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3 Booker Prize Winners Worth Re-Reading

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

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

The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending: Booker Prize winner 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Blind Assassin: Booker Prize Winner 2000

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

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

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

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

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

Confused?? It’s not surprising.

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

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


Amsterdam : Booker Prize winner 1998

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

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

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

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

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

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

hag-seedI usually ignore reinterpretations and retellings of classic novels but the premise of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed was so enticing I set aside my normal cynicism. It’s part of the Hogarth Shakespeare initiative from Vintage which has so far seen 6 titles including Howard Jacobson’s take on The Merchant of Venice with Shylock Is My Name and Edward St Aubyn tackling King Lear in Dunbar.

Atwood brings us a version of The Tempest in which her Prospero is Felix, a jaded theatre director who ends up leading a prison drama programme when he falls victim to the machinations of his protegé.

For years Felix has been the artistic director of a Canadian theatre festival, delivering ever more fantastical and ambitious productions as each year passes. All his attention is  focused on “the things that really mattered, such as his perceptive script notes and his cutting-edge lighting schemes and the exact timing of the showers of glitter confetti of which he has made such genius use.”

His commitment to directorial excellence is such that it leaves him no time to smooch with the festival board members and calm their nervousness at his ever wilder productions (His version of Pericles involves extraterrestrials while his Macbeth requires chain saws). He’s more than delighted he can leave all that humdrum kind of stuff  to a very helpful, super-efficient factotum called Tony.

Big mistake.

Tony manoeuvres behind the scene to step into the director’s shoes and soon Felix is out on his ear mid way through rehearsals for what would have been his greatest ever creation: a version of The Tempest.

His Ariel, he’d decided, would be played by a transvestite on stilts who’d transform into a giant firefly at significant moments. His Caliban would be a scabby street person – black or maybe Native – and a paraplegic as well, pushing himself around the stage on an oversized skateboard.

Cast out from his kingdom Felix takes himself off to a shack in the wilderness to lick his wounds and plot his revenge. His years pass in solitude with Felix living off his savings and retirement package. Obsessed with revenge, he watches Tony’s star rise, enabling him to become Minister for Heritage. When he decides he’s taken solitude too far he gets a job, using a fake identity, as an acting tutor in the Literacy Through Literature  run at Fletcher Correctional, staging one of Shakespeare’s plays every year using the inmates as actors.

It takes 12 years before the opportunity comes to get his own back on Tony.

Felix chooses The Tempest as the next production for the inmates and embarks on his standard rehearsal process. The first task for aspiring cast members is to comb the text for ‘curse words’ they will use as replacements for the regular oaths which are banned during rehearsals.  “Hag-seed” and “Scurvy monster” are deemed OK.

Then they have to delve deep into the characters’ minds before Felix will decide who gets which part. All his students want to play the monstrous Caliban, “We get him,” they say. “Everyone kicks him around but he don’t let it break him.” But none of them are willing to play Ariel— until Felix persuades them they are seeing the character completel wrong. Ariel is not a ‘fairy’ but a cool alien, a non-human being with superpowers who controls the special effects. At which point everyone decides he wants to be Ariel.

Felix is a hard taskmaster. He insists on complete dedication from his cast as he takes them through a detailed analysis of the play, its themes and its characters before they begin rehearsal.

There are some new developments this time: he brings in an outsider in the form of the actress he intended to play Miranda in his original version. And instead of the usual audience of prison officials, prisoners and guards, he invites some high-ups in the government to watch the recorded performance (for security reasons no live performances are allowed) in a bid to extra financial support for the programme. It just so happens that one of these officials is Tony in his role as Heritage Minister  As he prepares for the visit Felix proves himself just as much an expert in manipulation and subterfuge as his arch-enemy, conjuring his actors to bewitch, drug, and humiliate them, exposing their treachery.

Felix was the undoubted star of the novel for me.  He’s completely bonkers and often rather unpleasant yet Atwood made me warm to him and cheer him on in his revenge quest.

This is a man who is suffering.  Like Prospero, he has lost his wife. But at least Prospero had his young daughter Miranda to keep him company in exile. Felix however lost his Miranda when she was three years old and his struggles to deal with this loss lie at the heart of Atwood’s novel. It drives Felix’s obssesiveness and fuels his creativity.  “Didn’t the best art have desperation at its core?” he reflects.   By the time the novel finishes just as Prospero frees Ariel, so Felix knows he must free Miranda whose ghostly presence sustained him for years.

