‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ by Peter Carey

9780143571209A meandering epic of a narrative, True History of the Kelly Gang is as much a commentary on corruption and prejudice in rural Victoria in the late 1800s as it is a history of the legendary bushranger Ned Kelly. But then Kelly’s story is a product of that corruption and prejudice. Whilst hardly an innocent (few were in those hardened times), Kelly, along with his dirt-poor Irish Catholic family, was as much a victim as perpetrator.

Ned Kelly himself is the narrator, a series of letters and notes to his daughter, written in his unschooled, semiliterate vernacular, providing this sweeping outback adventure a resounding voice of authenticity. As created by Peter Carey, it is this voice that carries the narrative – empathic, sympathetic, angry, fair, apologetic, at times resigned, at other times determined as Kelly speaks of events around him so that his daughter (born in California) may understand something of a father she likely will never meet.

A rebel, a bushranger, a thief, a murderer, a horse rustler, a common criminal – accusations flowed thick and thin from (usually corrupt) colonial police, politicians and landowners. But over time, he also became something of a local hero in the drought stricken, impoverished northern Victoria – a tough, no-nonsense larrikin who stood his ground and who, in attempting to survive and support his mother and younger siblings, found himself up against the establishment.

In a very bad year even the richest farmers … was pressed hard themselves and so harsher than usual to their poor neighbours. Through his connections in government the squatter Whitty had been permitted to rent the common ground and as a result a poor man could no longer find a place to feed his stock in all the drought stricken plains. If you set your horse grazing beside the govt. road it would be taken by Whitty’s drones and locked away in the pound. I have known of 60 horses impounded in one day all of then belonging to poor farmers…

 Almost by default, Kelly became the most wanted man in the State. A (small) decent piece of land and a few livestock was the want, a little illegal trading (his mother ran a shabeen). But an Irish Catholic family (a notch beneath the cattle) was a sitting duck for the local ‘traps’ and heavy-handed treatment; arrests for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time were common. And it wasn’t just Ned – father (when still alive), mother, brothers, aunts, uncles. A Kelly (or Quinn – his mother’s family) was guilty by association.

It’s a history full of incident and fulsome, rambunctious characters who defy a corrupt authority. Kelly and the gang take to the untamed rolling wilderness, camping out in miserable winter surrounds, avoiding the squads of police sent from Melbourne to trap the wanted men who have, by now, robbed banks and killed.

A (self) portrait of the man behind the myth, True History of the Kelly Gang remains a fiction but uses real people and based on historical fact. Yet it is a vivid recreation of the life of Australia’s most notorious outlaw/nationalist. Carey’s novel was awarded the 2001 Booker Prize yet, controversially, lost out to Dark Palace by Frank Moorhouse for the 2001 Miles Franklin Award.

 

 

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Booker Prize Shortlist: 1996

Rohinton-Mistry-007It’s the first year where I have completed reading all novels shortlisted for the prestigious literary prize. The judges selected Graham Swift and Last Orders. Did they, in my opinion, make the right call?

Shortlist:

Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
Beryl Bainbridge, Every Man For Himself
Seamus Deane, Reading in the Dark
Shena MacKay, The Orchard of Fire
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance
Graham Swift, Last Orders

 It was, by all accounts, an uncontroversial shortlist (for a change) with two Australians – Kate Jennings (Snake) and Gary Disher (The Sunken Road) – just missing out (these were the days before the shortlist was preceded by the longlist). And it was certainly something of a vintage year – heavyweights Atwood (her third appearance on the list in 10 years) and Bainbridge (her fourth); the poet and literary academic Seamus Deane; the eventual winner Graham Swift, regarded as the favourite to win and responsible for Waterlands, viewed by many as one of the finest English novels of the 1990s; winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Canadian Giller Prize, A Fine Balance was in the running with Shena McKay as the outsider.

