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Booker Prize winners – the books that got away

Americanah

Robbed of the Booker Prize?

 

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.

Brooklyn

One the Booker judges overlooked?

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:

  • finish reading the list of winners. It’s taken me far longer than I expected to read all the winners but I’m nearly there.
  • run my own ‘did it deserve the prize?’ series of posts. I’ll do these decade by decade starting next week and asking you all to join in with your own thoughts. I’ll give you a hint as to what some of my choices could be – take a look at a post I wrote last year where I selected my top 3 Booker titles of all time.

 

An alternative Golden Booker Prize

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.

goldenbooker.jpg

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 

 

WWWednesday 9 May 2018

Wednesdays do have a habit of creeping up on me without warning. It seems like only five minutes since I did my last WWWednesday post but here we are again.

WWWednesday is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words  and involves three questions:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently reading: by John Berger

G

I’ve returned to my Booker Prize project

which is now in the final stages. G won the Booker in 1972 and is one of the least-known of the winners. I’ve reached page 30 but have yet to meet the main character G. He’s the off spring of an Italian merchant who has an adulterous escapade with a free-spirited Anglo-American girl. I hope it moves up a gear soon otherwise this is going to be a slog of a read.

bleeding heart square

Since I anticipate needing some light relief I have picked up Andrew Taylor’s Bleeding Heart Square. It’s a historical mystery/thriller set in a decaying cul-de -sac in 1930s London. This is where the aristocratic Lydia Langstone seeks refuge when she leaves her husband. Unknown to her she is stepping into a dark mystery – what has happened to a former occupant of Bleeding Heart Square and why is someone mailing human hearts to the lodging house?.

 

Recently Finished: The Whale Caller by Zakes Mda

This started out as a strange book and continued in that way until the end. I am now equipped, should the need arise, to answer a multitude of quiz questions about whales. I know they lobtail, filter plankton through baleen and can be prone to sea lice. Oh, and they must never, ever be described as a fish……

 

 

Reading next

 

I’m off on Sunday for a two week sojourn in the heart of England, starting in the Peak District and taking in Stamford (a historic stone town much loved by film crews) and Stratford Upon Avon. I hope to get some reading time in between the eating of cream teas and imbibing of few glasses of wine. With me will be Kamila Shamshie’s Home Fire which is our book club selection for June and either an Elizabeth Taylor or a Barbara Pym. I’m sure there will be a few bookshops I can visit for a top up if necessary.

 

 

WWWednesday 18 April 2018

WWWednesday is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words. I’ve not done this before but it seems an easy one. All I have to do is answer three questions and share a link in the comments section of Sam’s blog.

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

So here goes….

Currently reading

The Danger Tree by Olivia Manning

The Danger TreeThis is my contribution to the #77club reading week run by Kaggsy and Simon. I managed to get a copy from the library just in time. It’s set in Egypt at a critical moment when the Allied forces are desperately trying to hold back the advancing German forces. Though the war is the background, so far the book is about the response of the Europeans resident in Cairo and their uncertainty about the future. Manning is excellent at evoking the atmosphere of the desert.

 

Recently Finished

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Ocean at End of the Lane

I was looking for an antidote to  the drama of the world of neurological surgery that I’d been reading about in Do No Harm by Henry Marsh.  Gaiman’s book has been on my shelves since December 2013. I can’t remember why I wanted it since it’s a fantasy kind of story and has three ‘witches’ as characters which is not my usual reading material. But I’m now deeply impressed by Gaiman. It was hard to put this book down at night….

 

 

Reading next

The Crystal CaveI’m trying not to plan ahead too much this year but to choose what takes my fancy in the moment. I might return to a book I started just before the Olivia Manning one became available; Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave . It’s another from my shelves that I’ve been meaning to read for some time since I love all the myths around Arthur and Merlin. Or I might pick up one of the Booker prize winners I still have to read. I’m weighing up whether to read How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman (I actually started this last year) or The History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Both make heavy use of dialect so are not going to be easy reads. Any recommendations??

