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.