‘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.

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‘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.

 

‘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.

 

 

‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan

Atonement_(novel)A young girl’s imagination and a momentary lapse of judgement contribute to a momentous change of lives.

The hottest day of the summer of 1935 and, as Europe slips closer and closer to war, so Briony witnesses a series of events in the family home that, as a sheltered 13 year-old, she does not understand. By adding two and two to make five, she sets in motion a series of events that by the end of the day sees the unravelling of her privileged world and the arrest of young Robbie Turner, gardener and unofficially adopted member of the Tallis family.

Ian McEwan’s masterpiece is an enthralling yet devastating read as Turner, set for a medical career via study at Edinburgh University (paid for by Tallis senior) instead finds himself imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. But Cecilia, Briony’s older sister, is also a victim as she leaves home appalled by her family’s unquestioning acceptance of Robbie’s guilt.

Atonement is the story of a girl emotionally trapped between childhood and womanhood who spends her lifetime shamed by that one day’s interpretation of what she saw. Not allowed to question her certainty by adults once she has set the train of events in motion, it takes several years for Briony, with all the main characters long dead, to fully come to terms with her actions and achieve a degree of atonement.

As a child, Briony needed to be in control – “… she was one of those children possessed by a desire to have the world just so.” She needs to stamp her version of events on the gathered adults, to be unquestioning in the telling of who and what she saw. Accusing Robbie in the way she does leads the reader to judge her and her interpretation. But she is still only a child: an innocent abroad in an adult world where events are beyond her full comprehension. It’s this world that takes over, allowing Briony no possible respite or real reflection – or to understand the repercussions.

But Atonement is also the story of love, country, class and war – the England of old where everyone and everything had its place. For some members of the family, Robbie was guilty by default and who was, according to the matriarch, no more than a ‘hobby’ of Mr Tallis. His fall from grace is pretty swift once accused – he may be incorporated into the family, but he’s still a low-born outsider. Emily Tallis had likely deduced a great deal more of the events of the tragic night but chose to remain silent, involving as it did the wealthy guest, Paul Marshall. Even Cecilia, without any evidence, places blame on the handyman’s son.

Parts two and three move the story into the early months of the war and, specifically for Robbie, having enlisted, the retreat across northern France to the Dunkirk beaches (in itself, part two is an extraordinary achievement). Cecilia, a nurse, has cut herself off from her family. Briony is following in her sister’s footsteps and is in training in London. It is only now Briony can recognise events for what they were – but the damage has been done.

There are more twists to the story – and the atonement at the end is unexpected. But it is, to my mind, the weakness of McEwan’s deeply moving novel. The desperate loneliness and separation of Robbie from Cecilia, the practicalities of his survival in spite of his injuries in France, the sadness and deep shame pervading everything Briony undertakes along with the ‘English country house’ part one which captures so much of privilege and carefree existence of a world about to radically change.

Atonement, regarded as McEwan’s best, was nominated for the 2001 Booker Prize but lost out to Peter Carey and True History of the Kelly Gang.

 

 

 

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.

‘Reading in the Dark’ by Seamus Deane

imagesIrish poet and academic Seamus Deane’s evocative novel is a masterfully told story of childhood, a fragment of the ordinary within the extraordinary – an unnamed boy growing up catholic in sectarian Derry in Northern Ireland in the late 1940s/early 1950s.

Violence, sectarian division, prejudice are part of the everyday as friends, family, priests, teachers, police come and go through the family home in a working-class area of the city. It is the position of authority and power that is a central theme throughout Reading in the Dark, whether it is State, Church or family.

But Deane choses not to overly dwell on the mundane day-to-day – his main focus is the boy’s discovery of the family secret. Living close to the border within a nationalist family and with an uncle (Eddie, his father’s older brother) having disappeared many years earlier, it’s unquestionably political, involves a number of people within the close-knit catholic neighbourhood and is therefore safer left unsaid.

The death of his maternal grandfather provides our narrator with more than an insight into the secret, so much so that it drives an emotional wedge between him and his parents. He’s aware his mother has been told the full story. Burdened with the knowledge, she cannot speak of it, “So broken was my father’s family that it felt to me like a catastrophe you could live with only if you kept it quiet, let it die down of its own accord like a dangerous fire.”

It’s a vibrant tale, a fine story of growing up in post World War II told in short, staccato chronological episodes each with minimalist, precise titles (‘Mother’, ‘Sergeant Bourke’, ‘The Feud’). In this way Deane introduces significant key characters and important events, each adding to the bigger story.

It’s beautifully written with a surprising lightness of touch considering its subject matter. But as the story evolves and the narrator grows and his mother withdraws more and more into her own head, Reading in the Dark continues to slowly push in the knife to what is now an open wound. Derry itself is a dark place where trust is balanced on a knife-edge even within the family.

Tender and tough in turns, sensitive yet confronting, Reading in the Dark was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize but lost out to Graham Swift and Last Orders.

‘Schindler’s Ark’ by Thomas Keneally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Harvest’ by Jim Crace

91uzpBVPonLA lyrical beauty of a novel, Jim Crace’s meditation on a quintessentially medieval rural England is elegiac yet powerful and politically resonant in today’s climate.

Social change is thrust upon a small isolated hamlet, two days ride from its nearest village, a place so insignificant that no church dominates its laneways. The arrival of a trio of outsiders is a catalyst to the complete breakdown within seven days of a way-of-life little changed in generations. In erecting four rough and ready walls as a shelter and lighting a fire on common ground, custom and law gives the strangers the right to stay.

Not that are particularly welcome – their arrival coincides with another fire – that of the dovecote and stables of Master Kent, the young, kindly lord of the manor.

