‘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.

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‘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.

 

‘Heat and Dust’ by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

heatanddustTwo parallel stories run side-by-side as the 1923 downfall of Olivia during the British Raj in India is explored through a series of analepses by the (unnamed) granddaughter of Olivia’s ex-husband some 50 years later.

Propriety and social constraints are jettisoned in favour of rebellious passion as Olivia, newly arrived in India, becomes suffocated by the boredom of being a British Raj administrator’s wife.

Young and beautiful, she soon attracts the attention of the local Nawab, a minor Indian prince. In spite of her love for (boring) husband Douglas and the Nawab’s association with the daicots terrorising the local villages, Olivia is drawn to the thrill and excitement of palace life.

Fifty years later, Douglas’ granddaughter arrives in the town of Satipur looking to understand Olivia’s decisions and motivations – and like her, she becomes embroiled in the squalor and heat and dust of India: like Olivia, she becomes pregnant, uncertain of the father.

Heat and Dust is a short novel (180 or so pages) and is relatively straightforward, narrated as it is by the 1970s family member. Jhabvala is an assured and confident writer (as well as novels and short stories, she won two Oscars for adapting A Room With a View and Howard’s End for the screen) but there’s something lightweight about Heat and Dust.

It’s full of the smells and textures of India – and the racism of the Raj is succinctly portrayed. But there’s no real analysis or judgement – it’s a keen observational novel without any overt emotion. Like the social constraints of the 1920s, it’s controlled and distant.

Jhabvala’s novel won the Booker Prize in 1975 beating the only other shortlisted book, Gossip From the Forest by Thomas Keneally. It remains the shortest shortlist in Booker history (and excluded Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man and Robertson Davies with his World of Wonders – the final book of The Deptford Trilogy).

‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ by Marlon James

marlon-james-a-brief-history-of-seven-killingsI can understand why the critics loved this sprawling epic of a book. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times captures its essence when he wrote “It’s like a Tarantino remake of The Harder They Come but with a soundtrack by Bob Marley and a script by Oliver Stone and William Faulkner.” Succinctly put (although James himself is apparently tired of the Tarantino comparisons)!

With its diversity of voices, stories, opinions and politics, Marlon James uses potent language and dialogue to superb effect in telling his tale of Jamaica between 1976 and 1991 centred around gangland supremacy battles – and the attempted assassination of Bob Marley and its aftermath in particular.

With the city of Kingston divided between its rival drug gangs, where the dons ruled the roost and each gang had its political affiliation, tension is palpable, corruption rife and violence the norm. And with the elections looming and the government flirting heavily with socialism, there’s more than a passing international interest in the Caribbean island.

But A Brief History of Seven Killings is no linear narrative. Divided into five parts, multiple narrators plunge us into the maelstrom. Papa Lo may be the don of Copenhagen City, but it’s his second-in-command, Josey Wales, who is talking to the CIA, Cuban exiles and planning the demise behind the scenes of ‘The Singer’ (Marley is never mentioned by name). The Singer, it seems, has the ‘wrong’ political affiliations required for the interests of the US.

Barry Diflorio, CIA station chief to Jamaica, is no stranger to covert actions, but rogue agents and even field officers ostensibly under Diflorio are working to different agendas. The support of Wales and his rise to don in Copenhagen City is not policy. Papa Lo is ageing, moderate (relatively) and a supporter of the JLP (Jamaican Labor Party – ironically conservative in their policies). As long as there’s no threat to his drug cartel, Papa Lo, a close friend of The Singer, is no major threat to the status quo. Yet weapons are readily supplied and plans made.

The assassination attempt failed. But A Brief History of Seven Killings uses it as its centrepiece and, in spanning three decades, explores its aftermath and, by doing so, tells the story of Jamaica in the 70s and 80s. The perpetrators, the assassins, the (accidental) witnesses, the victims, bystanders, even a dead politician – all are given voice in this epic saga of 700 pages.

In spite of its title, Marlon James is in no hurry – thus cannon-fodder gang members such as Bam Bam and Leggo Beast are given their voice, a heavy vernacular of street patois and drug frenzy that counterpoints the considered Papa Lo and ruthless Josey Wales (the attack on Marley’s home is a breathless, coke-fuelled patois from Bam Bam’s perspective). They’re balanced by the likes of Nina Burgess (sadly the only female character of any substance), a one-night stand of the Singer of long ago along with the musings of local dead politician, Sir Arthur George Jennings. Such a technique, along with the ghost-like presence of Marley throughout, provides an insight into the complexities of the times. Add outsiders such as Diflorio or Rolling Stone journalist Alex Pierce and the result is a chaotic, opinionated world of vengeance, deceit and plain fear.

