‘Burning’

A riveting slow burner from Korean director Chang-dong Lee (Poetry, Secret Sunshine), Burning evolves, on the surface at least, from a romance story into a metaphysical thriller.

The dow-eyed, stoical Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo – The Throne, Veteran) bumps into Haemi (newcomer Jong-seo Jun), a former school classmate, in the streets of Seoul. Spending time between the city and the impoverished family farm, Lee Jong-su becomes drawn into a menage a trois with Haemi and the wealthy Ben (Steven Yeun – Okja, TV’s The Walking Dead), an enigmatic playboy.

Adapted and expanded from a Haruki Murakami short story, Burning is a powerful psychological portrait with its distorted perceptions, building up to a shocking finale that it tragic but not wholly unexpected.

Rating; 81%

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Booker Prize Shortlist: 2017

2017 represents only the third occasion whereby I have read all shortlisted novels for the Booker Prize. And, as with 2016 and 1996, the question remains – from my perspective, did the judges get it right with George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo?

Controversy had (as usual) reigned supreme when the longlist of 13 was whittled down to six. Where was Sebastian Barry and Days Without End? What – no Jon McGregor and Reservoir 13? What happened to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railway and Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones? Instead, according to many critics, what was a powerful long list became something of a diluted shortlist.

The books that did make the cut were
Paul Auster 4, 3, 2 1
Emily Fridlund History of Wolves
Mohsin Hamid Exit West
Fiona Mosley Elmet
George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo
Ali Smith Autumn

Sadly, to my mind, there were only two novels that stood out on the list, both extremely powerful and both deserved winners of the prize in this year – and in many other years. But the other four were generally forgettable.

Her fourth appearance on the Booker shortlist, Ali Smith and her Autumn is, to my mind, the least enjoyable of the six. Expansive and inventive it may be, capturing the zeitgeist of current British world of uncertainty and inwardness, this short novel is beautifully written and deeply profound, yet, too often, deliberately obscure and pretentious. (50%)

Emily Fridlund’s debut novel History of Wolves is also beautifully written with haunting prose and a vivid sense of place, but its meandering narrative failed to ultimately engage. (50%)

I loved his The Reluctant Fundamentalist – but Mohsin Hamid’s ruminations on refugees and Exit West, whilst salient, engrossing, at times quite magical, is also somewhat odd – a flight-of-fancy that actually needed a little more grounding. The teasingly well written first third sadly becomes a pedestrian, off-kilter place (as opposed to time) travel narrative. (58%)

Elmet is a powerful debut novel set in Yorkshire – a dark tale sublimely wrought, a British gothic simultaneously pastoral and fraught with a sense of foreboding. But it trails off into the land of melodrama in its narrative as Fiona Mosley tries a little too hard to tie up all loose ends. (64%)

The final two on the list are streets ahead of the other on the shortlist – and are neck and neck in the running. Paul Auster’s sprawling 4,3,2,1 is a magnificent thousand plus pages of four versions of the early life/lives of Archie Ferguson. It’s an engrossing celebration of liberal ideology and a reflection on a generation that sexually, politically and culturally defined the end of the twentieth century. (80%)

But it’s pipped to the post by George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo , an ethereal symphony in its intimacy of grief and familial love. Structurally experimental, Saunders’ novel is a polyphonic narrative interspersed with short quotes from newspaper articles and biographies of the day as President Abraham Lincoln is struck politically inert on the death of his 12 year-old son. (81%)

A very hard call – but to my mind, the judges of the 2017 Booker Prize got it right as far as the winning novel was concerned. Not convinced about the shortlist itself, though.

‘Bird Box’

A psychological horror film continuing the trend of unexplained monster/alien invasion (A Quiet Place, The Silence), Bird Box is taut and claustrophobic. Yet, in spite of a strong central performance by Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side, Miss Congeniality), it falls short of its promise.

Directed by Susanne Bier (After the Wedding, In a Better World), Bird Box follows the reluctant mother find some kind of redemption as she leads two young children to safety from a decimated Los Angeles. Journeying on a treacherous river, the trip is made more arduous by the fact it must be made blindfolded.

A Netflix original.

Rating: 61%

‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

A brilliant, emotionally exhausting journey of a tale, Lincoln in the Bardo is an ethereal symphony in its intimacy of grief and familial love.

The death of 12 year-old Willie Lincoln from typhoid in the middle of the Civil War sends his father, Abraham Lincoln, into a tailspin. Grief-stricken, it is reported that the president returns to the crypt several times over the ensuing days as the ravages of the war are ignored.

From this kernel of historical truth, Saunders has woven an extraordinary tapestry as the boy finds himself in ‘the bardo’, the Buddhist intermediate state between death and reincarnation, an afterlife populated by ‘spirits’ or ‘ghosts’ who are unaware they have died: but it is also an amalgam of the catholic purgatory, where souls await their judgement and subsequent fate.

