‘The Dark Room’ by Rachel Seiffert

The stories of three ordinary Germans and how war – and World War II in particular – impacts on their lives forms the basis of Rachel Seiffert’s debut novel.

Born with a non-serious congenital condition – a missing muscle in his chest – Helmut is a boy who is sidelined by sport-playing schoolfriends and, as a young adult, is unable to join the German army at the outbreak of war. Instead, an embarrassment to his working-class, Nazi party member parents, Helmut stalks the streets as a photographer, documenting the slow depopulation of Berlin.

Lore is a young teenage girl given the responsibility of taking her siblings across a Germany decimated by war and zoned by the Allies. With parents arrested as senior members of the Nazi party, Lore needs to keep heads low and find a way from Bavaria to the northern port of Hamburg and the home of her grandmother.

The longest story is that of Micha who, in 1997, researches the role his beloved grandfather, Opa, played as a Waffen SS member stationed in a small Belorussian village. Alienating his family in the process, travelling alone to the village on three separate occasions, Micha becomes obsessed with the need to identify and face the truths of the past.

The Dark Room is a fascinating, if somewhat uneven, exploration of guilt, innocence, truth and morality. He never fires a shot, but how culpable is the patriotic Helmut? Micha meets Jozef in Belarus, a collaborator who did not believe the anti-Semitic propaganda even as he murdered Jews – it was simply ‘a lie that made sense.’ For him, 40 years later, there is no point where apologising can bring redemption, such is the gravity of his actions. In the strongest narrative, as Lore finally arrives with her siblings in an almost unrecognisable Hamburg, it is the grandmother who asks her young charges not to judge their parents. ‘They are good people. They did nothing wrong.’ Micha would strongly disagree with such a comment 40 years later.

Deceptively simple in style, The Dark Room is a provocative read that was shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize – but which lost out to Peter Carey and True History of the Kelly Gang.

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‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns

Sometimes brilliant, more often than not infuriating, the 2018 Booker Prize-winning novel by Anna Burns is a polarising experience. It took me some eight months to read it – and, four months in, wished I had heeded the advice of a friend who suggested the audio version and for it to be treated as a staged monologue.

Essentially a stream of consciousness from an 18 year-old woman living during the sectarian ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, our narrator uses few names as she expounds and expands on daily life in a run down catholic Belfast neighbourhood. In her attempt to distance herself from the politics of the area – or at least not become attached – she (we only ever never know her as middle sister or maybe-girlfriend) finds herself isolated and misunderstood by those around her. When Milkman – a married man and leading paramilitary – introduces himself uninvited into her life, by default to the gossips she becomes his property. Even her own ma believes middle-sister as thrown herself at Milkman and thus ruined her reputation.

Milkman is a battle from the outset. As a stream of consciousness and uncertainty, the same thought can be questioned, challenged, opined, regurgitated over pages – and made even more infuriating by not naming names. An obtuse shorthand results in the right or wrong religion; renouncers and defenders of the State; our side of the road and the other side of the road; over the border and over the water. Family members become oldest sister, wee sisters (the triplets), brother-in-law number 3, non-family members are referred to as Maybe-Boyfriend, Somebody McSomebody, Longest Friend and so on. In an attempt to distance the events from the specifics of Northern Ireland and suggest the impact of other experiences, societies and environs, Anna Burns creates a distance, an emotional void to the events unfolding.

The novel is unquestionably an astute account of Northern Ireland’s social landscape of the 1970s, of a divided and untrusting community and based on the author’s own experiences. It is, at times, enigmatic, beguiling and, occasionally, funny. Yet, for all that, it’s a meandering, repetitive slog.

‘The Butcher Boy’ by Patrick McCabe

As his troubled family life collapses around him, young Francie Brady retreats into a world of make-belief and violent fantasy.

Set in small-town Ireland in the 1960s, Patrick McCabe’s grim tragicomedy of madness and abuse sees the emotional breakdown of a young boy as he struggles to differentiate between fact and fiction. With an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother committed to an institution, home life is violent, abusive and unstable. His friendship with Joe is the only stabilising part of his life. But as Francie becomes more and more unhinged, even Joe disowns him.

The focus for Francie’s violent and crazed fantasies is Mrs Nugent, the posh, judgmental, recently-arrived-from-England neighbour. A brash and defiant Francie stands up to her – leading to an institution for himself, where one of the priests abuses him but where he is also befriended by the ex-IRA gardener.

The Butcher Boy is a rollercoaster ride, ultimately unpleasant as Francie slips more and more into crazed madness. From the outset, we have an indication of what we’re in for – the opening page sees Francie in hiding on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent. All is revealed over the course of the relatively short but dense novel.

It’s Francie himself who is the narrator of what is essentially an allegory for the relationship between Ireland and England and the effects of the long colonial history between the two countries. But this is no agit-prop prophesising tome – The Butcher Boy is a deeply personal, surprisingly compassionate tale of madness, violence and loyalty. It’s just not a very pleasant or easy read.

