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.

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‘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 Bone People’ by Keri Hulme

A novel of extraordinary vitality, of beauty and cruelty, of passion and provocation, Keri Hulme’s debut is set in the harsh, isolated landscape of New Zealand’s South Island. Combining Maori myth and contemporary social attitudes, The Bone Peopleis a soaring yet relentless narrative of three unique characters and their relationship with each other.

A fiercely independent Kerewin, reclusive and virtually self-sufficient in her isolated tower, is an artist running away from her past. Joe is isolated in his recent grief with the sudden death of his wife and young son. And then there is Simon, an autistic child locked into his mute world, unofficially adopted by Joe, having been washed ashore during a terrible storm. Intelligent to the point of precociousness, Simon is a child who tries the patience of a saint: a petty thief with a fierce and almost uncontrollable anger that has landed him in trouble throughout his young life.

A reluctant bond forms between the tough-talking Kerewin and a feral Simon, leading to a gradual breakdown of the barriers she has erected to protect herself from her memories. A reliance evolves, a reliance that eventually encompasses Joe. But there are secrets of violence so shocking and distressing that a wedge pushes this alternative family unit apart.

Complex in its simplicity, The Bone People is, on the one hand, a sincere narrative of a country, a landscape, a culture, of love, death, friendship, abuse, relationships within its everyday. But it’s also a story of myth and fable, a metaphor of change as a European Simon clashes with the traditions of Maori Joe. Part Maori, part ‘Pakeha’ (a white New Zealander), it is Kerewin who represents the future, a hybrid unity of the two cultures.

For all its ambition, heightened sense of grandeur, poetic beauty and visceral, unrelenting violence, The Bone People sadly unravels towards the end as Hulme is seemingly driven by the sense of a utopian ending, a catharsis for all that has come before it and all that will follow. It all becomes a little too laboured and absurd. Which is a pity, as the first two thirds, whilst at times difficult to read, is a haunting narrative with its evocative language and deft storytelling.

Having been rejected by virtually every New Zealand publishing house, Keri Hulme was finally accepted by Spiral, the small feminist publishing house. The Bone People quickly sold its initial 2,000 print run, a pattern that continued and which led to exposure to the UK publishing world and, eventually, the Booker Prize panel. The Bone People was awarded the 1985 Booker Prize, beating such as luminaries as Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and Peter Carey.

‘Possession: A Romance’ by AS Byatt

possessionMassive and complex AS Byatt’s multi-awarding novel may be, but this overwrought piece of pretentiousness left me perfervid and polysyllabically frustrated (I can do it too!).

The writing was on the wall almost 30 years ago when I first purchased the book – it has stayed on the bookshelf since then. Now a yellowed, vintage copy (appropriate – a large part of Possession: Romance is entrenched in 19thcentury poetry and letters), pages and pages of varied fonts, indented prose, academic musings incorporating footnotes into the main body of the novel alongside stereotypical characterisation and humour that falls flat results in a fetid indulgence of epic proportions.

I long gave up on the exploits of the nerdy, academic researcher, Roland Michell, wanting to make a name for himself in the world of 19thcentury English literature and the poetry of Randolph Henry Ash. Naturally his boss, James Blackadder at Prince Albert College in London, is mean spirited and threatened by all and sundry – but in particular the wealthy American, Mortimer Cropper, patron of the Newsome Foundation in Arizona. That upstart is also interested in Ash – and is purchasing all paraphernalia even vaguely related to the poet, including all research papers, original writings and letters.

So right from the off we have academic confrontation and competition – made even more profane when Roland keeps quiet about his discovery of a potential connection between Ash and Christabel LaMotte, a scorned lesbian poet long forgotten until recently championed by feminist academics. Cue more stereotypes of lesbians and feminists that can be added to brash Americans and batty, socially awkward academics as Roland heads of to the Women Studies Centre in the north of England where he meets LaMotte expert, Maud Bailey.

Professional rivalry ensues in the tedious literary detective story that unfolds from their research at the final home of Christabel LaMotte.

