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Posts Tagged ‘The Man Booker Prize 2012’

A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella. (James Joyce, Ulysses)

Surely the phrase “it’s worth the struggle” when applied to a book one is about to read is a phrase to strike fear into the heart of any reader. Yet that is one phrase that seemed to come out of several reviews that I read about this Booker shortlisted novel. Irritatingly it might actually be true. I have to say that a modernist, stream of consciousness is not my idea of a literary good time. It is in fact the kind of writing I generally avoid. There were times when reading this novel – that I lost my way a bit – there were moments when I found myself thinking “what the ..” however I didn’t hate it – I actually rather liked it. It is a challenge – and I do think that the novel will carry on dividing opinion – and it may also, I’m afraid, disengage many readers who feel life is just too short.

“Umbrellas are never contracted for, only mysteriously acquired, to be fleetingly useful, then annoying and cumbersome before eventually being lost.”

The story – don’t worry there is a story, and a good one – concerns Dr Zack Busner and his work in the 1970’s with a group of patients at the Friern hospital in London. The patients are those suffering from encephalitis lethargica – contracted around the time of the First World War. One patient in particular interests Busner – Audrey Death. The story of Dr Busner’s work with his trusty side kick psychiatric nurse Mboya is woven into the story of Audrey’s life and that of her two brothers during the First World War. Audrey, a working class girl born in 1890, becomes a feminist and a munitions worker, at the London Arsenal where her bother Albert launches his career, ending up in charge of the place itself. When Audrey contracts the sleeping sickness that swept the world at this time, her brother Stanley is missing, while Albert is coming up in the world. Busner’s relationship with Mboya and his patients is what really engaged me. The world of the huge Victorian asylums that by the 1970s were coming to an end is a horrifying one, the image of catatonic human beings left for decades to merely exist with little if any intervention is one to make anyone shudder. In 2010 an ageing Busner, returns to where the Friern hospital was, to contemplate his work.

“Nostalgia, he thinks, more and more of it will be needed to tranquillise the collective psychosis of a steadily ageing population. And he would have reached for an appropriate Biro were he not having such a bad day.”

The non-linear structure of this novel makes it hard work at times. There are very long sentences – paragraphs which go for pages – no chapters, and the different story strands weave in and out of one another. There are times when decades pass in the middle of a sentence, so the reader really needs to keep their wits about them, and so it is certainly not a quick read.
As regards the Booker Prize, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it win, it wouldn’t be my choice as winner – but it is clever and the prose is really very good. However I don’t think a book that so many people will be put off reading – or that will start and give up on – should win. For me the prize should be about celebrating books that are beautifully written, certainly, but also books that people want to read and engage with, I’m not sure Umbrella is that kind of book.

 

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“Because now there’s time enough not to hurry, to light the lamp and open the window to the moon and take a moment to dream of a great and broken city, because when the day starts its business I’ll have to stop, these are night-time tales that vanish in the sunlight like vampire dust”

This will be a fairly short review – as I don’t want to spend too much time talking about a book I disliked. I stopped short of hating it – just – but I certainly didn’t like it. The writing is good – in places very good, lovely prose –something I always enjoy – you might expect that at least I suppose in a Booker shortlisted novel, but the subject, the setting and the characters I disliked.

“Then there are the addicts, the hunger addicts, the rage addicts, the poverty addicts , and power addicts, and the pure addicts who are addicted not to substances but to the oblivion and the tenderness the substances engender. An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint. What is a saint but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency.”

Shuklaji Street, in Old Bombay is the setting, a place of opium addicts, prostitutes and violence. The novel spans many years, starting in the 1970’s with changing narrators it is chaotic and hallucinatory and really rather squalid, upon finishing it I wanted a bath. The narrator of the start of the novel is a visitor to the Opium den of Rashid, where he also meets the eunuch prostitute Dimple, he returns at the end of the novel, many years later to see who is left and find out what has happened to the people he knew back then.
The construction of the novel is more like many small stories that weave in and out of each other in a non-linear way. We meet Mr Lee – a regular patron of Dimple’s whose back story takes us to the cultural revolution of Mao’s china. I did find the stories of Mr Lee and Dimple to be the most interesting, and for a while after struggling with the beginning of the book I began to actually enjoy it. However I found it difficult to remain interested in the characters and the construction of the novel made it hard at times to follow. This construction is very clever – this dream like almost hallucinatory quality is beautifully suited to these stories – the narratives seem like the confused and foggy view of an opium addict might look.
I had looked forward to this book – and judging by the reviews of it on Goodreads and Amazon I am something of a lone voice. Most people seem to have liked it a lot – so I must have missed something, it always rather annoys me if I feel I have missed what others haven’t. Well we can’t always like the same things can we?