Shortlisted for the 1992 Booker Prize, Patrick McCabe’s Irish Times-Aer Lingus Prize for fiction winning novel lost out to the joint winning The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje) and Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth.

‘J’ by Howard Jacobson

A momentous catastrophe from the past shrouds an unconventional love story between two people, neither of whom ultimately knows who they actually are and where they came from. What Happened, If It Happened is of such dystopian magnitude that both Kevern and Ailinn survive in the small seaside town of Port Reuben where questions are rarely asked (and answers even rarer) and the past is just that – in the past. It’s a landscape where family histories have been erased, names changed, travel almost non-existent and undesirable art, music and books “not banned – nothing was banned exactly – simply not played. Encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude. Popular taste did what edict and proscription could never have done…” Art is therefore landscape painting, books predominantly romances and cookbooks whilst jazz has almost disappeared.

Meeting and falling in love with Ailinn opens Kevern’s world to increasing scrutiny. But it also results in the pair increasingly scrutinised. In spite of being born in Port Reuben, Kevern remains an outsider where immediate histories are remembered; it’s a place where his father would never say the letter j, choosing to place two fingers to his lips; it’s a place where the two lovers find their lives more and more intolerable.

That’s essentially the linear plot of J. But J is anything but linear. Complex, non-linear, Orwellian, theoretical, philosophical interjected with Jacobson’s wit and exploration of Jewish identity slowly reveals the depth of What Happened, If It Happened. J may be the first letter of jazz. But it’s also the first letter of a word never mentioned in the novel. Yet the symbolism of What Happened, If It Happened is unavoidable.Whilst never discussed in detail and clouded in mystery, with a large number of the population doubting that it actually happened – it’s strongly implied that it was a massive pogrom, a second (or in the scope of Jacobson’s novel, first) Holocaust.

Although interspersed with humour, J is bleak and disquieting. And it’s no easy read – there’s more than a hint of Jacobson exploring the idea (perverse though it may sound) of the need for anti-Semitism: What Happened, If It Happened is a cyclical “equipoise of hate”. The deeply hidden sense of ‘other’ needs to be rooted out and allowed to flourish in order for it to start all over again.

Shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize, Howard Jacobson lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

‘The Northern Clemency’ by Philip Hensher

An epic tale of northern England in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Philip Hensher’s 700+ pages is a state-of-the-nation narrative with very little input by the very events determining that state of the nation. 

Opening in 1974 in a white-collar street in a white-collar suburb in the industrial city of Sheffield, The Northern Clemency primarily looks to the Glover family to drive its narrative, assisted by the newly arrived Sellers family, who have upped sticks from London and taken the unusual step of heading north. We follow these two families over the next 20 years.

It’s the time of massive social upheaval in Britain, the years of Thatcherism, privatisation, the yearlong miner’s strike. Yet, so little makes it to the pages of Hensher’s novel: and there’s even less analysis. Admittedly, Daniel (the eldest Glover child) eventually partners Helen, daughter of a miner: Tim (youngest Glover) is a Trotskyite activist who baits management-level Mr Glover (building society) and Mr Sellers (electricity board). But it’s all so extraordinarily superficial – even Helen’s father is a non-supporter of the strike, a very small minority of the National Union of Miners. What makes the lack of any commentary even more puzzling is the fact that the novel is set in Sheffield, one of the most politically militant anti-Thatcher cities at the time.

The result is that the disappointing The Northern Clemency reads like a script for a television soap opera made in the 1970s. There’s the occasional melodrama (Mrs Glover working part-time at a new, fancy florist that turns out to be laundering drug money and the subsequent court appearance years after she quit work: the stroke that poleaxes Mrs Sellers only a few months after her husband takes early retirement) and lots of minor, neighbourly events – births, deaths (but surprisingly no marriages) alongside friendships developed. And, as the northern industrial cities decline, so the kids mostly move out – London calls, as does Sydney for Sandra Glover. 

Adroit it may be (to keep the attention for 700+ pages, it must have something going for it) but it left me yearning for more and less at the same time. Less about fish pies, coronation chicken and mushroom vol au vents, more about the city of Sheffield, the people who lived there and the political machinations that led to the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. 

Like all good soap operas, The Northern Clemencygrabs superficial interest. But the reality is that, like soap operas, it ultimately has little value. Hensher has chosen to tell it as it is (or at least how he remembers it – he was bought up in Sheffield from the age of nine having moved there from London) but with no depth of analysis. Everything just is. The Glovers and the Sellers simply move through their lives, whether it’s the 1970s, the 80s or the 90s (Hensher chooses to place his narrative in the 70s and the 90s, with the back story of the 80s told retrospectively).

The Northern Clemencywas shortlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize but lost out to Aravind Adiga and The White Tiger.