With the expansion of the Jamaican drugs lords into New York and Miami in the 80s, inevitably A Brief History of Seven Killings shifts its focus in the last quarter of the book. Sadly, as a result, the book loses some of its scope and powerful commentary. Whilst Eubie is one of the most charismatic of all the characters, Josey Wales’ expansion in the Bronx turns to all-too-familiar gangsta territory.

My one main criticism of A Brief History of Seven Killings is its uneven pacing, resulting in a flawed masterpiece. Somewhere in the middle, the pace flags and it became seriously bogged down in its own cleverness and boldness. Like Tarantino’s films, the bombardment of violence can sometimes become too much. Short, staccato chapters are replaced by long, rambling opinions and positioning. But, thankfully, the last section picks up the pace and the narrative fairly zips along as loose ends are tied together.

Whilst fiction, A Brief History of Seven Killings is built around a few actual events, places and people (with names changed). Tivoli Gardens in Kingston becomes Copenhagen City, Papa Lo and Josey Wales are based on real dons and more. And whilst not crucial to the understanding of the narrative, there are times when a more in-depth knowledge of Jamaica and its politics of the time would have helped. (The inverse of that is that A Brief History of Seven Killings provides insight into a subject I personally knew nothing about).

Marlon James became the first Jamaican author to win the Man Booker Prize, picking up the prize in 2015 at the expense of another superb, critically acclaimed novel, Hanya Yanaghara’s A Little Life. Personally, my preference would be for the American novel – but only just.

 

‘The Line of Beauty’ by Alan Hollinghurst

hollinghurstDivided into three sections, The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Booker Prize, is a beautifully written but pompous novel of privilege, hypocrisy, loneliness and belonging.

Having recently graduated from Oxford, the good looking, middle class gay Nick Guest moves into the large, rambling Notting Hill home of the Feddens. Having befriended (and idolised) Toby Fedden at Oxford, Nick finds himself as a post-graduate at University College London and a lodger in the home of the new, highly ambitious MP, Gerald Fedden and his wife, Rachel, a wealthy heiress.

It’s 1983, the Tories under Margaret Thatcher have been returned to power with an increased majority and a new breed of politician sits in Parliament – ruthless and driven with the financial acumen of a banker or investor. Thrilling to Nick, Gerald Fedden epitomises this new approach.

But in spite of having the freedom of their home, Nick never really belongs. Toby is rarely there and when he is, somewhat distant. Nick finds himself drawn more and more to the troubled younger sister, Catherine (Cat), who is bipolar. It is to her he talks of his (fictional) Oxford sexual proclivities. It is to her he talks of his (factual) adventures with Leo, a man he meets through a Lonely Hearts advert. But Nick never feels confident or secure enough to introduce Leo (who is a few years older and black) to the Feddens and their home.

Part two of The Line of Beauty moves us forward three smug years. Nick remains in the Notting Hill home, but Leo is now history. Instead, he has taken up with the incredibly wealthy Wani Ouradi, an Oxford contemporary and the son of a rich Lebanese businessman. Ostensibly employed by Wani as consulting editor and artistic advisor to his company, 1986 is one of closeted excess – drugs, sex, alcohol: hedonistic indulgence taken to its limits.

The bubble bursts in part three. Just a year later and Wani is dying from AIDS. Nick has also discovered Leo died a few months earlier. A media scandal caused by the discovery of an affair between Gerald and Penny, his parliamentary secretary, and the link between him and Wani results in Nick being forced to move out of the Notting Hill house.

It’s a masterful book – one of many from Hollinghurst. His prose is beautiful. But it is also annoying – a florid, overtly descriptive style that can, at times, take forever to get to the point. The result is an overlong commentary of the indulgences and materialism of 1980s Thatcherite Britain.

But The Line of Beauty is no agit-prop novel or deep political analysis. That’s not Hollinghurst’s style. Instead, through surface glamour and an aura of Brideshead Revisited revisited, The Line of Beauty is the patina that covers the self-serving hypocrisy of privilege and Thatcherism.

Whether it be a line of cocaine, the double ‘S’ of the ogee curve or the curve of a man’s lower back, The Line of Beauty captures a time and place. From a naïve, relatively privileged Oxford graduate, Nick becomes someone who is at least aware of his surrounds. The stark reality for him, gay and poor amidst the materialistic and generally homophobic upper echelons of London society, is not promising. And punctuated throughout is the emerging threat of AIDS.