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Swimming Home is the fourth of this year’s Booker shortlist that I have read so far. For me it has the feel of that obscure and hard to describe thing – “A Booker book” – that is not the same thing as being the one I liked best – it’s not.
Swimming Home is quite a slight novel – I read it over one day in a couple of sittings. It is a darkly comic exploration of depression and its consequences.

“When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation.”

It is the summer of 1994 and two very middle class families are spending their holiday in a French villa. Poet Joe, his war correspondent wife Isobel, their 14 year old daughter Nina and Isobel’s friend Laura with her husband Mitchell. One Saturday they find a woman floating naked in their pool, her name is Kitty Finch, almost at once Kitty is a disturbing presence. Kitty claims to have mixed up her holiday dates and oddly Isobel invites this beautiful naked young woman to stay in the villa’s spare bedroom, despite her husband being a serial philanderer. Kitty, green finger nailed stutterer and botanist, takes her clothes off with alarming frequency, has written a poem – Swimming Home – which she intends to show to Joe – with whom she claims to have a connection.

“She was not a poet. She was a poem. She was about to snap in half. He thought his own poetry had made her la la la la love him. It was unbearable. He could not bear it. She was still trying to remember how to say remember.”

The story has an undercurrent of surrealism as Kitty’s presence in the villa over one hot week unleashes a quiet dark chaos. Nina begins to menstruate for the first time, Isobel examines her marriage, and Joe is haunted by his abandonment in a Polish forest by his parents during the Second World War. Mitchell eats too much and plays with his antique guns, while Jurgen the villa’s caretaker lusts after Kitty Finch. These dysfunctional people are each aware that Kitty is psychologically damaged yet seem rather unconcerned. Only Madeline Sheridan the octogenarian next door neighbour is really alarmed by Kitty – Madeline once during a previous visit by Kitty to the villa – was responsible for Kitty’s hospitalisation.

“a bad fairy made a deal with me, ‘give me your history and I will give you something to take it away.’

Swimming Home is a powerful little novel; the characterisation on the whole is extremely good, and deftly explored, especially given the novels brevity. The people and events of this slim little volume will stay in the mind – in Swimming Home Deborah Levy has given the reader the memory of a hot and heady summer week. The suffocating looming presence of a disturbed young woman and the consequences that she brings with her will be difficult to forget.
As I said at the beginning, this is not my favourite of the four Booker shortlisted novels I have read so far. I liked it – I have no real criticism of it – but maybe I was expecting to be more blown away than I was. Deborah Levy is certainly a gifted writer, who I have not read before and I would be interested to read more of her work in the future.

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The Garden of Evening Mists, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is Tan Twan Eng’s second novel. I have already read his previous novel – The Gift of Rain, which I thoroughly enjoyed. In my opinion though, this novel is even better.
This is one of those novels which I feel is difficult for me to do justice. The characters and their heart-breaking stories will stay with me I am certain, along with the images of a Japanese garden in the beautiful highlands of Malaysia.

“I have become a collapsing star, pulling everything around it, even the light, into an ever-expanding void.
Once I lose all ability to communicate with the world outside myself, nothing will be left but what I remember. My memories will be like a sandbar, cut off from the shore by the incoming tide. In time they will become submerged, inaccessible to me. The prospect terrifies me. For what is a person without memories? A ghost, trapped between worlds, without an identity, with no future, no past.”

Malaya 1951 and Yun Ling Teoh a young lawyer having spent some time helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, comes to Cameron Highlands, a beautiful mountainous area of Malaya, to meet a Japanese gardener; the mysterious Aritomo, the creator of the only Japanese garden in Malaya. This garden is famous for its peace and tranquillity a place for calm reflection.

‘A garden borrows from the earth the sky, and everything around it, but you borrow from time,’ I said slowly. ‘Your memories are a form of shakkei too. You bring them in to make your life here feel less empty. Like the mountains and the clouds over your garden, you can see them, but they will always be out of reach.’

