‘Sea of Tranquility’ by Emily St John Mandel

An enthralling tale of time travel, Sea of Tranquility investigates the idea of parallel worlds as Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective in the black-skied Night City of centuries hence, is hired to investigate an anomaly in time.

In 1912, a young Edwin St. Andrew is exiled from his family and English polite society. Crossing the Atlantic, he eventually makes his way to British Columbia, where, on a coastal trip north out of Vancouver, he enters a forest, spellbound by the beauty of the Canadian wilderness. For a few moments, darkness enshrouds him and the sound of a violin rents the solitude of silence. Deeply shaken by the inexplicable, he returns to the village. Years later, St Andrew is to be consumed by madness.

Two hundred years later, best-selling author Olive Llewelyn writes of a man playing his violin in the echoing corridor of an airship terminal as the trees of a forest rise around him. As she visits Earth to promote her book, the interplanetary writer finds herself stranded as a pandemic ravages the globe.

As Gaspery-Jacques Roberts commences his investigation, he discovers the decrepit neighbourhood house of his childhood was once the home of Llewelyn and her family centuries previously.

A repitition that seemingly holds the core to understanding, the sound of the violin is a motif heard throughout Sea of Tranquility

Any attempt at providing more of an outline summary would fail to do this beguiling novel full justice. A fluency of characterisation, of interconnectedness over the centuries results in a tale of enormous scope and ambition. Part detective, part science-fiction, it’s a poignant time-travel tale of nostalgia and potential, a complexity of the epic and the straightforward all beautifully and accessibly written.

Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize.

‘Second Place’ by Rachel Cusk

An oddity, a literary twister, profound yet hollow. At a remote, coastal home, ‘an artist comes to stay’ and by his absence causes emotional havoc in the mindset of his host, M. And he doesn’t come alone.

Second Place is the first-person testimony of writer, M, who invites a renowned painter, L, to stay in the luxuriously renovated outbuildings of her marshland home. A ‘collector’ of people, M enjoys the complexities of character to offset her everyday of life on a property with her much-loved but taciturn husband, Tony. Solid, practical, dependendable, Tony is much more at home on his tractor alone in the middle of a field than sitting around a fire in a social setting. But L, whilst showing interest in the invitation, takes more than a year to arrive. And with him comes Brett, a beautiful, wealthy younger woman who immediately hits it off with Justine, M’s 21-year-old daughter.

Cusk’s book, told in the single voice of M, is little more than a philosophical monlogue, told in the form of letters to an unexplained ‘Jeffers’. Sense of time and place are absent but, in isolation and with seemingly restricted movement, there’s a hint of post-pandemic or environmental change having affected life in general. Second Place is a quest for self-understanding, self-contemplation or self-confirmation as M reflects and ponders on the meaning of art, parenting and mother-daughter relationships, monogamy, fate, privilege. The underlying arrogance of L as he seems to want to destroy M and her security is as inexplicable as it is extraordinary – he is the guest from hell as he remains aloof from the family, contributing little yet determining to paint vast murals on the interior walls of the tastefully decorated guest accommodation. So much of power lies in the ability to see how willing other people are to give it to M reflects of herself when she sees the wanton destruction – and chooses to do nothing.

Second Place is loosely based on Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Lorenzo in Taos and the author’s tumultuous friendship with D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda during the time the couple stayed at her artists’ colony in New Mexico in 1932. It is a challenging read, both in terms of its actual narrative in the perils of hosting such a guest and the subsequent battle of wills, but also stylistically in its monotone, singularly-paced unveiling indulgence. Essentially, Cusk’s novel is simply dull.

Booker Prize Shortlist: 2018

It has to be said. 2018 was not a good year. The shortlist was, in my opinion, underwhelming – as was the longlist. So did the Booker judges, according to my tastes, get it right in awarding the prize to Anna Burns and Milkman?

