Category Archives: Man Booker
Well we’re almost at the end of the year, and I’ve finally managed to finish off this year’s Man Booker Challenge! It’s not that I’ve been putting this one off, it’s just there was an inexplicably long waiting list for it at the library so I’ve only just got hold of it in order to read it…
The Year of the Runaways, Sunjeev Sahota
Thirteen young men live in a house in Sheffield, each in flight from India and in desperate search of a new life. Tarlochan, a former rickshaw driver, will say nothing about his past in Bihar; and Avtar has a secret that binds him to protect the choatic Randeep. Randeep, in turn, has a visa-wife in a flat on the other side of town: a clever, devout woman whose cupboards are full of her husband’s clothes, in case the immigration men surprise her with a call.
Sweeping between India and England, and between childhood and the present day The Year of the Runaways is a story of an unlikely family thrown together by circumstance.
I wouldn’t quite say I’d saved the best until last, because I still think A Brief History of Seven Killings is a magnificent book and thoroughly deserved to win. However, The Year of the Runaways is certainly a close second, and would have been a strong winner itself.
This is a deeply political book. Sahota takes the tabloid fodder of illegal migrant workers and fraudulent marriage/student visas and turns them into a personal tale that is honest and unflinching without ever feeling exploitative. The characters are believable, sympathetic and well-written.
The book alternates between sections outlining the characters’ current lives trying to find work in Sheffield, and sections giving their backgrounds and their various reasons for leaving India. I found all four characters compelling, but especially Tarlochan (Tochi), a “chamar” or member of the “untouchable” caste who has fled appalling violence and poverty. The horrors in his past are outlined in enough detail so you understand his motivation, but are not lingered over. Of the three men, he is the most ruthless in his attempts to succeed in building a new life – but then, he has the most reason to.
I struggled to warm to Narinder, Randeep’s British-Indian “visa wife” at first – she initially seemed a bit of a stereotype of the downtrodden Indian woman. However towards the second half of the book we learn a lot more about her background, her motivation for helping Randeep, and her current life – and she becomes a lot more interesting. I thought early on that Sahota was falling into the too-common trap of having lots of well-drawn male characters but only one poor excuse for a female character, but I’m happy to have been proved wrong on that front.
I’m hugely impressed by The Year of the Runaways, and am almost pleased it’s taken me so long to get to it, as it’s been a great book to finish the year on!
So, in keeping with tradition (yes, four years totally counts as a tradition!), I failed to read all six shortlisted books before the announcement of the (very well-deserved) winner this year. However, never one to quit, I’m still going to read and review the two books I have left!
The last one may be a little delayed as I’m still on a waiting list for it at the library, but in the meantime, here’s book five from the shortlist: The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma.
The Fishermen is set in a small town in Nigeria in the mid-1990s. Four brothers, the youngest is nine, use their strict father’s absence from home to go fishing in a forbidden river and encounter a dangerous local madman, Abulu, whose mystic prophecy of violence threatens the very core of their close-knit family.
He predicts that one of the brothers – a fisherman – will kill another. This evil prophecy of violence causes a deep rift between the brothers and starts to break the deep fraternal bonds, unleashing a tragic chain of events.
Told by shy nine-year-old Benjamin, The Fishermen combines classic African storytelling with contemporary fiction, and illuminates Nigeria in all its historical, political and cultural complexity.
I really, really wanted to like this book. And there is a lot to like about it. It is a great concept, well-told – a prophecy by a madman who may or may not actually have the gift of foresight gradually eats away at the brothers and tears them apart, possibly becoming self-fulfilling in the process. The writing is wonderfully lyrical and descriptive, giving a real sense of place and of character. The plot is skillfully tied in with the political machinations of Nigeria in the 1990s, as seen through the eyes of 9 year old Benjamin. It was also great to see a Nigerian author on the shortlist – I’ve been very impressed with the diversity of the shortlist this year.
But. As much as I wanted to like this book, and as much as I could see how strong and well-written it was, it just didn’t grab me. I feel like part of this is down to having a child narrator: although it’s told in past tense by the now-adult Benjamin, the narrative voice is still very much that of a child, which I found made it sometimes frustratingly simplistic. It’s also very uneven: the first half of the book ticks along at a brisk pace as the brothers hurtle inevitably towards tragedy, but the second half of the book seems to lose its way somewhat.
I’m not writing this review to put others off reading this book: although it wasn’t my cup of tea, I am certain there will be others who will absolutely love it. I do think that, critically speaking, this is a very strong book, and certainly earned its place on the shortlist. It just wasn’t for me.
