This week’s Top Ten topic, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is the ten best books of 2016. By which I take it they mean the books I read in 2016 that I enjoyed the most. I’ve pontificated about this for a few weeks now but can delay no longer. So here is my list. I was surprised to see how many are Booker prize related.
- Top spot goes to Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing for her sweeping saga of life in China during the Cultural Revolution and its effects on three musicians. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and in my ever so humble opinion should have been the winner. But the judges disagreed….sigh.
- The Many by Wyl Menmuir: a debut novel which was mesmerising even if I didn’t fully understand it. Contained some disturbing ideas about the long term effectof pollution on the sea and fishing stock . It was longlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize
- The North Water by Ian McGuire: Another 2016 Booker contender, this was a rollicking if grim historical adventure set on a whaling ship.
- Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink: the only non fiction book to make it onto my top 10, this was a thought-provoking detailed examination of the effects of Hurricane Katrina on a hospital in New Orleans and the life/death decisions confronting the medical staff.
- Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb: my first experience of this Belgian-born author. After reading this terrific novella about a young girl’s humiliation when she goes to work for a Japanese company and comes bang up against cultural rules and expectations.
- Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: Another author that I read for the first time in 2016 and what an experience. The plot focuses on a group of people who go to a concert in a Latin American country and end up being taken hostage. Although there is plenty of tension and drama, the real interest for me was in how the different hostages (who include a world famous opera singer, her accompanist and a devoted fan) all respond to music.
- Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami: it’s taken me many years to get around to reading Murakami. It was delightful atmospheric novel about love and loss.
- The Gathering by Anne Enright: another Booker title but this time a winner – from 2007. Irish authors often tend to focus on doom and gloom and this one is no exception since it revolves around a sister’s reaction to her brother’s suicide. It’s grim in a sense but Enright portrays the inner life of her protagonist so well I just had to keep reading.
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North: by Richard Flanagan: Winner of the Booker Prize in 2014, this is a riveting story account of an Australian doctor who is haunted by a love affair with his uncle’s wife and his experience as a prisoner of war in Thailand.
- My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: yet another 2016 Booker contender though I read this long before the Booker judges made their initial selection. It’s the first time I read anything by Strout and on the strength of this tale about a mother/daughter relationship I’ll be keen to read some of her earlier work.
There was no way I could read all 13 of the long listed titles for this year’s Man Booker Prize in the short time available until the shortlisting is announced on September 13. But I did want to get a flavour of the contenders so read a few of them and then a sample of the rest.
Here are my reactions….
Paul Beatty – The Sellout: described as a satire of post-racial America. I couldn’t get hold of a copy of this or a sample. But having read the review by Mookes and Gripes I’m glad because I doubt I would have appreciated it and probably not been able to finish it.
J.M. Coetzee – The Schooldays of Jesus: Coetzee is a two-times Booker winner so it’s no surprise to find he is being strongly tipped for the shortlist. This novel is a follow-up to his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus. It’s set in a nameless country where everyone speaks Spanish and where refugees arrive on boats, are given new names and identities, and are “washed clean” of all their old memories and associations. The plot is rather thin – this is more a novel about ideas than a story. I’ve only just started reading it so it’s hard to give a verdict other than I find the narrative style irritating at times particularly so in the middle of dialogue where we get this clumsy construction of ‘He, Simon …’ repeatedly.
A.L. Kennedy – Serious Sweet : a London love story between two decent but troubled individuals that is told over the course of 24 hours. I read the first two chapters as a sample of this novel. By the end of the first chapter I decided I wasn’t interested enough to read on – it focuses on Jon Sigurdsson, a civil servant who seems to be going through an emotionally disturbed period. He’s in his garden early morning and is trying to free a bird trapped in some netting. The metaphor for his own situation is clumsy and over-blown. The second chapter where we meet Meg Williams, a bankrupt accountant is far more interesting. Will I read it? Probably not.
Deborah Levy – Hot Milk: another novel I sampled. It’s described as a“richly mythic” tale of mothers and daughters but the first chapter seemed rather banal to me. The narrator Sofia is in a rented beach house in Spain where she is accompanying her mother who is seeking a cure for a mysterious illness that confines her to a wheelchair. Sofia is clearly dominated by her mother so escapes to the beach where she encounters Juan, the beach guard and has a boring conversation with him about jelly fish. Will I read any more of this one – absolutely not. Will it make the shortlist? It doesn’t deserve to but stranger things have happened with the Booker.
Graeme Macrae Burnet – His Bloody Project: Features a brutal triple murder in a remote northern crofting community in 1869. This is an odd choice for the judges, maybe not quite as highbrow literary as many of the choices in the past. The chapters I’ve dipped into have been fast paced and chock full of atmosphere. I have an electronic copy that I snaffled up as a bargain the day after the long-listing so yes, this is one I plan to read. Sometime. I don’t see it making the final list however.