 

The year so far

Booker Prize project: the end is near

If I could get frequent flyer miles for every time I travelled to the land of best intentions this year I’m sure I’d have enough to circle the globe.

So many times I’ve got out of bed with the firm plan to write a review or check out some of the blogs I follow. Then bed-time arrives and I have no idea what happened to all those intervening hours. Other than I never did write the review and the list of unread items in my blog feed doubled.

Instead of blogging I’ve been filling my days catching up with friends from schooldays (I think I know every coffee shop within a 10 mile radius), creating a blog for my family history research; doing a lot of house redecoration (or rather supervising others to do the work) and going to the gym. That’s in between trying to learn German in preparation for a holiday and writing some scripts for performance at a cemetery in Cardiff. I’ve never written anything for performance before so this has been an eye-opening experience. It’s not until you hear the piece delivered by an actor that you realise how clunky some of the dialogue sounds…

Reading has taken somewhat of a back seat. It’s strange but when I was working there were many days where I would think “I’d love to be at home now, curled up on the sofa, just reading.”  But you know what, now that I can, the appeal has diminished….

Consequently I’ve read less this year than I have in all the years since I started blogging.  I refuse to get worked up about that however. It’s not about quantity but about enjoying the reading experience.

Since we’re now just over a quarter of the way through the year it seems like a good time to give you all an update on what I’ve been reading and what the future holds

State of the personal library

Let’s start with the good news …

… the TBR hasn’t gone up (round of applause please)

The not so good news … it hasn’t gone down.

I’m at exactly the same number with which I started the year – 245 to be precise.

I’m still acquiring books though at a vastly lower rate than has been the case over the last 5 years. And have off-loaded some that no longer appealed to the library book sale. Which has given me the space to accommodate the books I get through my monthly subscription to the Asymptote book club (I have yet to any of them so far) and those I need for the two book clubs in which I participate.

Year of Reading Naked

At the start of this year my only plan for 2018 was not to have a reading plan. Instead of creating lists of books to read (and then failing to read them) I decided to make 2018 my year of reading naked. By which I meant choosing what to read based on my mood at the time. I’ve stuck to that more or less. I did join in with the Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy at 746books but that didn’t involve making a list in advance. I just went to the shelves and found something by an Irish author. Job done.

This is so much more enjoyable than making a list and then finding when I come to read the books, they have lost their appeal…..

Read so far this year

I read the first of the books in my ‘Year of my life’ project as initiated by Cafe Society. It didn’t get off to a good start. I chose Muriel Spark’s The Comforters to represent 1957. Some of the characterisation was excellent but generally I thought the plot overly complicated and I lost interest long before the end. You can see my review here.

I’m now down to the last four books in my Booker Prize project, having read Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. 

That leaves me with G by John Berger, History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst and James Kelman’s How Late it Was How Late.

Best book of the year so far? That’s a toss up between A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola.

On the horizon

Today marks the start of the #1977club hosted by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’sbookishramblings, a week where we read, discover and discuss books from this particular year. I wasn’t going to join in because when I looked at the list on Wikipedia of books published that year the only ones that were of interest were ones I had already read. There seemed a lot of short story collections, science fiction and ‘popular’ fiction. But then HeavenAli drew my attention to The Danger Tree by Olivia Manning, an author I have long intended to read. This is the first title in her Levant Trilogy and is set in Egypt where the British forces are engaged in a fierce struggle  against the German forces. The conflict provides a backdrop against which one couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle,  struggle with their marriage. The stars must have been in alignment because I have just finished my current book and was wondering what to pick up next and then discovered my library has a copy languishing in its archive.

After that it will probably be back to the Booker Prize and I have Eleanor Oliphant is Absolutely Fine by Gail Honeyman to read for the next book club meeting. And that’s as much as I want to plan right now.