The 2018 shortlist:
Anna Burns: Milkman
Esi Edyugan: Washington Black
Daisy Johnson: Everything Under
Rachel Kushner: The Mars Room
Richard Powers: The Overstory
Robin Robertson: The Long Take

Bottom of the pile was the youngest shortlisted novelist in Booker history – Daisy Johnson (27) and her adapted contemporary confusion of the Oedipus myth. Gender fluid, time fluid, concentration fluid – too often I found myself lost in the miasma of its own cleverness. (40%)

My disagreement with the panel of judges is apparent as I placed the eventual winner, Anna Burns, 5th in the pretty poor selection. Basically, this stream of consciousness by a young woman living in Northern Ireland during the Troubles drove me to distraction. A performed monologue would have likely been beneficial. (48%)

One place higher with just 1% more was the environmental bore, The Overstory by Richard Powers. Too long by far, I was starting to lose the will to live at about the half way stage. A narrative of protest, a call-to-action awareness as nine disparate Americans address, in different ways, the destruction of forests and the environment. (49%)

The next two tied at 50%. Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room suffers from a surfeit of sameness as Romy finds herself serving two concurrent life sentences (plus six years) for the murder of a stalker. Canadian Esi Edyugan, the only author to have appeared before on the Booker shortlist (2011 with Half Blood Blues), knows how to tell a good, intriguing yarn but suffers from lack of engagement of the reader (or at least this one). A too matter-of-fact telling of a potential 19thcentury swashbuckling adventure story results in a laissez-faire distancing.

Only one book on the shortlist hit more than 50% – Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s verse and prose tour-de force, The Long Take. Achingly melancholic, The Long Take is a paean to lost opportunities of post-war America, a hypnotic, atmospheric narrative of broken chances, lost opportunities and, as a timely allegory, it is disturbingly profound. (64%).

So, yes, as far as I am concerned, the judges of the 2018 Booker Prize got it totally wrong – Robin Robertson’s 200 page film noir narrative was by far the best book on the shortlist.

‘The Testaments’ by Margaret Atwood

Purportedly the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and set some 15 years after the events of that earlier novel, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments smacks more of the HBO TV series. The result is an engaging soap-opera of a thriller – yet feels as if it is a treatment for the closure of said series, providing answers to questions of the early years of Gilead. Atwood thus avoids some of the psychological horrors of that dystopian misogynistic theocracy: her expansion is more character-based than social commentary and claustrophobic dread. The Testaments is about women (or, more specifically, three) taking back an element of control.

We alternate between the perspectives of three women. Two are in the form of testimony whilst the third, written by Aunt Lydia, is an illicit document and provides the history of Gilead. She has been a central part of the system since its outset – and knows exactly how it works. It’s her story: it’s the story of the Aunts and the women who are entrusted with governing the other women of Gilead. They train and discipline the Handmaids, the Wives and the female children. And to help them keep the peace and the women in line, the Aunts receive special authority. To ensure records of genealogy are kept, the Aunts are allowed to read and write. It’s this that allows Lydia to write her document (in darkest secret and at great risk) and forms the core of The Testaments.

From the TV series, we are familiar with Aunt Lydia and the fact that pre-Gilead she was a divorcee and judge. Not quite the sadistic monster of the early novel, Aunt Lydia had some redeeming factors in the TV series: but she remained something of an evangelist, believing Gilead to be the answer for the sins of an earlier life. Turns out in The Testaments it’s all a bit of a front: Lydia has been compiling the dossier for Gilead’s eventual downfall.

Aunt Lydia is a canny political operator who realised what she would need to do to survive, prosper, and amass some power for herself. Better to fade into the crowd, the piously praising, unctuous, hate-mongering crowd. Better to hurl rocks than to have them hurled at you. She’s made alliances, undermined potential threats and, as head of the Aunts, is arguably one of the most powerful women in Gilead. But she’s ageing and sets in motion the final plans for its downfall.

The other two, much younger, women, Agnes and Daisy, are pawns in Lydia’s sightlines. A privileged life in Gilead for Agnes is about to come to an end as she approaches marriagable age: Daisy is the product of an across-the-border Canadian upbringing. The fate of the three are about to come to a head as the novel opens.

