My Sample Saturday spotlight this week is turned on three books on my TBR shelves that were short or long-listed for some of the major literary prizes.
As a reminder, Sample Saturday is where I look at all the books I own but have yet to read, and decide which I should part company with and which I should keep.
The Accidental by Ali Smith
This 2005 novel by the Scottish author Ali Smith was Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year. It follows a middle-class English family whose holiday in a small Norfolk village is disrupted when Amber turns up on their doorstep claiming her car has broken down. Her arrival has a profound effect on all the family members.
It’s written largely in stream-of-consciousness and free indirect style, with multiple narrators I think. The first is the family’s 12 year old daughter Astrid.
I’ve read a later novel by Ali Smith – How To Be Both – which I loved but I’m not sure about this one. Child narrators are such tricky things to get right – the few pages I’ve read of this novel make her seem quite precocious.
The Verdict: Undecided. I need your help to make a decision. Should I keep or let go?
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
If you like authors who can combine great storytelling with erudition, Umberto Eco is probably your man. He was a scholar of medieval studies and semiotics until he published one novel, The Name of The Rose, which propelled him into the world of best selling, intelligent fiction which a story of a series of murders in a late-medieval monastery.
The Prague Cemetery is his sixth novel, published in 2010 and shortlisted for the International Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012. It tells the story of a notorious antisemitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – document which purported to describe a meeting in Prague during which Jewish leaders discussed their plans for world domination.
According to the back cover, The Daily Telegraph called this book “an extremely readable narrative of betrayal, terrorism, murder …” But I can’t find the full version of the review to see if that extract was a fair representation of what the reviewer thought of the book as a whole.
I did find The Guardian review which commented: “Once again, [Eco] includes a great deal of eclectic learning, organised (to a greater or lesser extent) around a potboiler plot.” That sounded pretty good but the reviewer then went on to call the book “a tiring plod.”
I don’t much care for books that are plodding so this is headed for the charity shop.
The Verdict: Ditch
Maps For Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam
Nadeem Aslam is a British Pakistani novelist who won the Betty Trask Award with his first novel Season of the Rainbirds. Maps for Lost Lovers is his second novel and was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award and longlisted for the Booker Prize.
It’s is set in the midst of an immigrant Pakistani community in a northern English town where a pair of lovers disappear and are believed murdered. According to the blurb the novel “opens the heart of a family at the crossroads of culture, community, nationality and religion and exoresses their pain in a language that is arrestingly poetic.”
I’m tempted by this one. It’s the portrayal of the immigrant communities that have grown up in many parts of England, that is drawing me to this book. This is a world captured so memorably by Monica Ali in Brick Lane but I’ve yet to find anything set in a different part of the country.
The Verdict: Keep
So that’s one fewer book on the TBR shelves. It’s not going to make any dent in the overall tally however because I’ve been on a buying spree in recent weeks. Did I make the right choices?? What would you save from these three??
Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon is set in Barcelona in 1945. The city is recovering slowly from the ravages of the Spanish Civil War. In the dark, labyrinthine streets of the Gothic quarter, Daniel Sempere lives above the bookshop owned by his widowed father.
Daniel is 10; old enough his father decides to be introduced to the secret of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, to select one book from its shelves and assume the mantle of responsibility for that book throughout the rest of his life.
But the book he chooses, ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ written by the relatively unknown Julián Carax, holds a secret. And in attempting to unravel it’s mystery, Daniel puts himself and his friends in danger. For someone is systematically tracking down and destroying every copy of every book written by Carax. And now they seem bent on destroying Daniel too.
On the basis of this plot alone, Zafon’s book would be a page turner. But it could so easily be simply one of those books that you race through, enjoying the twists and turns and wondering how the final denouement will be executed. Enjoyable but transient like so many other historical-murder-mystery stories. Except, like Eco’s The Name of the Rose this one is different.
It’s a novel of multiple layers and an intricately-woven plot. Within the Gothic-mystery outer layer lies a Bildungsroman, a political thriller, and a romance. Star-crossed lovers share the page with skeletons and bricked up walls and a truly menacing police officer in the shape of Fumero who is corruption and decadence personified.
What lifts Shadow of the Wind above the ordinary, is Zafon’s skill in creating atmosphere. Even in translation, the quality of his writing shines through. Walk with him down Barcelona’s winding, cobbled streets or through the leafy avenues of crumbling, ivy-clad mansions, and every building and corner seems to ooze with dark secrets of the past. Go with Daniel and his friend Fermín, a former Republican agent hideously tortured by Fumero, to a nearby cafe and you can almost taste the tortillas and strong coffee.
It’s a heady mixture.
In an interview some years ago Zafon talked about his feelings towards Barcelona and reflects on the success of his novel. Read the interview here:
Since reading Shadow of the Wind I have read the prequel – The Angel’s Game – the review is posted here