Possession: Romance is a series of writings and genres from different periods: epic poems, diaries, letters, lists, academic papers, contemporary prose. But it’s simply too self-consciously clever and sits alongside stereotyped characters and clichéd events and plot development. Byatt herself takes an academic approach to biography whether in fiction or semi-fiction. You may not be able to fault the research and command of language but, as a novel, this is an impenetrable, self-promoting, self-indulgent entrapment. Literary with a capital ‘L’.

Possession: Romance was awarded the 1990 Booker Prize.

‘The Siege of Krishnapur’ by J.G.Farrell

siegeofkrishnapurTo the north of Calcutta, (the fictional) town of Krishnapur and its British garrison is laid under siege by rebelling sepoys during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Essentially the retelling of the (true) siege of Lucknow, Farrell’s engrossing novel is based partly on contemporary accounts, diaries and letters of the British residents themselves.

Imperialism is placed under the microscope as a complacent community, with the exception of our hero, Mr Hopkins (the Collector), ignore all danger signs. Hopkins is a rarity in that he is a man devoted to progress and contemporary culture. Yet even his values and ideas about civilisation, religion, community – even the essence of Englishness itself – come crashing down around his ears amidst the terrible privations, disease, inhumanity and death during the months under siege in almost unbearable heat.

As Indians encamp in their hundreds on the far banks of the dry river bed to watch the spectacle, the folly and illusions of colonialism are driven home. Cholera cares not for the British class system and, after several months of water rationing, personal hygiene may not be high on the priority list. Food is so scarce that the capture and satisfying crunch of a beetle elicits jealous rage and, of little value, silver cutlery ends up being sequestered for (effective) canon ammunition.

The Siege of Krishnapur, through humour, cutting wit and more than a little moral high ground (the now discredited phrenology, for example, looms large throughout), draws out the drama of events as the characters are subjected to changes in rules almost unfathomable to the privileged many.

Farrell himself (who died tragically at the age of 44 in a fishing accident) said that he wanted to show “yesterday reflected in today’s consciousness” – and his incisive prose and biting wit suggests that he more than achieved this. Occasionally, however, Farrell slips into preaching, particularly when it comes to the discussions and arguments about religion. But a minor caveat for a book that looks not to why the rebellion happened from the Indian perspective, but from the perspective of the ingrained, misplaced superiority of the colonialists.

JG Farrell was awarded the 1973 Booker Prize – and The Siege of Krishnapur is regarded by many critics as the best of all the winning novels.

‘Hotel du Lac’ by Anita Brookner

hoteldulacFollowing an initially undisclosed indiscretion, Edith Hope, writer of romantic novels, is packed off for an out-of-season sojourn on the shores of a Swiss lake. In the solicitous yet stolid hotel of the title, she is shown into her room, the colour of over-cooked veal. Nothing describes Anita Brookner’s somewhat turgid, thankfully short, novel better!

Brookner, through Edith Hope, delights in cruel portrayals of the few other hotel guests – particularly the wealthy yet vulgar Mrs Pusey and her attentive spinster daughter – and it is at these times, through gently acerbic prose, that Hotel du Lac is at its descriptive best. Regarded merely as the listener to the older woman’s tedious observations, Edith is soon bored by the self-indulgences of the Puseys. And, equally quickly, so are we.

Yet a lonely, isolated Edith continues to find comfort/solace/company with the two women as they drink their after-dinner coffee in melancholy surrounds. But that all changes (in temperament if not pace) with the arrival of Mr Neville, post Geneva conference.

It’s at this point that Hotel du Lac becomes overtly contrived in its narrative. Small talk between guests evolves into a level of unexpected absurdity (no spoilers here) that upsets the balance of what had been a well-written but mundane literary short story.

Somewhat controversially, Hotel du Lac was awarded the 1984 Booker Prize over the critically acclaimed Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard.

