‘The Map of Love’ by Ahdaf Soueif

map of loveAs with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s 1975 Booker Prize winning Heat and Dust, Ahdaf Soueif’s sweeping The Map of Love is a love story, a love story of place and time and two women separated by almost a century. Only this is the story of Egypt rather than India – and Soueif (unlike Jhabvala) is eviscerating in her criticism of early twentieth century British foreign policy – and the illegal ‘Veiled Protectorate’ of Egypt in particular.

Isabel arrives in Cairo from New York with a large antique trunk stuffed with journals, letters, newspaper cuttings, photographs – mementos of a grandmother she never knew. The young widowed Lady Anna Winterbourne arrived in Egypt in 1900 – and left eleven years later, widowed for the second time. In the interim, having dared marry a local, a politicised lawyer and landowner, Sharif Pasha al-Baroudi and bore him a daughter, she had been shunned by the English ruling classes.

It is Anna’s story that unfolds in an eloquent novel of subtlety, honesty and history, simultaneously exploring a more contemporary Egypt as Isabel looks into her grandmother’s narrative. The American has discovered cousins in Cairo – and Amal in particular – she never knew existed.

As the millennium approaches, it is a secular Amal who represents Egyptian society, a country fearful of religious fundamentalists and acts of terror against foreign tourists. It is the lonely Amal who becomes obsessed with the story of her great-aunt as she reads through the detailed journals and reads of her grandmother (Sharif’s sister, Layla – Anna’s dearest friend) and her father’s childhood.

Against a background of independence, imperialism and social injustices, The Map of Love mixes the personal and political to great affect – even if it occasionally slips into political grandstanding. It’s a grand sweep of a particular time in history – of western European countries carving up the globe for their own colonial advancement and the inevitable independence movements that quickly follow. But it’s also a story of social change and, ultimately, a love story – with the main character Egypt itself.

The Map of Love was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize but lost out to JM Coetzee and Disgrace.

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‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry

secret scriptureA lyrical account of centenarian Roseanne McNulty’s life in rural Ireland, The Secret Scripture is both compelling and enlightening.

Long time resident of Roscommon mental hospital, Roseanne’s testimony of life prior to incarceration is interweaved with that of psychiatrist, Dr Grene. The old, decrepit Victorian hospital is soon to be demolished. With fewer available beds in the new building, Grene is to determine which patients can be released into the community.

Grene is particularly intrigued by Roseanne’s case. Like many of the older patients under his care, the origins of her confinement are questionable, not helped by records having been destroyed by fire twenty years earlier. Sensitive to the known facts contained within remaining official reports (infanticide, nymphomania (!), adultery) and her age, Grene treads lightly with his questioning. But, unknown to the doctor, she is secretly writing her own recollections.

Ireland’s malignant history is ever present in Barry’s writing – and The Secret Scripture is no different. The young Roseanne was a great beauty but as a Presbyterian living in Catholic Ireland in the 1920s, she was confronted with militant Irish nationalism and sectarianism, incurable enmities and the loss of innocence and joy. Even her marriage to Tom McNulty was short-lived and tragic, a victim of the power of the Irish Catholic Church. Father Gaunt (later Bishop) is a symbol of the perversion and bigotry of the church at that time over the lives and the moral judgements of its flock. Morality has its own civil wars, with its own victims in their own time and place.

It’s a heart-rending story, a work of fiction exploring memory and its effect on history and truth. Barry himself throws in the question of just how much of Roseanne’s narrative is truthful. No one has the monopoly on truth… Not even myself, and that is a vexing and worrying thought. And her recollections certainly vary from those official reports. But truth (at least in part) is Grene’s responsibility: or at least a different version. The one thing that is fatal in the reading of impromptu history is a wrongful desire for accuracy. There is no such thing.

 And Grene certainly reveals an unexpected new truth at the end of The Secret Scripture.

 It’s lucid and slow-paced, even though Roseanne’s story is livid and urgent. Barry’s descriptive prose is poetic yet accessible, his commentary on this period of Irish history vivid but humane. The Secret Scripture was Sebastian Barry’s second Booker Prize shortlisting (A Long Long Way was the first in 2004), but it lost out to Aravind Adiga and The White Tiger.

 

‘The Keepers of Truth’ by Michael Collins

keepers of truthA real page-turner, author Michael Collins combines a 1980s-set murder mystery along with a social commentary on the demise of small-town America as its life-blood, the manufacturing industries, close.

