‘Hot Milk’ by Deborah Levy

Booker_Levy-xlarge_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqrnykcIhNBTQGIhNzmTaT-bRxN3k0gyKMaHVGwcklXbAIn spite of a (mostly) semi-desolate, southern Spanish location, Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk is a story of interiors and the claustrophobic confines of home and family. As Sofia looks to discover the cause of her mother’s multitude of illnesses at the clinic beside the Mediterranean, so she herself discovers more about herself and the ties that bind her to Rose and her absent, Greek father.

It’s an enigmatic novel. The relatively straightforward narrative of Sofia and Rose arriving at the Spanish seaside village (almost deserted of tourists due to a plague of jellyfish) looking for a diagnosis at Gomez’s controversial clinic for Rose’s inability to walk is interspersed with streams of symbolic fancy and daydreams.

A PhD exploring memory following a first class honours degree in anthropology lies abandoned as Sofia drifts through life. Meeting local student Juan followed by German seamstress Ingrid unleashes a new sexual longing in Sofia, a longing repressed by the chains of her mother’s incessant demands and needs.

A barista at a local café in London, Sofia’s home is the storeroom. Visiting her estranged father and new family in Athens, she sleeps in the spare room, a windowless stockroom. Leaving the door of the rented Spanish villa unlocked may create an illusion of freedom, but her options are closed. Gomez may or may not be a quack but can he release Sofia from Rose?

Hot Milk was the bookies favourite to win the 2016 Booker Prize, variously described as ‘hypnotic’, ‘mesmerising’ and ‘gorgeous’. I do not agree.

Levy’s poetic writing is at times obscure and pretentious, the novel’s equivalent of an art house film’s imbroglio of impenetrable (or just plain annoying) symbolism (did we really need the clinic to be built from marble so that it resembles “a spectral, solitary breast”?). Rose is one of the most unlikeable of all characters – a litany of dismissive complaints about the weather, the food, the people in the early stages of the narrative is a stereotype of the British abroad. And whilst there is, initially, a level of downtrodden sympathy for Sofia and her guilt, she does little to help herself in the course of the, thankfully, short novel.

Levy’s novel lost out to the first American to win the Booker Prize, Paul Beatty and The Sellout.

‘All That Man Is’ by David Szalay

9780099593690A Danish journalist is chasing down a sex scandal story involving a high-ranking government official: a young Frenchman holidays alone in Cyprus. All That Man Is – a pan-European series of nine short stories or a cohesive, singular insight into different strands of ‘maledom’? The jury is out but its shortlisting for the 2016 Booker Prize suggests it’s officially accepted into the latter category.

Personally, I err towards the former. And, as with any compendium of short stories, I felt slightly cheated in its reading. Twenty or so pages per narrative leave little in terms of any sense of significant depth of character or situation. Yet, to be fair, David Szalay, in those few pages and through his quick sketches, generally portrays more about his characters’ emotional limitations than some writers achieve in 300+ pages.

Nine stories, nine variously aged men hailing from different European countries – with each protagonist on a journey, actual as well as metaphorical. Bookending the book are two British characters. 17 year-old Simon is inter-railing round Europe with a friend before their first year at Oxford: his grandfather, a retired diplomat, is spending time at the family holiday home in Italy. Sandwiched between is a series of stories that include a Russian billionaire looking to commit suicide, a Hungarian bodyguard on a job in London and a Belgian philologist delivering a luxury car to a buyer in Krakow.

The protagonists are diverse but there exists a level of homogeneity, a melancholic undercurrent of yearning for something almost intangible or beyond their grasp. No matter how ostensibly different they are, their concerns appear to be similarly mordant and narrow.

Inevitably, with nine separate (linked?) narratives to choose from, some are stronger/more appealing than others. The Danish journalist is a particularly strong tale as we journey through the different stages of man (each man is progressively approximately seven years older than his predecessor) – the deputy editor of Scandinavia’s biggest selling newspaper, Kristian is surprisingly humane towards his ‘victim.’ And the final story, of Tony slowly recovering from a heart attack, listening to a young girl sing in a café whilst he ponders on the inscription Amemus eterna et non peritura (Let us love that which is eternal and not what is transient), seen earlier that morning at Pomposa Abbey, is a gentle, allegoric narrative that packs a punch not initially obvious.

Less interesting were the earlier, youthful stories – Simon and his yearning for a classmate back in England, the Hungarian bodyguard finding himself outside the Park Lane Hilton in the early hours of the morning on too many occasions.

All That Man Is was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize but lost out to the first American to win the award, Paul Beatty and his The Sellout.

‘His Bloody Project’ by Graeme Macrae Burnet

graeme-macrae-burnet-his-bloody-projectThere’s no disputing 17 year old Roderick Macrae violently and bloodily murdered three members of the MacKenzie family in the remote Scottish farming community of Culduie in 1869. He’s admitted it to neighbours, police and his legal representative. But why? And will his actions lead to the gallows?

Written in the form of documents supporting a case study, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project is a masterful psychological thriller. From the slightly tongue-in-cheek preface from the author himself, the witness statements given to the police through to the medical reports and Macrae’s own account of the lead up to the events, the book is an absorbing and intricate read, a mix of revenge tragedy and courtroom drama.

An intelligent and sensitive teenager, Macrae is the son of a dirt-poor crofter on the Ross-shire coast of northeast Scotland. It’s a landscape of great beauty but terrible hardship and injustice as tenants eke out a paltry living in almost feudal conditions. Roderick’s station in life is mapped out before him: there are few opportunities to break away from the tradition of toil.

With his mother recently dead (giving birth to the twins) and parented solely by a dour and devout Presbyterian father not averse to using his fists to punish his eldest son, there is little joy in the Macrae household. But in spite of this, Roderick seemingly accepts his lot. Not that there’s much more joy in the small Culduie community itself – a settlement of nine homes to some 50 people.

It’s Roderick’s account of his life and those around him that forms the core of His Bloody Project. Sitting alone in his cell in Inverness gaol awaiting trial, it is his legal representative, Mr Sinclair, who suggests he writes. And what flows is an intimate yet emotionally distant narrative of his family, the everyday existence of a crofter and his experience at the Big House. But it also details the campaign by Lachlan MacKenzie as constable of the settlement (the laird’s representative) against the Macrae family: fining the family for minor infringements of their tenancy, targeting them and generally bullying father and son alike.

His Bloody Project is a compelling read as Roderick’s account is juxtaposed with that of the official reports and, later in the book, a splendidly pompous ‘extract’ from Travels in the Border Lands of Lunacy by J Bruce Thompson where the expert talks of the criminal class (identifiable in part by the shape of the skull) and (nineteenth century) contemporary criminal psychology. It’s from his discussions with Roderick that Thompson expounds on his opinions and insight. And it’s in the courtroom this overbearing official is more than happy to declare these opinions as fact.

Detailed, evoking a real sense of place through precise prose (it was originally believed to be a novel based on a true story), His Bloody Project delves deeply into the psyche of Roderick – but without giving us all the answers. Just how reliable is the boy as the narrator of events: the prosecution in the courtroom reveals more of the events in the MacKenzie home that certainly wrong-foots us?

Wonderfully multilayered, Burnet’s second book was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. It lost out to the first American winner of the award – Paul Beatty and The Sellout.

‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh

ottessa-moshfegh-eileenEileen Dunlop, 24, is perversely and gloriously unlikeable. It’s 1964 and Eileen lives in an unnamed New England town with her alcoholic ex-cop father in the squalid, rambling family home. The mother is long dead and the older sister has flown the coup. He survives on gin, she on handfuls of peanuts, the occasional shower and weekly handfuls of laxatives to help purge her body.

