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With the completion of The Sense of An Ending, I’ve wrapped up my Booker Prize Challenge 2011 with more than a week to spare. Prediction time!
There are two different picks to make: which book deserves to win, and which book will actually win. The first is much simpler beacause it essentially means “which book did I like the most?” From worst to best, they were:
Pigeon English is the only one I outright disliked, although the top two are the only ones which I think are definitely worth reading. Jamrach’s Menagerie is by far the greatest: an exciting and evocative adventure story which eventually becomes a gripping and terrifying tale of a brutal ordeal. Carol Birch has penned a marvellous novel which is head and shoulders above its competitors,and she absolutely deserves the 2011 Booker prize.
But will she actually win it? Unfortunately, my personal opinions do not always set the standard the rest of the world follows, so there’s always the chance the jury may select something different. Predicting which book will actually win involves examining the jury itself – specifically the books it selected for the longlist and the shortlist, and public comments made by its members.
General agreement holds that this year’s longlist had some unusual selections, and even more unusual was which books made it to the shortlist. Snowdrops was a particularly suprising wild card, being a genre novel that doesn’t make apologies for itself and, while not a bad book at all, doesn’t deserve to win one of the world’s greatest annual literary awards. (Not because it’s a genre novel, but rather because it’s not a particularly amazing genre novel.) The Sisters Brothers and Half-Blood Blues are more “literary” than Snowdrops, but still unusual inclusions, given that they are unusual books. The jury’s decision to accept these books – and its decision to cut literary heavyweight Alan Hollinghurst – is quite telling. It’s backed up by statements from the panel, with Chris Mullen saying the books had to “zip along” and Stella Rimington saying “we were looking for enjoyable books.”
This set literary snobs all a-flutter because, as we all know, Literature Is Not Meant To Be Fun. I’ve talked in the past about my Venn Diagram theory of literature: that there are books with literary merit, and there are books that are fun and enjoyable to read, and that a deadly boring piece of literature which won critical acclaim is not really any better for you than the latest ghost-written Robert Ludlum thriller. There are plenty of books which are interesting and fun while still having literary merit, so why bother with the other types? I feel quite sorry for critics who have convinced themselves that “readability” and “enjoyment” are Bad Things, and somehow mutually exclusive to Real Literature.
So the shortlist selection and judges’ comments reveal that that Booker panel this year is largely in line with my own ways of thinking about literature. Or, in other words, I believe that Jamrach’s Menagerie is the book which both deserves to win and will win. It combines a 19th century boy’s adventure and a grisly ordeal of survival with a very poignant tale about brotherhood, friendship and sacrifice. It is one of the best books of the year and absolutely deserves to sit alongside previous great winners like Life of Pi and The English Patient.
(If this prediction is wrong I am going to have such a hissy fit.)
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011) 150 p.
It seems appropriate to finish my 2011 Booker Challenge with The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’ story about memory and history and how subjective they can be. Somebody pointed out to me that the books on the longlist could be thematically twinned; Half-Blood Blues and Far To Go are both about Nazi Germany, Jamrach’s Menagerie and Derby Day are both set in Victorian England, Snowdrops and The Last One Hundred Days are both novels about expats, and so on. In that case, The Sense of an Ending is partnered with The Stranger’s Child, as both are about the unreliability of history – though Barnes clearly has more self-restraint, with this 150-page book barely classifying as a novel.
The Sense of an Ending follows the life of Englishman Tony Webster, and is split into two parts: one with Tony recounting his school years when he met his friend Adrian and his college years when he met his first girlfriend Veronica, and one taking place in the modern day when, long abandoned, they suddenly intrude back into his life and provide him with a mystery to solve. The predominant theme of the book is how our memories, like all our thoughts, are warped by our own feelings and emotions – often deliberately. Tony has had a fairly mundane and comfortable life, a pleasant marriage and an amicable divorce, a cordial relationship with his daughter and a relaxing retirement. Yet the book has a great sense of loss to it, of closed doors and missed opportunities, and Tony often speaks of inventing pasts for himself, of giving Veronica an “edited” version of his life when they meet again. Similarly, he changes and influences past events in his own memory; removing his own guilt in certain places, and allocating it to others. For the most part it’s done quite skillfully, but much of the book takes place within Tony’s head, and he does tend to cover familiar ground on the subject.
The ending, when it comes, is something of a puzzler. I’m going to avoid discussing it in detail because of spoilers, but suffice to say that it doesn’t exactly tie up all the loose ends.