Well, the Booker Prize winner announcement is tonight, and as I’m only halfway through my fourth book off the shortlist unfortunately I’ve failed my challenge (to read the lot before the winner is announced) yet again! Ah well, one year I’ll manage it…
As mentioned, I’m only halfway through this one but I thought I’d get a few thoughts up on the blog ahead of the announcement tonight anyway. I’ll come back and update once I’ve finished it if I have anything substantial to add!
A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James
On 3 December 1976, just weeks before the general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica concert to ease political tensions, seven men from West Kingston stormed his house with machine guns. Marley survived and went on to perform at the free concert. But the next day he left the country and didn’t return for two years.
Inspired by this near-mythic event, A Brief History of Seven Killings takes the form of an imagined oral biography, told by ghosts, witnesses, killers, members of parliament, drug dealers, conmen, beauty queens, FBI and CIA agents, reporters, journalists, and even Keith Richards’ drug dealer. The story traverses strange landscapes and shady characters, as motivations are examined – and questions asked.
Let me start by saying that this is an excellent, bold and challenging book, but “brief” it ain’t! at 600 pages of very small font, it’s taking me some time to get through. It’s not an easy or a quick read: many chapters are written in Jamaican vernacular (not quite full patois, but enough to make it a challenge to read in some places), and it’s all written in a very immediate, almost breathless style with a dizzying number of characters, all with their own backgrounds and motivations, introduced throughout. I was grateful for the character lists included at the start of the book, and frequently checked back to remind myself who was who!
The events of the novel – the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (only referred to in text as The Singer) – are exhaustively detailed from multiple perspectives. The book is divided into five sections of 100+ pages each, and each covers only a single day: the first two cover the day before the shooting and the day of the event itself; the third section is set two years later, after Marley’s return to Jamaica; and the final two take place 6 and 12 years after that, respectively (but I haven’t got to those bits yet!).
Each section is written in short chapters, each from the perspective of a different character – ranging from gang leaders and members, CIA operatives, politicians, journalists and groupies, and at least one character narrating from beyond the grave. This is a real strength of James’ writing: each character has a distinct voice. The character narrating is helpfully listed at the start of each chapter, but after a while you don’t really need that: it’s easy enough to tell from their voices who is speaking, which is something I think is very difficult for a writer to pull off.
The multi-viewpoint narrative makes it a compelling read: each character knows something of what is going on, but no one has the full picture. Exploring each viewpoint gives a full sense of the wider events surrounding Marley and the political situation of the time.
I didn’t really know much about Bob Marley, or the Jamaican political scene of the 1970s, so I’m enjoying the book for the insight that it’s giving me. I did Google the shooting attempt just before I started reading this book, and I’m glad I did as it’s given me a little background to go on. I think I’d find this book a lot harder to follow if I didn’t have that basic background, as many events, people, political parties etc. are only referred to obliquely, so it’s useful to have at least a vague idea going in of what actually happened at the time.
That’s not a criticism of the book though: I actually really respect a writer who doesn’t feel the need to spoon-feed readers with every detail. This is the kind of book that demands your attention and concentration, and I think it’s all the stronger for that.
I wouldn’t recommend it for the faint-hearted: it is incredibly violent, at times going into stomach-churning detail. However, even when describing the precise moment a bullet exits a man’s eye socket, James’ writing is flawless: lyrical without being sentimental.
With the caveat that I haven’t even nearly finished it yet, and still have two others to read from the shortlist, I am hugely impressed by this book, and would not be at all surprised to see it scoop the prize tonight. In fact I hope it does: I think it’s the best I’ve read so far from the shortlist.
Man Booker Challenge 2015 Book 3: Satin Island, Tom McCarthy
Set in contemporary London,Satin Island is a work reflecting disjointed times.
A story about U. – a ‘corporate anthropologist’ working for an elite consultancy. U.’s employers have set him two tasks. First, he must assist in the launching of a great, epoch-defining project which no one, least of all its own architects, fully understands. Second, he has been asked to compose the seemingly impossible: the Great Report – an ethnographic document to sum up our age. Instead, procrastinating, meandering, drifting through endless buffer-zones of information, U. grows obsessed with the images with which the world bombards him on a daily basis: oil spills, African traffic jams, roller-blade processions, zombie parades. Is there a secret logic holding all these things together – a codex that, once cracked, will unlock the master-meaning of our times? Might it have something to do with South Pacific Cargo Cults, or the dead parachutists in the news? Perhaps; perhaps not.
