Tuesday, August 28, 2007

up close and personal

Mohsin Hamid adopts a distinctive tone for The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Over a number of hours Changez sits at a café table in Lahore speaking to an unnamed American. Through the course of his confessional monologue we learn of his experiences in America before and after the pivotal 9/11 attacks.

I dislike first person narration as I don’t like to be forced into someone elses shoes - and the shoes don’t get much tighter than this. But despite my reservations I am drawn in. What starts as discomfort and a desire to tear myself away becomes a compulsion, a need to stick this out to see how it ends.

Within the novels limited length Hamid gives us tasters without fully heaping our plate. The American is never given voice, we can only imagine what he has said based on Changez reactions, but the American still manages to annoy with his constant jumping, complaining and suspicions.

Some of the warmest sections of the novel are when we are shown interactions between individuals as opposed to nations, between men and women, between Changez and Erica -

‘I had begun to understand that she has chosen not to be part of my story; her own had proven too compelling, and she was - at that moment and in her own way - following it to its conclusion, passing through places I could not reach.’

Another theme that Hamid skilfully threads throughout is the role of film. On his arrival Changez uses knowledge of American films as a currency to buy his way into social acceptance, sharing exchanges of Top Gun dialogue at a job induction. But film later takes on a negative role when the collapse of the World Trade towers appears to be almost unreal, and when America goes to war Changez again observes how they act as if in a film.

Changez disappointment and animosity towards the United States builds steadily throughout by which time he has provided ample evidence to support his change of heart. But it is only near the very end that he distils this evidence into one clear statement of accusation, still delivered in measured, calm eloquence.

‘As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums…’

With this neat little novel Hamid has sat us down at his table and told a warm but sad tale of isolation, of people reaching out and failing to find someone willing to grasp their hand, of a country willing to greet when it suits but quick to turn its back when it doesn’t. Hamid has kept to his chosen path throughout and has not allowed himself to get carried away or side-tracked, but I doubt I would have chosen to walk his way if not for the Booker longlist.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

missing in action

What Was Lost is another novel split in two by time and shared between joint narrators. This time history is 1984 contrasted with 2003 and all narrators have four letter names, Kate, Kurt and Lisa. Packed with timely cultural references, it’s a very modern novel and a very British one at that. Easy to read while being well written and tightly plotted - every character has a purpose and all loose ends are neatly tied by the end.

The standout of this novel is the tone of the writing, which is almost exclusively one of ironic observation. O’Flynn handles this tones very well, and for the most part it is genuinely amusing.

‘The school had already had a talk from a boy with one foot who had lost the other playing on the railway tracks. Kate had a gruesome image of teachers from competing schools bidding for injured children at the local hospital and ascribing a range of childhood misdemeanours to them, ‘I’ve got a paraplegic little girl here, ideal for stamping out leaning back on chairs.’ ‘This almost-blind boy, ideal for carrot promotion.’

But while this view of life works well for the jaded adults working in the Green Oaks shopping centre at times it seems a little overly knowing in the hands of the ten year old Kate. The comic tone also weighs heavily as one reads deeper into the novel, and realises that every character carries a burden of loss. In the face of more than an average share of damaged lives it starts to ring with a note of desperation, and the laughs turn to wheezes.

O’Flynn centres her novel on the watchers and the watched. Contrasting Kate with her detective notebook and monkey sidekick with the latter day 24/7 CCTV. She shows that however much we watch we always seem to be looking away at the wrong moment, and people slip through those holes.

‘Patches of scorched earth almost bleached white by the constant surveillance of so many different eyes.’

At one point in the novel the characters say they feel like subjects in a nature documentary and I felt that the novel as a whole tended to this. An overdose of minutiae, I wanted to draw back and look at the bigger picture. Up close people look alien and strange, whereas with distance people have a chance to assume a normal balanced form, with some of their misery not quite so glaring.

O’Flynn show great strength when giving straight faced descriptions of sadness and loss,

‘The climbing frame was a tubular metal igloo. The metal had rusted in parts and when the wind blew, as it did today, the rushing air found empty screw holes and fissures in the frame and played a sad tune on the pipes.’

I hope in future writing Catherine O’Flynn feels brave enough to dive into the deep end of the misery pool and less impelled to make us laugh because for me its her bleakest writing that is her best.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

questionable aside

As I’m nearing the end of What Was Lost, and considering the review I will write I keep coming back to thoughts about prize nominated novels. I wonder whether I have higher expectations of a book because I have been told it has been longlisted. That it has been selected by a panel of judges, who I assume know their fiction, out of 110 other nominated novels. Surely that’s got to have filtered out a lot of rubbish? Surely these 13 should be very good books? the best of their kind?