Our narrator, Walter Thirsk, deduces who is to blame for that particular inferno. But as an outsider himself, resident only for 10 or so years, he keeps his views to himself. It’s not done apportioning blame on neighbours within such a close-knit community. The new arrivals are duly accused for the fire with the two men clapped in the stocks, the young woman shorn of hair.

Just seven days later, having celebrated the harvesting of the barley, Kent finds himself replaced as the local lord by a superior blood claim to his title by the cruel and ambitious Master Jordan; plans to replace the cropping of the land with the more economical farming of sheep are drawn up; one of the men clapped in the stocks is dead; accusations of witchcraft and murder see Jordan oversee trials by torture: superstitions and suspicion undermine community and family ties and, fearful of repercussions from Jordan and his henchmen, the population has fled, the hamlet abandoned. As the novel draws to its close, only Walter remains. Yet, in spite of having gained the trust of the new lord, he himself has no intention of staying.

Harvest is beautifully written. In spite of the level of events unfolding, this is no breathless potboiler. Crace is meticulous in his wording and phrasing – in its intimacy, his love of words and language is deeply apparent. He succeeds in transporting his reader to the hedgerows of the country lanes, the final evening celebrations of the harvest, the inhumanity of the stocks. It’s a paean to its way-of-life and the time when the sheaf is giving way to sheep, where subsistence agriculture was replaced by profitable wool production: the peasant farmers and communities were dispossessed and displaced. A contemporary resonance.

Jim Crace’s reportedly last novel was awarded the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize, but lost out to New Zealander Eleanor Catton and The Luminaries.

 

 

‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood

catseyeFew authors can write about the everyday merged with significant life events in such an erudite, engaging manner as Canadian Margaret Atwood.

Successful painter Elaine Risley, on returning to Toronto for the first time in many years to attend a major retrospective of her work, reflects on her post-war childhood. But this is no nostalgic trip down memory lane. The fact is that I hate this city. I’ve hated it so long I can hardly remember feeling any other way about it…. I live [now] in British Columbia, which is as far away from Toronto as I could get without drowning.

Bitter memories crowd her thoughts as a peripatetic childhood travelling round Canada with her parents and brother comes to an end as the family move into a new Toronto suburb. Risley senior, an entomologist, has given up researching various bugs in their natural habitat and accepted a lecturing position.

New home, new school for the Risley kids. And Elaine suddenly discovers what’s defined as normal behaviour for a young suburban eight year-old girl. But a year of being best friends with Grace and Carol changes with the arrival of Cordelia.

The dynamics of the group shifts – in her innocence and lack of awareness of the ‘rules’, Elaine does not recognise the cruelty of the three. A psychological pattern of behaviour is established that is to profoundly affect her perceptions of relationships and her world. It is only years later that Elaine is able to come to terms with a level of understanding – and much of this understanding is achieved through her art. But even now, on her return to Toronto, Elaine still hopes (and partially needs) to see Cordelia and gain her approval – in spite of the fact it has been twenty/thirty or so years since the two ‘friends’ last met. “She wants to help me, they all do. They are my friends… I have never had any before and I’m terrified of losing them. I want to please.” But this mourning for her past – including contact with John, her first husband – wandering the changed city streets provides a level of closure.

Interestingly, for a story that revolves around the psychological bullying and mental abuse of a young girl, the unfolding of these events takes up a remarkably short part of Atwood’s novel. But it is the long-term impact that is explored. Years later, Elaine’s mother voices recognition of the cruelty of her friends, although she identifies Carol as the main perpetrator.

Cat’s Eye is a profoundly moving, exquisite character study, tender in the ebb and flow of its memories. Moderately happy, there is an air of melancholia around Elaine, although even she herself identifies that she is not always the victim. “It disturbs me to learn I have hurt someone unintentionally. I want all my hurts to be intentional.”

Margaret Atwood’s seventh novel (it followed The Handmaid’s Tale), Cat’s Eye was shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize but lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day.

 

 

‘In Custody’ by Anita Desai

71qai7hvu+LAnita Desai’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel is possibly the most frustrating reads I have had the misfortune of encountering in a very long time. To say I disliked it is a complete understatement.

A craven, weak-willed, poorly-paid lecturer of Hindi at a northern Indian city outside of Delhi, Deven is an infuriating metaphor for the downtrodden everyman, constrained by his lowly station and limited opportunities in life.

When Deven is offered the opportunity by a former schoolfriend to interview Nur, the greatest living poet in the Urdu language, he grasps at it, daring to dream of publication and escape from the ‘stagnant backwaters’ of Mirpore. Although a dying language in India since Independence, to Deven it is the lyrical language of poetry and a memory of the literary aspirations of his long-deceased father. But it’s Deven’s timidity and inertia that proves such an undertaking as a disaster.

Populated by a series of unseemly, grasping individuals, In Custody is unpleasant throughout. There is little love in Deven’s marriage to Sarla and everyone encountered takes advantage of him – whether it is the ageing, alcoholic Nur, himself trapped by acolytes and hangers-on, the publishing-school friend, Murad or fellow lecturer Mr Siddiqui.

Bills mount as he tries to follow his dream, but instead of interviews and recitals, demands for rum, biriyani, kebabs, room rental, tape recording purchases arrive. But, ever the eternal victim, at no point do we witness a proactive Deven vaguely attempt to turn things to his advantage (however slight). His obsequiousness towards the hero-worshipped poet over the course of the (thankfully) short novel wears the patience.

There is a great deal of symbolism within Desai’s writing, some of it more obvious than others. The title itself is indicative of the lives of all the characters: each is entrapped, imprisoned, held captive. And, to the initiated, political commentary is likely, touching as it does on linguistic, political and cultural issues. But that does not alter the fact that In Custody is an infuriating and unlikeable read.

Anita Desai was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize but lost out to Anita Brookner and Hotel du Lac.