I had read one previous book by Tom McCarthy before – C, which was nominated for the Booker in 2010. I remember that I wasn’t quite sure what to make of C: it was one of those books that left me thinking that it was certainly very good and very clever, but without a real sense of what it was actually trying to say.
I have much the same impression of Satin Island. It’s very well written, the descriptive passages throughout are superb. It’s a very visual book, whether describing the flows of oil spills or the fall of a parachuteless skydiver – McCarthy is excellent at taking what could be a banal or horrifying image and making it beautiful. I enjoyed reading it from that point of view.
However it doesn’t really have much of a plot or much characterisation. We never really get to know our narrator, U, although that could be deliberate – but we never get much of a sense of any of the people he interacts with either. It doesn’t help that none of them really have a distinct voice, they all sound more or less the same. In the dialogue, it is frequently difficult to work out who is speaking because of this.
Our narrator, U, works for a company, only ever referred to as The Company, whose purpose is unclear. U was hired as a “corporate anthropologist” following brief success and a sort of fame after publishing an anthropological study on 90s club culture. His work for the Company is undefined, as is the major project the Company is working on throughout the course of the book, the Koob-Sassen project: we are told the Project will impact on everyone’s lives, but most will be unaware of it. We get the impression that no one working on the Project really understands it. Towards the end of the novel we are told:
The Project’s first phase had gone live…Its implementation had been deemed a great success. By whom? I don’t know. Deemers. And the Company’s contribution had been praised, by praisers, as quite brilliant.
I think all this hollowness is deliberate. The plot meanders and never really goes anywhere; U procrastinates at work, and on writing his Great Report, and eventually concludes that it is impossible; U’s boss, Peyman, appears to run the Company by flying around the world, giving inspiring but essentially meaningless keynote speeches and coming up with vague aphorisms that are quoted endlessly by the press. This is all contrasted with a couple of genuine events in the plot: a friend of U battles with terminal cancer, and U’s lover recounts her time as a political protested involved in violent clashes with the police.
I suspect this novel is trying to make a point about the essential hollowness of modern life. The Company, and the Project, and a few interludes such as U’s unsuccessful attempt to launch a new kind of “present-tense anthropology” via a talk at a conference that sounds very much like TED, all put me in mind of the accusation that the modern British economy is largely based on bullshit. We lead the world in creative financial instruments (and look where that got us…), marketing and PR, and other parts of the “knowledge economy”, but we don’t actually invent or manufacture anything very much any more. I could be misreading it, but I think that’s what the book is trying to comment on.
And it mostly succeeds, but ultimately the hollowness of it made it very difficult to care about any of the characters or plot (such as they are). It’s an excellent piece of writing, and certainly deserves to be shortlisted, but I’m not a big fan of pure “ideas” novels. I did enjoy it, and got through it quite quickly, but I don’t think it’s left much of a lasting impression on me, and I think there are far more deserving winners on the shortlist.
A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler
‘It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon…’ This is the way Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she and Red fell in love that day in July 1959. The whole family on the porch, relaxed, half-listening as their mother tells the same tale they have heard so many times before. And yet this gathering is different. Abby and Red are getting older, and decisions must be made about how best to look after them and their beloved family home. They’ve all come, even Denny, who can usually be relied on only to please himself.
From that porch we spool back through three generations of the Whitshanks, witnessing the events, secrets and unguarded moments that have come to define who and what they are. And while all families like to believe they are special, round that kitchen table over all those years we see played out the hopes and fears, the rivalries and tensions of families everywhere – the essential nature of family life.
This is a rather lovely book. A deceptively straightforward story, it opens with the family deliberating over how to care for the ageing Abby and Red: Red who refuses to stop working despite his heart attacks; and Abby who is beginning to experience “blank patches” where she cannot remember where she was or what she was doing. As their four children and their spouses gather to try to provide support, their interactions reveal the family’s history, secrets and unspoken truths.
This first, longest section is followed by three shorter sections. The first goes back in time to the day Abby fell in love with Red, having previously been involved with one of his friends. The chapter takes place over a single day, which Abby spends at Red’s family’s house as Red and his friends are chopping down a tree in preparation for Red’s sister’s wedding. Although it’s told as the story of how Abby fell in love with Red, she doesn’t actually spend much time with him: for most of the chapter, she is talking and cooking with Red’s mother, Linnie Mae, who unexpectedly confides a secret to Abby about a long-buried scandal surrounding how she and Red’s father, Junior, first got together.
The next chapter then goes back in time further, to delve into the history of Junior and Linnie Mae’s relationship. Both their marriage and Linnie Mae’s character are revealed through this story as more complex than anyone had imagined. Linnie Mae in particular, having been described throughout the book so far as a gentle, softly-spoken, typical housewife, is revealed as being more daring, calculating and strong-willed than even her husband realises.