Ian McGuire – The North Water: a closely detailed story of violence that breaks out between desperate men on a doomed whaling expedition into the Arctic. This was the second of the Booker list I read and what a scorcher it proved to be. A page turner but one that has more literary merit than most page turning novels. It might make the shortlist – a short while ago it was a favourite with the bookies. But if it makes it to the ultimate prize then I promise to go and read Moby Dick as a penance.
David Means – Hystopia: the novel imagines a history in which John F Kennedy was not assassinated, the Vietnam war drags on and there is a government initiative to wipe the trauma from the memories of returning soldiers.I read a sample of this and was thoroughly confused. It has multiple editor notes as the preface which supposedly explains the story but I ended up more confused and felt it was just trying to be too darn clever for its own good. Many blogger reviews I’ve seen since then all indicate that the confusion doesn’t go away the further you read. I don’t mind being challenged by a book – its the easy novels that frustrate me – but when someone is just trying to show off their ability and they forget they have a reader, I get annoyed. So no I will not be reading this one. I suspect it will make the shortlist though just because the Booker judges do like novels that try to be be inventive.
Wyl Menmuir –The Many: this a short novel that punches above the weight of its page count. It tells the story of a man who moves to an abandoned house in an isolated Cornish village whose future is threatened by pollution of their fishing grounds. The longer he stays, the more uncomfortable and bizarre life becomes. It took me a while to get hold of a copy because the novel is published by Salt who had only printed 1,000 copies and were overwhelmed by demand when The Many got long listed. But oh boy was this worth the wait. It’s atmospheric in a chilling sense because we don’t get to know why the fishing waters are polluted and there is some mystery about the previous occupant of the house. Will it make the shortlist – it deserves a place I think.
Ottessa Moshfegh– Eileen: set in the 1960s, this tells the story of an unhappy young woman and a bitterly cold Massachusetts winter. The sample I read did intrigue me – it is a first person narration by Eileen who is living a pretty miserable life with her alcoholic father in a squalid home. Her only escapes are the trips she takes in her battered down car to the liquor store and her work at at a correctional facility for boys. I’ve seen mixed reactions to this novel but it might be one that I’m interested to read more about. Whether it makes the shortlist I have no idea, not having read enough of it to judge.
Virginia Reeves – Work Like Any Other: Set in rural Alabama in the 1920s, it tells the story of a pioneering electricity engineer sent to prison for manslaughter after a young man stumbles on one of his illegal power lines. I don’t know what it is about the synopsis for this book but it didn’t encourage me to even get a sample…….
Elizabeth Strout – My Name Is Lucy Barton: a striking story about a relationship between mother and daughter. Simply one of the best novels I’ve read so far – see my review here. Will it make it to the next round? Maybe.
David Szalay – All That Man Is: This is an odd novel. Actually I’m not even sure that I can call it a novel though that’s the description used by the publishers. It felt to me a collection of stories about nine different men, all at various stages of their lives. There is only one really clear connection between them – and that’s between the young man in story number one and the old man in the final story who turns out to be his grandfather. Some of these pieces have appeared either in full or partially in either Granta or the Paris Review which makes me think that rather than conceived holistically from the start, the author is trying to make connections between each character in retrospect. Not one I expect to see on the shortlist even if Szalay has been named previously as a Granta Best Young British Novelist.
Madeleine Thien – Do Not Say We Have Nothing: relates the story of musicians who suffered during and after China’s Cultural Revolution. Another case where I had to rely upon a sample since it’s not available through the library system or NetGalley and I refuse to shed out a lot of money on hard cover fiction even though I am a sucker for novels that pull back the curtain on Chinese culture. The first chapter introduces us to the narrator Li-ling lives with her mother in Vancouver. Her father disappeared some years earlier, and subsequently committed suicide. His wife keeps all his papers in boxes under the kitchen table which she pores over to try and make sense of what happened to him. The arrival into the Vancouver apartment of a teenage relative forced to flee China following the suppression of the Tiananmen Square uprising, enables Li-ling to assemble the story of her father and his profound but troubled relationship with his wife’s family. What I’ve read was enough to whet my appetite to this is going onto the wishlist for when I can find a reasonably priced copy. Will it get shortlisted – maybe….
Other bloggers have been far more diligent than I have in reading the longlist so do go and check out their reviews.
It’s Bloody. Raw. Violent. Bleak.
The North Water by Ian McGuire long listed for the Man Booker 2016, is a gripping novel that oozes darkness on every page. Exactly what’s needed from a thriller. Add to that a fantastic sense of 1840’s andy a sublime rendition of the Arctic landscape and you have the best historical thriller I’ve read for years by a long way.
