Friday, October 14, 2011

it's not the winning

This year I have read 9 out of the 13 Booker longlisted titles.  And I have one more on my shelf still to read. 

If I had been on the Booker judging panel I would have fought hard to get the Alison Pick and the Sebastian Barry onto the shortlist as I thought both were stronger novels than some that made the cut.

But out of the shortlist I’m torn between the Barnes and the DeWitt – and it was really only the rather abrupt ending that let the Barnes down for me.  But overall The Sisters Brothers was the best of the shortlist for me, plenty to think about, beautifully written, challenging expectations and hopefully shaking up critics who wrote it off as a genre novel.  Surely it’s about how a book is written rather than the predominant content than counts?
And if I were to hazard a guess at who the Booker panel will crown winner – I’d say they might pick Pigeon English.

I can’t wait till Tuesday to find out if I’m right…

the final four

Contrary to what this blog suggests I’ve actually read the entire Booker shortlist - helped no doubt by absence of any 600 page epics and the overall readability of the novels.  The very readability that a new literature prize, just announced, seems to attempt to challenge.  Now I don’t have a problem with readability, but equally I felt rather let down by most of the Booker books I read this year – none of them seemed to bear the mark of a truly special book, a standout winner from recently published literature.  Perhaps my ambivalence to most of the novels explains my lack of blogging about them…

But, in advance of the prize announcement on Tuesday I wanted to briefly summarise my thoughts on those I haven’t yet mentioned, and thereby justify picking my own winner.

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending felt like the obligatory wordy, witty man’s book – but I rapidly found myself warming to it.  The characters were as believable as they were irritating.  The narrators self-confessed unreliability as he takes a handful of memories and fleshes them out spoke so strongly of human truth – how would our own lives be any different if we tried to do the same?  Barnes subtly presents Tony’s priorities with pages of the narrative devoted to his friendship and only the odd paragraph to his wife and child.

I feared that The Sisters Brothers was going to be a bit silly, but I was wrong – Patrick DeWitt wrote a surprisingly sensitive story.  Scene by scene we are offered characters more outlandish than the last but our brothers, particularly Eli are there to guide us and help us make sense of this strange land - ‘The harbor, at first sight, I did not understand it.  There were so many ships at anchor that their masts looked to be tangled impossibly; hundreds of them packed together so densely as to give the appearance of a vast, limbless forest rolling on the tides’.  Despite all the killings and surgical procedures not a lot actually happens, it’s more like a catalogue of near misses, but enjoyable to witness nonetheless, and throughout the plot acts as an efficient backdrop for the portrait of the brothers.

Pigeon English was also a character led novel and I enjoyed time spent in Harrison’s company.  Stephen Kelman gave him a distinctive voice and world view and it was pure pleasure to witness familiar things through his eyes - ‘The devil is stronger here because the buildings are too high.’.  And the pigeon gets my vote for best supporting actor – I could have read an entire book focused on him alone.  Sadly I felt the novel as a whole was quite weak, it seemed to drift and then peter out quite suddenly and I was left feeling that Kelman had somewhat wasted a strong character on a weak plot.

And my last Booker trip was in the hands of Carol Birch aboard the good ship Jamrach’s Menagerie.  Initially feeling like a cross between Oliver Twist and Doctor Doolittle I had high hopes, immediately revelling in her descriptive skills – ‘We went up a ladder to a place where there was a beast like a pie, a great lizard mad and grinning, and monkeys, many monkeys, a stew of human nature, a bone pile of it, a wall, a dream of small faces’.  I’m a long-time fan of seafaring stories and usually can’t wait to set sail.  But a strange thing happened here - once we took to the waters my interest started to sink, and like the characters themselves I found myself craving a return to dry land, and when we did things seemed to pick up again.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

a bit on the side

In On Canaan’s Side we find ourselves at the mercy of another confessional novel.  Lilly’s days (and chapters) may be ordered and consecutive but her memories roam far and wide.  Always a comforting travelling companion, she leads safely us through time as well as across the miles. 

‘To remember sometimes is a great sorrow, but when the remembering has been done, there comes afterwards a very curious peacefulness.  Because you have planted your flag on the summit of sorrow.  You have climbed it.’

From her childhood and her subsequent escape to America, her early days there as troubled as those she left behind.  The usual wide-eyed wonder (‘How were there ladders long enough to get bricks up so high?’) balanced by the later perspective of someone who has seen many years of life pass them by (‘Tears have a better character cried alone.’). Powerful set pieces (like the rollercoaster scene) are peppered with little details about her day-to-day life, visitors and doctors appointments.