The final chapter returns to the present day, and wraps up the loose ends surrounding the future of the ageing Whitshanks and the house that has been their constant home for three generations.
I found this book a little difficult to get into to begin with. As I had predicted, it suffered from being read straight after the bold and challenging A Little Life: while Yanagihara’s book punches you in the gut, A Spool of Blue Thread is much subtler, gradually painting a picture of family life. However once I got into it, I really enjoyed it.
Tyler’s writing is superb: elegant, and never a word wasted. She also has a gift for observing character. Even the most minor characters in the book are well-drawn. I particularly loved Merrick, Red’s waspish sister, who we first meet as the blunt, no-nonsense foil to Abby’s tendency to be a bleeding-heart; later, we learn about the teenage Merrick’s calculated (and successful) plot to steal her best friend’s wealthy fiance.
There isn’t so much a narrative as a series of observations and anecdotes drawn together to create a family portrait. We learn about former social worker Abby’s frequent “adopting” (once literally) of lost souls, to her children’s frustration; her troubled son Denny’s feelings of abandonment despite being, to his siblings’ minds, Abby’s main focus over the years; Junior’s feelings of inadequacy and his attempts to build a position for himself in the world by building the perfect house; and many other large and small stories through the generations.
I was occasionally slightly frustrated by some story strands that didn’t seem to go anywhere: we see two characters whose marriage is clearly falling apart; one character learns a shocking truth about their biological parentage; and we are told that one of Abby’s children’s spouses belongs to a fundamental church; but none of these strands are developed any further.
I think the aim of this book was to provide a slice-of-life, a family portrait, rather than a coherent story, and on this level it certainly succeeds. I would have liked to have seen fewer stories introduced and more brought to a conclusion, but that’s not really the style of this book so perhaps that’s not a fair criticism.
As an exploration of family ties, with all the love and resentment, bitterness and joy that go along with being a family, A Spool of Blue Thread is excellent. It’s not exactly my taste, and I’m not sure it’s really strong enough to be a Booker winner, but I’m glad I read it and would probably pick up more of Anne Tyler’s books in future.
Another year, another Man Booker Shortlist challenge! Once again, this year I am attempting to read and review all six titles shortlisted for the Booker, before the winner is announced on 13th October. Will I manage to complete the entire shortlist before the deadline? Well, I’ve never managed it yet, but there’s always a first time!
Never one to shirk from a challenge, I started with Hanya Yanagihara’s 736-page, decades-spanning tome A Little Life (my wallet and spine balked at the expense and weight of the hardback, so I went for the ebook version!)
A Little Life is a depiction of heartbreak, and a dark examination of the tyranny of memory and the limits of human endurance.
When four graduates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome – but that will define his life forever.
Well. Way to set the bar high, Hanya! By the time I was a quarter of the way into A Little Life, I was convinced I was reading the next Booker winner. Despite its length and density, it never felt a chore to read – I raced through it, unable to put it down. It’s the sort of book that makes you slightly resent having to do things like work, eat, sleep, etc! It also left me with a vicious book hangover – four days after I finished it, the characters and plot are still hanging around my head. I sort of feel like the next I read from the shortlist will inevitably suffer by comparison, which is a shame as they do all look very good.
That being said, the further I got through the book, I became less convinced it was a definite winner. Don’t get me wrong, I still rate it very highly and could easily see it taking the prize, but it does eventually start to feel repetitive towards the end. It’s also strangely uneven in terms of pacing and plot.
From the description and the first section (the book is divided into seven sections, corresponding to different phases of the protagonists’ loves), I assumed the book would follow all four characters fairly evenly throughout their lives. The first section is almost entirely told from the perspectives of Willem, Malcolm and JB, with Jude only ever described by the others. It becomes gradually clear throughout the first section that there is something unusual about Jude – the others make oblique references to his secrecy, his physical disabilities, and there are hints of a darker past that they know little of – but it isn’t until the second section that we actually hear from Jude himself.
However from that point on, Yanagihara seems to almost forget about her other characters and focus almost exclusively on Jude – when we see the others, it’s almost totally through the prism of their relationships with Jude. Willem becomes a more prominent character later in the book, but largely because of his closeness with Jude. Malcolm almost totally disappears, which is a real shame – in the first section there are some wonderful passages about his fear of inadequacy, his feeling stifled at the architects’ firm he works for and fearing he’s forgotten how to create, his confusion over his sexuality, but after the first section we don’t really hear from him again. We see him at various times, and learn a tiny bit about his marriage and his later success with setting up his own architecture firm and winning various awards, but we never get a glimpse of his inner life again, which I would really like to have seen.