You’ll see from my reviews below that I generally felt positive towards all five books although, surprisingly, the weakest was Beryl Bainbridge – a sparely written fairly short novel of a very familiar story – the sinking of the Titanic. And whilst it’s told from a different perspective (a young male first-class passenger), familiarity breeds a little too much contempt.

Two rites-of-passage offer very different perspectives of growing up – the everyday fears, terrors and misapprehensions of a young girl in 1950s rural England as opposed to a young catholic boy in Derry in Northern Ireland during the same time frame. Nothing could be more diametrically opposed!

Atwood’s book is based on a true story and the exploration of just how culpable Grace Marks was in the murder of her employer in a remote Canadian home in 1843. Fascinating but errs on longwinded.

That leaves Last Orders and A Fine Balance. And whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the beautifully penned, deceptively simple story from Swift, I still feel that Rohinton Mistry’s book is one of the finest shortlisted not to have won the Booker. It may have been criticised for condensing all India’s ills of the time into the world of four connected characters, but it is this very humanity that makes A Fine Balance a very fine balance of a novel. So, as far as I am concerned, the judges in 1996 got it wrong. Mistry, Swift and Deane were my books of choice from the shortlist.

‘Schindler’s Ark’ by Thomas Keneally

268302“Schindler gave me my life, and I tried to give him immortality.” So spoke Poldek Pfefferbeg, a surviving Schindlerjuden and the man responsible for introducing Thomas Keneally to the extraordinary story of Oskar Schindler.

As a result of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film, Schindler’s List, many are already familiar with how Schindler saved some 1200 Polish Jews from the Auschwitz and Gross Rosen extermination camps in southern Poland during World War II.

A Sudeten German and industrialist, originally a member of Hitler’s National Socialist Party, Schindler was a hard-drinking womaniser who exuded charm and influence. It was opportunism and profit rather than anything significantly humanitarian that initially motivated him. With the German invasion of Poland in 1939, he acquired Emalia, the enamelware factory in Krakow that was to save the lives of so many. Using contacts and bribes, he built up the factory to include the making of armaments – a financial windfall but also key to its protection as the war dragged on.

Initially disillusioned, progressively more and more angered and disgusted with the inhumanity of Nazi policies towards the Krakow Jews, Schindler established, at great personal expense, protective factory policies for his ‘highly skilled workforce.’ He witnessed the cleansing of the Krakow ghetto and treatment of men, women and children alike. Thousands were murdered whilst those with the all-important work card were transferred to the Krakow-Plaszow work camp under the control of the monster, SS-Hauptsturmführer Amon Göth (“When you saw Göth, you saw death.”).

Availability of land, diamonds and a great deal of luxury black market foodstuffs facilitated Schindler in the building of a camp for his inmates separate from Plaszow – with no SS guards allowed on the premises. At a time when starvation rations were doled out (Goth sold much of the camp supplies on the black market), Schindler purchased bread and chickens for his workforce.

He repeated the building of a camp at Brunnlitz, close to his birthplace of Zwittau, when, in July 1944 and with the threat of the Red Army, the Germans began to retreat west. Instead of incineration or the long death marches of the Final Solution, the Schindlerjuden found themselves in a second work camp in the Sudetenland foothills. The workforce survived, liberated by the Russians in 1945. As a member of the Nazi Party and Abwehr, Schindler risked execution but had already fled west.

Keneally’s novel, based on numerous eyewitness accounts, is a desperately moving testament to the horrors of Hitler’s attempted genocide of European and north African Jewry. The horrors of action are almost unimaginable – thousands of people killed daily, thousands others barely alive. But in telling Schindler’s story, Keneally focuses on the memories of the survivors and the fragility of that survival.

It’s a true story, a remarkable story of a remarkable man. Schindler wasn’t perfect – Schindler’s Ark is a reality of a man who was neither ”good” nor ”virtuous”. But he was humane, principled, charming and a chancer – for years he managed to make Göth believe they were friends, plying him with alcohol, cigars, foodstuffs to ensure the possible survival of a secretary or maid.

