‘Elizabeth Finch’ by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes falls, personally, into an ought to read category. The accessible and enjoyable The Sense of an Ending and Arthur and George are balanced by the oft tried but failed miserably Flaubert’s Parrot and once attempted (30 years ago) A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. The latter failures come frequently to mind when considering whether or not to read a Barnes novel. Sadly, to that list will now be added his latest, Elizabeth Finch.

Taught, precise language along with an endeavour to make sense of things past and present run through his novels – and Elizabeth Finch is no different. Except unlike The Sense of an Ending, Barnes has managed to make a short book feel like a long one.

It starts off well enough as our narrator, Neil, actor, twice divorced and father of three, was once a student in a Culture and Civilisation adult education class taught by Elizabeth Finch. He becomes consumed by her, admitting I probably paid more attention to what she said and how she spoke than I did to anyone else in my life. It’s not sexual adoration but something much more cerebral Her diction was formal, her sentence structure entirely grammatical,” Neil gushes. “You could almost hear the commas, semicolons and full stops. His championing of her is accepted among the small group of fellow students, even if thought a little odd.

Long after the course has finished, Neil remains in contact with Elizabeth Finch – the occasional dinner at the same restaurant three or four times a year. But her sudden death puts paid to that, only for him to discover he has been left Elizabeth’s journals in her will. Now, he feels, is the time to really understand the woman who shook my mind around, made me constantly rethink. A biography is in the making. But instead, he decides on the ultimate tribute, To please the dead – a biographical essay of her ancient hero: Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome, who attempted to turn back the disastrous flood tide of Christianity.

And that, after 44 pages or so of Elizabeth Finch is where the interest moreorless stops. Barnes is at his cerebral best/worst. At first I thought Elizabeth Finch a Romantic pessimist; now I would call her a Romantic Stoic. Are the two conditions compatible? Really? What follows is a tedious history essay interspersed with the occasional tidbit of the unremarkable life of Elizabeth Finch. Sure, we know Barnes can write well – and mass consumption has never been his concern (Arthur and George possibly his closest to a populist novel). But this?

‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ by John le Carré

A modern classic and arguably John le Carré’s best, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy continues following the up and down career of George Smiley with the first in the trilogy featuring Karla, his Soviet counterpart.

le Carré’s expertise in the world of espionage creates a vivid insight into the machinations of the secret service, the at times painstakingly slow, chess-like moves that eventually (and hopefully) illicit responses and results. Smiley’s earlier fall from grace and enforced retirement owing to the death of Control and the ‘changing of the guard’ at the Circus would seemingly see the end of Smiley. But living up to the concept of the spy who came in from the cold, he is asked to return and help identify the mole within British intelligence. One thing is certain – whoever it is was planted by Moscow many years earlier and is a high ranking member of the service and a contemporary of Smiley.

With the young Peter Guillam assigned to support him, Smiley sifts and sorts, watches and questions, revisiting events that led to agent Jim Prideaux’s cover being blown just outside Prague that led to the revelation there was a mole at work.

It’s a very British scandal, riddled with complexities, rainy nights and old boy networks. What it’s not is a narrative of high volume confrontations and shoot outs. There’s a great deal at stake and the mole needs to be exposed and destroyed – but it can be done in a respectful, civilised way with plenty of tea poured and nervous conversations had about futures and the need to keep a lid on the level of exposure.

Booker Prize Shortlist: 2022

Opinions inevitably vary when it comes to placing preferences for one item above another (the Oscars, anyone?). Certainly no difference here as, having read all the books on the 2022 Booker Prize shortlist, the personal burning question is – did the judges make the right call?

Shortlisted books first:
Glory – NoViolet Bulowayo
The Trees – Percival Everett
Treacle Walker – Alan Garner
The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida – Shehan Karunatilaka
Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan
Oh William! – Elizabeth Strout

It’s a pretty consistent list although surprised that neither Young Mungo (Douglas Stuart, winner in 2020) nor To Paradise (Hanya Yanagihara) even made the longlist – and personally would have loved to see The Colony by Audrey Magee make the shortlist.

So what of the six – and did the judges make the right call in awarding the 2022 Booker Prize to Shehan Karunatilaka and The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida?