It’s a similar story with JB. Save for a short section about a third of the way through the book, in which we see JB struggling with drug addiction – which is a wonderfully written exploration of how addicts hurt everyone around them – we don’t get the same internal voice that we had from him in the first section.
It’s understandable that the focus is on Jude though, as he is a compelling and well-realised character. A survivor of horrific childhood abuse, the extent of which those closest to him barely guess at, the main narrative thrust of the book is the lifelong impact of this abuse that Jude struggles, and frequently fails, to deal with.
I was impressed at Yanagihara’s sensitive handling of what could feel a rather exploitative topic. For a long time the nature of the abuse is only hinted at, to the point where I started to wonder if readers were actually going to learn the truth at all. When we do learn the full story, although it makes for harrowing reading it never feels gratuitous (although I wouldn’t recommend this book for people who are triggered by discussions of child abuse, sexual abuse, self-harm or suicide).
This was a tough read in some ways: when reading the early chapters I described it to others as “like having your heart broken a millimetre at a time”. Much of it is heartbreaking, although there are also moments of real joy and beauty throughout.
A Little Life is a complex, flawed, but bold novel, and although I think it could have been more tightly plotted I still believe it would be a worthy Booker winner.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan
Taking its title from one of the most famous books in Japanese literature, written by the great haiku poet Basho, Flanagan’s novel has as its heart one of the most infamous episodes of Japanese history, the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway in World War II.
In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Death Railway, surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever.
Book five of six from this year’s Booker challenge – and with only a few days to go until the winner is announced, it looks like, once again, I’ll fail to meet my goal of reading the lot before the announcement. Ah well.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a somewhat rambling tale, moving back and forward in time between Dorrigo’s passionate love affair with his uncle’s wife in the weeks and months before shipping out to war, to his horrific experiences in a Japanese POW camp, to the present day where he is a celebrated war hero with a failing marriage and destructive habits of womanising and drinking. The fragmented nature of the storytelling made it slightly difficult to get into for the first few chapters, but once it settled down I got very drawn into the story.
The strongest sections for me were those set in the POW camp. Dorrigo is an officer, an army surgeon, so as an officer he is not expected by his Japanese guards to take part in the back-breaking work the rest of the men are. He is however responsible for the health of his men – an impossible task, as they are worked far past the point of exhaustion, starved, beaten, and made to live in filthy camps where cholera spreads like wildfire. Dorrigo assumes command when his superior officer dies in the camp, and is left with the thankless job of trying to keep as many of them alive long enough to be worked to death by their captors.
And sometimes people did not die. He refused to stop trying to help them live. He was not a good surgeon, he was not a good doctor; he was not, he believed in his heart, a good man. But he refused to stop trying.
Flanagan does a tremendous job of not only detailing the horror of the camps – which could very easily have turned into a kind of suffering-porn, a trap Flanagan skilfully avoids – but also showing how the men’s humanity survives. The prisoners joke and laugh, set up a black-market trade in stolen food and tools, even sing and put on plays early on in their imprisonment (before they become too ill and exhausted for even that). Flanagan also shows the human side Japanese guards – although perceived as monsters by the Australian prisoners, Flanagan portrays them as victims of the brutal military machine, being driven to complete impossible tasks for the sake of national pride.
The Siam-Burma railway is for a military purpose – but that’s not the larger point. It is that this railway is the great epoch-making construction of our century. Without European machinery, within a time considered extraordinary, we will build what the Europeans said was not possible to build over many years. This railway is the moment when we and our outlook become the new drivers of world progress.
Later on in the book, there are segments detailing the fates of several of the camp guards and officers. Here Flanagan shows understanding, if not forgiveness, of what drove these men to commit the horrors they did – and underscores the fact that most of ultimately executed for war crimes were low-ranking soldiers and officers, scapegoats, while the higher-ranking officers who actually gave the orders largely escaped punishment.
I found particularly poignant a segment detailing the fate of Choi Sang-min, a camp guard who, as a Korean, was considered the lowest of the low in the hierarchy of the Japanese army. Considered a monster by the Australian captives, responsible for discipline and dealing out savage beatings for any infringements, leading to the deaths of several men, this section near the end provides a little understanding of his character. Brutalised by the Japanese army, which he joined only for the small pay which he could use to support his family, he doesn’t understand why he is sentenced to die for just beating prisoners, when such beatings were the normal way of things in the Japanese army, and those who ordered the beatings and the deaths are walking free.