It’s a hard story to read. And not just emotionally of the mostly harrowing individual stories. In documenting the eye-witnesses accounts, there’s a great deal of detail which is important to the validity of the story but unfamiliar to German military titles, for example, can get very confusing (Oberführer, Oberstgrüppenführer, Hauptsturmführer, Standartenführer and more).

But, at its core, Schindler’s Ark, whilst diluted in impact 35 years after its writing, is an extraordinary achievement. It was awarded the 1982 Booker Prize.

‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel

lifeofpiA young teenager afloat the Pacific Ocean in a 26-foot long boat with only a Bengal tiger for company: Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel, late of Pondicherry in Southern India, the only human survivor of the shipwreck of a cargo boat travelling to Canada.

Having sold the family zoo, the Patels are fleeing the corruption of India for a better life in the frozen wastes of North America. Aboard are a few of the animals bound for American institutions. Only they do not make it. A storm two days out of Manila sees the boat sink – and Pi along with an injured zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and Richard Parker, the tiger, survive.

But not for long. Hyena soon dispatches the zebra, quickly followed by the orang-utan. But Richard Parker dispenses with the hyena. Now tiger and boy establish an uneasy routine for survival.

Life of Pi is told in three sections (and precisely 100 ‘chapters’) with the middle section by far the longest and which details the extraordinary journey of 227 days aboard the lifeboat. It’s rich in explanation of Pi’s survival techniques and his gradual training of the tiger to enable the two to reach an uneasy truce.

Such a story inevitably pushes the boundaries of believability. But then Life of Pi is full of metaphor and symbolism. Born into a Hindu family, the intelligent and curious Pi adds Catholicism and Islam to his beliefs, seeking out answers to his questions of faith in Pondicherry prior to the family’s departure.

“A germ of religious exaltation, no bigger than a mustard seed, was sown in me and left to germinate. It has never stopped growing since that day.”

Through him, Yann Martel finds harmonious common ground in the three religions. Through his fantasy adventure novel, Martel looks to encourage belief in the unbelievable – one of the major hurdles to faith and believing in God.

But an alternative is provided by Pi in the third and final section of the novel – the ‘human answer’ he gives to officials from the Japanese shipping agents, owners of the cargo boat. Pi’s mother becomes the orang-utan, an injured seaman the zebra, the crazed cook from the boat the hyena. Pi himself is Richard Parker.

The ‘truth’ of Pi’s story is of little concern – the issue is the reader’s preference. Interpretation is, of course, subjective and its intention here is theological reflection. Do you need concrete proof or can you take things on faith?

‘Everything was normal and then…?’

‘Normal sank.’

Life of Pi is unquestionably overwritten at times – the first section in particular left me frequently impatient with its descriptions and long-windedness. But, theological symbolism aside, life aboard the lifeboat is fascinating and engaging reading. And, oddly, verging on believable. There are a couple of significant exceptions – the floating island of acidic algae populated by millions of meerkats and meeting the alter ego, also adrift. But by then Pi had been alone for some 200 days so an element of madness is excusable (although these incidents did feel like excuses for Pi to descend into paroxysms of theological wonder and divinity. From the outset we are told that this is a story that will make you believe in God).

That particular objective failed to materialise in me personally but as a yarn set on the high seas, with the exception of that tendency to overwrite and slip into philosophical and theological musings, Life of Pi is an engaging read.

Yann Martel’s second published novel was awarded the 2002 Booker Prize.

‘The Finkler Question’ by Howard Jacobson

9781408808870Having read English at Cambridge under F. R. Leavis and taught the subject at Selwyn College, Cambridge, you just know anything written by Howard Jacobson will not fall under ‘light read.’ But what you may not be prepared for is the wit, irony and warmth alongside the satire and intelligence. Even on a second reading, The Finkler Question made me laugh out loud.

Jacobson is tackling one mighty difficult and potentially contentious issue in The Finkler Question – that of Jewish identity alongside male friendship.

