaction to it from the fact that I haven’t as yet posted a review. I recall it being a strange novel where often I wasn’t absolutely sure what was happening.
My own choice would be Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea which slightly has the edge over Paul Scott’s Staying on. I never thought I would be gunning for Murdoch since I’d always thought her work difficult to penetrate but The Sea The Sea was a revelation.
As for the 1980s, I know the popular opinion in the blogosphere is that the judge Lemn Sissay made a mistake in overlooking Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I did read it though it was a struggle. I did appreciate the inventiveness of the novel but the truth is I just didn’t enjoy it so my vote would go to The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro for its superbly understated portrayal of a man who has suppressed his emotions for so long he cannot let them go even when this is to the detriment of his happiness.
So if I’d been the judges ( I expect a call from the Booker people any day now) my shortlist would be:
1970s: The Sea The Sea by Irish Murdoch
1980s: The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
1990s: The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
2000s: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (I know I said earlier that Bring up the Bodies is better but that’s in a different decade)
2010s: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan
What would your shortlist look like?
The reading public now get a chance to make their preferences know via the public vote which is open until June 25. Vote here