I actually found the love story element the least compelling part of the novel. Although I think without it, this book would have been a bit too close to war-porn for my liking, ultimately I found this aspect of the story a little weak. I think possibly that’s because I found the character of Amy, Dorrigo’s great love, so incredibly unlikeable. I think her character was under-written, so she struck me as very shallow and vapid, and as a result I couldn’t really get invested in her story. I also found the ending (which I won’t give away here) a little too neat-and-tidy for my liking.
Overall I did enjoy this, but I think it’s let down by the under-development of the few female characters. It is a strong novel though, and well-deserving of its place on the shortlist, but I don’t think it should win.
How to be both, by Ali Smith
How to be both is a novel all about art’s versatility. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real – and all life’s givens get given a second chance.
How to be both is one of the books I was most looking forward to from the shortlist. I’m a big fan of Ali Smith – although I know just as many people who can’t stand her books as love them. Much like many of her books, I suspect this one is Marmite – you’ll love it or hate it.
It’s experimental in format. The book contains two narratives: the story of George, a modern-day teenager in Cambridge whose mother has just died; and the story of Francesco del Cossa, an Italian renaissance fresco painter. Half the copies of this book were printed with George’s story first, and the other half start with Francesco’s, so it’s a 50/50 chance which you will pick up. The copy I read had George’s story first, which I suspect made it easier to read – although I did find Francesco’s story equally gripping, it was much harder to get into.
Because if things really did happen simultaneously it’d be like reading a book but one in which all of the lines of text have been overprinted, like each page is actually two pages but with one superimposed on the other to make it unreadable.
Although presented in two separate sections, the two narratives intertwine. One of George’s last trips with her mother was to see Francesco’s paintings in Italy, and Francesco has visions of George in the future. I saw plenty of echoes of George’s story in Francesco’s, and suspect there were just as many the other way around – I think if I’d read the book with Francesco’s story first I’d probably have noticed more echoes in George’s.
The stories reflect each other thematically as well. Gender and sexuality is a key theme: When Francesco first sees George she assumes she is a boy. When George and her mother go to see Francesco’s paintings, they disagree over whether a key figure is meant to be male or female. George is beginning to explore her sexuality, and understand how gender identity affects her place in the world. Francesco was born a girl, but disguises herself as a boy and later a man so she can be trained and work as a painter.
You could be like your brothers, he said.
I eyed him through the lace-up of the neck and the chest : I spoke through the holes of the dress. You know I am not like my brothers, I said.
Yes, but listen, he said. Cause maybe. Maybe. If you were to stop wearing these too-big clothes and were to wear, let’s say, these boys’ clothes instead. And maybe if we allow ourselves a bit of imagining.
As well as the two stories intertwining and echoing each other, the same structure applies internally to each story. This was particularly noticeable in George’s story: George, coming to terms with her mother’s death, struggles to separate out the time before and the time after she died. She speaks about the same things happening simultaneously: her mother is dancing, inexplicably, in their living room, at the same time George sits there alone, waiting for her father to come home from drowning his sorrows.
I absolutely loved this book. I can see it not appealing to everyone, and I suspect it is a much more challenging read if you get a copy that starts with Francesco’s story rather than George’s, but it’s well worth the effort either way. Although I found Francesco’s story harder to get into, I ended up enjoying it just as much.
It is George’s section that’s really stayed with me though. The segments where she’s talking about her grief over her mother really struck a chord with me – it’s the perfect description of what that kind of loss does to you, and does to a family.
How are you feeling? Mrs Rock said.
I’m okay, George said. I think it’s because I don’t think I am.
You’re okay because you don’t think you’re okay? Mrs Rock said.
Feeling, George said. I think I’m okay because I don’t think I’m feeling.
I’m hugely impressed by How to be both. It’s a very strong shortlist this year, so I’m having trouble picking a favourite, never mind a likely winner, but I think this is a very strong contender. Intelligent, challenging, witty and compassionate, this would be a very deserving winner.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
As a child, Rosemary never stopped talking, so why, now she’s a young woman at college, doesn’t she talk very much at all?
She used to have a sister, Fern, the same age as her, and an older brother, Lowell. She loved both fiercely but they have vanished from her life, for reasons she can’t face, and no one could guess.
‘A dark cautionary tale hanging out, incognito-style, in what at first seems a traditional family narrative. It is anything but.’ – Alice Sebold
On to book three of this year’s Booker shortlist, and it’s definitely my favourite yet. I sort of wish I’d read this one before To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – it might have put me off the lengthy rant about non-Commonwealth authors being shortlisted!