The Sense of an Ending is one of those books that’s diffficult to pass judgement on because I found it fairly unremarkable and forgettable. I’d certainly rather read a 150-page book than a 600-page goliath like The Stranger’s Child, but that does mean it leaves a fleeting impression, and – while it certainly wasn’t bad – I don’t have much to say about it.
There are two things I’ve heard people say, a lot, about this book’s chances. The first is that it’s too short, which seems specious; if it was too short to win, it wouldn’t have been nominated. The other is that it’s not Barnes’ best novel and that it would be more of a lifetime achievement award, like Ian McEwan winning the Booker for Amsterdam or Martin Scorsese winning the Oscar for The Departed. I’m not familiar with Barnes’ previous books, but I did find The Sense of an Ending to be fairly middle-of-the-road. I also dislike “lifetime achievement” awards and think they go against the idea of the Booker – but they’ve happened in the past, so they can happen again.
Overall, I personally don’t think The Sense of an Ending deserves to win the Booker, but I’m more hazy on whether it actually will. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I wouldn’t be overly surprised if it did.
The Sense of an Ending at The Book Depository
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (2011) 263 p.
Eleven-year old Harrison Opoku is a newly-arrived Ghanian immigrant to the United Kingdom, living in a run-down council flat with his sister and mother. Harrison is wide-eyed and excited about life in London, but the lot of an immigrant is to be mired in urban poverty and exposed to the criminal scum of human society. Pigeon English opens with Harrison witnessing the aftermath of a fatal stabbing against an older boy, and follows his naive attempts to track down the killer.
The novel is narrated from Harrison’s first-person point of view, relying on the time-honoured method of having a child narrator witness events that he can’t quite understand, but which the reader can. (And frankly, for an eleven-year old, he’s a fucking idiot.) Harrison’s meandering tale is peppered with a mixture of African-accented phoentics and London slang, and I quickly grew tired of reading the words “donkey hours,” “everybody agrees,” and “Asweh!” It’s not the Kelman fails to create a convincing voice for Harry, but rather that a) it’s an annoying voice, and b) he uses it as a crutch to give the book a sense of profundity. There are a number of scenes where Kelman relies on Harrison’s plain statements to relay the book’s unsubtle themes, and some clumsy attempts at symbolism which come across as the author clutching at straws. The book’s talking pigeon, which speaks directly to the reader (and sometimes to Harrison) had me rolling my eyes.
Pigeon English also has a completely left-field ending, one which I thought was a bit harsh, but at that point I no longer cared. It was one of those novels which I was really happy to finish, simply because I didn’t have to read it anymore.
The rave reviews worry me. Without them, I’d be honestly surprised that this clumsy and amaterish novel had even been shortlisted. In any case, Pigeon English is the least worthy of all the shortlisted novels I’ve read thus far, and if it wins it will be at the expense of several astronomically superior books (specifically Jamrach’s Menagerie and The Sisters Brothers). Given that this year’s panel seem to be very open to genre novels and not as much to the traditional contemporary-realist-moralising type, I feel that I can safely say it won’t win. And yet it lurks. It lurks.
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (2011) 273 p.
Snowdrops is one of the books most people were surprised to find on the longlist, including the author himself, and it was apparently even more surprising to see it shortlisted. The reason for this largely appears to be the fact that it was slotted into the “thriller” genre pigeonhole – wrongly, in my opinion. I’m finding it an interesting experience to read all the comments and reviews and hearsay about the shortlisted novels, and then notice the gap between the reality and the truth when I read the actual novels.
Snowdrops follows Nick Platte, a thirty-eight year old British lawyer who has been living and working in Moscow for several years, one of those expats who isn’t happy with his life but would be even unhappier if he went home. One summer afternoon he saves a girl named Masha and her sister Katya from a mugging in the Metro, and soon becomes Masha’s lover; however, there is a mysteriousness behind the two girls, which slowly draws Nick into a dark and dangerous tale of duplicity and corruption.
I can see why it’s considered a thriller, but my own store had it placed it general fiction (even before it was longlisted) and that’s the right decision. Miller is a far more talented writer than any of the Scandinavian hacks whose grisly titles sully our back corner. He has a knack for language, spinning a beautifully atmospheric description of Moscow, and of the terrible haze of theft and savagery and predation that hangs over post-Soviet Russia. He is particularly good at concisely capturing awkward social situations:
It could have been nice. There was no reason for it not to be nice. It was just that we’d gone our separate ways and lost each other, leaving nothing much in common but a couple of soft-focus anecdotes, featuring donkey rides and ice-cream overdoses, that you’ve heard a dozen times, plus some old irritations that flare up like a phantom itch when we get together.