The last book on the list I read shores up the shortlist at the bottom of the pile. The final book of a trilogy, Oh William! is by far the weakest of the three as Elizabeth Strout continues to follow the narrative life story of Lucy Barton. It’s a pity as the first two made for great reading of a woman who came from nothing and Amgash, Illinois to become a successful writer.  Instead, whilst a tale eminently readable, Oh William! is not as commanding or engrossing as its predecessors. (60%)

At 87, Alan Garner became the oldest shortlisted author in the 60 years of the Booker Prize. An author from my childhood – the fantasies of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath rivalled the Narnia tales of C.S.Lewis as holiday and bedtime reading – Treacle Walker is a playful and luminous novella on the art of storytelling and a beautifully written, evocative fusion of a tale that is difficult to categorise. (62%)

Two down and four to go – and interestingly, to my mind there’s very little between them – but unlike the judges of the 2019 Booker Prize who presented a tie with Bernadine Evaristo (Girl, Woman, Other) and Margaret Atwood (The Testaments), a decision is to be made. So, being aware that the four are interchangeable according to the day read – fourth on the list is the eventual winner of the 2022 Booker Prize, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.

Mordantly funny, brimming with pathos, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida looks to explore and expose the carnage of Sri Lanka’s civil wars. Described as part ghost story, part whodunnit, part political satire, it’s a crazy ride as the story looks to identify the killers of acclaimed war photographer and narrator of the book, Maali Almeida. It’s a frenetic novel that is incisive, frustrating, funny, confusing and was lauded by the judges for its ambition in scope and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques. (70%)

Calm and reflective, Claire Keegan’s novella Small Things Like These is short in word count, morally visceral in impact. It places Ireland’s inhumane Magdalene Laundries under the microscope. Ostensibly a home for ‘fallen women’, the laundries in local Catholic convents were found throughout Ireland where the young women experienced everything from deprivation to abuse and death. Short and capacious, it is a deeply affecting debut novel. (71%)

Glory is the novel I thought would pick up the prize. A coruscating African Animal Farm, a commentary on global politics, a bitter yet, at times, incredibly and bitingly funny chorus against corrupt Zimbabwean politician Robert Mugabe, Glory is NoViolet Bulawayo’s follow up to her 2013 literary debut, We Need New Names. It’s an equally deeply political and social observation of life in Zimbabwe. But, in cloaking her world and her characters in the voices of animals, Bulawayo avoids potential tome-like overt political agitprop. Instead, she can call out and emphasise the absurdities of politics, both localised and global, and how the common people are impacted in an accessible energy of a novel. (72%)

But my preference falls on new-to-me American author, Percival Everett and The Trees. Everett has written more than 20 novels and was Pulitzer Prize shortlisted in 2020. But few of his books have made it outside the States. Comic masterpiece The Trees will change all that. A dark social satire that directly addresses racism past and present in a bold and shocking way, it also mixes in old-fashioned pulp fiction film noir storylines of murder. It’s a page-turning comic horror of a novel: it also topped the best of the 2022 Booker Prize list for me. (74%).

Yet although it was not my preferred choice, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, because of that ambition in scope and the hilarious audacity of its narrative techniques was arguably a good call to win the Booker in 2022. My jury is out on that one.

‘Best of Friends’ by Kamila Shamsie

A tale of identity (personal and political) and the ties of friendship over forty years, Best of Friends was surprisingly chosen as one of the best books of 2022 by, among others, The Guardian, The Observer and The Financial Times.

Told in a split time frame in two parts – 1988 Pakistan and present day London – Shamsie’s novel presents best friends Maryam and Zahra. As 14 year olds in Karachi, they are already besties of a decade and share a love for George Michael, a blooming curiosity in boys and a determination to be successful in their lives. For the wealthy Maryam, favoured over her father by the entrepreneurial grandfather, there is little question as to her road to success. The family leather business is hers for the taking. And in modern day Pakistan, with Benazir Bhutto poised to become the first female prime minister, Maryam’s future is not so absurd a prospect in the traditional male domain.

Zahra’s future is not so assured – but with a likely Cambridge scholarship on the cards, she can succeed through academic prowress and support from her comfortable middle-class parents – a cricket journalist and school principal.

With change in the air, the atmosphere in Karachi is electric. But a decision to attend a party results in the world of the two teenage girls changing forever.