Yes, this is one of two American authors shortlisted this year, in the first year to allow Americans (and a whole load of other nationalities, but whatevs…) a shot at the prize. I was pretty underwhelmed by TRAAADH, but WAACBO completely knocked my socks off!
This might be a bit of a short review as I really want to avoid giving away too many details about the plot. There’s not a “big twist” that I’m trying to avoid (which is good because I really loathe Big Twists as plot devices), but there’s a few plot details that are telegraphed early on, but still caught me off guard (in a very good way) when revealed just over a quarter of the way in, and I don’t want to rob anyone else of that experience. My advice is: if you’re planning to read this, and don’t know too much about it already, keep it that way. I’ll do my best to keep this review spoiler-free.
Rosemary is narrating her story in stages – jumping from her time as a college student in 1996, back to her childhood, and gradually filling in the gaps in between. She is telling the story from the present day, so we get hints of what the story has led to in her current life.
In 1996, ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their absence, though if I hadn’t told you that, you might not have known. By 1996, whole days went by in which I hardly thought of either one.
Rosemary and her brother and sister had what immediately appears a slightly unusual childhood: their father is a scientist conducting behavioural research on animals, their house is full of grad students and test subjects, including a pair of rats rejected by the lab and subsequently upgraded from “research subject” to “pet”. The adult Rosemary, narrating, does a good job of portraying her younger self’s naive acceptance of this, as children accept anything around them as normal, and simultaneously getting across her adult self’s growing disgust what her father was involved in.
Was my father kind to animals? I thought so as a child, but I knew less about the lives of the lab rats then. Let’s just say that my father was kind to animals unless it was in the interest of science to be otherwise. He would never have run over a cat if there was nothing to be learned by doing so.
This forms the background to the book, which is primarily about family, memory and loss. Rosemary is tormented by the disappearance of her sister when she was just five years old. By the time she is at university in 1996 she has mostly repressed these thoughts, along with the longing for her brother, who left home when she was 12 and never returned. When her brother makes a reappearance into her life, it stirs up long-buried memories, as well as finally providing the answer to what happened to her sister all those years ago.
I felt her loss in a powerfully physical way. I missed her smell and the sticky wet of her breath on my neck… It was an ache, a hunger on the surface of my skin.
I found these passages incredibly affecting – this book made me cry more than once. I think I identified with Rosemary’s loss as a twin myself, and also having lost a sister (my eldest sister died suddenly a few years ago). I don’t know if this would have had such a strong effect on me if it didn’t speak to my experiences like that, but I think I would still have found it very moving and upsetting.
There’s loads more I could say about this book, but I don’t want to go into any more detail for fear of giving something away! So I’ll just leave it at this: this book made me think, and see the world through different eyes. That, to me, is what a good book should do, and something I was hoping to see more of on the Booker shortlist this year. This is my favourite of the shortlisted titles so far.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris
Paul O’Rourke – dentist extraordinaire, reluctant New Yorker, avowed atheist, disaffected Red Sox fan, and a connoisseur of the afternoon mochaccino – is a man out of touch with modern life. While his dental practice occupies his days, his nights are filled with darker thoughts, as he alternately marvels at and rails against the optimism of the rest of humanity.
So it goes, until someone begins to impersonate Paul online. What began as an outrageous violation of privacy soon becomes something far more soul-frightening: the possibility that the virtual ‘Paul’ might be a better version of the man in the flesh . . .
My Booker challenge continues with the second book from the shortlist, and one of two by American authors to be shortlisted this year.
Ok, let’s get this out of the way – I do not approve of the Booker prize being opened up to authors of any nationality. In case you’ve been living under a cave and somehow missed this development: the prize has always been for books published in the UK, in English, by authors from Commonwealth countries. This year, for the first time, it has been opened up to writers from any country. I find it interesting that this development was widely reported just as the prize being opened up to American authors – obviously it’s a bit wider than that! The focus on American authors is understandable however – it’s a massive country with a proud and distinct literary culture (nobody ever talks about writing the “great British novel“!). It’s also proved accurate – of the six shortlisted titles, the only authors who would not have been eligible for the prize in previous years are both American. I actually find this really disappointing: if the goal of opening up the Booker to all nationalities was to allow more diverse literature in, it has failed utterly. The longlist was entirely made up of British, American, or Irish authors, with one token Australian standing in for the rest of the world.