It is through the friendship of three men – former schoolmates Julian Treslove and Sam Finkler and their teacher, Libor Sevcik – that Jacobson explores his subject, an exploration that is at once brilliantly funny yet with a deep melancholic sense of loss and longing.

Through the three men, opinions and opposing philosophies of what exactly is Jewish identity are voiced, discussed and debated – from the strident, anti-Zionist, Israeli-hating Finkler through to the ‘convert’ that is Treslove, more orthodox than any of his friends as he reads 12th century Maimonides on the reasoning for circumcision or demands answers to his questions of, how he sees it, the innate ‘Jewish’ cleverness of the use language. A 90 year-old Czech, Libor sits somewhere between the two men.

A former BBC radio producer (a minor position – an early morning arts programme on Radio 3), Treslove is a melancholic lost soul – a father of two (adult) boys to separate women, both of whom chose not tell him of their respective pregnancies. His great love is the great operatic tragedies. It is he who labels Jews at Finklers, having met his first Jew at school in the guise of Sam/Samuel/Shmuel/Shmueli (several identities in one…). This new word “…took away the stigma, sucked out the toxins.” A late night mugging a few yards from the BBC in Portland Place following an evening with Sam and Libor leads to Julian questioning his sense of who and what he is.

As a result, The Finkler Question becomes, in part, Julian as a Gentile and his relationship with Judaism and ‘Jewishness’. But in ostensibly looking at Libor, Sam and other characters as Jews and how Julian ‘measures up’, The Finkler (Jewish) Question is as much about the sense of belonging and the associated obligations/expectations of that belonging.

As an anti-Zionist, is Sam a lesser Jew? Hephzibah only introduces a kosher kitchen at the behest of Julian yet she is the director of the planned Anglo-Jewish Cultural Centre. Tyler, Sam’s wife, was a convert. Yet, in spite of her upholding the religious customs and beliefs more than Sam, as a reformist, she was not totally accepted. And deep down, Julian himself despairs of the religion that he does not fully grasp or can ever, ultimately, be part of.

The Finkler Question is something of a meandering narrative, jumping in time and place. It verges on plotless per se other than as a stream of (Jewish) consciousness. Julian finds some of the answers to his questions: some of the questions he doesn’t understand himself. Both Sam and Libor deal with their grief at the loss of their wives in their own ways.

Anti-Semitism does rear its ugly head in obvious ways but also in surprising ways – The Finkler Question continues to challenge and question assumptions. People – Jews and non-Jews alike – come ago, vehicles for Jacobson to propound yet more opinions (occasionally over-contrived – Julian’s youngest son a Holocaust denier). And Treslove’s neurotic obsession occasionally palls (Maimonides?).

But the 2010 Booker Prize winner is a seamless roll of pathos and humour, of philosophy and politics, relentless in its search for a truth. Not that Jacobson is going to answer The Finkler Question – mainly because there is not one answer. Put two Jews in a room and you’ll get three very different opinions. Welcome to The Finkler Question.

 

‘Vernon God Little’ by DBC Pierre

9780571215164An assured debut novel, Vernon God Little is a rites-of-passage full of sour and coruscating verbal wit that verges on the farcical. Akin to the vicious satire of the likes of Vonnegut, it’s a telling indictment of small town America’s mindless consumer culture and the glorification of dysfunction – with 15 year-old Vernon Little its victim. As the narrator, it’s Vernon and his perspective of his 15 minutes of fame that the story is told.

A gun tragedy at the High School in Martirio, Texas has left 16 students dead, including the perpetrator, schoolboy Jesus Navarro Rosario. But with Jesus dead, the grieving town is left without a sense of closure or justice. Cue Vernon God Little. As the killer’s best friend, he survived, evidence of his guilt. As national media descend on the town, so the Sheriff’s department move on Vernon to prove his collusion.