A fascinating hybrid that is both requiem and dissection, The Keepers of Truth is a grimly prophetic story of universal change and the death of the known and the secure. Rusting fire escapes lead to stairways to oblivion and darkness. There are prehistoric-looking machines dragged out into yards, cannibalised of anything of worth, carcasses of industrialism.

Bill, son of a former industrialist who committed suicide rather than witness the closure of his factories in the town, is an aspiring journalist reduced to writing editorial about charity bake-offs and college sports. What he really wants to headline in the slowly dying newspaper, The Daily Truth, is his philosophies on the (unnamed Midwest) town that was once the keepers of industrialism, but which is now a town of trainee managers. Oh happy are ye that inherit the deep-fat fryer! What we do now is eat. It has become our sole occupation… a sublimated longing for our dead machines.

The report that Old Man Lawton is missing changes all that. Locals (including the local police) immediately blame the son, Ronny. But whilst there’s motive, there’s not enough evidence. Bill, with his ageing colleagues, editor Sam and photographer Ed, in their hunt for the truth, become more and more embroiled in the bizarre investigation of few clues.

It’s a trailer-trash hunt of incest, abuse, alcoholism, suicide, emotional breakdowns and paranoia. But it’s also a time-crawling hunt during the intense July heat and drought, a physical boredom of intense severity that threatens the return of bake-off lead stories and the newspapermen surviving on whisky and tuna melts (Sam’s speciality).

The Keepers of Truth is a deeply relevant and pertinent social commentary and a morbidly dark comedy (think Coen Brothers or Collins’ countryman, Martin McDonagh). It’s the American dream turned sour told in long, cadenced sentences that create a rhythmic reading that add to that sense of slightly breathless reading.

It’s a real tour de force.

Shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, The Keepers of Truth lost out to Margaret Atwood and The Blind Assassin.

‘Exit West’ by Mohsin Hamid

exit westIn an un-named city swollen by refugees somewhere in the Middle East, Saeed and Nadia meet at an evening class. But not everything is at it seems – it takes Saeed a few lessons to pluck up the courage to speak to the young woman dressed in flowing black robes, only to discover she drives a motorbike, lives alone, smokes dope and is wedded to the phone and internet.

Their evolving love story is fraught with dangers as religious militants take control of various neighbourhoods in the city and executions for minor infringements of religious law are not uncommon. But as the violence and dangers escalate, so rumours abound of doorways randomly appearing throughout the city: to exit through a door is the path to a new life somewhere else in the world.

Exit West is addictive reading. Inevitably, there is a sense of familiarity as more and more displaced persons, via garden sheds, bedrooms, toilet cubicles, emerge all over the world. But Hamid’s world is set in an imagined near future. It is the story of the plight of refugees. But this is not the grim tale of terrifying, interminable journeys across borders or families holed up in tiny spaces as war explodes around them. Instead, as Saeed and Nadia travel through the portal, their experience is both like dying and like being born as they step into an alien and uncertain future. It’s not what they expect and they face both danger and joy.

What follows is a profoundly moving personal story of love, courage and, most of all, loyalty as the two face and confront the displacement of certainty and equilibrium around them.

But, whilst addictive, Exit West ultimately falls short of being fully satisfactory. The relevance of the novel’s first third and the beautifully written exposition of life in the un-named city as life becomes more and more untenable (electricity blackouts, random home searches by both militants and government forces, executions) loses out to a somewhat pedestrian, off-kilter place (as opposed to time) travel narrative.

Salient, engrossing, at times quite magical but also somewhat odd – the portals through which individuals place travel are never explained, a flight-of-fancy that actually needed a little more grounding. Shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, Exit West lost out to George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo.

‘Sour Sweet’ by Timothy Mo

soursweetPersonal ambitions within migrant Chinese communities in 1960s London and clashes between cultures result in a beautifully modulated story of business, loyalties, expectations, tradition and, ultimately, family.

But Sour Sweet is no deep socio-political commentary on similarities and differences between Anglo and migrant Chinese communities. Instead, it’s a deft, occasionally funny, affectionate family story of the Chens, a young couple only recently arrived in north London. He is passive and works long hours as a waiter in Chinatown: it is the spunky Lily who is the driving force of the family, particularly with the arrival of a son (Man Kee) quickly followed by her sister (Mui) from Hong Kong.