My main objection to the Booker opening up to other nationalities is not that I am against American authors – on the contrary – it’s just that it really raises the question for me of what the Booker prize is for. To my mind, it’s a Commonwealth prize, and is intended to share and promote some of the diverse literature coming from this group of countries with our shared history. There is already a biennial Man Booker International Prize which recognises authors of any nationality, and other countries of course have their own book prizes, as well they should. I don’t see the Pulitzer Prize opening up to non-American authors any time soon, and of course it shouldn’t – that would completely change what the prize was for. So I really don’t understand why this change has been made to the Booker. I agree with several former Booker judges who have suggested that this move risks diluting the identity of the prize.
It also makes the judging of the prize massively unwieldy – several people have also raised concerns that changing the entry criteria means judges will be swamped with an unreadable mass of books to attempt to whittle down into a longlist. That’s a really good point. It’s one that the prize committee has attempted to tackle by restricting each publisher to only one submission each, unless they’ve had a longlisted title in the past 5 years (previously each publisher could submit two books for consideration). However, that inevitably means some great books will be unfairly overlooked, and weights the scales in favour of bigger publishers (five of the six shortlisted titles this year are published by recently-merged mega-publisher Penguin Random House). So all in all, I disapprove, and it makes me concerned about the future of the prize.
Now that’s out of the way, I should really talk about the book I suppose! After the rant above, I think I need to start by insisting that I tried not to let my opinions on the inclusion of non-Commonwealth authors influence my opinion of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (I’m gonna have to abbreviate this title for the rest of this review – damn it’s long! Interestingly, while J would be the shortest title ever to win, TRAAADH would be the longest). I may not agree with the change, but it shouldn’t affect my reading of the shortlist – I’m determined to judge each book on its own merits.
With that in mind, I have to say I have mixed feelings about TRAAADH. I found it a little difficult to get into at first – it struck me from the start as a witty and well-written, but essentially shallow, novel in the grand tradition of “white middle-class man whinges about his white middle-class problems”. After the first couple of chapters though it did pick up, and became a lot more interesting. Paul, the protagonist, feels his life is meaningless, and his attempts to find meaning by clinging on to other people who seem to have more to their lives are doomed to failure. Religion features prominently: he describes being in several previous, all-encompassing relationships which perhaps had less to do with the women themselves than wanting to be part of their lives, families and belief systems.
Sometimes I think I’ve wasted my life. Of course I’ve wasted my life, Did I have a choice? Of course I did – twenty years of nights with the Bible. But who is to say that, even then, my life – conscientiously devout, rigorously applied, monastically contained, and effortfully open to God’s every hint and clobber – would have been more meaningful than it was, with its beery nights, bleary dawns, and Saint James and his Abstract? That was a mighty Pascal’s Wager: the possibility of eternity in exchange for the limited hours of my one certain go-round.
Paul’s identity is stolen online by a member of a religious cult, the Ulms, who claim to be descended from a tribe contemporary with the early Israelites, with a history of persecution and oppression to rival the Jewish people but whose history has been thoroughly repressed – and claim that Paul can be genetically proven to be a fellow Ulm descendant. What follows is a bizarre, tragi-comic exploration of the ideas of faith and doubt, personal authenticity, and the gap between who we think we are and what others see of us.
There was plenty to like about this book. It’s well-written and intelligent, and almost painfully well-observed. Some of the best moments come from Paul’s attempts to ingratiate himself with his ex-girlfriend’s Jewish family, with cringeworthy results, such as telling a joke about a rabbi, a priest and a reverend while her uncle is sitting shiva for his deceased mother. There’s also some incredibly moving moments – near the end, Paul goes to visit his mother, who is in a nursing home with advanced dementia and no longer recognises or responds to him, and thanks her for helping him get through nights as a child, terrified to fall asleep, following his father’s suicide. It could have been an incredibly mawkish passage – I’m really not a fan of adding in faux-sentimentality for the sake of it – but it’s actually really beautifully written, with just the right balance of awkwardness and honesty.
Overall though, I have to say TRAAADH left me a bit cold. There’s some interesting ideas, well-explored, but ultimately I’m just not sure it really made me think any more about the world. That’s what I look for in a Booker-worthy novel, really – something that makes me see the world through different eyes. There’s a quote on the cover of the copy I read saying the book “captures what it is to be alive in early twenty-first century America” – which it may well do, but is that a perspective that was really lacking to begin with?
I did enjoy reading this, and on a technical level I can’t fault it. However I will be disappointed if it wins – with America being such a diverse country, with such a wealth of varying perspectives and stories to offer, it would be a real let-down for the first ever American Booker winner to be the story of, as I said at the start, a white middle-class man with white middle-class problems.