During the war Yun Ling and her beloved sister were interned in a Japanese camp deep in the Malaysian jungle, Yun Ling was the sole survivor of that hidden camp. As her sister was an enthusiast of Japanese gardening, Yun Ling wants Aritomo – a former gardener to the emperor of Japan – to design a garden in her sister’s memory. Aritomo offers instead to teach her to do it herself, telling her she can stay and work with him until the monsoon comes. As time passes Yun Ling becomes more and more drawn to her sensei Aritomo, and comes to appreciate fully his art and his system of gardening using the principles of “shakkei”, borrowed scenery. Slowly Yun Ling begins to tell her story, and the story of her sister and the terrible truths of what they endured at the hands of Aritomo’s countrymen.
During these days of the emergency in Malaya, communist terrorists hide deep in the jungle, emerging now and again to unleash terrible acts of violence. Yun Ling’s friend and sometime host Magnus Praetorius has remained surprisingly unaffected by these attacks, so Yun Ling is able to live on his tea plantation for a time. To the backdrop of the stunning scenery of Cameron Highlands and the coming Monsoon, Eng’s haunting and intense novel builds beautifully, the ambiguity of each character and the mystery of their pasts, making for a brilliant page turner, that is beautifully and intelligently written.
Almost forty years later Yun Ling – now Judge Teoh retires from the bench, and travels back to Yugiri – “evening mists” to negotiate the sale of some of Aritomo’s woodblock prints to an expert in his work. Ill and nearing the end of her life, Yun Ling needs to rekindle some memories and settle the past in her own mind. Surprisingly even after all the years that have passed, there are still mysteries surrounding Artitomo, the reasons for him leaving Japan in the first place, and his later disappearance into the Malay jungle forty years earlier.

This is a beautifully written novel, haunting and rich with imagery, I loved it – and what better thing is there to say about a novel than that. I would heartily recommend it to anyone.
The Garden of Evening mists fully deserves its place on The Booker shortlist. It would be a worthy winner – as would the other two shortlisted books I have read so far. However I don’t think it will win. I don’t think I can really explain why – and it’s certainly not meant as any criticism, because I loved it and think it is wonderfully well written. To me though, it doesn’t feel like a winner – but what do I know? – I have been wrong before.

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As I briefly explained in a recent blog post I do rather love the Booker prize – although I can’t explain why. These days I read far more older novels, than I do contemporary fiction, and yet I still keep a keen eye on the prize – and try to read at least a couple of the long list and shortlist each year. This year I am intending to read all six of the shortlist. Laura recently told me about The Complete Booker and I have decided to become a contributor there too. For a number of years I have been working my way through the list of previous winners – although I have to admit I only decided to do this when I realised I had already read a number of them. Unfortunately most of those were read in the days before I blogged – or later when I wrote tiny piddling little reviews. (All my old reviews were transferred across from livejournal when I decided to move to WordPress at the beginning of the year – but they make pretty poor reading).
So anyway these are the ones I have read so far – it’s a pretty long list now.
2011 The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes
2010 The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson
2009 Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
2008 The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga
2007 Anne Enright – The Gathering
2006 Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
2005 – John Banville, The Sea
2004 – Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty
2003 – DBC Pierre, Vernon God Little
2002 – Yann Martel, Life of Pi –
2001 – Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang
2000 – Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
1999 – J M Coetzee, Disgrace
1998 – Ian McEwan, Amsterdam
1997 – Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
1996 – Graham Swift, Last Orders
1995 – Pat Barker, The Ghost Road
1993 – Roddy Doyle, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
1992 – Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
1992 – Barry Unsworth, Sacred Hunger
1991 – Ben Okri, The Famished Road
1990 – A S Byatt, Possession
1989 – Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
1988 – Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda
1987 – Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger
1986 – Kingsley Amis, The Old Devils
1985 – Keri Hulme, The Bone People
1984 – Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac
1983 – J M Coetzee, Life & Times of Michael K
1982 – Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s Ark
1981 – Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
1979 – Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore
1978 – Iris Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea
1977 – Paul Scott, Staying On

1973 – J G Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapul
1971 – V S Naipaul, In a Free State

Of those I have yet to read – I have three currently resting on my TBR shelves – Nadine Gordimer’s ‘The Conservationist,’ William Golding ‘Rites of Passage’ and Bernice Rubens ‘The Elected Member’. Sometimes I have the feeling I have only those left to read that I’m not sure I want to read – but I have been pleasantly surprised by Booker books before. I put off reading A Life of Pi for years thinking it wasn’t for me – only to find I loved it. I have liked far more of them than I have disliked, although I have to admit to not having liked The Booker of Bookers Midnight’s Children, and I really disliked The Finkler Question, some were tough going like The Siege of Krishnapul and The Sea by John Banville. Others however remain books I will always love; they live in my memory even those I read years ago, ‘The English Patient,’ ‘The Bone People’, ‘Wolf Hall,’ ‘Staying on’, ‘Offshore’ among others. With so few left to read on the list though I have to keep going, hopefully the enthusiasm of other Booker readers will keep me going.