Children usually pass through the bardo quickly. But with the frequent visits by Lincoln, Willie becomes the centre of hope, such is the power of the bond between father and son as the inhabitants become convinced the boy will return to the land of the living and help them do the same. His guides are Hans Vollman, a 46 year-old printer killed in a workplace accident, the Reverend Early and young Roger Bevins III, a suicide.

The novel’s synopsis does the final work little credit as we slip between consciousness and dreamlike states, spirits flitting between the tombstones and marble crypts, souls revealing their sad stories that have led them to the bardo. These polyphonic narratives are interspersed with short quotes from newspaper articles and biographies of the day referring to the mental state of the president at the time. Some are sympathetic/supportive, others critical. It’s a cacophony of opinion and gossip as Lincoln comes to terms with his loss and Willie recognises, with the help of his three guides, that he will not be returning with his father to the home on the hill.

With humour and pathos, Saunders, in his first full-length novel, deploys a panoply of historical and fictional voices in a theatrical tour de force, an enthralling invention. It was understandably awarded the 2017 Booker Prize.

‘The Time We Have Taken’ by Steven Carroll

The third and final instalment of the Glenroy novels by Steven Carroll, The Time We Have Taken is the strongest of the trilogy. But it remains an essentially suburban story, an evocation of a time long past (the trilogy covers the 1950s through to 1970) where Carroll looks for the extraordinary in the ordinary. 

There are no major surprises in The Time We Have Taken. Much of the development of events has been scaffolded in the earlier novels. Thus, Vic has upped and left Rita and the suburb, settling into a town a thousand miles to the north. Their son, Michael, has completed his university studies and is in his first year as a trainee teacher – at his old school. It’s only with Rita there is a significant (and unexpected) change. She has given up her travelling sales job and has become the cleaner to Mrs Webster at the large house. It’s 1970 and progress marches on. The suburb celebrates its centenary and a committee is formed. Michael discovers the awkwardness of first love; Mrs Webster, having taken on the business, confronts the mystery of her husband’s death and Vic takes his regular beer, knowing that his time is limited. 

The first book in the trilogy – The Art of the Engine Driver– is a semi-autobiographical narrative (Carroll’s father was a steam engine driver and he grew up in 1950s Melbourne suburbia) but, as the storylines develop with The Gift of Speed and The Time We Have Taken, so the nature of the characters become more and more fictionalised within a generic time and place. 

It’s a time of change yet many of his characters remain anchored to the past. Rita maintains the family home as a monument to something that never was, Vic awaits the occasional letter from her. Michael is scarred by family life that never communicated; Mrs Webster comes to terms with never really knowing her husband. It is through such characters that Carroll has created the minutiae of suburban life in Australia in the 1960s/70s – a lack of worldliness, a lack of ambition, a lack of anything much. Change is a threat – as represented by future Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, a figure who looms large in the centenary celebrations.

Carroll assuredly captures the rhythm of suburbia. The Time We Have Taken unfolds with more than a hint of nostalgia, the characters finely drawn, the narrative (purposefully) slow: a meditation. Carroll writes beautifully but the inertia of suburban life subsumes – even the revelation of Mulligan’s town hall mural depicting a very different history to the one expected causes only ripples of consternation.

As the final book in a trilogy of novels each shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, it was no surprise that The Time We Have Taken collected the 2008 Award.

‘Us’

Unlike Jordan Peele’s first feature, the immensely enjoyable Get Out, Us is an overthought, overwrought home invasion horror thriller.

The Wilson family’s beach vacation turns into a nightmare as doppelgängers appear with vacant stares, guttural grunts and wielding sharpened golden scissors. But this home invasion is not restricted to the Wilsons’ holiday home – and it’s soon apparent Santa Cruz and beyond are impacted by these murderous zombie-like creatures.

Lupita Nyong’o (Twelve Years a Slave, Black Panther) takes control to protect her family (the man of the family, Winston Duke – Avengers Infinity War, Black Panther – is something of a fool) as it appears her doppelgänger is the one in charge. Lots of frantic night-time activity, blood and gore (and occasional foray into humour) fail to hide the film’s shortcomings and predictability.

Rating: 42%

‘Destroyer’

A stellar performance by an almost unrecognisable Nicole Kidman (Lion, The Hours) takes director Karyn Kusama’s (Aeon Flux, Girlfight) crime thriller of redemption and justice to a different level.

As a police detective emotionally traumatised by a series of wrong decisions made 17 years earlier as an undercover rookie, Kidman is a train-wreck. An alcoholic, prone to violence and off-the-rails behaviour, she struggles with colleagues and her estranged daughter. But a chance of redemption rears its head as gang leader Silas (Toby Kebbell – RocknRolla, Kong: Skull Island) reappears on the LA crime scene.

Pensive and cerebral, Destroyer is something of a slow build as the narrative of the present unfurls through the unfolding of the past. It’s not an easy ride, with little instant gratification. But Kidman’s intractability and so out-of-character unpleasantness makes for a mesmerising two hours.