Thirty years later, Maryam and Zahra remain friends but, now living in London, their lives failed to follow the expected path – certainly for Maryam. Packed off to boarding school in the UK shortly after the infamous incident at the party and the family business sold thereafter, Maryam’s path to success proved to be a little more arduous. But a success she is in the world of finance and startups. Zahra has also succeeded in the public sector and heads a London-based NGO. They remain friends, bound together by loyalties and shared memories of the past.

Two influential women both moving in the corridors of power. But when the past finally catches up with them, a rash decision by Zahra threatens the very basis of the women’s friendship.

Best of Friends is a fairly well written tale, but one full of safe platitudes. The reader is rarely allowed under the skin of the two protagonists – it’s more surface explanation than in-depth exploration. There’s little in terms of the gap between the two timeframes and why the two have remained friends. We’re simply told that that is the case. Considering Shamsie’s novel is exploring the very nature of friendship, we need more. Ultimately, Best of Friends is a disappointment: safe in a cosy, unchallenging way – even the reveal of Maryam’s sexuality and home life is a suburban extension of the novel’s underwhelming lack of tension.

‘No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy’ by Mark Hodkinson

Chances are many a working class British male of 55+ from north of Watford will in someway identify with Mark Hodkinson’s memoire of life in northern England in the 1970s (and beyond).

Born in Manchester but moved to the windswept Rochdale at the age of 10, Hodkinson was brought up in a house essentially devoid of books: there was one book – Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain – in the house, kept on the top of a wardrobe with other revered items such as his cycling proficiency certificate. But he became obsessed with reading – but much more than readily available comic books of Marvel and DC.

Yet Hodkinson was no bullied, bookish geek. An underachiever at school, the early days of punk and the burgeoning Manchester music scene of The Smiths, The Buzzcocks and the Hacienda Club appealed and led to the formation of The Monkey Run, a band that supported a number of high-profile headliners. Yet for Hodkinson it was always books first, even if music temporarily knocked it off centre stage. The early discovery of Camus and The Outsider was balanced with the more street savvy books such as Skinhead (Richard Allen): browsing second hand book shops or market stalls was counterpointed with record stores and the latest vinyl purchase.

No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy is very much a tale of time and place. Today, Hodkinson continues that love of literature – he became not only a working-class reader – as per the subtitle of this book – but also a working-class publisher and writer too, which makes him a very rare bird. (Andrew Martin, The Guardian). But he’s not the writer of kitchen-sink dramas, a genre read avidly in his late teens. Now living in Yorkshire (across the Pennines and not very far from Rochdale), he became an investigative and skilled journalist and author, having written for The Times for two decades, three years as a columnist. As a publisher, Hodkinson’s roots are apparent with his company Pomona looking to fiction, football, music, biography and memoir. Northern writers such as Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and Barry Hines feature, as do musicians Bill Nelson (Be-Bop Deluxe) and Stuart Murdoch (Belle & Sebastian).

It’s a list that reflects the social politics of Mark Hodkinson and No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy maps, in part, how he got there. There’s no talk of his journalism except the early years of starting out and his billeting in a Sheffield council house during a short journalism course. Hodkinson’s book sets his scene – the books that were part of his formative years, a grandfather who struggled with mental illness after a head injury and who frequently disappeared, his grandmother who struggled to cope. Ultimately, it’s a story about the north; but it is also about publishing, writing and music. Hodkinson has amassed some 3,500 books in his home, guilty of BABLE – Book Accumulation Beyond Life Expectancy. It makes him what he is – and it makes for engrossing reading.


‘The Exhibitionist’ by Charlotte Mendelson

The problem with Charlotte Mendelson’s novel is that it’s full of unlikeable characters: there’s hardly a glimmer of empatico throughout what is an acutely unpleasant weekend spent with the seriously dysfunctional Hanrahan family and associates.

A narcissistic egoist to rival all narcissistic egoists, Hanrahan patriarch Ray was a much lauded and in demand artist. But 20 or so years without an exhibition has left him a has-been, a man reliant on old glories. Problem is he, and adoring daughter Leah, are not aware of it. Thus the opening of his first exhibition in years with new work is to be a major event with the A-league of artists, gallerists, critics invited to the self-produced show at a converted North London trade hall. And the rest of the family are expected to be in attendance – no matter how inconvenient it is for Edinburgh-based youngest daughter, Jess or the large, crumbling home is overflowing with guests with no room to house them all.