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I have been awaiting the announcement of the 2012 Booker prize shortlist with interest. I have for several years taken an interest in the prize. I’m not convinced it is a measure of anything in particular – but it is a wonderful opportunity for writers and publishers to be thrust into the literary limelight. For some years now I have been reading winner shortly after it was awarded– as well as trying to get around to reading some old Booker winners, eventually I’ll have read them all – I have about 11 old winners to go. Usually I find the winner is one that will divide opinion – and I find that really interesting. Last year I read 4 of the six shortlisted books before the prize winner was announced – and yes I had read the winner. So this year I was tempted to have a go at reading all six. To be honest I was waiting to see what was on the shortlist before I pledged myself to do this – I had already read three of the long list – and so I was hoping that I would therefore have read some of the shortlist and not have to read six! Two of those books are on the shortlist – so I have only 4 to go. I had already decided which books I would be reading this month – so I may now have to jiggle things around a bit. I have just over a month to read the four books on the list I have yet to read – and so some of the books on September’s reading pile my get bumped for the time being.
So – in case you don’t already know (and I’m sure you all do) the six shortlisted books are:

The Lighthouse – Alison Moore
Bring up the bodies – Hilary Mantel
Narcopolis – Jeet Thayil
Swimming Home – Deborah Levy
In the Garden of evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng
Umbrella – Will Self

I’ve already read The Lighthouse and Bring Up the Bodies – both of which I loved, they may be hard to beat for me, but I have heard good things of Swimming Home and I am particularly looking forward to that one. I read Tan Twan Eng’s previous novel The Gift of Rain – and enjoyed it enormously – so will be interested to see how it compares. If I am totally honest I am not really sure if I like the sound of Umbrella – but I have said that about Booker books before and been pleasantly surprised – so we’ll see. I have no preconceptions whatsoever about Narcopolis – though it sounds pretty dark.
Have you read any of these? – do you even care about the Booker? I don’t know why I love it so much – but I do.

 

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The Lighthouse brought to us by indie publishers Salt publishing made it on to the Booker long list even before it was officially published. I just liked the sound of it and ordered it the day it was released. At a little over 180 pages it is a fairly short novel, and yet it does pack quite a punch. I have a feeling that is a novel which inspires the kind of images that stay with the reader long after the book has been laid aside. Whether it becomes one of my favourite read of this year or not, it is one I’ll be destined to remember. It is an assured piece of writing. I enjoyed it (if that is the right phrase) a lot – though the reader is not allowed to get too comfortable.
I do like novels that play around a little with memory, darting back and forth across the years and indeed decades – so that slowly the characters emerge from the shadows. The Lighthouse concerns two characters – both of whom the reader is forced to hold at a distance. This in itself serves to highlight their loneliness and separateness.
Futh is a recently separated man in his forties. Travelling by Ferry to Germany to begin a walking holiday along the Rhine, he begins to think about the last time he took a similar holiday with his father when he was young boy. Futh is a lonely deserted man, carrying a silver lighthouse in his pocket. He has a keen sense of smell, and works in the reproduction of synthetic smells.
Esther is the landlady of the first guest house on Futh’s tour. Married to Bernard, Esther drinks heavily, carries on with guests in the empty rooms, forgetting to lock her own apartment door; she likes to look through the belongings of her guests. Esther was once engaged to Bernard’s brother – until Bernard asked her to go away with him. Now she cleans the rooms and delivers cling filmed meals to guests at (the ingeniously named) Hellhaus – bright house or light house.

“Kenny and Futh used to stand at their bedroom windows at lights out, facing one another across their back gardens, each with a torch, flashing messages through the darkness. It was Morse code except that it didn’t mean anything. Kenny would flash-flash-flash and Futh would flash-flash-flash back; Kenny would flash-pause-flash and Futh would send it back. Eventually, the game would stop. It was, for Futh, like looking at a lighthouse on the horizon at night. There was this flashing of light and then nothing, and you waited for the next flash, looking at where the light had been and where it would be again but you were looking at darkness”

The writing in The Lighthouse is spare and deceptively simple – there is in fact nothing simple about it – it is the kind of pared down writing that hides a multitude of complexities and leaves behind it an array of images and in this case scents. Upon closing this terribly bittersweet novel, the reader is assaulted by the memory of violets, camphor and cigarette smoke. There are several returning images and motifs in the novel, such as lighthouses, bathrooms, scents and abandonment which are beautifully explored. Although I believe Alison Moore has had some success with some short stories published in an anthology and on kindle, The Lighthouse is her first novel. It really is an excellent debut, and fully deserves to make it on to the Booker shortlist.

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