After the Booker longlist, I’m reading the Costa shortlists (Novels and First Novels - might or might not get to the other categories, but I’m lacking the commitment for Biography, and the interest for the other two) and probably the NBA fiction shortlist too. I think I’ll not bother with the Orange Prize though I have read a couple of them. This list doesn’t excite me much (and one of the judges is a novelist whose work I think is dreadful) but Pure might be interesting. There’s an overlap of two here with the Booker. The decision will be announced on 4 January 2012.
Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape)
Masterful but not that interesting, as I’ve said below. I may have more to say in comparing it to the others.
John Burnside A Summer of Drowning (Jonathan Cape)
Apparently this is meant to be eerie but I found it full of waffle, from the unreliable narrator. This is the big question: if the narrator is weak, confused, losing it, addled by white nights, and not a writer, can the dull, repetitive, banal narration be excused? I don’t think so. Here’s an example:
I wanted everything to stay the same. No letters, no journalists, no drowned boys, no future. No future, only the present and whatever past I chose to remember. Because remembering is a choice, if it’s done well, and nobody can make you remember what you choose to put out of your mind.
For a book about storytelling, it’s rather bad at it. The premise is good but it just doesn’t deliver.
Andrew Miller Pure (Sceptre) - section and overall winner
SO disappointing. I was expecting too much (but after all it was shunned by the Booker, and won the Costa, so surely…) and Pure left me very flat: no shape to the story, nothing to the characters, not a very engaging sense of pre-Revolutionary Paris. Inventive, without really being imaginative. Sort of a central metaphor (clear out the old and dead, let the light in) but so much more could have been done with it. It’s written in the present tense, third person - same as the sublime Wolf Hall, and maybe that’s part of my problem. In WH we are so clearly in Cromwell’s world, and in Pure, we’re nowhere.
Louisa Young My Dear I Wanted to Tell You (HarperCollins)
Patrick McGuinness The Last Hundred Days (Seren)
I didn’t think much of this: see dismissal on the Booker list page. Unlike the Costa judges I found it neither funny nor insightful and the only compulsion was to get to the end. On the other hand I’ve just remembered I went to school with a Pat McGuinness… who I guess this can’t be. 2/5
Kevin Barry City of Bohane (Jonathan Cape)
Stupendous. A broken, tainted, nostalgic West-of-Ireland city thrashing and smoldering as it remembers the ‘lost-time’, Bohane is tribal, brutal, fashion-conscious (velveteen puffa jackets and vinyl brothel-creepers), sentimental, full of heart and completely heartless. The language is pure energy, the characters are vivid and real and the story is timeless. It seems that when it all breaks down, we will be mediaeval once again, writhing, dreaming and plotting in a real human society, face to face, shkelp to shkelp. My book of the year so far. 5/5.
Chirstie Watson Tiny Sunbirds Far Away (Quercus) - section winner
This is tremendous. It’s far from subtle and really quite polemical (on female genital mutilation, the oil companies and corruption) but also well written and moving: I sniffled. The shape of the story is straightforward, as 12yo Blessing leaves her privileged life in Lagos for an initially confusing and frightening life on the Niger Delta, then experiences several shocking things (and at this point the story seems to get away from the writer, galloping along a bit) before it all resolves. A few of the characters are too emblematic (Ezikiel and Dan, and also Grandma, great as she is) in a way that can’t quite be explained away by the narrator’s naivety, but Blessing’s voice sounds true and the description is fresh and vivid. Some parts are not for the squeamish. 4/5
Kerry Young Pao (Bloomsbury)
In theory a Chinatown bossman musing on politics and nationalism and quoting Sun Tzu should be very interesting, but in practice Pao is not very satisfying. Characters are completely flat, descriptions are not arresting, this happens, that happens, and like that. The narrative voice, entirely (if mildly) in patois, literally gave me a headache. I did learn a bit of Jamaican history though - I had no idea that there was a Chinese community at all. 2/5