Rating: 69%

‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan’s latest novel is a thought provoking and intriguing narrative, but not one that I found particularly engaging. The Canadian author’s distant, almost objective matter-of-fact approach created a distance, a cold veneer to the story that left this particular reader strangely unmoved by much of what unfolded over its 400 plus pages.

Barbados, 1830 – and Washington Black is a 10, or possibly 11, year-old slave boy, working the fields of the Faith Plantation. Eighteen weeks after the death of his first master, the cruel Erasmus Wilde, a man ‘…[who] owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him too much’ arrives from England. What follows is a period of terrible cruelty, chilling and unsparing in its randomness and seen from a child’s-eye view. But Washington Black does not dwell on the horrors of colonial slavery: its scope is broader, its ambition wider.

Instead, Erasmus Wilde’s brother, the eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde, chooses the young Black to be his personal assistant. Naturalist, scientist, inventor, explorer and abolitionist, Titch wants the boy to help him perfect the perfect aerial machine. But a terrible accident leaves Wash permanently scarred – and as witness to another event, he and Titch flee the island. The two are plunged into adventures on the high seas, the southern American states and the icy wastes of the Arctic and which take in London, Amsterdam and Morocco along the way. And it is Washington Black who rises to the challenge with his imagination and intelligence, even when he is at his lowest ebb. His talent with paper and pencil and the 19thcentury demand for science, illustration and drawn studies attract others to him.

Scientific discoveries, engineering feats, bounty hunters, freezing temperatures, love, destitution, joy, disappointment all follow – elements of a 19thcentury swashbuckling adventure story. But Black is also invested in knowledge, thoughts and interests beyond his background and education – a precociousness that jars but allows the narrative to develop, stylistically enabling Edugyan to increase that searched-for scope of the novel. But it is also this mechanical approach that, for me, placed Washington Black as interesting rather than engaging. It jarred a little too much, putting it beyond the believable and more into a fervid ‘message’. Storyline after storyline is introduced. And whilst Wash is a unique character, restless, bought alive by his connections to people – from Big Kit, his powerful protector at the plantation, Titch himself and, later, Tanna – and the opportunities they provide, there’s something that does not quite gel. And that, sadly, undermined Edugyan’s third novel for me.

Washington Black was shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize but lost out to Anna Burns and Milkman.


‘Poor Cow’ by Nell Dunn

Set in the south London working class suburb of Fulham in the 1960s, Poor Cowis the story of Joy, a young woman with plenty of dreams but few opportunities (Whole lot of longing what never comes true.). A reluctant mother at 21, a husband in prison and, following a short period of luxury on the proceeds of one of Tom’s jobs, is now back living with her Aunt Em in a one-bedroomed flat in Fulham.

It’s a poignant story of a train-wreck of a life, a life determined predominantly by the choices of others (Tom; his mate, Dave, with whom Joy finds some happiness until he too is put away in the nick) and the system. But Joy herself also makes some pretty ripe choices.

Yet, somehow, Joy seems to muddle through it all – modelling (nude), as a barmaid or taking money for sexual favours (but never on the game). Her ambitions are limited – she hated the life of luxury with Tom in the soulless suburb of Ruislip –and she’s determined to wait for the release of Dave (12 years). Only trouble is that Dave introduced Joy to the joys of sex… 

But her biggest (unexpected) love is her son, Jonny. No matter what, Joy tries to be there for him (by today’s standards, her efforts would be far from enough) and many of her decisions are made with Jonny in mind. Even agreeing to live with Tom on his release is based to some extent on a level of security for both her and her son.

Semi-autobiographical (author Nell Dunn lived in Battersea – the next suburb along from Fulham – throughout the 60s), Poor Cow is a knee-length boots and mini-skirted tale of life, love, survival and young motherhood in the 1960s. Dunn captures the sense of place and time through the use of language and a real sense of Joy’s personality is achieved through her letters to Dave (a naïve innocence mixed with a steely resolve written in a terribly spelt south London vernacular). It’s a fascinating slice of life from a very different perspective to that of Swingin’ London and its youth-driven cultural revolution. And at 141 pages, it’s short!

‘Everybody Knows’

Beautifully shot, perfectly capturing the Spanish countryside and village life, auteur Asghar Fahardi’s (The Salesman, A Separation) latest is ultimately a deeply unpleasant narrative of revenge.

Laura (Penelope Cruz – Volver, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) travels from Buenos Aires with her two children to attend her sister’s wedding. But the kidnapping of teenage daughter Irene results in long-buried secrets, family feuds and village animosities rising to the surface with devastating results.

Former lover Paco (a solid and likeable Javier Bardem – No Country For Old Men, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) is there for a distraught Laura. But, over the course of 150 minutes, Everybody Knows, whilst eminently watchable, gradually slips into melodrama and (for Fahardi) unsubtle angst.

Rating: 54%