‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

besidesReadable it may be, interspersed with the occasional provocative wit, but overall, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves left me cold and unengaged.

Rosemary Cooke (our narrator) has a sister. Or did. Fern disappeared from the family around Rosemary’s fifth birthday. And to add to the childhood trauma of loss, her older brother Lowell walked out of the family home in Indiana seven years later – and hasn’t been seen since (although news of his whereabouts occasionally filters through). Now a college student in Davis, California (the place of Lowell’s last reported sighting), a lonely Rosemary grieves for her lost siblings. Only it transpires that Fern was a chimpanzee (apologies for the spoiler).

Inspired by real-life experiments dating from the 1930s onwards, the family ‘twin‑sisterhood’ was part of an experiment conducted  by her psychologist father for five years before being abruptly terminated. Just why never becomes completely clear until towards the end of Fowler’s novel. It’s Rosemary’s culpability (or at least her belief of it) that forms the core – a motormouth child who now prefers silence as an adult and who remembers only snatches of her earlier formative years. But then a simian upbringing is likely to silence most discussions with peers!

Psychology theories abound in Fowler’s book (transpires her father was a professor of psychology in Indiana) as Rosemary looks to justifications and answers. And she is constantly looking for answers. But those answers are in her past.

What starts out as a traditional family narrative soon becomes anything but. And whilst the dysfunctional family is well written, it soon becomes overanalysed – as does the message regarding animal lab testing. Ultimately, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves becomes a labouredrepetitive story as Rosemary looks to understand just what happened when she was five years old.

Shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize (the first year where American authors qualified for consideration), Karen Joy Fowler lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

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‘Our Fathers’ by Andrew O’Hagan

ourfathersA controlled, assured first novel, Our Fathers is an elegiac yet dark stroll down a Scottish memory lane. It’s 1960s Glasgow and the time of social reform and urban renewal. Out with the slums and in with the new – clean, modern, light-filled high rise tower blocks.

But 30 years later, the legendary Hugh Bawn is dying from cancer on the 18th floor of one of those same tower blocks he helped create. His grandson Jamie returns from England to watch over him  – and it is he who is Our Fathers narrator.

It’s a story of nationalism, socialism, alcoholism, pride and hopes – of three lives dictated and determined by the values and drive of one: Hugh ‘Mr Housing’ Bawn. He may be frail and dying in a flat where the lifts are constantly vandalised, but Hugh Bawn’s history is one of municipal principles and righteous politics. But it came at a cost – an alcoholic son who could never live up to expectations and who, in return, deeply traumatised and rejected his own son, Jamie. Even those same tower blocks, standing ‘proud as a Soviet gymnast’ are now being demolished, built as they were with substandard materials. And with them go the idealism and aspirations of the old working class socialist values.

Andrew O’Hagan is in the territory of writers such as Jack London and Robert Tressell,  with its overt celebration of social (socialist) working class realism. In writing almost a century later, however, Hagan records the loss of much of its associated idealism (it’s no coincidence that Jamie has moved to England and is a demolitions expert – both anathema to his grandfather).

But in looking to that recording of social realism, O’Hagan misses a crucial element to his narrative – emotional empathy. Consequently, whilst Our Fathers is an informative construction with rich prose and savvy dialogue, the heart yearned for a little more emotion and less emotional detachment.

Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, Our Fathers lost out to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.

 

‘Disgrace’ by J. M. Coetzee

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

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

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

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

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

 

‘Family Matters’ by Rohinton Mistry

family-mattersSadly, Rohinton Mistry has only written three novels – with Family Matters, written in 2002, the last. All three have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (although none won the coveted award) and garlanded with awards and prizes.

A domestic drama, in Family Matters Mistry takes us once more into the realms of Parsi culture and traditions as the Vakeel and Chenoy families struggle to eke out a living in modern-day Bombay/ Mumbai.

Patriarch Nariman Vakeel, already 79 and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, breaks his ankle and finds himself wholly dependent upon his unmarried stepchildren, Coomy and Jal. A spacious apartment aside, the two struggle to tend to his physical needs. Blaming him for the early death of their mother, Coomy in particular is resentful and bitter towards her ageing stepfather. She plots with her brother to move the responsibility of looking after the invalid onto his daughter, Roxanna, and her family.