Vernon God Little is told in five acts, with the first two finding Vernon – like his friend, Jesus, an outsider in the close-knit community – struggling to make sense of what’s happening around him. Accused of being an accessory, the only people he cares about are either dead or appear to be more concerned with fame and worldly goods (his mother misses all legal appointments due to the delivery of a fridge). Cool as he thinks he might be, Vernon in reality is a mere boy way out of his depth of understanding. And it’s about to get a lot worse as news crews swarm into town.

Things do get a lot worse as Vernon makes a run for it and flees to Mexico, but his too brief sojourn sees him arrested, returned to Texas to face trial for 34 murders and, on being found guilty, is sentenced to death.

Farcical or what? Yet beneath that over-the-top course of events is a scathing critique as reality television, fast food, religion, the death penalty all come under Pierre’s comic microscope.

In spite of being in Mexico, Vernon is positively identified for more and more murders across Texas. A reality television programme is introduced where death-row inmates are put on camera as entertainment with television audiences deciding the order of executions – which in themselves are televised.

In Vernon Little, Australian DBC Pierre has created a fabulously confused commentator who is in part an archetypal contradictory adolescent, part mouthpiece for the author’s corrosive opinions.

The high-octane Vernon Little God won the 2003 Booker Prize a rank outsider when the longlist was announced, beating favourite Monica Ali and Brick Lane.

‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga

the_white_tigerOn first reading a few years ago, I found Adiga’s debut novel informative, well written and immensely entertaining. But sadly, from an entertaining perspective, The White Tiger does not pass the test of time.

An epistolary novel, with self-proclaimed murderer and modern Indian entrepreneur, Balram Halwai, our unreliable narrator, writing long letters to His Excellency, Wen Jiabao, premier of China and soon to be distinguished guest of the Indian government.

Spread over seven nights, Balram describes his rise out of poverty to managing director of his own fleet of taxis in the emerging southern Indian city of Bangalore. His is a story of ambition, corruption, power and murder – a personal story that is also a reflection on contemporary India that remains mired in the traditions of the caste system.

From his feudal village, where landlords control everything and every wage earner pays his dues, Balram uses his wits and cunning to rise above the ordure. A chance appointment as a driver to Ashok, a landlord’s son newly returned from the States, leads him to the corrupting influence of the country’s capital, New Delhi. It’s a very different world to Balram with its exclusive shopping malls, hotels, restaurants and clubs out-of-bounds to most Indians.

Whilst his brother and father continue to run the family business in their village, Ashok is the trusted family delivery-boy, paying out millions of rupees to politicians and government workers in bribes and donations. But a few too many conversations take place inside the car and within earshot of the ‘trusted’ Balram. And gradually, as Balram becomes more and more angry about his servitude and his treatment by his employers, so a plan unfolds.

Mordant satire abounds in Adiga’s novel – Balram can be cutting with his views on Indian politics, the caste system and his extended family, controlled as they are by the paternal grandmother and living in penury. His other ‘family’, the landlords, also come under the proverbial hammer.

But it’s also Balram who is the problem in The White Tiger. Or, more specifically, Balram is essentially the only character in the story who is, in anyway, fleshed out. Thus we are fed a limited, two-dimensional perspective as events unfold, events that have already been revealed early in the novel. The result is there’s no sense of depth, no sense of suspense to Balram’s confession (if, indeed, it is a confession).

The White Tiger is an easy read (it’s seemingly effortlessly written – certainly a point in Adiga’s favour). And the early half of the novel, set in Balram’s village, is incisive and humorous. But as the narrative unfolds, so it loses something and, ultimately, becomes a disappointment. The White Tiger was awarded the 2008 Booker Prize, beating out Sebastian Barry’s exquisite literary magic that is The Secret Scripture.

‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood

blindWhilst Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize winning The Blind Assassin is (inevitably) beautifully written, it is, personally, one of her least interesting novels.

Set in Canada in the present day, octogenarian Iris Chase narrates a story that spans the twentieth century. Down-at-heel in a small condo in a tourist town in Southern Ontario, Iris slowly reveals events that, from a once privileged position of family wealth and power, led to her downfall.