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.

‘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.

‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan

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

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

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

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

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


‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville

Loosely based on her own family heritage, Kate Grenville’s powerful novel of Australia’s past is at once vivid, imaginative and illuminating. It’s 1806: William Thornhill is deported for life to the penal colony of New South Wales. There he earns his freedom and settles with his family on a piece of land on the banks of what is now the Hawkesbury River. It’s an isolated piece of land, surrounded by only a few Europeans. But the land is not as empty as is assumed. 


Grenville is vivid in her description – whether it is the poverty, depredation and struggles of life in London for Will and Sal both as children and later as man and wife or the terrible inhumane scenes of carnage towards the end of the novel in the fight for dominance and ownership of the land. 


The first third of The Secret Riveris set in London and the first years of the Thornhills life in the penal colony. As a hardworking and trusted lighterman on the Thames, Will eked out a  life just above the poverty line for his family until a run of financial bad luck forced him to look for money illegally to support his wife and child. Theft from his employer saw him sentenced to death but this was commuted to life and transportation.


A savvy intelligence in both Will and Sal saw them prosper within the confines of the penal settlement and a hard-earned ticket of leave gave the family the opportunity to take on a lease on 200 acres of Hawkesbury River land, ‘the blank page on which a man might write a new life.’It’s this period that is the main focus of Grenville’s narrative.


The concept of ownership is assumed by Europeans to be determined by fences, buildings and obvious signs of crops or farming. Nomadic by nature, the indigenous people of the area (Dharug) come and go according to the seasons, living off the land. Clearing vegetation destroyed sources of food: fences denied access to ancient sites and freedom of movement. The Europeans failed to understand this ‘savage’ way of life – made worse by the fact the Dharug did not understand English no matter how loudly you shouted.


More experienced settlers and their propensity for violence make a more reasonable Will and Sal uneasy – but even they know that they need to make a success of their chosen lives. They cannot go backwards and decisions have to be made.  


It’s an intriguing if brutal telling of a fictional truth. Solomon Wiseman, Grenville’s great, great, great grandfather, is the inspiration for her research, a man who settled on land on the Hawkesbury (what is now Wiseman’s Ferry) having been transported for life for theft. In it’s telling, Grenville presents a more personalised European perspective than most, avoiding (controversially but, to my mind, appropriately) giving a voice to the indigenous people in her story – ‘Their inside story – their responses, their thoughts, their feelings – all that was for someone else to tell, someone who had the right to enter that world and the knowledge to do it properly.’

A seminal novel on the history of Australia since European settlement, The Secret Riverwas shortlisted for both the 2006 Booker Prize and Miles Franklin Award and collected the 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.  


‘Restoration’ by Rose Tremain

‘Erratic, immoderate, greedy, boastful and sad’ – so is the self-description at the beginning of Restoration by our seventeenth century hero, Robert Merivel. But Tremain herself admits that Merivel is as much a product of the 1980s (when the novel was written) as it is of the 1660s (when the novel is set).

Tremain talks of the climate of selfishness and material greed that began to prevail in the UK in the Thatcher years (and which has such contemporary currency with the ongoing Brexit saga). Restoration was her fictional response – set in the time of King Charles II and the frippery of the court, where personal gain and excess was positively encouraged (and generally rewarded) whilst the vast majority of the population continued their lives in penury and drudgery.

Robert Merivel is a dissolute medical student when an accident of fate leads him to the court. His sense of fun and humour wins favour with the king – to the point Charles bestows upon him a title (Sir Robert) and a house (Bidnold) in the county of Norfolk. But there’s a catch. Robert must not only marry Celia, the king’s favourite (and youngest) mistress, but he must never touch her. With the luxuries of a generous stipend, Bidnold itself and a preference for experienced, Rubenesque women (and the fact Celia will continue to live closer to London than Norfolk), Merivel readily accepts the conditional gift – and so begins a year of pure, unadulterated, indulgent luxury, ‘to hang the walls [of Bichnold] with ruched vermilion taffeta and Peking scrolls, to upholster my chairs in scarlet and carmine and gold’ and dress in the excess style of court – colour, flounces, wigs, facepowder. 

But reliant on favours and whims, it cannot last and Merivel finds himself cast out, without income, without home: and, as his marriage arrangements are public knowledge, something of a fool. But he is determined to win back the King’s favour.

To do so requires Merivel to dig deep, to attach himself to the dour Quaker livelihood of Pearce, his friend from Cambridge days, and the mental hospital deep in the windswept Fens. Pearce has undertaken his commitment to the patients in ‘despair at the greed and selfishness of our age which he believed was like a disease or plague, to which hardly any were immune.’

Sounds familiar. 

Considering Rose Tremain is regarded as one of the UK’s most significant authors, Restoration is, surprisingly, her only book to make a Booker Prize shortlist (in 1989). She lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day