Mendelson’s prose is intelligent, incisive and at times witty, perfectly capturing dysfunctionality, jealousies and misunderstandings within family relationships. But The Exhibitionist is extreme in exaggerated tropes, reliant as it in the acceptance of the personality cult of Ray and his control over the rest of his family.

We spend time in the lead up to the reveal and it’s a litany of horrors in the company of a monster. Placed in the invidious position of being a contemporary, much in-demand artist herself, wife Lucia has always sabotaged her career to place Ray first. So much so, Lucia has turned down numerous opportunities to eclipse her husband in terms of fame. The repercussions would be far far too great to contemplate. But now there’s a tantalising offer of enormous magnitude on the table that may be too tempting to resist. Add a passionate affair with female Hindi MP, Priya, whose star is also on the rise and Lucia, for once, may finally think about herself first.

Throw in an ex-wife, a hero-worshipping wannabe son-in-law who Jess is trying to escape from, a passive stepson from Lucia’s first marriage and family members begrudging what they see as the appropriation by Ray of the large, rambling family home and the scene is set for a weekend of middle-class family dramas. And what drama and the presentation of the minutiae of human behaviour it turns out to be.

‘Walking On Glass’ by Iain Banks

The second novel from Banks and following on from the mordant, gothic wit of The Wasp Factory, Walking On Glass is a very different proposition altogether. Three seemingly interdependent narratives, three different voices.

Set in pre-champagne socialist Islington and Clerkenwell in north London of the 1980s, art student Graham is in love. Naive, innocent, romantic, he has his heart set on Sara ffitch, recently divorced out of an abusive marriage. But it being Banks, even as Sara appears to respond to Graham’s interest, nothing is straightforward.

In the same Islington streets, a paranoid Steven Grout only just copes with the world around him. Constantly sacked from menial labour-intensive work, a wearer of hard hats to prevent gamarays affecting his thoughts, Grout is truly on the spectrum. His one joy is getting blindingly drunk.

And then, on a planet that transpires to be Earth in the distant future, a Banksian Gormenghast sees two elderly protagonists, Quiss and Ajayi, struggling with a captivity they desperately look to escape. Forced to provide the answer to the question What happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object?, the two must complete almost impossible board games (blank dominoes, Chinese scrabble) before being able to provide what they think is the right answer. Their quest is stretched out interminably with the ever-impatient Quiss using the downtime (Ajayi needs to learn Chinese in order to play the latest board game) to explore their imprisonment.

Three seemingly interdependent narratives, three different voices. Yet there is the inevitably of a collision of the three as alternate chapters explore the three stories. And that’s a fundamental problem with Walking On Glass, a novel that is disparate in its telling and somewhat dull – Graham is a dullard, Quiss a bully, Grout tedious. None of the three separate narratives are particularly engaging – although admittedly the full extent of Banks’ dark imagination was not expected in the full reveal of the love story. And the funnel that conjoins the tales is less than impressive. Whereas The Wasp Factory was full of cruelty, sadistic carnage – and deep, sardonic wit, Walking On Glass is a skip in the park, a suburban angst of little and unconvincing consequence. Sara is mean, Quiss potentially violent but it all feels pre-The Wasp Factory, that the reality being the Islington-set tales were written considerably earlier than the first novel.

‘Paradise’ by Abdulrazak Gurnah

A many-layered, misleadingly simple tale of a young boy growing up in east Africa on the cusp of World War I, Paradise is a compassionate, strikingly memorable novel from the Zanzibar-born Abdulrazak Gurnah as he quietly writes of people who are not normally heard.

Head-turningly beautiful, the teenage Yusuf finds himself as an unpaid servant to Aziz, a rich and powerful Arab merchant, in exchange for his father’s heavy debts. Even the arrival of the railway line to the isolated inland (fictional) town of Kawa cannot help turn the family-owned hotel into profit. Now living in an (unnamed but most likely Dar-es-Salaam) coastal port, a two day train journey from his home town, Yusuf works closely with the older, equally indentured Khalil in running the merchant’s shop and storerooms with the knowledge he will never see his family again.