The Testaments is something of a page turner: it’s an aspirational, thrilling ride as Lydia plots in secret, unexpected revelations arise, characters appear who just might give the game away. But it lacks something of the honesty of The Handmaid’s Tale: the power and gravitas is no longer there. More action-driven, more hopeful, and by extension, less realistic results in the ambiguity of The Handmaid’s Tale being replaced by simple and simplistic answers. It’s Agnes and Daisy who are the problem. There’s no mystery about them, no history, no real interest. It’s Lydia who carries The Testaments.

Shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, Margaret Atwood and The Testaments unexpectedly – and controversially – shared the award with Bernadine Evaristo and Girl, Woman, Other.

‘Oryx & Crake’ by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s ‘speculative fiction’ is somewhat uncanny and more than a little unnerving. You’d have been living under a rock if the behemoth that is The Handmaid’s Tale (book and TV series) had passed you by with its prescient content of totalitarian theocratic misogyny. But this later post-apocalyptic novel (2003) has at its core genetic experimentation and pharmaceutical engineering: both very much part of contemporary science.

Through a focus on the character Snowman and a factured narrative of present and past, Atwood’s remarkable and imaginative world is slowly peeled back to reveal its rotten innards.

It’s a world destroyed. Snowman is seemingly the only non-genetically engineered survivor, living from hand-to-mouth foragings and avoiding dangerous hybrids such as wolvogs, snats and pigoons. His only significant contact is with a group of primitive human-like creatures whom he calls Crakers, the product of experiments overseen by Crake at a not-so-distant earlier time. But Snowman’s supplies are dwindling and he needs to get to the old RejoovenEsense compound, the scene of the final confrontation between him, Crake and Oryx (whom they both loved).

Snowman was previously known as Jimmy, Crake as Glenn. They grew up together in one of the privileged, protected, domed compounds. Jimmy was nothing more than an average student whilst Crake was a boy genius who was fast-tracked to the very top in his specialist bioengineering field. With corporations controlling the world and technology exploited purely for profit, catastrophic climate change the norm and inequality, both social and economic, endemic, Crake, given the power to ultimately play God – all in the name of new markets, had dire consequences.

Oryx & Crake is, in part, the mad scientist story, part adventure, part dystopian disaster – with a love interest thrown in for good measure. Crake, in destroying the world as is, is looking to perfect it. He looks at the rampant commercialism, the wealth disparity, the social divides, the effect on the environment: yet it is seemingly only a crime of passion that prevents him following through with his plans to the natural conclusion. Interwoven with sharp wit and dark humour, Oryx & Crake is a less-than-brave new world, a world changed. In April 2020, just how presecient is that?

Shortlisted for the 2002 Booker Prize (her fifth appearance on the shortlist), Margaret Atwood and Oryx & Crake lost out to DBC Pierre and Vernon Little God.

‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan can certainly spin a good yarn (Washington Black) and she knows how to write. Yet, strangely, even though that and this earlier (2011) novel were both shortlisted for the Booker Prize, she lacks the power to fully engage.

Both rely on contrived plots that are dependent upon events or characters central to the narrative that push the boundary of belief. In Washington Black, it was the extreme precociousness of the young slave boy. In Half Blood Blues, the young musical genius, Hieronymous Falk, no matter how frail, somehow survives Malthausen.

Fifty years after fleeing an occupied Paris and returning home to Baltimore, our narrator, Sid Griffiths, and his old friend Chip find themselves returning to Europe together for the first time. Their destination – Berlin and a festival celebrating the lost genius of Falk.

Respected pre-war jazz musicians, the two were part of a Berlin-based combo that included the brilliant ‘Hiero’. Fleeing the Nazis, the three cross into France with forged documents, settling into any uneasy existence in the small Paris apartment of Delilah Brown, singer, agent and the French manager of legendary jazz musician, Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong. Hiero’s reputation precedes him and the legend is looking to cut a disc. But then the Nazis arrive and Hiero, a paperless German citizen and black, is arrested and disappears.