Am I overly harsh in my assessment of these books because of my high expectations? If I stumbled across one in a bargain bin, or a charity shop shelf, knowing nothing of its pedigree, brought it home and read it, would my verdict be different?

I’ve also been pondering the overlap between prizes. What Was Lost was longlisted for the Orange Prize and now for the Booker. From this years Orange longlist only one other made it to the Booker longlist (that being Carry Me Down which popped up last year). Were no other Orange listers good enough to make the Booker grade? And what of the novels on the Booker longlist by women who didn’t get a mention on the Orange list? does the Orange list set its sights lower? or seek something different from its novels? something more inherently womanly? or is the Booker still trying to be a step more high-brow that other literary prizes?

All idle speculation and no answers. Time to get back to the reading.

Friday, August 17, 2007

a tale of two cities

Consolation struck me as a very traditional novel. Michael Redhill presents us with a handful of characters and lets them unroll their story for us - and when modern novels try hard to be different this old-style storytelling comes as a treat. Although at times, particularly toward the last third, the telling can feel a little long-winded.

Set in Toronto, the narrative is split equally between Jem Hallam in 1855 and David Hollis in 1997. Both are men struggling to make way through life. To stand out, achieve reputation, to make their families proud. One lives in a city just emerging, forging its place on the surface of a developing world. The other in a city re-developing, currently building a new sports arena on top of a landfill.

Redhill does not scrimp on detail - each era is alive with its own sounds and flavours.

‘Then he turned his camera to the ground and stared at horrors. Tatterdemalion children worn out from eating hard bread; mad forms against lampposts, stinking of spirits and harbouring rumours.’

Throughout my reading I felt that the earlier era seemed more alive than the later. I wonder if this is because much of it is viewed through the framing eye of Hallams camera, in the same way that modern films seem to glow with a colour and vivacity often brighter than real life?

History raises is woolly head on nearly every page as we dip between past and present. The reader must take care not to become dizzy, at times it is tempting to linger in the old days, which seem tinted with greater hope than our own.

‘A century ago, there was no past to abandon. Maybe that was better. Those citizens had only wanted to live, among their people, in places they had build for themselves.’

Consolation is well crafted, well told novel of relationships of people to their pasts and each other. It is a novel of how people and places are made and eventually unmade, a novel about living and dying within ones own time.

‘Marianne has always thought that in earlier times people took death in stride, that they weren’t as attached to each other as people were in her own. It was to be expected that, in the rude unfinished world, people would be lost.’

One morning while I read this book I watched a snail eat a peanut outside my door. The two went well together. Each, like archaeology (another theme of the novel) repay patience with a slow but sure build of pleasure and satisfaction.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

something heavy this way comes

Another batch of books has arrived. And they are getting bigger. Darkmans is closer to a small house than a book. Regardless of its content, physically its going to be a challenging read. Call me a coward but I’m planning to put off the larger volumes to the end.

So I’m reading Consolation by Michael Redhill next. It’s a funny little book, a very small but thick hardcover, with strangely floppy pages. The cover art reminds me of some kind of point-and-click underwater adventure game.

According to my lists I have read his previous novel Martin Sloane, but I can recall nothing about it. But there it is - August 2003. Sandwiched between If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (Jon McGregor) which I vividly remember liking immensely and buying for quite a few friends, and Man Kills Woman (D.L. Flusfeder) which I recall as being quite naff and having an odd artistic impression cover.

So I’ll have to see if Consolation makes a more lasting impression.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

a crowded house

Yet another Irish family saga? The Gathering has all the key ingredients of any Irish saga (which the novel acknowledges at one point) - drinking, overcrowding, child death, domestic violence, gambling, child abuse and Catholicism. But Anne Enright manages to lift the form to a new level largely due to her central character, Veronica Hegarty.

Veronica is a modern woman, relatively successful, relatively happy - trying to make sense of her life in the light of her brothers death.

‘I could pick up my keys and go ‘home’ where I could ‘have sex’ with my ‘husband’ just like lots of other people did. This is what I had been doing for years. And I didn’t seem to mind the inverted commas, or even notice that I was living in them, until my brother died.’