Sebastian Barry addresses issues many of us will face, the real stuff of human life, but always manages to spotlight them in striking and poetic ways.  And it is his character creation that enables him to do this – in the process challenging my assumptions about spending so much time in the narrative company of a little old lady.  That she could be holding such a story, such truth, at times so brutal never ceased to amaze me.  I’m glad I’ve bumped into Barry again (we first met a few Bookers back), and through him Lilly – I hope others do too.

introducing the band

Like the Edwards novel Half Blood Blues is a story built upon seemingly minor actions and their eventual undesirable consequences.  We see seeds of trouble sown early – jealousy over a woman, shame in front of one’s peers, rivalry both personal and professional. 

Through Sid Edugyan quickly fills us in on how things were in both Paris and Berlin during the Second World War, particularly if you were black or part black.  This was one of those novels where you are presented a scene you think you are familiar with, then told to look more closely, at a detail you’d previously overlooked – and there the story lies.  Perhaps a lazy comparison, but Levy’s Small Island came to mind – although that achieved it’s aim better for me.

Initially I was impressed – I felt like I was getting a decent dose of story-telling.  Sid swiftly sketching an outline of what happened and then we would wait for the details to be filled in, the characters to be fleshed out.  But sadly this never quite happened - few of the cast were as strongly defined as Sid.  A group of characters was clearly needed to support the storyline, but I was surprised that the star they all revolved around, Heiro, stayed largely superficial to the reader.

In addition and perhaps inevitably the novel relied quite heavily on the appeal of the jazz scene, which whilst atmospherically rendered (‘We sat at the knifed-up chairs, while he snapped a tan handkerchief out of his front pocket and whisked the nutshells and cigarette butts to the floor.  His eyes glistened like beetles.’) never has quite the same appeal that audible music holds, especially not for a reader who doesn’t happen to be a jazz fan.  

Friday, August 12, 2011

something for the weekend

In Snowdrops the relevance of the title doesn’t appear until near the end, whereas Edwards introduces the eponymous cupboard by page 20. From the first pages we are dragged into the story, its past and its present and plenty of suggestions that we will be shown how one becomes the other. This foreshadowing never kills the story though, never spoils what will come.

Edwards manipulates Jinx in a way that allows her to slide effortlessly through time, making a bed will allow a lengthy digression about her marriage breakdown and when she snaps back to the present we feel little sense of dislocation. It feels realistic, true to how our thoughts can roam. At other times Lemon will lead Jinx down memory’s lanes, while at other times she knows the way herself.

The characters are guarded and vulnerable at the same time, they are warm blooded and we feel a genuine sense of intimacy, of their desire to share their story in a way that Nicholas Snowdrop never quite achieved. Jinx is more than willing to let us judge her, but will we?

Cultural details form a foundation for the A Cupboard Full of Coats, they are never merely used as colour and flavour. Much like Lemon’s cooking, we are not just impressed at first taste, but left satisfied and full by the portrait Edwards offers. We don’t just witness a girl growing into a woman and the incidental things that happen to her, instead we witness blow by blow the cuts that shape the distinct individual she becomes, complete with smooth and jagged edges.

a problem shared

The first two novels I read from this years Booker longlist both dealt with the narrator offering the reader a confession - a tale of their downfall and the part they played in it.

In Miller’s Snowdrops the reader is positioned alongside the ‘you’ that is the narrators fiancĂ© - the one he is confessing all to in the hope that she will still stand by him. We are left to wonder what we would do if we were in her shoes? I felt like we learned quite a bit about the silent English girlfriend, to the degree where I felt I’d like to meet her, to hear her response to Nicholas’ tale.

As backdrop for the confession we get a swift portrait of Russian, mostly Moscow, and these details were skilfully handled, for me Miller at his best. He scatters contrasts between beauty and corruption liberally through his pages. However, after a while it felt like he was making the same point over and over and it’s power began to wane.

It is a novel of people more than politics – towards the end it is the lies about childhood and background and the little things that bite more deeply than the bigger deceptions. Love, friendship and the stories we share matter far more than money.

The atmosphere is one of wall to wall suspicion, in Miller’s Russia even the weather can’t be trusted. But in the end even the reader doubts themself, questioning whether perhaps we haven’t missed something, something vital heart of the story that feels strangely absent.