From the simple life of rural Africa, Yusuf finds himself as a Muslim black African experiencing a precolonial urban East Africa on the cusp of change. The wealthy Aziz trades inland and along the coast, organising caravans into the interior for gold, ivory and animal skins, turning over considerable profits for himself and the Indian investors he partners with. But German interests encroach, upsetting the balance and freedom of movement with its increasing military presence. Yusuf finds himself on one such extended trading mission, journeying into the African interior to Lake Tanganyika and the dangerous encounters posed by humans and animals alike. But, gentle, intelligent and alert, the boy is favoured by Aziz as the expedition is confronted with ever increasing problems.

On return to the city, events transpire that lead Yusuf to the increasing awareness that for him (and Khalil) things would never change and, whilst seemingly benevolent, Aziz was the master of his enslavement. His beauty had placed him in a compromising position with both of the merchant’s wives: freedom and freedom of choice was not an option for the growing teenager. But then the German army arrives and with it, enforced conscription…

Paradise is a eminently readable melange of cross-cultural narratives reflecting the bustle of early 20th century East Africa with its centuries old Arab and Indian trading routes, and increasing European colonialism alongside the diversity of indigent black Africa. But Paradise is a coming-of-age tale – of Yusuf as he navigates his limited world to an awareness and self-realisation, of a blinkered Khalil who is grateful for the crumbs offered by his master. And with it comes that reader’s awareness (if needed) of what was to follow by Yusuf’s unexpected decision at the end of the novel.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s fourth novel was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize but lost out to James Kelman and How late it was, how late… Gurnah himself was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021.

‘Unsettled Ground’ by Claire Fuller

A rundown, unmodernised country cottage at the end of a track on the outskirts of the village. It’s been home for twins Jeanie and Julius for their entire lives. At 51, they still live with their mom, Dot. Dad was killed in a farming accident almost 40 years earlier, witnessed by both his children. Eking out a living from their garden and the occasional labouring job for Julius, theirs is a life of rural isolation and poverty.

But Claire Fuller’s enjoyable novel opens with the sudden death of Dot, a stroke striking her down in a pre-dawn kitchen. Jeanie and Julius must now find their own way in a world they (and Jeanie in particular) are not well equipped to deal with.

The cottage is the twins’ sanctuary. But with the death of Dot, everything changes. No insurance and debts pile up: the tin in the kitchen where the money is kept is as good as empty. Why did Dot borrow money with nothing to show for it? The electricity has been disconnected and it appears they are in arrears in the rent. Dot had always told them the cottage was theirs, rent-free, in exchange for their silence regarding the circumstances surrounding the death of their father. But now they learn they owe a consierable amount of money they do not have.

Unsettled Ground is an emotive tale of betrayal and determination, of life on the margins as Jeanie looks to overcome the disadvantages whilst Julius is torn between escape and a responsibility to a struggling sibling. It’s resilient and powerful, beautifully written by Fuller that draws you into the oddball world of the twins. The small town mentality of the village is expertly captured as secrets unbeknownst to them are common knowledge to the likes of Bridget, doctor’s receptionist, best friend to Dot and a well-meaning busybody.

A powerful tale of survival, Unsettled Ground, winner of the 2021 Costa Book of the Year, slowly unfolds its many connected narratives to reveal the richness of a life both quiet and insular.

‘Treacle Walker’ by Alan Garner

Shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, Treacle Walker is a playful and luminous novella on the art of storytelling as Joseph Coppock convalesces at home, visited by the mythical Treacle Walker. Living alone in an old house, Joseph reads comics, plays marbles and tells the time by the whistle of a distant steam train. With a lazy eye, his world of vision and reality shifts according to the dominant eye of the time.

A rag-and-bone man by trade, Treacle Walker is part healer, part soothsayer, part folklore and persuades Joseph to exchange seemingly unimportant items for an empty jar of a cure-all medicine. And so a mysterious and eccentric friendship develops between the two, merging magic, folk tales, mysticism and mythology.

Spare, cryptic and quietly understated, Treacle Walker is a beautifully written, evocative fusion of a tale. Deceptively simple, it’s something of a treasure hunt (with asides and red herrings galore) that manages to meander and be on point at the same time. The result is a book that is difficult to categorise or easily summate without providing detail – and the beauty of Treacle Walker is the self discovery of Alan Garner’s writing, a man ostensibly labelled a ‘writer for children since the publication of his first book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), a label Garner himself firmly rejects.

Shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize.