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Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (2011) 343 p.

For some reason I feel obligated to open this review with a comment about how the Holocaust claimed far more victims than just Jews – notably blacks – but that would be pointless, because despite being about a bunch of black musicians in Nazi Germany, the book barely touches upon Nazi perseuction. It’s mostly about jazz, friendship and creative talent (or lack thereof), with Nazi Germany – despite being responsible for the book’s pivotal event – never really becoming more than a historical backdrop.

Half-Blood Blues is narrated by Sidney Griffith, an African-American from Baltimore, who came to Europe with his old friend Chip Jones to seek out a career in Germany’s blossoming jazz scene. Here they met Hieronymous Falk, a half-black German born to a white mother and Senegalese soldier, part of the French army occupying the Rhineland. In the novel’s opening scene, which takes place in occupied Paris in 1940, Sid bears witness to the Nazis hauling Hiero away – and never sees him again.

The book jumps back and forth in chronology, beginning with this scene and then returning to Berlin the previous year, and intersparsed with flashbacks to Sid and Chip’s childhood, and scenes set in 1992 when the two friends – now old and grumpy men – return to Europe to find out what became of Hiero. Most of the novel’s more interesting parts are set in 1939 and 1940, particularly the band’s flight from Germany and their short-lived life in Paris.

This was a very difficult book to get into. This is largely due, I think, to Sid’s first-person narration, which Edugyan renders in phoenetic black slang. At the same time she tries to slip in typical literary metaphors and descriptions, which don’t quite gel with the words of a black jazz musician:

Even awake I was sleeping. Dumped in a foreign city, where I ain’t known hardly a soul, the language a constant door in my face. It weighed on me, the loneliness, the jealousy. I took to avoiding Delilah when I could, eating in strange cafes no gate like to turn up in. I blocked the kid out entire. I ain’t certain he even notice.

The streets of Paris turned white as mould under the cold blare of gas lamps.

Edugyan is certainly capable of some choice turns of phrase, however, like when she describes the swastika as a “dancing black spider” or a bad memory as “a burn in my mind, a darkness at the edge of my thoughts.” It’s a testament to her skills that she could make this kind of language work with her chosen narrative gimmick at all, and towards the end of the novel I had grown accustomed to it. But it was disconcerting for at least the entire first half.

The other reason I found it difficult to get into – aside from my own disinterest in the jazz period – was that the premise didn’t seem to have been executed quite right. Maybe that’s the fault of my own expectations, but there’s surprisingly little in Half-Blood Blues about Nazi persecution of the blacks – or, for that matter, anyone. They only seem like a tangible threat after the war begins and the army is advancing on Paris (easily the best stretch of the novel). Half-Blood Blues is more of a character drama with Nazi Germany as a backdrop – and I can’t fault that, I suppose, given that it’s not half-bad. The novel largely revolves around Hiero’s fate and to what extent Sid was responsible for it. It’s a novel about rivalry and jealousy, and how much more horrible they are when the rival you are jealous of is a close friend and loved one. Sid is well-developed enough as a sympathetic character that even when he does something truly monstrous and selfish you can’t help but feel sorry for him.

This is clearly a novel born out of a passion, the author indulging in her desire to explore the niche period of black German jazz musicians. I can see it taking a different track to what many people might expect, but it’s a good book, and a better one than we should have any right to expect from such an odd subject matter.

BOOKER PREDICTION

Not good enough, alas, to make the shortlist. Half-Blood Blues is an ultimately uneven novel, taking far too long to get moving and having a somewhat truncated emotional resolution. Certainly deserving of its place on the longlist, but not to progress any further. (Although, for the record, still a superior book to The Stranger’s Child.)

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The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (2011) 240 p.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is science fiction, and is therefore one of the Booker longlist’s token genre selections, alongside The Sisters Brothers for a Western and Derby Day for historical fiction (which is the most tolerable of genre works, as far as the committee is concerned). Being a Booker longlistee, of course, means that it’s literary science fiction – the kind of thing Margaret Atwood would write and then deny writing.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is set in a modern-day England that has suddenly been ravaged, along with the rest of the world, by a genetically engineered disease called Maternal Death Syndrome. Mothers can no longer bear children; the pregnancy kills them and their unborn children. No new babies are being born, despair and suicide wrack the world, scientists are scrambling to find a cure, and religious fundamentalists are duking it out with activist groups in the streets. The protagonist is the titular Jessie Lamb, a high school student whose father works in a research lab. It reminded me partly of Oryx & Crake, partly of Never Let Me Go and partly of Children of Men.

The novel is relayed as a frame story, with Jessie being held captive and writing down her “testament.” It soon becomes clear that her captor is her father, trying to prevent her from carrying out a decision she has made; one which she thinks is noble and heroic, and one which her father thinks is stupid and wasteful. At first I thought the book was fairly predictable, guessing what her decision was around page 50, but I realised before long that the book’s mystery was entirely different: whether Jessie is right, or whether her father is right. Much like the fate of the children at Hailsham in Never Let Me Go, Jessie’s dilemma is revealed relatively early in the book, and the story works towards a deeper purpose.

Essentially it is this: scientists have discovered a cure for MDS, but can only vaccinate embryos that already exist in frozen storage. Women must volunteer to be implanted, sacrificing their lives in order to produce MDS-free babies and preserve the human race; and because MDS attacks the immune system, younger, teenage volunteers are preferred. (This is obviously plot-servicing science, but the book is good enough that Rogers can be forgiven.) The first point this raises is whether it’s moral for 16-year old girls to sign their lives away; whether they can be considered mature enough to make that decision. Several characters give different takes on this; personally, with the survival of the human race at stake, I would sanction pretty much anything (although, as Jessie’s father shows, our beliefs are quite flexible when our own loved ones are threatened). The second (and more important) point is whether Jessie decides to do this because she genuinely believes it to be a noble sacrifice, or whether she has ulterior, troubled-teen, suicidal motives.

Or maybe I’m the only one who thought that? This is one of the greatest aspects of the book; it’s deceptively simple and shallow, but Rogers uses Jessie’s first-person point of view to great effect, and we often gather that there’s a lot more going on than she is interested in or thinks about – early on, for example, before she decides she wants to sacrifice herself, she mentions hearing on the news that the Chinese embryo program is recruiting thousands of teenage “volunteers,” and it doesn’t occur to Jessie to question whether they really would be volunteers in a country like China. Indeed, we hear very little of how MDS is affecting the rest of the world, because Jessie tends to be consumed with her own thoughts and problems. She is realistically written as both a rational, intelligent young woman, and yet also a girl; a girl who is swayed by small things, who latches onto ideas, and who may very well be deluding herself. Several times she makes what I took to be Freudian slips, talking about how it will soon “all be over,” and how she has to “end it.” My personal impression was that Jessie is actually suicidal, and uses the embryo program as a mask, a way to tell herself that she’s killing herself for something good and noble.

Am I right? I don’t know. It’s either a very subtle book, or I read into something that wasn’t there. I can easily see readers having very different interpretations of it. I found the ending to be bleak and depressing, given my verdict, but others might find it hopeful and uplifting. I’m very interested to hear what Jane Rogers’ vision was.

Regardless, there’s no doubt that it’s a well-written and well-constructed novel. Written from Jessie’s point of view, it’s quite readable and engaging (in fact, it could fit into the YA genre just as easily as the science fiction genre) and I was often compelled to sit down and read it, or keep reading another chapter even though I was ready for sleep. The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a solid literary science fiction novel, raising difficult moral questions and examining complex motives and character struggles in the face of a horrifying future. It’s well worth reading, and a worthy inclusion on the Booker longlist.

BOOKER VERDICT

On the Guardian Books blog I called the inclusion of this novel “lip service,” which to some degree I still stand by. It’s not that I think the committee worries about offending science fiction writers and wants them to feel included, but I do think the longlist allows them to play with a diverse selection, and draw attention to books which they consider to be worthy of greater acknowledgement but which they have no intention of ever actually awarding the prize to. After all, merely being longlisted for the Booker prize is a much greater honour than many other prizes.

Having now read the novel, I rate its chances more highly, but still low. There is no doubt that it’s a good book – better, in my opinion, than The Stranger’s Child – but it’s also shallow upon first glance, partly science fiction, and has a young adult protagonist. All these things usually cost marks in the eyes of the judging panel. It may very well take a place on the shortlist, but certainly won’t win – just like Oryx & Crake and Never Let Me Go.

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (2011) 564 p.

This was the first novel I decided to read for my 2011 Booker challenge, not out of interest, but because it’s the only book on the longlist that I am absolutely confident will make the shortlist. I’ve never read any of Hollinghurst’s previous work, but his last novel, The Line of Beauty, won the 2004 Booker (over my favourite novel of all time, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas).

Hollinghurst is generally considered to be one of the finest English writers alive, but his reputation and his previous win are not the only reason he’s the bookie’s favourite to take home this year’s prize. There’s a phrase called “Oscar bait,” which refers to a film that calculatingly appeals to the literary sensibilities of the Academy: an important historical setting (especially World War II), a little-known illness or affliction, being a biopic, homosexuality etc. The King’s Speech, The English Patient and Forrest Gump are all excellent examples. But the phrase Booker bait could be used as well, and it seems it is, Grub Street being the first but not the only Google hit for it. Although the Booker prize is more likely to reward inventive and unusual novels than its transatlantic counterpart the Pulitzer (which often goes to a multi-generational story of immigrants), it’s still susceptible to seduction by a 550-page brick of a family saga set across the sweeping panorama of 20th century history. Particularly if much of it is set in an English country manor, as The Stranger’s Child is.