Eileen is undoubtedly trapped – the demands from her father and the monotony of her job as a secretary at the local boys’ juvenile prison offer little cheer and even less joy. Yet she does very little to help herself other than daydream about her escape. I couldn’t be bothered to deal with fixing things. I preferred to wallow in the problem, dream of better days.

 As a psychological drama, Eileen is masterful. The unreliable narrator unravels in front of us – a repressed, body-dysmorphic, depressed, naïve young woman who deludes herself into believing that, publically, she is in control. Yet, hiding herself in her mother’s matronly clothing several sizes too big (useful for shoplifting), her own alcoholic binges and erotic fantasies centred primarily round Randy, a prison guard, point to an erratic self evaluation and misinformed sense of self.

The arrival of the charismatic Rebecca Saint John to work at the prison shifts Eileen’s focus. Beautiful, stylish, confident, Rebecca is everything Eileen is not. She is the fillip Eileen needs to break free from her own self-loathing and undermining relationship with her father.

New lipstick and underwear (stolen of course), different clothes from her mother’s wardrobe and an attempt to be more social (within limits) all make their appearance (much to the dismissive amusement of her father). And it achieves the result Eileen wants – a drink with Rebecca after work, a Christmas Eve social. Yet, in these last few pages of the novel, she finds herself in a totally unexpected situation.

Eileen is a character completely out of place. Other than a few months in Boston at college (pulled out to care for her dying mother), she has lived her life in the small coastal New England town. She shows no interest in popular culture, preferring obscure library books, a subscription to National Geographic and the wardrobe of her dead mother. She has stepped out of a Patricia Highsmith novel. (Should the novel find its way to film, Rooney Mara is the perfect fit).

 But the problem with Eileen is that, as a narrative, it’s a little drab and slow moving – something of a tortoise. Eileen is a great character study, a psychological drama centred round the main character. It is not a psychological thriller as suggested by the front cover – nothing of any import happens until the last few pages.

In her debut novel, Ottessa Moshfegh was (somewhat surprisingly) shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. She lost out to the first American winner of the award, Paul Beatty and The Sellout.

 

 

‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty

81npfiyubal-880x1404The jury’s out for me as far as Paul Beatty’s 2016 Booker Prize winning novel is concerned.

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.

A coruscating metaphor for race relations in the US, The Sellout is the story of ‘Bonbon’ Me. An Afro-American living in the City of Dickens on the outskirts of LA, Me is the son of a controversial home-schooling sociologist who is shot in the back by LAPD at traffic lights whilst on his way to the latest Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals meeting.

It is his relationship with his dead father and the impact of his opinions that is at the centre of The Sellout: essentially what it is to be black and living in a racist country. Me, at the beginning of the novel, finds himself in the Supreme Court charged with reinstating slavery and segregation. The Sellout is the provocative, comically daring explanation of just how he got there.

It’s a mad journey. Littered with the n-word, it’s caustic yet elegant, scathing yet intelligent. No stone is left unturned as Me purchases an inner city farm on the proceeds from the LAPD payout. The ageing Hominy volunteers himself as slave to his ‘massa’ plantation owner and Me is forced to hire a local dominatrix to administer whippings.

When violent and crime-ridden Dickens loses its identity with its boundaries subsumed into greater LA ripe with real estate potential, Me steps in. A painted white line loosely reinstates those boundaries, raising a sense of neighbourhood pride and belonging. The segregation of the local High School, banning white students, is the final act. A media frenzy results (ironically, there never were any white students at the school anyway) and Me is arrested.

Within the scaffold of the plot is a miasma of characters, events, commentaries and references to contemporary racist America. It is satire gone wild – a mix of Swift and Vonnegut. The first 100 or so pages are magnificently and maliciously vitriolic – and at times shockingly funny. But Beatty fails to moderate and change the pace of a book struggling to identify a singular narrative beyond its early pages. The Sellout remains interesting but fails to sustain that initial level of engagement.