So it’s not a thriller. Just because it’s psychologically disturbing and set in a snowy foreign locale and involves crime and missing people and murder, doesn’t make it a thriller.
Is it a good book? Yes, but not a great book. The climax felt like a bit of a let-down; the book is rife with foreshadowing and ominous portent, which in the end doesn’t amount to what I expected it to. It’s readable, and creates a brilliant atmosphere, and Miller clearly has more talent than the average writer – whether they’re thriller writers or general fiction writers. But in the end, Snowdrops doesn’t really do anything new or particularly memorable. That’s perfectly fine for a debut novel, but it does mean that…
…it doesn’t deserve the Booker prize, and won’t win it.
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (2011) 348 p.
While wandering the streets of 19th century London, in the harbour district of the East End, eight-year old Jaffy Brown encounters a Bengal tiger and brazenly strokes it on the nose. The tiger takes Jaffy up in its jaws, and he is only rescued by the timely intervention of its owner, Mr. Jamrach. By way of apology, Jamrach gives young Jaffy a job at his warehouse, where he imports and sells a diverse menagerie of exotic creatures: a lion with the “stern, sad face of a scholar,” snakes “faintly flexing upon one another like ropes coiled high on the quay,” and a giraffe, “immense, coming down at me from the sky to wet me with the heat of it flexing nostrils.”
Jaffy is enchanted by the animals and grows to love his job dearly. He becomes half-friend and half-enemy to an employee a few years older than him, Tim Linver, as well as falling in love with Tim’s sister Ishbel. They grow up together on the filthy streets of Dickensian London, and when Jaffy is sixteen, he and Tim find themselves dispatched by Jamrach to the Dutch East Indies, charged with finding and capturing a mysterious “dragon.”
Jamrach’s Menagerie is one of the novels on the Booker shortlist that I was most looking forward to reading, largely based on its intriguing plot synopsis. And the novel, while dripping with deserved literary grandeur, certainly has that wonderful sense of adventure to it: leaving London behind on the “watery road” of the Thames, serving aboard a whale ship, the serene volcanoes of the Azores, and the culmination of the dragon expedition on a stifling tropical island swarming with terrifying monsters. Yet it’s what comes after all this that truly makes the novel: a calamity befalls the ship, and the story suddenly leaps from a rollicking boy’s adventure into a struggle for survival that is grisly, horrifying and profoundly sad. I don’t want to spoil anything, but those of you familiar with the notorious tale of the whaleship Essex should be able to guess what lies in store for the crew.
This sounds like a very disconcerting jump, and it was to a degree, but Birch is a hugely talented writer who is able to make the novel’s various parts – Dickensian urchin days, mariner’s adventure, monster-hunting expedition, survival at sea, and bittersweet homecoming wracked with guilt – come together without ever straining the flow of the story. I was personally ambivalent about the first half of the novel, and felt that it only truly began to pick up once the crew landed on Komodo Island; however, beyond the wreck of the ship, I was completely hooked and finished it in one sitting. Jamrach’s Menagerie is an excellent, multi-layered novel that combines an exotic adventure with a more subtle story about the sweetness of life and the inevitability of death, and it’s one of those books that I’m certain would only grow stronger with multiple readings.
A very serious contender, definitely knocking Half-Blood Blues out of the running. It would be a worthy winner, too, superior to several other Booker winners I’ve read in the past.
Jamrach’s Menagerie at The Book Depository
I hadn’t read nearly enough of the Booker longlist to make an informed prediction before it was announced yesterday, but I did anyway, on Twitter…
#manbookerprize shortlist prediction: stranger’s child, pigeon english, on canaan’s side, jamrach’s menagerie, sense of an ending, far to go
…and was way off the mark. The actual shortlist is:
Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman
Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt
Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan
The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch
2 out of 6 is pretty bad, but I’m actually quite pleased with the real selection. My shortlist prediction was based around the idea that more interesting, unconventional genre works would be excluded, because for some reason I imagine the Booker panel to be comprised of people like David Stratton, who cluck their tongues and stroke their beards when given something unconventional.