To try to understand how brother Liam came to be a body in a box laid out in the family lounge, Veronica wanders back through family memory. But this is not a sepia-tinted postcard past. These are truths told with unashamed clarity, and a need to lay blame where blame is due.

We rapidly realise that the process of memory is as important as the facts it unearths. Veronica shows how memory is elusive - it can flitter, jumble and distort the things you think you know. At times, looking through the Hegarty past feels like a child’s flicker book with the pages in the wrong order.

But while the mind might play the trickster, the body never lies. And the body is an ever present character throughout this novel, with best supporting role coming from the penis! The body has a permanence which lasts even through physical decomposition. The body adds weight to anchor Veronica and to prevent her narrative from drifting into dizzy existential heights.

‘I would love to leave my body. Maybe this is what they are about, these questions of which or whose hole, the right fluids in the wrong places, these infantile confusions and small sadisms: they are a way of fighting our way out of all this meat’

I enjoyed my first longlist read. The story itself is nothing new, but the telling sets it apart. I’m not willing to commit myself yet as to whether this should make the shortlist, I need some others to compare it with. But if the mark of a good book is how long it lasts in the readers memory then The Gathering is a good book. Enright tells a story in bruises - each doesn’t hurt much in itself - but they build to a colourful mess and are slow to fade.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

on your marks, get set

An unfriendly face greets us most mornings. Thankfully his intrusion is often sweetened by a handful of books. This morning he handed over one Special Delivery package (a kind Amazonian marketplace seller must have realised how impatient I am!) and muttered that there would be more along later. A couple of hours on and a red van plus man hands me 4 more parcels. Two are Bookmooches, which will remain on the To Be Read shelf until after the Booker quest. And three are further Booker longlist titles.

So now I have four, and I’m ready to go. I have to choose somewhere to start, so I am opting for The Gathering by Anne Enright. It seems a gentle place to begin. I see its an Irish family saga - is it just me or are there a lot of those about? Time to choose a bookmark, brew a cup of tea and turn the first page.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

a good crop

Having had an evening to read over the various synopsis for this years longlisted titles, do I regret placing orders for all of them? Not at all - in fact the stories sound like a fairly mixed and interesting bunch.

Three titles by authors who I have read before - Nicola Barker, Ian McEwan and Michael Redhill. Its always good to read familiar authors as you can judge how the novel rates compared to their previous efforts.

The books seem to cover quite a lot of distance both in time and geography - so I should get a pleasant mix of flavours. A couple of themes that seem to have appeared in a few novels of late - post 9/11 reflections (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and the disappearing child (What Was Lost).

Some of the novels seem quite lengthy, clocking in at over 400 pages, but a few are under that so hopefully it should balance out.

Initial impressions draw me towards Gifted and Animal’s People, and make me a little wary of The Gift of Rain and Consolation - but I remind myself that many a book turns out to be better than the cover blurb suggests.

Now I just need to tidy up a few loose ends with my current reading and wait for the first package to arrive.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

at last

After a frustrating afternoon of refreshing and waiting for the Booker judges to announce the longlist here it is -
  • Nicola Barker - Darkmans
  • Edward Docx - Self Help
  • Tan Twan Eng - The Gift Of Rain
  • Anne Enright - The Gathering
  • Mohsin Hamid - The Reluctant Fundamentalist
  • Peter Ho Davies - The Welsh Girl
  • Lloyd Jones - Mister Pip
  • Nikita Lalwani - Gifted
  • Ian McEwan - On Chesil Beach
  • Catherine O'Flynn - What Was Lost
  • Michael Redhill - Consolation
  • Indra Sinha - Animal's People
  • A. N. Wilson - Winnie & Wolf

This year, with the help from the scaled down longlist, I aim to read all 13 books in time for the prize winner announcement. To avoid any dangers of reading the blurb and deciding I don't fancy any particular book I have placed orders online for all the books having read nothing about them. I am now quite worried about what I may have let myself in for. I have ordered the books from various sources in the hope that at least a few titles will arrive quite quickly so I can begin my reading (although Winnie & Wolf is not yet published!). Further thoughts on the list tomorrow!

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

any day now

The Booker Prize website states -

'The longlist of titles under serious consideration for the prize will be announced in early August. In a change for 2007 the longlist will be confined to the "Man Booker Dozen". The shortlist of six books will be announced in early September. The Man Booker Prize 2007 winner will be announced on television at the Guildhall at an awards ceremony on 16th October 2007.'

I say bring it on!!!