As the Chens settle into London, with Lily determined to make a success of the family’s new life, so a power struggle is taking place among the Triads who control the illegal gambling and drug distribution in Chinatown. The two worlds collide when Chen, due to family obligations and expectations back in China, is forced to borrow money. His mistake is that he fails to tell his wife.

Yet Mo choses to predominantly focus on the unknowing Lily and her sister Mui – and Sour Sweet is the more charming for it. The two women save enough money from the housekeeping to open a small takeaway business somewhere in South London: Lily is the more savvy of the two but Mui has an aptitude for figures. Somehow they make it work with Chen happy to almost disappear behind the hatch in the kitchen.

What works less in Mo’s enjoyable novel is the parallel time spent with the Triads. Whilst Mo paints key characters with similar sympathetic traits, the detailed violence between rival gangs and the internecine struggles within the Hungs is sometimes too much. The sour of Sour Sweet comes too much to the forefront.

But Timothy Mo’s second novel is nevertheless something of a little gem. Shortlisted for the 1982 Booker Prize, it lost out to Thomas Keneally and Schindler’s Ark.

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.

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien

605302408Magisterial in its telling, Madeleine Thien’s novel is a mesmerising but tragic evocation of seven decades of contemporary Chinese history.

An accessible yet challenging narrative, Do Not Say We Have Nothing deftly weaves between generations and place as Li-ling, based in Canada, looks to understand events that led to her father’s tragic suicide at the age of 39. Having left his family, including the 10 year-old Li-ling, in Vancouver, Jiang Kai is found dead only a few days later in Hong Kong.

As Li-ling looks for answers many years after her father’s death, a sprawling narrative unfolds of China under Chairman Mao and the struggle for power after his death. The impact of revolution and counter-revolution on ordinary citizens – and Jiang Kai and his circle of friends and peers at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in particular – is lyrically and movingly portrayed.

Incorporating ancient Chinese mythology, folk tales, everyday events and unfolding politics emanating out of Beijing, a litany of memorable characters populate the novel – Sparrow, Wen the Dreamer and his wife, Swirl, Big Mother, Zhuli, Ai-Ming, Yiwan, Kai himself – as their stories and histories interweave.

Central to the novel is Sparrow, a young and brilliant composer, teacher to Kai at the Conservatory. It is through his family that we travel through the decades and witness the destruction of family, dreams and idealism as revolutionaries become accused of counter-revolutionary views, as music becomes marginalised and censored, as political criticism results in denouncement and death.

Yet in spite of the terrible hardships and separations, humanity shines through as the ties that bind overcome the grief and suffering inflicted upon generations of Chinese. Sparrow and his family continue to eke out a living, even after the music they love becomes cause for persecution (at one stage every piano in China is destroyed) and family members are reassigned across the country according to the demands of labour.

Fiction and history blur in this epic story that is at once enchanting and informative, delicate and profound, tragic but uplifting. One to savour – I spent more than three weeks reading this powerful 460 page opus.

Shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize, Do Not Say We Have Nothing lost out to Paul Beatty and The Sellout.

‘Quarantine’ by Jim Crace

quarantineThe story of Christ in the wilderness for forty days is hardly an obvious subject for a known atheist. But that’s exactly what Quarantine is – award-winning Jim Crace’s fifth novel.

Only Christ is one of a handful of characters who have travelled to live, temporarily, on the edge, looking for guidance and to secure resolution and transcendence in what Crace is presenting as a godless universe. But they have the misfortune of stumbling across Musa. A successful nomadic merchant left for dead by his companions, with only his young pregnant wife to care for him until his last breath, Musa survives (much to the chagrin of Miri).

Ever the entrepreneur, the odious Musa convinces the travellers that they are on his land – and must therefore pay rent for the caves they look to fast and find some kind of spiritual guidance. And food, water, home comforts are all available – at a price.

The metaphoric satanic Musa is very much centre stage of Crace’s short novel. Jesus is an enigmatic, almost ethereal character – in choosing the most inaccessible and distant cave, he is as remote as the landscape they have all chosen to meditate and commune with God. Unlike the others, who meet as the sun sets to break their fast, Jesus stoically continues, plagued by hallucinations and teetering towards madness, devoid of water and food for forty days.