Is The North Water a Booker winner though? Is it even a shortlist candidate? I’m thinking a definite no to the first question and only a maybe to the second. Why? Because as exceptionally well written as this novel is, it’s not a very literary piece of prose and doesn’t push the boundaries of its genre in a way I expect a Booker winner to do. Within its own genre it’s a magnificent accomplishment. Maybe thats what the judges are looking for – excellence and readability in one hit. But when I stack it up against previous winners I don’t see it in contention.
But….. those comments shouldn’t be taken as a reason to push this book to one side. For if you love plot driven novels, especially ones which are as meticulously constructed as this one and as persuasively authentic in terms of period detail, this is definitely a book to add to the wishlist.
Be warned, some the language may be considered ‘ripe’ but recognise this is a book with a seafaring cast of characters used to hardship and calling a spade a spade. There are also some passages that are not for the squeamish since McGuire pulls no punches about the brutal and bloody business of whaling in the 1840s nor of the harshness of character such work engenders. But this isn’t gratuitous blood and guts stuff, this is a novel realistic about a business in which only the most nimble, selfish and ruthless whalers will survive.
The most ruthless of them is Henry Drax. He’s a harpooner on the whaling ship The Volunteer which is about to set off from England on a six month voyage to Greenland. Within the first few pages we get the measure of this character. He’s killed a man who crossed him in a bar, and beaten unconscious and raped a young black street urchin without hesitation or consciousness. Death to Drax is a pleasure a matter of pride when executed to perfection.
Drax goes swiftly through the motions; one action following the next, passionless and precise, machine like, but not mechanical. He grasps onto the world like a dog biting into a bone – nothing is obscure to him, nothing is separate from his fierce and surly appetites. What the nigger boy used to be has now disappeared. He is gone completely and something else, something wholly different, has appeared instead.
The opening scene is a portent of the ills that will befall The Volunteer once the voyage is underway. Further omens follow: the captain is the only survivor of a previous whale boat disaster (the only crew member among 18 to survive) which makes his new crew rather jittery and they are not even aware of a secret discussion he olds with the boat’s owner. Then there is a new surgeon Patrick Sumner, nursing a wound from his days with the army in India. He claims he wants a period of calm (a whaling mission seems a bit of odd way to get recuperation) before claiming an inherited piece of land in Ireland. But he has rather too much of an affection for laudanam and his own dark role in a tragedy which caused his dismissal from the regiment under a cloud.
Sumner is the only character who really evolves and develops through the novel. The other characters exist mainly to propel the book forward and to set up some tension so we are not clear who are the good guys and who is not to be trusted. Sumner finds he is no match for wilds of Alaska and its animal inhabitants. There time on the ice fields sees them hunt bears and slaughter seals and whales but ultimately their natural skills and inner resources prove inadequate when faced with the unrelenting, indifferent force of nature. Only Sumner learns to adapt but even then the change is his persona is not permanent.
All of this is a story told in a language that is far from subtle but superbly evocative. McGuire has a talent for creating descriptions that are visceral, sensory and direct.
Many of the memorable images relate to the crew’s battle with the animals that inhabit the ice field but they also relate to the landscape itself.
Here are a few examples:
A sea captain shoots a crew member , splattering “an aureole of purplish brain matter” on the wall.
When the sailors kill a polar bear:
… a great purple gout of blood comes steaming to the surface and spreads like India ink across her ragged white coat. The air is filled with a foetid blast of butchery and excrement.
Later in the book when Sumner pursues a cub bear for miles across the ice field he is spooked by a cry behind him:
… a sudden uprising bellow, a vast symphonic how, pained, primeval, yet human nonetheless; a cry beyond words and language it seems to him, choral, chronic, like the conjoined voices of the damned.
Returning one evening to a missionary’s lonely hut, Sumner sees the borealis
… unwinding across the night sky in peristaltic bands of green and purple, like the loosely coiled innards of a far-fetched mythic beast.
Within a few pages Sumner will get rather close to the innards of the missionary when he has to operate on an abscessed stomach releasing a cataract of “foul and flocculent pus”. Yuk…
This is a novel best not read when you’ve just eaten or are about to eat ….
But don’t let that put you off. You can always do the equivalent of my tactic faced with a gory bit on TV or in a film and hide behind a cushion…
Author: The North Water by Ian McGuire
Published: 2016 by Simon and Schuster
Length: 326 pages
My copy: borrowed from the library so I could at least read some of the Man Booker 2016 long listed titles
Other reviewers thoughts: Not all bloggers have rated this book as highly as I did. For other persectives take a look at alternative reviews see The Readers’ Room via this link and Bellezza’s thoughts here