‘Disgrace’ by J. M. Coetzee

JMCoetzee_DisgraceA compelling, multilayered exploration of the dilemma of South Africa in the immediate post-apartheid years, Disgrace is a beautifully written story of power, sexuality and redemption.

Twice-divorced David Lurie, a middle-aged lecturer of Romantic poetry at the Technical University of Cape Town, has an ill-advised short-lived affair with one of his students. When a complaint is filed against him, an arrogant and dismissive Lurie refuses to acknowledge the inappropriateness of his behaviour and, as a result, is forced to resign. Retreating to his daughter’s isolated smallholding in the Eastern Cape, Lurie is forced to confront his values, opinions and position as a privileged white male in the new South Africa.

More anti-hero than Byronic, Lurie’s complex emotions to his situation – a man seeming without purpose – is heightened by the attack on his daughter Lucie and himself by three young black men in their own home. Lucie refuses to file a complaint, much to the distress of her father.

Roles and position have changed, inevitable but, in some instances, sudden. Lurie is no longer the man he once was – no job, little influence on his daughter, ageing. But there is hope for him – the sexual relationship with Bev, a woman he finds physically unattractive, is an act that is a step towards “annihilating his sexual vanity and his sense of superiority.”

A lyrical, riveting metaphor, Disgrace was the winner of the 1999 Booker Prize – and possibly one of the best books I have ever read.

 

Booker Prize 2016: Shortlist

Madeleine_Thien_interviewed_by_Dietmar_Kanthak_in_Bonn,_January_2015Back in 2014, the Man Booker Prize made the decision to extend eligibility to include American authors (as long as they were writing in English). Such a decision was not unanimously welcomed. But it was to be 2016 before the Booker judges presented the award for the first time to an American: Paul Beatty and his satirical The Sellout.

Having read all six novels shortlisted for the 2016 award, the question remains – was it the right call? Controversy surrounded the list with the exclusion of J.M.Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus and Elizabeth Strout and My Name is Lucy Barton from the 13-novel longlist.

The shortlist:

Paul Beatty: The Sellout
Deborah Levy: Hot Milk
Graeme Macrae Burnet: His Bloody Project
Ottessa Moshfegh: Eileen
David Szalay: All That Man Is
Madeleine Thien: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

 Only Deborah Levy had appeared on a Booker shortlist before (in 2012 for Swimming Home) and was regarded as one of the favourites to win. Speaking personally, of all the six novels on the list, her Hot Milk was the one I liked least. Using mother-daughter relationships to explore the nature of the feminine (along with hypochondria), it is a strangely inert narrative. Like the daughter, Sofia Papastergiadis, the story is as listless as the temperatures of the southern Spanish setting.

Less pretentious is Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. But like Hot Milk, it is populated with unlikeable characters. At times drab and slow moving, it’s something of a psychological character study with little of any import taking place until the final few pages.

Whilst shortlisted for the Booker as a novel, All That Man Is, to my mind, is a collection of nine short but interrelated stories. Some enjoyable, some minor.

Three down and three to go – and next on my list is the eventual winner, Paul Beatty with The Sellout. As I wrote in my personal review: 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.

It’s just the sort of literary gymnastics that appeals to literary judges – but not necessarily to everyday readers to quite the same extent.

Up until reading my final book on the list, I’d assumed that Graeme Macrae Burnet and his compelling His Bloody Project would have comfortably topped the list.

Set in a remote northern Scottish farming community in 1869, it is a multilayered psychological thriller exploring events leading up to the violent and bloody murder of three members of one family by a 17 year-old neighbour. Absorbing, intricate, His Bloody Project comfortably became the bestseller of the six shortlisted novels.

But Burnet’s magnificent achievement was pipped at the post by Madeleine Thien’s superb Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Magisterial, tragic, profound, enchanting – seven decades of contemporary Chinese history from Mao’s cultural revolution through to the student’s uprising and events at Tiananmen Square.

Booker Prize history was made in 2016 by presenting the award to an American writer – but personally I would have presented it to the Chinese-Canadian author.

‘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.

 

 

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.