It’s a poignant moment in a novel that is written with verve and mischief. Atwood seems to take great delight in caricaturing the liberals found in certain sections of the arts but she also reflects contemporary trends by using rap for one of the more boring parts of  the Tempest script.  Out of necessity (I couldn’t take my library edition on my travels) I had to switch to an audio version of Hag-seed  but it proved to be a smart move. I doubt any rap artist would rate Atwood’s attempts very highly since some of the rhymes are, shall we say, a little obvious, but they do work better in audio than on the page.

Hag-seed is a novel that is touching and hilarious with a brilliantly imaginative climax. It works well as a story in its own right but as a reworking of the play it will delight people who are familiar with the original and will enjoy spotting the parallels and connections with Shakespeare’s version.

Atwood picks up well on the themes of imprisonment and power from the original play. This is a play about prisons, Felix tells his aspiring cast members, and he has them scrutinise the text line by line to determine just how many forms of prison they can identify. The parallel with their own lives is obvious but it also speaks to Felix’s own situation – he too has lived in a form of prison for years and has acted, like Prospero as a form of dictator. The difference is that of course he can walk out a free man at the end of the play, while his cast are left to serve out their time.  He is however a changed man.

Hag-Seed is an inventive tale that was a delightful experience in itself but also had me scurrying back to the original to remind myself of its excellence. Now if only Atwood could be  commissioned to write all the Hogarth Shakespeare versions I’d likely buy the entire set. (I doubt the bosses at Hogarth read this blog but maybe someone more influential can have a word in their ear?)

The Edible Woman: Review

AtwoodMargaret Atwood‘s first novel, The Edible Woman, was considered a landmark novel when it was published in 1969.  Although Atwood later described her work as protofeminist rather than feminist, her themes of gender stereotyping and objectification of women, reflected some of the central concerns of the burgeoning women’s movement.

Her protagonist is Marian McAlpin, a young single woman on the verge of marriage who feels torn between the role that society expects her to enact and her desire to be her self. Her body’s rejection of food becomes the manifestation of her rejection of the female normative behaviour. First she discovers that meat – anything with “bone or tendon or fiber” – revolts her, then the same thing happens with eggs, carrots and rice pudding.  By the end of the book she seems to exist on little more than a few salad leaves.

Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. At one point she hides from her fiance under a sofa bed; in another science she runs away from him, triggering a bizarre night-time car chase through the streets of a snowbound Canadian city.  As the wedding date gets closer, her sense of her individuality have declined to the point where she no longer recognises herself. Looking into the mirror all she sees is a “tiny, two-dimensional small figure in a red dress, posed like a paper woman in a mail order catalogue turning and smiling, fluttering.”

Will she or won’t she wed is a question that gets resolved in a truly imaginative way right in the final pages. It’s about the only part of the book that I enjoyed. The rest was a plod to the extent I wouldn’t have bothered reading beyond about page 70 if this hadn’t been the monthly book club choice.  Accepting that the issues with which it deals have moved on significantly since the late 60s so didn’t have as much resonance as it did for contemporary readers, my main issues were that  I didn’t feel any empathy with Marian – in fact I found her passivity tiresome – and I was lacking the sparkle that I’ve experienced in Atwood’s other works.

Here is a woman who knows that her fiance Peter treats her with little respect, almost like a child. He constantly tells her what to wear and how to act,  and she is uncomfortable that his love-making gives her the feeling “she was on  doctor’s examination table” or that he regularly rests his ashtray on her back as though she were a  a table.  Yet she doesn’t say anything or do anything to change the situation, just drifts along with the status quo.

The other characters are even less likeable; actually I found them distasteful. There’s her flatmate, Ainsley, who decides she wants to have a baby without having a husband because she thinks they ruin families. So she seduces someone, gets pregnant by him, doesn’t understand why he should be so angry about being used by her and simply tells him she wants nothing more to do with him  But when she reads that children raised without fathers are liable to be homosexual, she  changes her mind and begins insisting he marries her.

Another friend is married to someone who thinks the answer to the problem that educated women lose their sense of individual personality when they get married, is for her to produce lots of babies and attend the occasional evening class.

The Edible Woman launched Margaret Atwood’s as a prose writer of major significance. I’m so glad that it wasn’t the first I read by her because I would have been highly unlikely to read another. And that would have meant I missed out on  gems like The Handmaiden’s Tale and Blind Assassin.

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