A retelling of a familiar story – or at least its humanising: the unendurable suffering of a fast in such inhospitable environs; the need by Marta, looking to become fertile, for some home comforts in her cave; the ever-opportunistic Musa turning everything to his advantage. And, hardly surprising for an atheist, a Jesus who seems to have no divine origin but is simply a craftsman who takes religious instruction a great deal more seriously than his contemporaries.

Quarantine is a beautifully told, spellbinding narrative, its hallucinatory realism interlaced with humour and menace. The wilderness rendered in almost obsessive poetic detail: the beguiling master of words, Musa, a lecherous bully who, we know, will always land on his feet: a secular telling of a biblical story.

Shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize, Quarantine was reportedly the runner-up to the winner, Arundhati Roy and The God of Small Things.

 

‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith

28446947._UY1200_SS1200_My first experience of the award-laden Ali Smith – and I must admit I’m not totally sure what I have just read.

Is it the story of Elisabeth? Or is it the story of the 101 year-old Daniel Gluck, currently in a coma but where his dreams involve him as a fit, handsome young man? The two are former neighbours who struck up a friendship in spite of the enormous age difference (almost 70 years) between them. It is due to Daniel’s influence that Elisabeth is a junior lecturer in art history.

Is Autumn a story of history? Of memory? A socio-political, post-Brexit commentary? Past, present, future – Smith takes us on an ever-evolving journey as events of the past reflect in some way on the present (and therefore the future). There’s a sense of hopelessness and a lack of any sense of direction as Elisabeth sits by the bedside of Daniel. His non-responsiveness to external stimuli allows her to reflect on moments from her childhood.

But Smith’s latest is not a simple narrative of memory and recall. Her prose is not that straightforward!

In a time-fractured narrative, Elisabeth’s day-to-day experiences are interspersed with Daniel’s own fleeting memories of 1930s Germany and the Profumo sex scandal in 1960s Britain involving government ministers. A side-story is that of little known pioneer British Pop Artist, Pauline Boty, who died tragically young at the age of 25. The result is an expansive meditation on turning points in history – Profumo led to the ruling Conservative government losing the 1964 election, 1930s Germany saw the rise of fascism in Europe whilst Brexit has lead to massive schisms in British society.

Yet, for all its expansiveness and inventiveness, capturing the zeitgeist of current British world of uncertainty and inwardness, Autumn fails to engage. Its lack of coherency undermines its sensibility and Smith’s storytelling acumen. Her prose is, at times, beautifully written and deeply profound, but at other times deliberately obscure and pretentious – the literary equivalent of an art-house film. Argument is that life is hardly coherent, a maze through which we travel.

Autumn was shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize (Smith’s fourth nomination) but lost out to American writer George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo.

‘The Hiding Place’ by Trezza Azzopardi

268016A debut novel, The Hiding Place is a memoir-like narrative as the adult Dolores returns to her childhood home following the death of her mother, Mary. It’s been many years since Dol was last in the much-changed Tiger Bay, Cardiff, the scene of extensive emotional and physical abuse within the family.

Fostered out when a mere five years old, Dol’s memories come flooding back as she wanders through the dilapidated terrace house, hemmed in by the semi-derelict neighbourhood. Five sisters; the handsome, debonair father; a beautiful but overtly nervous Mary – all consigned to history until today.

But many of Dol’s memories are unreliable, viewed from the perspective of the youngest child. As her sisters slowly appear in readiness for the funeral, so truths and altered memories are triggered. The change in perspective brings shattering realisations to Dol.

Disfigured by fire as a baby, abandoned by the serial gambler of a father who loses the family livelihood in a card game, ultimately abandoned by the mother as she dips in and out of sanity, Dolores looks back at a childhood of grim poverty and few opportunities. Instead of love and warmth, family life offered fear and reprisals, uncertainty and pain, hunger and neglect. The grimy 1960s dockside setting of Tiger Bay added to the desolation and sense of isolation.

It’s a disturbing tale of the gradual disintegration of the troubled Gauci family mirrored by the slow demolition of the city’s slums. Evocative in its telling, the girls are forced to navigate their lives and the irresponsibility of their parents. Yet it is only as an adult that Dol realises that the common experiences of her memories are not necessarily shared.

Much lauded on release, The Hiding Place was shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize. A recent creative writing graduate, Trezza Azzopardi was sitting alongside the likes of Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro on that list. Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was presented with the award.