In the subsequent years, Chip becomes a renowned, internationally acclaimed jazz musician in his own right whereas Sid slips into obscurity. But the invitation to the festival and the premier of the documentary in which both men appear reawakens, for Sid, events of the past – his love for Delilah, his jealousies, the loss of three members of the jazz ensemble, the disappearance of Hiero.

There are moments of sublime invention and dialogue in Half Blood Blues (the claustrophobic pre-war Berlin scenes following the death of a young Brownshirt in particular). But it’s a highly improbable dual narrative that weaves between the present day and wartime Berlin and Paris as Sid looks for some kind of understanding and redemption. Diluted storytelling weakens the engagement – the dynamics between Hiero, Delilah and Sid in confined spaces in Berlin and Paris far outweigh the sparring of 80-something Sid and Chip.

Half Blood Blues was shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize but lost out to Julian Barnes and The Sense of an Ending.

‘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.

‘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.

Booker Prize 2016: Shortlist

Madeleine_Thien_interviewed_by_Dietmar_Kanthak_in_Bonn,_January_2015Back in 2014, the Man Booker Prize made the decision to extend eligibility to include American authors (as long as they were writing in English). Such a decision was not unanimously welcomed. But it was to be 2016 before the Booker judges presented the award for the first time to an American: Paul Beatty and his satirical The Sellout.

Having read all six novels shortlisted for the 2016 award, the question remains – was it the right call? Controversy surrounded the list with the exclusion of J.M.Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus and Elizabeth Strout and My Name is Lucy Barton from the 13-novel longlist.

The shortlist:

Paul Beatty: The Sellout
Deborah Levy: Hot Milk
Graeme Macrae Burnet: His Bloody Project
Ottessa Moshfegh: Eileen
David Szalay: All That Man Is
Madeleine Thien: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

 Only Deborah Levy had appeared on a Booker shortlist before (in 2012 for Swimming Home) and was regarded as one of the favourites to win. Speaking personally, of all the six novels on the list, her Hot Milk was the one I liked least. Using mother-daughter relationships to explore the nature of the feminine (along with hypochondria), it is a strangely inert narrative. Like the daughter, Sofia Papastergiadis, the story is as listless as the temperatures of the southern Spanish setting (40%).

Less pretentious is Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. But like Hot Milk, it is populated with unlikeable characters. At times drab and slow moving, it’s something of a psychological character study with little of any import taking place until the final few pages (55%).

Whilst shortlisted for the Booker as a novel, All That Man Is, to my mind, is a collection of nine short but interrelated stories. Some enjoyable, some minor (57%).

Three down and three to go – and next on my list is the eventual winner, Paul Beatty with The Sellout. As I wrote in my personal review: Technically brilliant, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, savage and outrageous, undoubtedly challenging, yet… Its profane satire is unrelenting, the reading exhausting, the narrative one-dimensional.

It’s just the sort of literary gymnastics that appeals to literary judges – but not necessarily to everyday readers to quite the same extent (63%).

Up until reading my final book on the list, I’d assumed that Graeme Macrae Burnet and his compelling His Bloody Project would have comfortably topped the list.

Set in a remote northern Scottish farming community in 1869, it is a multilayered psychological thriller exploring events leading up to the violent and bloody murder of three members of one family by a 17 year-old neighbour. Absorbing, intricate, His Bloody Project comfortably became the bestseller of the six shortlisted novels (78%).

But Burnet’s magnificent achievement was pipped at the post by Madeleine Thien’s superb Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Magisterial, tragic, profound, enchanting – seven decades of contemporary Chinese history from Mao’s cultural revolution through to the student’s uprising and events at Tiananmen Square (80%).

Booker Prize history was made in 2016 by presenting the award to an American writer – but personally I would have presented it to the Chinese-Canadian author.

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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