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre [Bookerprize]

Vernon_god_littleThe day after I started reading Vernon God Little a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at a music festival in Las Vegas, causing multiple fatalities and injuries. It made reading this book about a (fictional) mass killing at a school inMartirio, Texas, especially thought-provoking because it opened up questions about the way in which society respond to such events.

In the aftermath of Las Vegas, the initial desire was to understand ‘What happened?” and “How could this have happened?” This was quickly replaced by questions of responsibility.  ‘Who is to blame?” and “How could they have let this happen?” asked people around the world. This need to identify the person or people responsible and bring them swiftly to account for their failings, is a response that has become all too common in a world which has in recent years experienced a multitude of calamities.

The ‘blame culture’ is very evident in Vernon God Little. Jesus Navarro,  a college student,  shot and killed 16 students at his school before turning the gun on himself. His 15-year-old friend Vernon becomes the town’s scapegoat and is almost immediately charged as an accessory to the crime. As the book begins, Vernon has been taken into custody and is being questioned by police officers who are under pressure from an angry and grieving community to identify the guilty party.  Vernon steadfastly maintains his innocence but his behaviour over the course of the following few months, simply acts as further evidence to the police and the news media that he is guilty.  He flees to Mexico but is captured and put on trial as Texas’ most notorious serial killer. As a death row prisoner his fate will be decided in a Big Brother-style programme.

This is a story told from Vernon’s point of view. You’d think, given the subject matter, that this would be a fairly somber tale but actually it contains a surprising amount of humour. I don’t mean humour of the belly-aching, laugh out loud kind, but the type  that has you wincing — if you’ve ever watched eposides of the BBC sit com The Office (the original British version that is) you’ll have an idea of what I mean. The behaviour of the central character is ludicrously funny but we also cringe at some of his antics. We laugh with Vernon and at him but often feel guilty about the latter because he’s in essence a nice kid whose been given a rough deal. His father disappeared some years previously and his mother is, well let’s be kind and say she’s not really there. Instead of protecting her son and doing her damnest to get him the best legal help possible, she goes all dewy-eyed about a video repairman  who masquerades as a news reporter. “Lally” Ledesma is clearly a sleaze who befriends Vernon only to further his own career but Vernon’s mother doesn’t see the damage this guy is doing to her son. Vernon isn’t well served by the girl he fancies — she leads him on then shops him in order to further her own aspirations to be a media personality — or by his mother’s friends. They’re more concerned with junk television and, perhaps aptly in a town nicknamed ‘the barbecue-sauce capital of Texas’,  stuffing their faces with ribs and fried chicken. Vernon’s mother and her chums fret endlessly about whether he is getting enough to eat. Her closest friend Palmyra is a wonderful larger-than-life character who bellows at police officers when she finds they’re not feeding him enough:

So the door flies open. Pam wobbles in, bolt upright like she has books on her head. It’s on account of her center of gravity.

‘Vernie, you eatin rebs? What did you eat today?’

‘Breakfast’

‘O Lord, we better go by the Barn’

Doesn’t matter what you tell her, she’s going by Bar-B-Chew Barn believe me.

Pam just molds into the car. Her soul’s already knotted over the choice of side-orders you can tell.

No-one in this novel really comes across in a positive light however; they’re either fat, stupid or conniving. In fact, Vernon God Little is rather scathing about American society in general, portraying it as full of slobbish incompetent law enforcers and gun-obsessed gullible citizens.  Everything in this world can be turned into a form of entertainment — even the death penalty.  One of the most chilling plot developments comes when Ledesma sells an idea to a television network for a Big Brother style series where viewers get to decide the fate of prisoners on death row. Prisoners are given coaching on how to act when the cameras are installed in their cells.

Internet viewers will be able to choose which cells to watch, and change camera angles and all. On regular TV there’ll be edited highlights of the day’s action. Then the general public will vote by phone or internet. They’ll vote for who should die next. The cuter we act, the more we entertain, the longer we might live.

I wish I could believe such an idea will never materialise outside the world of fiction. But then who could have imagined a program about a bunch of misfits who live together in a custom-built home under constant surveillance??

No wonder that at the end, Vernon wonders: “What kind of a life was that? A bunch of movies, and people talking about movies, and shows about people talking about movies.”

So what did I make of this book? It was certainly an odd book.  Frequently loopy, barmy and just plain whacky, it was a tale told with gusto and zest. But the initial novelty of this style wore off half way through and, as much as I was interested in its ideas, I just wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible.

Footnotes

About the book: Vernon God Little was the debut novel by DBC Pierre. Published in 2003 it won the Booker Prize the same year in the face of competition from Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut and Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.

About the author:  D.B.C. Pierre (the pen name of Peter Warren Finlay) has a ‘colourful’ history, admitting to being a drug-taking, hard-drinking, law-breaking tearaway in his past. His misspent youth gave him his nickname of Dirty But Clean (hence the DBC…). Part American, part Australian he now lives in Ireland.

Why I read this book: It was one of the remaining books to read in my Booker Prize project. Just six more to go..

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor [Book Review]

reservoir 13Of all the books long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker prize, Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor was the one I most wanted to read.  Having done so I’m at a loss to understand why the Booker judges failed to select this for the shortlist. Not for the first time it seems the judges’ idea of what makes an outstanding novel is a mile apart from my own thinking.

Reservoir 13 is quite simply an extraordinary novel. It gives an innovative twist to the device of a missing girl; has a meticulously plotted structure and a mesmeric poetic style of writing.

The springboard is the disappearance of 13 year old Rebecca Shaw from the holiday cottage in England’s Peak District where she is spending New Year’s Eve with her parents. Initially it seems the novel is treading a familiar path; one which traces the ensuing search, the grief of the girl’s family and the shock of the community before the revelation of what happened to Rebecca.  So we get police helicopters buzzing overhead, villagers turning out to sweep the frozen moors and divers trawling through the reservoirs. It’s all in vain. Rebecca Shaw is nowhere to be found. Not that day or in the following weeks, months and even years. McGregor keeps alive the possibility that she may be found however; tantalising us with the discovery of a navy-blue body-warmer identical to the one Rebecca wore the night she disappeared; several mentions of disused lead mines and characters who have secrets they would prefer lay undiscovered.

McGregor’s stroke of ingenuity is to make us think this is all adding up to be a murder mystery/crime kind of novel, while all the time writing an entirely different of book. What Reservoir 13 is about is essentially the ebb and flow of life in a rural community showing how, despite a human tragedy, life does go on.  Cows are milked, crops planted and harvested, tea rooms opened, kilns fired. Babies are born; children grow up and experiment with drugs and sex; people fall in and out of love; some fall sick; others die. Some villagers leave, others return. In the immediate aftermath of Rebecca’s disappearance, the villagers scale back on some of their time-honoured traditions and festivities as a mark of respect for her family. But as the years pass and still she is not found, they make a return appearance on the calendar: the charity dance in spring, well dressing in mid summer; the cricket match against the neigbouring village; harvest festival; the winter pantomime and fireworks at New Year

McGregor follows the daily lives of a large set of villagers, watching them deal with small and not-so-small sorrows and disappointments over the course of 13 years. Child pornography; depression; marital discord; examination failures and successes; all human life is recorded in this novel. There’s Irene who puts on a brave face even when her special needs son becomes violent; Jackson the farmer, who rules his sons’ lives from his sick bed and Jones the school caretaker whose protective attitude towards his boilerhouse is suspicious. None of these villagers dominate the novel; there is in fact no central character. Often all we get is a fleeting glimpse of their lives, a single sentence or a short conversation alone signalling their attitudes, their vulnerabilities and how their lives are changing. It’s a style that calls for careful reading — blink and you can easily miss some essential detail.

The cycle of human life is echoed in the rhythms of the natural world — the flowering of trees and wild plants, mating and hibernation of wildlife and weather conditions marking the changing of the seasons.

The swallows returned in numbers, and could be seen flying in and out of the open doors at the lambing shed at the Jacksons’ and the cowsheds over at Thompson’s, and the outbuildings up at the Hunter’s land. … There was rain and the river was high and the hawthorn by the lower meadows came out foaming white. The cow parsley was thick along the footpaths and the shade deepened under the trees.

Through meticulous layering of details and repetition Reservoir 13 marks the turning of the years. Every chapter, each of which takes us one year on, begins in the same way: a sentence noting the fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Yet with a few small changes McGregor shows how life is changing for this community.

Chapter 2, which marks the first anniversary of Rebecca’s disappearance begins

At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but they were too far off for the sound to carry to the few who’d come out to watch.

By year 4, the villagers are in more of a celebration mood:

At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks on the television in the pub and dancing in the street outside.

Almost a decade later however, after New Year’s Eve is marked by arson attacks at a caravan and the allotments, the villagers are more cautious about their celebrations:

At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but no one in the village even lifted their heads to look.

McGregor’s prose is rhythmic and measured, seeming simple on the surface yet with such precision and detail that you feel immersed in the life of this community and drawn towards its inhabitants. It’s the kind of writing that can easily sweep you along. I forced myself to slow down, reading just one chapter a night so I could savour it more fully.

Even while absorbed in their own lives, the village can never completely forget what happened on that one night so many years ago. Periodically McGregor reminds us of the girl’s disappearance, even in the final chapter some 13 years after her disappearance we are told:

The missing girl had not yet been forgotten. The girl’s name was Rebecca or Becky or Beks. She had been looked for everywhere. … It was no good.

This is in short a wonderful novel. The best I have read this year.

It seems I am not alone in my enthusiasm for this book. Take a look at reviews by Lisa at ANZlitlovers, Susan at A Life in Books and Paul at MookesandGripes.

Footnotes

About the book: Reservoir 13 was published in 2017 by 4th Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins. My version is in hardback and was borrowed from my local library.

About the author: Jon McGregor is the author of four novels and a story collection. He is the winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, Betty Trask Prize, and Somerset Maugham Award, and has twice been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, where he edits the Letters Page, a literary journal in letters. He was born in Bermuda in 1976, grew up in Norfolk, and now lives in Nottingham, England.

 

History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey [Bookerprize]

NedKellyUntil I read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, I knew only three things about its protagonist Ned Kelly:

  1. He was an outlaw in Australia
  2. He was hanged for his crimes
  3. In his final shootout he wore a helmet made from iron with slits for his eyes

Carey’s novel takes us way beyond those headline facts and into the mind of the man whose first encounter with the law happened when he was just thirteen years old and he was charged with the assault and robbery of a Chinese pig and fowl trader. By the time Ned Kelly was 25 he had progressed to cattle thieving, bank robberies and murder.  How this child of a dirt-poor Irish immigrant family became one of the most wanted men in Australia and the stuff of legends is the premise of True History of the Kelly Gang.

Based partly on historical documents including the Jerilderie Letter written by Kelly to a fellow outlaw,  the novel begins with a 12-year-old boy forced to grow up quickly when his father dies. As head of the family, Ned is fiercely protective of his mother and siblings, putting his heart and soul into building fences around their farm in Victoria and clearing the land to protect crops and livestock.  Manoeuvred by his mother to become an apprentice to the infamous bushranger Harry Power, Ned is drawn increasingly into a life of crime. He fights with his mother’s suitors and the police, and when he shoots a  treacherous police officer in self-defense, Ned is forced to flee into the wild bush country. With his younger brother and two friends he commits audacious crimes, all the while gaining widespread support from poor oppressed farmers and remaining one step ahead of the forces of law and order.

True History of the Kelly Gang is an imaginative reconstruction of Ned Kelly’s life story in his own words. Dedicated to the baby daughter he has never seen, Kelly wants to set the record straight. He promises her at the beginning that his history “will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false” and the word ‘True’ in the title further seeks to persuade us that this is an definitive and authoritative account of his life and of the injustices suffered by the Irish in Australia.

He repeatedly represents himself as a person who was pushed into the life of an outlaw by forces beyond his control. “What choice did I have?” he asks, when he kills the constable who heads the local police station. At other times he reflects on how he has been betrayed by the dishonesty of others. He operates to a code of ethics that will not let him see his brother imprisoned for an act that he Ned committed, and that drives him to rob banks to raise money for the release of his mother from what he considers an unlawful imprisonment. All of this is in strong contrast to the lack of princples he witness among the police, judges and fellow settlers.

All of this is rendered in a style that is striking. Carey’s narrative has a directness and immediacy of tone that makes it hard to resist Kelly’s portrait of himself as a man who had the stuffing knocked out of him  as a child. Coming out of a stint of hard labour in prison he reflects:

I were 17 yr old when I came out of prison 6ft 2in. broad of shoulder my hands as hard as the hammers we had swung inside the walls of Beecworth Goal. I had a mighty beard and was a child no more although in truth I do not know what childhood or youth I ever had. What remained if any were finally taken away inside that goal boiled off me like fat and marrow is rendered within the tallow pot.

The raggedness of this style of writing with its lack of punctuation and free flow from one thought to another took me a little time to get used to but once any initial reservations were overcome, I got swept along. Kelly may have lacked a formal education but he knows how to tell a story and to describe the environment in which he lives and hides. Here are a few examples I picked out:

“Many is the night I have sat by the roaring river the rain never ending them logs so green bubbling and spitting blazing in a rage no rain can staunch.” 

“The clouds was light but queerly yellow on their edges as they moved across the ageless constellations.” 

“Curtains of bark hung from the trunks like shredded skin”

These moments together with flashes of humour and reflections on the Irish experience were welcome contrasts to the torrent of detail about cattle thieving, double crossing, run-ins with the law and shoot-outs. Ned Kelly seems to have perfect recall of every stage of his life and every conversation and to want to tell us about every single detail. I got a bit tired of this three quarters of the way through. Though I did enjoy it, less would certainly have more with this book.

Footnotes

About this book: True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey was first published in 2000 by the University of Queensland Press. It won the Booker Prize in 2001. My copy is a paperback published by Mackays of Chatham.

About the author: Born in Australia in 1943, Peter Carey is the author of six previous novels and a collection of stories. He won the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda; his other honors include the Commonwealth Prize and the Miles Franklin Award. He became only the second author to win the Booker Prize twice.

Why I read this book: it’s one of the few remaining books on my Booker Prize project. I included it in my 20booksofsummer project for 2017.

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth [book review] #Bookerprize

Sacred-HungerIt’s 210 years since an Act of Parliament abolished the slave trade in Britain, a trade upon which many personal fortunes were made; mansions, stately homes and churches built and Britain’s major ports, cities and canals developed. It’s estimated that by the early 1800s as many as one in six of the wealthiest Britons derived at least some of their fortunes from slavery. This is a period of British history which still causes controversy today – earlier this year campaigners vowed to erase the name of Edward Colston from the streets of Bristol because the buildings he bequeathed to the city were funded through his involvement in the slave trade.

The profit motive that propelled merchants and investors like Colston is the theme explored in Sacred Hunger, the 1992 Booker-prize winning novel by Barry Unsworth.  It begins with the ambition of one man, William Kemp, a leading merchant in Liverpool who believes the time is ripe for the city and its entrepreneurs to reap the rewards of trade across the Atlantic and Africa. So confident is he that he has a new ship built to carry firearms to the west coast of Africa, intending to trade them for slaves to be transported and sold in the West Indies in exchange for a cargo of sugar to be taken back to England.

He knows it will be a risky endeavour. So he equips the Liverpool Merchant with special features: guns on its quarterdecks  mounted so they can be trained down to quell slave revolts and thickened rails to make death leaps more difficult.  In his captain Saul Thurso he finds a man who will not hesitate to act in whatever way necessary to maintain order. Yet Kemp likes to think he is also a caring man so he recruits his nephew Matthew Paris as ship’s doctor, “for reasons of humanity”, much to Thurso’s astonishment and disgust.

It’s through the eyes of this doctor that we witness events on board ship once it sets sail. Paris is a complex character. In between binding the wounds of crew members and treating the symptoms of venereal disease and bloody flux (severe dysentery), he spends his time at sea reading Voltaire and Pope. His thoughts turn constantly to his  wife and his feelings of guilt for the part he played in her premature death. His objection to the profit motive, the inhumanity of slavery and the treatment of the human cargo put him at loggerheads with the Captain.

When an artist and philosopher called Deblanc joins the ship in West Africa, Paris finds he has someone with whom he can debate the legitimacy of the profit motive behind the voyage. Deblanc tells Paris how the lust for profit becomes legitimised:

Money is sacred as everyone knows… So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking only to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.

Paris becomes increasingly disquiet about his own role in assisting the slave traders:

I have assisted in the suffering inflicted on these innocent people and in doing so joined the ranks of those that degrade the unoffending… We have taken everything from them and only for the sake of profit—that sacred hunger… which justifies everything, sanctifies all purposes.

Thurso decides to jettison the captured slaves, the insurance money being more attractive than their prospects for sale in their sickened condition. It’s the breaking point for Paris who leads a rebellion and forms a settlement off the coast of Florida where crew members and slaves live together on equal terms. They share the few remaining women slaves, communicate via a trade pidgin and trade with local Indians.

A decade later, William Kemp’s son Erasmus learns of this settlement and resolves to recapture the slaves for they are, in his eyes, his property. Book 2 of Sacred Hunger traces his journey across the Atlantic to seek retribution against his cousin, bring him to justice and reclaim the remaining slaves. Like his now-dead father, Erasmus is motivated by money and finds in Florida that the promise of land and wealth is equally compelling to the Governor of this British colony and the local Indian tribal chiefs.

The story moves at a smart pace, especially in the first book. There is a large and colourful cast of characters from the crewmen duped in wharfside brothels into joining the ship to Thurso whose glaring eyes and propensity for flogging make him an imposing figure. Unsworth provides so much detail that we feel we too are pitching and rolling through the waves or clambering up the mainmast. Fortunately the book doesn’t get so authentic that we experience the stink of the slave’s quarters in the bottom of the hull.

 

Sacred Hunger is long at 600 pages but doesn’t feel unnecessarily drawn out. It’s page after page of solid adventure, realistic 18th century dialogue and vivid prose which works without recourse to any experimentation with form. In Book 1 which takes us as far as Thurso’s murder of the slaves, Unsworth varies the tempo by alternating episodes on the Liverpool Merchant  with scenes of a failed romance and a family scandal in Liverpool.

 

Book One was a joy to read but I wasn’t as enthralled by the considerably shorter Book 2. Most of this later section is set in Florida where the hoped for utopia of a settlement of equals is clearly breaking down despite Paris’ attempt to convince the settlers that “White man, black man, all free man, all bradder, lie tagedder dis place, all same boat.” The problem for me was that so much of this section is conveyed in that kind of pidgin language. It’s understandable since it brings home the point about how difficult it is for the English and Africans to communicate but it made for some frustrating reading. Overall though this was still a good read and will find a place in the top half of my favourite Booker titles I’m sure.

 

 

Footnotes

About the book: Sacred Hunger is a historical novel by Barry Unsworth first published in 1992 by Hamish Hamilton. It shared the Booker Prize that year with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (one of my all-time favourite Booker winners).

About the author: Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham. After university he served in the Royal Corps of Signals, then became a teacher and novelist. He worked as a lecturer in English at a London technical college and the universities of Athens and Istanbul. He was writer in residence at the University of Liverpool. In later years he made his home in Umbria, Italy. He died in Perugia, at age 81, of lung cancer.

Why I read this book: Sacred Hunger is one of the remaining books on my Booker prize winners project. It’s also part of my 20booksofsummer2017 list.

Which Booker winner to read next? The experts have weighed in…

Earlier in the week I asked for help in working out which of the remaining 8 Booker titles from my list I should read next. And also was there a standout novel with which to end.

Thanks to everyone who weighed in on this. As I expected, opinions were divided, proof if ever any were needed that reading is a highly personal experience.

Some clear trends did emerge however.

GG.  the 1972 winner by J Berger got zero votes of confidence which is not surprising since it had been read by only one person: Susan at A Life in Books. Only one other person seemed to be aware of Berger’s work: Kelly at Kellysbookishramblings has G on her TBR shelves..

 

the conservationistAlso not universally recommended is the 1974 winner The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer. Lisa of ANZitlovers gave it a resounding vote of confidence calling it a brave book written by a brave woman who exposed the day to day reality of apartheid to the international stage” and Bookbii described it as an “excellent, if challenging book.” Countering this however is Alison, a blogger from South Africa who commented : Nadine Gordimer is a Sacred Icon in South African literature, but I’ve always found her books very heavy going.” 

how late it wasLocal connections certainly played a part in reactions to James Kelman’s 1994 winner How Late It Was, How Late “Don’t be put off Kelman,” said Weezelle at BooksandLeaves. My (Scottish) husband says that the criticism aimed at him comes from certain parts of the British Isles who were educated in certain institutions that may or may not have a particular elitist view of the world. Even for me as a non-Scot, I loved this book.” Col, a Glaswegian, loved the book but admitted to maybe a little bias since it is set in her home city and the language is thus very familiar.

Vernon_god_littleThe jury delivered  a minority verdict on Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre. Some of you  really enjoyed it, calling variously “a riot’ and “bonkers” but others declared they hated it and Paul Fulcher thought it “lightweight and completely unworthy of the prize.”

 

 

What did you recommend?

Top of the poll was Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, the 1993 winner by Roddy Doyle with nine paddy clarkevotes in favour and no negative reactions. Kim at Reading Matters described it as “one of my all time favourites. ” Many of you commented on  its readability – a description that would have pleased the judges of the 2011 prize but was dismissed by many of the literary great and the good asa sign of dumbing down of the prize. But what’s wrong with saying a book is readable? I’m more than confident that people reading this blog don’t mean these are “simple” books or superficial. Maybe we mean they are less challenging in form or subject but still require engagement of the brain.

Also described as an easy and very readable book is The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst which won the Booker Prize in 2004. It attracted 6 votes, a draw with The True History of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey.

seven killingsThe novel that had me most curious to hear your reactions was the most recent winner on my list: the 2015 winner  A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Although it attracted only 4 votes in its favour there were none against which surprised me because I’ve seen many other reviews commenting on how complex a novel this is structurally and how tough it can be to tune into the Jamaican dialect.  Yet one commenter said it was “An astonishingly good book, that stays with you long after you’ve read it. Yes, there is extreme violence, some of the dialect is hard to understand, and the politics can be confusing. It is not an easy read – but worth the effort.

Where does this take me?

I’m going to save The Line of Beauty and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha until the end since they were so highly recommended. It would be tempting to leave one of the least favourite novels to the end but I  really do not want to mark the completion of this project by reading something I don’t enjoy. I’m going to make The True History of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey by next choice given it has had a positive reaction. After that I’m going to let my mood dictate what I choose, trying to space out the more challenging reads where I can.

Thanks for all your help.

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