A former lecturer of English, the irony of his position is not lost on Nariman as he compares his situation to that of King Lear. Cast out by his stepchildren having signed over the property into their names many years previously, he is forced to take solace at the home of his youngest child.

Roxanna and her husband Yezad Chenoy live with their two young sons in a cramped, two-room flat. For Murad and Jehangir, the arrival of their grandfather is an adventure. But his arrival puts a strain, both emotionally and financially, on their parents.

As with his earlier novels, Mistry is a magical storyteller, finding beauty, humour, tension and compassion in the mundane and the everyday. The world of the Chenoys and the streets of Bombay come to life; the decay of the family and those same streets evocatively captured; the tenderness unsentimentally portrayed. And whilst Family Matters does not achieve the dizzy heights of the magnificent A Fine Balance (the italicised backstory of a younger Nariman and his love for the non-Parsi Lucy is surprisingly pedestrian and undermines the impact of Mistry’s third novel), it remains a wonderful accomplishment.

Family Matters was nominated for the 2002 Booker Prize but lost out to Yann Martel and Life of Pi.

‘Elmet’ by Fiona Mozley

elmet-1A brutal debut, Fiona Mozley’s novel is as bleak as the legend of the Yorkshire countryside in which it is set.

Life on the margins as a young Daniel – our narrator – heads north in search of his sister, Cathy. His earlier, rural life with Daddy and elder sibling has come crashing down amid violence, anger and a terrible vengeance.

It’s a dark tale beautifully wrought, a British gothic simultaneously pastoral and fraught with a sense of foreboding. The fiercely loyal trio eke out a living in a home built for them in the woods by Daddy apart from the village. He wanted to strengthen us against the dark things in the world. The more we knew of it, the better we would be prepared. And yet there was nothing of the world in our lives, only stories of it. They forage and hunt interspersed with periods of plenty. A huge, fierce man full of simmering anger, the father is a much-sought undefeated bare-knuckle prizefighter.

Elmet is fierce and biting, a family saga interspersed with periods of incredible violence. A semi-squatter on the land that is Elmet, they are inevitably drawn into the greed and corruption of the local landowners and landlord farmers. As outsiders, the family is ostracised and, to some extent, feared – imagined threats founded in nothing more than his physical presence. Cathy is like her father, driven by anger and a sense of justice and family loyalty; Daniel is like his (absent) mother. It is he who keeps house.

Lyrical and visual, Mozley’s prose beautifully captures the ‘badlands’ of the poetry of Ted Hughes’ Elmet (Yorkshire’s West Riding) and its ancient mythical legend. The narrative veers dangerously close to melodrama towards the end but nevertheless Elmet is a powerful debut novel.

Fiona Mozley was shortlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize but lost out to American author George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo.

 

‘The Comfort of Strangers’ by Ian McEwan

comfortSpare, detached prose adds to the tension in McEwan’s enigmatic narrative. The question remains – just why did Colin and Mary return to the apartment they knew was fraught with danger?

In the unnamed Venice, the beautiful couple holiday. But this is no carefree period of desperate sightseeing and gastronomic pleasures.

For the two, together for seven years, it is an insular experience: sleeping late, talking, arguing, making love, spending only short periods away from the security of the hotel room. It is on one such occasion, leaving the hotel late, lost in the myriad of the city’s side streets, discovering restaurants closed, that they stumble across the charismatic Robert. It is a meeting that alters their futures and their destinies.

From the outset, there is a sense of foreboding. Colin and Mary knew each other as much as themselves, and their intimacy, rather like too many suitcases, was a matter of personal concern. They appear bored. And along comes Robert. No matter how threatening, no matter how much they do not want to see him (and, later, his overtly submissive wife, Caroline), opposites somehow attract. Mary and Colin are hooked and are drawn into his power and obsessions.

The Comfort of Strangers is a beautifully written (second) novel. But it is also a disturbing and chilling one. Sensibly, it is short (120 pages), stripped of description, emotive in unnerving suggestion.

Shortlisted for the 1981 Booker Prize, it lost out to Salman Rushdie and Midnight’s Children.

 

‘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.

‘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.