Married off to save the family business at a young age, the suicide of her sister Laura in 1945, an arrogant older husband with political ambitions supported by his manipulative and interfering sister, Winifred. In spite of being surrounded all her young life by wealth, Iris is not in a happy place, very much the gender victim of the conservative times.

Ostensibly, The Blind Assassin is the story of the two sisters and their relationships with two men at either end of the political spectrum. A trophy wife to the patriarchal bully with fascist leanings that is Richard Griffen, Iris is trapped in a loveless marriage. Alex Thomas is a communist agitator wanted in connection to the fire at the Chase button factory and the death of a night watchman. Laura is infatuated with the political activist – but it is Iris who has a long-standing love affair with him.

Within their story is the novel within the novel – Thomas entertains his lover with stories of Planet Zycron, written for the pulp magazines from which he survives financially (writing under an assumed name).

Iris ups and leaves Griffen with newborn baby in tow having discovered he had been sexually abusing a 16 year-old Laura. A less privileged life is on the cards, but at least she will be with the man she loves. Bad timing – having returned from the Spanish Civil War, Alex Thomas volunteers for the war in Europe. He does not return and never knows his daughter, Aimee.

Forty years later, Iris looks back on this early time in her life (time between now and then is written off in a paragraph or two). It’s a resigned memory – a little bitter (mainly towards a still living Winifred), a little angry (her powerlessness within her own home as a newly-wed), a little sad (the death of Aimee from substance and alcohol abuse). But there’s undoubtedly a level of relief, having escaped the suffocating life destined by her marriage to a political climber.

There are, in my mind, a number of issues with The Blind Assassin but the main problem is its length – a judicious editor should have cut from 630+ pages to 350 or so. A tight, well-told family melodrama would have resulted. Instead, we have a rambling family melodrama populated with unlikeable characters and a (bad) sci-fi/fantasy theme running through it.

Final result was that, in essence, The Blind Assassin bored me. There were several occasions when I came close to giving up. But I persevered…

Margaret Atwood collected her only Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin in 2000. Having received mixed reviews on publication, it was not the favourite to win – Trezza Azzopardi (The Hiding Place) and Michael Collins (The Keepers of Truth) were joint favourites to win.

 

 

‘The English Patient’ by Michael Ondaatje

english-patient-michael-ondaatjeSweeping vistas of the African Sahara desert spring to mind when approaching the reading of Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker Prize winner – the result of the Oscar-winning film adaptation of the same name with its focus on the love story between the ‘English patient’ and the newly-wed British socialite, Katharine Clifton.

Whilst a central story running throughout the book is the 1930s desert surveys of the Egyptian Sahara, it is only one part of Ondaatje’s poetic contemplation of the nature of identity. The English Patient is the profound yet fragmented story of four disparate characters caught up in a wrecked Italian villa at the close of World War II.

Having being rescued from a burning plane by Saharan Bedouins, the English patient is burnt beyond recognition. From his accent, he is assumed to be English and has therefore found himself transferred from various makeshift hospitals that are each closer to home. A former monastery, the Villa San Girolamo on the outskirts of Florence is the latest resting place. A refuge now abandoned by the Allies, a young Canadian nurse, Hana, insists on staying with her patient too sick to move.

The two have eked out their survival in the badly damaged building, the patient confined to his bed with a regular dosage of morphine: Hana reading to him, finding food and avoiding snipers and booby traps installed by the retreating Germans. With her own burgeoning sexual awareness, Hana inevitably develops a close attachment to her patient, a purity of love in part based on the loss of her own father in the campaign.

Into the villa walks David Caravaggio; a thief legitimised by the Allies as a wartime spy, he is a former friend of Hana’s father. The result of a violent interrogation by Italian fascists has seen both his thumbs being removed and he is now reduced, like the English patient, to a morphine addiction.