So it’s a shame I wasted weeks slogging through Alan Hollinghurst’s ten-kilogram novel The Stranger’s Child, but on the bright side I now have a number of books I look forward to reading. I’ve already read Half-Blood Blues, and wrongly bet that it wouldn’t make the shortlist, but I still doubt it will win. I’m currently halfway through Jamrach’s Menagerie, and not enjoying it as much as I thought I would, but it is starting to pick up a bit. I particularly look forward to reading The Sisters Brothers, a rollicking Western adventure, and Snowdrops, a literary thriller set in Moscow. The Sense of an Ending is the most firmly literary of the group, but is also quite slim and will be a breeze to read; Pigeon English is a tale about African immigrants and gang warfare in London, which I suspected would be shortlisted after the recent riots gave it a topical boost.
I’m not going to make a prediction for winner yet, but I’m definitely going to read all of them and do so before the winner is announced in October. And they’ll doubtless pick the wrong one, and I’ll bitch and moan about it, but this year I’ll be qualified to do so!
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
It’s been a while since I issued myself a good challenge, but after being all bitter and cynical about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet not winning the Booker prize last year (or even advancing beyond the longlist), despite the fact that I hadn’t read a single one of the other contenders, I’ve been toying with the idea of reading every Booker nominee in 2011. Of course, there’s only a few months between the announcement of the longlist and the awarding of the prize, so for the last few months I’ve been making shrewd predictions about which books might make the longlist, so that I wouldn’t have to scramble so much once it was announced. I just started reading this year’s Miles Franklin winner, That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, which didn’t make the list. I also suspected Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child would be on it, because even a smash repair apprentice in Toowomba could have figured that out. And that was about it. So my predictive skills are about as sharp as federal Labor’s PR skills, and scramble I shall.
The 2011 longlist was released a few hours ago. I hereby challenge myself to have read every potential Booker winner before the prize is announced on the 18th of October. (This gives me some wriggle room; if I pick wisely, I can avoid reading any books that don’t make the shortlist, announced on September 6th.)
I haven’t heard of most of these books (or authors, for that matter) so let’s do some googling to pull up some promotional blurbs.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (England)
Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they navigated the girl drought of gawky adolescence together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they swore to stay friends forever. Until Adrian’s life took a turn into tragedy, and all of them, especially Tony, moved on and did their best to forget.
Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a marriage, a calm divorce. He gets along nicely, he thinks, with his one child, a daughter, and even with his ex-wife. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove. The unexpected bequest conveyed by that letter leads Tony on a dogged search through a past suddenly turned murky. And how do you carry on, contentedly, when events conspire to upset all your vaunted truths?
On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry (Ireland)
‘As they used to say in Ireland, the devil only comes into good things.’ Narrated by Lilly Bere, On Canaan’s Side opens as she mourns the loss of her grandson, Bill. The story then goes back to the moment she was forced to flee Dublin, at the end of the First World War, and follows her life through into the new world of America, a world filled with both hope and danger. At once epic and intimate, Lilly’s narrative unfurls as she tries to make sense of the sorrows and troubles of her life and of the people whose lives she has touched. Spanning nearly seven decades, it is a novel of memory, war, family-ties and love, which once again displays Sebastian Barry’s exquisite prose and gift for storytelling.
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (England)
‘I was born twice. First in wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.’ 1857. Jaffy Brown is running along a street in London’s East End when he comes face to face with an escaped circus animal. Plucked from the jaws of death by Mr Jamrach – explorer, entrepreneur and collector of the world’s strangest creatures – the two strike up a friendship. Before he knows it, Jaffy finds himself on board a ship bound for the Dutch East Indies, on an unusual commission for Mr Jamrach. His journey – if he survives it – will push faith, love and friendship to their utmost limits. Brilliantly written and utterly spellbinding, Carol Birch’s epic novel brings alive the smells, sights and flavours of the nineteenth century, from the docks of London to the storms of the Indian Ocean. This great salty historical adventure is a gripping exploration of our relationship to the natural world and the wildness it contains.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (Canada)
Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn’t share his brother’s appetite for whiskey and killing, he’s never known anything else. But their prey isn’t an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm’s gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living–and whom he does it for.
With The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt pays homage to the classic Western, transforming it into an unforgettable comic tour de force. Filled with a remarkable cast of characters–losers, cheaters, and ne’er-do-wells from all stripes of life–and told by a complex and compelling narrator, it is a violent, lustful odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier that beautifully captures the humor, melancholy, and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence, and love.
Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Canada)
This is a new part of an old story: 1930s Berlin, the threat of imprisonment and the powerful desire to make something beautiful despite the horror. Chip told us not to go out. Said, don’t you boys tempt the devil. But it’s been one brawl of a night, I tell you. The aftermath of the fall of Paris, 1940. Hieronymous Falk, a rising star on the cabaret scene, was arrested in a cafe and never heard from again. He was twenty years old. He was a German citizen. And he was black. Fifty years later, Sid, Hiero’s bandmate and the only witness that day, is going back to Berlin. Persuaded by his old friend Chip, Sid discovers there’s more to the journey than he thought when Chip shares a mysterious letter, bringing to the surface secrets buried since Hiero’s fate was settled. In “Half Blood Blues”, Esi Edugyan weaves the horror of betrayal, the burden of loyalty and the possibility that, if you don’t tell your story, someone else might tell it for you. And they just might tell it wrong…
A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards (England)
It’s been fourteen years since Jinx’s mother was brutally stabbed to death in their home in East London. Fourteen years for Jinx to become accustomed to the huge weight of guilt and anger that has destroyed her life. Fourteen years to nurture an impossible shame. Out of nowhere, Lemon arrives on her doorstep. An old friend of her mother’s, he wants to revisit the events leading to that terrible night, and Jinx sees the opportunity to confess, finally, her hand in the violence. But Lemon has his own secrets to share, and over the course of one weekend they strip away the layers of the past to lay bare a story full of jealousy and tragic betrayal. Narrated with a distinct and fiery spice, Jinx and Lemon must find their own paths to redemption in this stunning debut novel.
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (England)
Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel in seven years is a magnificent, century-spanning saga about a love triangle that spawns a myth—and a family mystery—across generations.
In 1913, George Sawle brings charming, handsome Cecil Valance to his family’s modest home outside London for a summer weekend. George is enthralled by his Cambridge schoolmate, and soon his sixteen-year-old sister, Daphne, is equally besotted by both Cecil and the stories he tells about Corley Court, the country estate he is heir to. But what Cecil writes in Daphne’s autograph album will change their and their families’ lives forever: a poem that, after Cecil is killed in the Great War and his reputation burnished, will be recited by every schoolchild in England. Over time, a tragic love story is spun, even as other secrets lie buried—until, decades later, an ambitious biographer threatens to unearth them.
Rich with the author’s signature gifts—haunting sensuality, wicked humor, and exquisite lyricism—The Stranger’s Child is a tour de force: a masterly novel about the lingering power of desire, and about how the heart creates its own history.
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (England)
Newly arrived from Ghana with his mother and older sister, eleven-year-old Harrison Opoku lives on the ninth floor of a block of flats on an inner-city housing estate. The second best runner in the whole of Year 7, Harri races through his new life in his personalised trainers – the Adidas stripes drawn on with marker pen – blissfully unaware of the very real threat all around him. With equal fascination for the local gang – the Dell Farm Crew – and the pigeon who visits his balcony, Harri absorbs the many strange elements of his new life in England: watching, listening, and learning the tricks of urban survival. But when a boy is knifed to death on the high street and a police appeal for witnesses draws only silence, Harri decides to start a murder investigation of his own. In doing so, he unwittingly endangers the fragile web his mother has spun around her family to try and keep them safe. A story of innocence and experience, hope and harsh reality, Pigeon English is a spellbinding portrayal of a boy balancing on the edge of manhood and of the forces around him that try to shape the way he falls.
The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuiness (Wales)
The socialist state is in crisis, the shops are empty and old Bucharest vanishes daily under the onslaught of Ceaucescu’s demolition gangs. Paranoia is pervasive and secret service men lurk in the shadows. In The Last 100 Days, Patrick McGuinness creates an absorbing sense of time and place as the city struggles to survive this intense moment in history. He evokes a world of extremity and ravaged beauty from the viewpoint of an outsider uncomfortably, and often dangerously, close to the eye of the storm as the regime of 1980s Romania crumbles to a bloody end.
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (England)
Nick Platt is an English lawyer living in Moscow during the wild Russian oil boom. Riding the subway on a balmy September day, he rescues two willowy sisters, Masha and Katya, from a would-be purse snatcher.