The Stranger’s Child follows the story of the Sawle and Valance families, beginning in 1913 with the young poet Cecil Valance visiting his “friend” George Sawle at his family’s home for the weekend. While here, Cecil writes a poem called “Two Acres” which later becomes famous, and the rest of the book follows the intertwining fates of the Sawles and Valances, and the rise and fall of Cecil’s literary reputation. The later chapters feature a biographer interviewing the surviving family members and penning a biography about him, and the novel’s key theme is about how history consists largely of memories and mythologies, rather than what actually happened.

I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it. Hollinghurst’s prose style, while perfectly functional, isn’t particularly beautiful, and he rarely impressed me with his descriptions or turns of phrase. He also has an annoying habit of having his characters endlessly analyse every little thing said to them, or that they say, playing it back over in their heads and doubting the motives behind it, or how it appeared to other people. This is of course how people’s thought processes actually run, even if we’re not aware of it most of the time, but to read it on the page is quickly tiring.

The five chapters in the book make massive leaps across time, and most of the action in the characters’ lives – births, deaths, marriages and separations – takes place off-screen. This is part of the point of the novel, but I found it difficult to keep track of all the new children and relationships, and by the end of the novel there were characters whom I’d forgotten about, and whom I couldn’t quite remember how they were related to the other characters. This may be my problem, not Hollinghurst’s, but I’d be remiss not to mention it.

My overall impression of The Stranger’s Child was a mostly (but not terribly) dull book, which I often found myself slogging through, half a thousand pages of parties and domestic evenings and discussions about poets. And gay sex, of course, though apparently he toned it down from his last novels.

BOOKER PREDICTION
Definitely a shoe-in for the shortlist and, as I mentioned earlier, the bookie’s favourite to win. But as I also mentioned, the Booker committee isn’t as susceptible to “bait” works as the Academy Awards or the Pulitzer Prize. They’re just as likely to reward it to a historical fiction novel like True History of the Kelly Gang, or a work of magical realism like Life of Pi. If The Stranger’s Child does win – which is still a strong possibility – it will probably be at the expense of a more interesting novel.

That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott (2010) 400 p.

I bought this because I wanted to get the jump on the Booker longlist and, since it won the 2011 Miles Franklin, I thought it might be on it. I was about ten pages in when the longlist was announced and, of course, it’s not. Oh well.

That Deadman Dance is a historical fiction novel taking place in the early and mid 19th century, following the colonisation of Albany in Western Australia and the relationship between the European settlers and the local Noongar population. One character in particular, Bobby Wabalanginy, is an Aboriginal boy who takes a lively interest in the foreigners and is half-raised by white settlers, acting throughout the novel as a bridge between the two cultures.

That Deadman Dance is a surprisingly optimistic novel, and it’s more surprising to learn that this was – up to a point – actually the reality of the Albany settlement. Known as the “friendly frontier,” first generation relations between the two groups were cordial, and it was only the inevitable encroachment upon Aboriginal land and the destruction of their forests and food supply that led to conflict.

This is an important novel, not so much in that it raises questions about our shared history with the “traditional custodians” of this land – every Australian learns from an early age that we came here, took their land, obliterated their way of life, and that many of them continue to live in third world conditions and a cycle of poverty and substance abuse, all because of us. Somewhere around the same age one learns to slide one’s eyes away from these facts, the same way we slide our eyes away from Aboriginals themselves. They are the invisible people of our society. No, That Deadman Dance is an important novel because it examines history without pointing a finger of guilt or blame, without expecting the white reader to feel ashamed. It focuses not on the inevitable schism between Noongar and European, but rather on the friendships and love and co-operation of early settlement. Scott does not shy away from the ugly truth, but his novel is nonetheless positive in tone and outlook, which is truly remarkable.

Reading that over, it sounds like I’m whining about ever having to care about the plight of the Aboriginals, and crediting Scott for writing a book that didn’t make me feel guilty. But it’s not like that at all. It’s more of an optimistic tone (which is often lacking in Australian literary fiction in general) which makes one feel hopeful for the future, hopeful for the idea that we can atone for past mistakes.

It is, however, a difficult book to follow – multi-linear and multi-threaded, and literary in the sense that Scott doesn’t use quotation marks for dialogue, which I’ve always felt makes prose seem like a dream or a memory. I did find it tedious at times to read. I nonetheless feel that it’s an important book, worthy of the Miles Franklin, and will probably end up on the high school curriculum in WA at the very least.

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