The fourth character, Kirpal ‘Kip’ Singh, is an Indian Sikh who volunteered with the British for sapper bomb disposal training. He is sent in advance of British forces in Italy to clear mines, booby traps and unexploded bombs. Basing himself at the villa, Kip develops a close affinity to the English patient but he also becomes Hana’s (discrete) lover.

We learn, incrementally, of each of the four’s histories. Whilst the English patient and the slow discovery of his true identity is key to the novel, each has their own story to tell or hide.

The English patient is not English at all, but Hungarian (Count Ladislaus de Almasy) and a suspected German spy with Caravaggio on his trail for some time. Kip has, in part, become very English. On arriving in the UK for military service, he was ‘adopted’ by the late Lord Suffolk, the head of the fledgling bomb disposal unit, and found himself a frequent guest of the aristocrat and his wife at their home. Yet Kip’s brother is an active revolutionary against British rule back in India.

All four are wounded souls. The English Patient is a web of memories and it unfolds in a series of non-linear storylines and narratives. As with the books that Hana reads to her patient when she randomly opens to a page, meaning seemingly matters little. It’s the shared moment that is of import – and The English Patient is not dissimilar. It’s a journey that meanders without a foreseeable ending.

And it’s that unfocussed meandering that, for me, is the problem with The English Patient. I do not need a beginning, middle and an end – but I need more than what felt like literary gymnastics to extend its melancholic story. Lyrical it may be; poetic prose as an exercise has appeal. But spread over 320 pages it was too much. Its imbued with Boys Own adventure potential. And as a result Caravaggio and Kip are the most interesting characters in The English Patient. Yet somehow I do not think that was supposed to be the case.

The English Patient shared the 1992 Booker Prize with Barry Unsworth and Sacred Hunger – the second time it has occurred (1974 with Nadine Gordimer’s The Conversationist tying with Holiday by Stanly Middleton the other occasion). It is reported the judges were bitterly and passionately divided between the books: the decision to jointly award the Booker was made just 30 minutes before the announcing ceremony.

‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty

81npfiyubal-880x1404The jury’s out for me as far as Paul Beatty’s 2016 Booker Prize winning novel is concerned.

Technically brilliant, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, savage and outrageous, undoubtedly challenging, yet… Its profane satire is unrelenting, the reading exhausting, the narrative one-dimensional.

A coruscating metaphor for race relations in the US, The Sellout is the story of ‘Bonbon’ Me. An Afro-American living in the City of Dickens on the outskirts of LA, Me is the son of a controversial home-schooling sociologist who is shot in the back by LAPD at traffic lights whilst on his way to the latest Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals meeting.

It is his relationship with his dead father and the impact of his opinions that is at the centre of The Sellout: essentially what it is to be black and living in a racist country. Me, at the beginning of the novel, finds himself in the Supreme Court charged with reinstating slavery and segregation. The Sellout is the provocative, comically daring explanation of just how he got there.

It’s a mad journey. Littered with the n-word, it’s caustic yet elegant, scathing yet intelligent. No stone is left unturned as Me purchases an inner city farm on the proceeds from the LAPD payout. The ageing Hominy volunteers himself as slave to his ‘massa’ plantation owner and Me is forced to hire a local dominatrix to administer whippings.

When violent and crime-ridden Dickens loses its identity with its boundaries subsumed into greater LA ripe with real estate potential, Me steps in. A painted white line loosely reinstates those boundaries, raising a sense of neighbourhood pride and belonging. The segregation of the local High School, banning white students, is the final act. A media frenzy results (ironically, there never were any white students at the school anyway) and Me is arrested.

Within the scaffold of the plot is a miasma of characters, events, commentaries and references to contemporary racist America. It is satire gone wild – a mix of Swift and Vonnegut. The first 100 or so pages are magnificently and maliciously vitriolic – and at times shockingly funny. But Beatty fails to moderate and change the pace of a book struggling to identify a singular narrative beyond its early pages. The Sellout remains interesting but fails to sustain that initial level of engagement.