Nick soon begins to feel something for Masha that he is pleased to believe is love. As the snow starts to fall, the sisters introduce him to Tatiana Vladimirovna, their aged aunt and the owner of a valuable apartment. Before summer arrives, Nick will travel down to the sweaty Black Sea and up to the Arctic, and he’ll make disturbing discoveries about his job, his lover and, most of all, himself.
Snowdrops is a fast-paced drama that unfolds during a beautiful but lethally cold Russian winter. Ostensibly a story of naive foreigners and cynical natives, the novel becomes something richer and darker: a tale of erotic obsession, self-deception and moral freefall. It is set in a land of hedonism and desperation, corruption and kindness, magical hideaways and debauched nightclubs; a place where secrets, and corpses, come to light when the snows thaw.
Far to Go by Alison Pick (Canada)
When Czechoslovakia relinquishes the Sudetenland to Hitler, the powerful influence of Nazi propaganda sweeps through towns and villages like a sinister vanguard of the Reich’s advancing army. A fiercely patriotic secular Jew, Pavel Bauer is helpless to prevent his world from unraveling as first his government, then his business partners, then his neighbors turn their back on his affluent, once-beloved family. Only the Bauers’ adoring governess, Marta, sticks by Pavel, his wife, Anneliese, and their little son, Pepik, bound by her deep affection for her employers and friends. But when Marta learns of their impending betrayal at the hands of her lover, Ernst, Pavel’s best friend, she is paralyzed by her own fear of discovery—even as the endangered family for whom she cares so deeply struggles with the most difficult decision of their lives.
Interwoven with a present-day narrative that gradually reveals the fate of the Bauer family during and after the war, Far to Go is a riveting family epic, love story, and psychological drama.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (Scotland)
Jessie Lamb is an ordinary girl living in extraordinary times: as her world collapses, her idealism and courage drive her towards the ultimate act of heroism. If the human race is to survive, it’s up to her. Set just a month or two in the future, in a world irreparably altered by an act of biological terrorism, The Testament of Jessie Lamb explores a young woman’s determination to make her life count for something, as the certainties of her childhood are ripped apart.
Derby Day by D.J. Taylor (England)
As the shadows lengthen over the June grass, all England is heading for Epsom Downs – high life and low life, society beauties and Whitechapel street girls, bookmakers and gypsies, hawkers and acrobats, punters and thieves. Whole families stream along the Surrey back-roads, towards the greatest race of the year. Hopes are high, nerves are taut, hats are tossed in the air – this is Derby Day. For months people have been waiting and plotting for this day. Even in dark November, when the wind whistles through the foggy London courts, the alehouses and gentlemen’s clubs echo to the sound of disputed odds. In Belgrave Square old Mr Gresham is baffled by his tigerish daughter Rebecca, whose intentions he cannot fathom. In the clubs of St James’ rakish Mr Happerton plays billiards with his crony Captain Raff, while in darkest Lincolnshire sad Mr Davenant broods over his financial embarrassments and waits for his daughter’s new governess. Across the channel the veteran burglar Mr Pardew is packing his bags to return, to the consternation of the stalwart detective Captain McTurk. Everywhere money jingles and plans are laid. Uniting them all is the champion horse Tiberius, on whose performance half a dozen destinies depend. In this rich and exuberant novel, rife with the idioms of Victorian England, the mysteries pile high, propelling us towards the day of the great race, and we wait with bated breath as the story gallops to a finish that no one expects.
Overall: the only book on this list I know anything about is Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, because conventional wisdom dictated it was a shoe-in for the prize. I’ve never read any of Hollinghurst’s previous books, though I do feel spiteful towards him for stealing David Mitchell’s Booker in 2004. I was also hoping it wouldn’t be nominated, because it’s the size of a phone book, which will make reading all 12 of these difficult. So that’s a good start! I’ve also heard of Snowdrops, Pigeon English and Jamrach’s Menagerie, since we stock all of those at my store, but I didn’t know anything about them until just now.
Of the books on offer, Jamrach’s Menagerie, The Sisters Brothers and The Testament of Jessie Lamb seem the most intriguing, since they all break out of the Booker-bait mould. Smart money is already on The Stranger’s Child, though, since it cosies itself into the Booker-bait mould like a cat into an occupied bed on a rainy morning.
This year’s selection continues the British-centric trend of recent years: only three of the authors on the list aren’t from England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales, and they’re all Canadian.
That conclues my half-aware 3 am ramblings. I have 83 days to get through this list; if I’m canny enough I don’t have to read all of them. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!