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
A little late,
I’m reading I have read my way through the 2011 Booker longlist. The simple fact is that the nominees are not very consistently great these days… but here we go.
Patrick McGuinness The Last Hundred Days (Seren Books) (longlist)
The first I’ve read of the list and I hope it’s not indicative of the quality. This was very disappointing and frankly I rushed through the last half. The premise: dull TEFL teacher gets tied up in all sorts of improbable, high-level goings-on in Bucharest in 1989, culminating in the last days of the Ceausescus. There are some clever descriptions but despite having spent a little time in Bucharest (admittedly not in 1989), I couldn’t get the atmosphere. The plot gets increasing ludicrous and it reads like a fantasy, and not a very edifying one. 2/5
A.D. Miller Snowdrops (Atlantic) (shortlist)
Oddly, the second to go is on effectively the same theme: impressionable Englishman entranced and baffled by Eastern Europe. Snowdrops, a confessional tale of a lawyer’s time in Moscow, is far superior, in structure, atmosphere and credibility, and ultimately is not purporting to tell us what Moscow is really like, but rather how an expat experienced it. Quite a slight story but engaging and convincing throughout, and sharp in its observations (though I have no Moscow story of my own to compare it to.) 4/5
Patrick deWitt The Sisters Brothers (Granta) (shortlist)
This begins tremendously, with imagination and energy, and mostly carries on in the same vein with a very engaging narrator, blasting through 1850s Oregon and California with his brother. It’s precisely at the half-way point that it begins to grate: the (suitably fanciful) plot and irrelevant and anachronistic detail overpowering progress and what might have been good character development. It does come together in the end though, with resolution and peace. Not entirely convincing but rather a good read, and it would make a great film, with a bit of pruning. 3.5/5
Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape - Random House) (winner)
This is a slight book on frankly an uninspiring subject - aging middle-class man who’s had a decent but rather dull life looks back with disappointment, and also realises that he’s completely misunderstood things, or some things, with fairly catastrophic results. I quite like slight books and certainly like them to be no longer than they need to be; and this is nicely spare. It’s also superbly controlled, paced, plotted, and so far this is the only one of the list that has really demonstrated what a writer at the top of his craft can do. It IS a very good book - just not a very interesting one. Actually maybe it’s me, not liking these very inward-looking novels, and being bored with this subject and the slightly-unreliable narrator. I do feel I should read it again, when no doubt I’ll discover missed resonances, some of which are occurring to me at odd intervals now. Even if I do, I’m not sure I’ll care about the finer meaning of this chap’s life and/or what Barnes has to say about it. But of course this is novel-writing at a level beyond the writing of good novels - the art of it is the whole and only point and whether I care is irrelevant. Anyway - 4/5
Jane Rogers The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press) (longlist)
I wasn’t expecting much of this but in fact I was very impressed by it - very clever, beneath its rather light, readable, YA prattling. Another unreliable narrator (oh please let there be something third-person in this list), in this case a naive but noble 16-year-old trying to save the world. So far, so YA - but I think that (by accident or more likely by design) there is a much deeper strand here, about us all being faced with the now-seemingly-inevitable apocalypse and the appalling complexity of it; about the futility of the many worthy (or not) protest/action groups pulling in different directions; about the futility (or not) of one personal sacrifice in the face of near-universal nimbyism. It’s a difficult balance, between subtlety, convenient coincidence and sledgehammer (“Jessie Lamb” - really?) and not masterful but it’s a valiant and worthwhile attempt to address the Big Issue, and frankly I’m not sure what Rogers’s conclusion is - and fair enough if there isn’t one. It’s certainly not as simple as Jessie’s conclusion. Those who dismiss this as a bit of YA fluff that shouldn’t be on the list are doing it a disservice. The Booker list would be less for its absence, and full marks to Sandstone for publishing it. 3.5/5
Carol Birch Jamrach’s Menagerie (Canongate Books) (shortlist)
Did not like. The premise is all right (setting off on the adventure, shipwreck, inevitable unpleasantness) but has been done much better elsewhere. There is certainly a lot of sensory details, but the quantity doesn’t make up for the lack of quality. This just isn’t an authentic voice; it’s far too modern, in attitude as much as language. The slums of 1860 are too polite and ordered, the little trio kicking about London behave like 21st century students, and everyone is too thoughtful to be real. Some of the set pieces are pretty good, like the whale hunt, but otherwise it’s repetitive, unconvincing and hollow: we have to be told what’s happening, as were not really shown it. A book so driven by plot requires a tighter one, and overall it needs more work before it really has a point. And the title seems wrong. So that’s a thumbs-down from me, regretfully as the starting point (the historical fact of the boy rescued from a tiger in 1857) had great places to go, even as an unliterary romp. Sigh. 2.5/5
Alison Pick Far to Go (Headline Review) (longlist)
This isn’t a bad book, worthy and well put together, but in the long run it doesn’t amount to much. Of course, it’s difficult to be fresh about the war, which is no reason not to keep trying, but in any case, Far to Go isn’t fresh. It’s a small story, banal in the detail, and not particularly insightful, with thinly drawn characters (and Pepik is far too young for his years) and no strong sense of time or place. There are a couple of slightly annoying layers - the author’s family has been fictionalised, and then THAT family’s story has been novelised, with the join made obvious through the device of an involved but apparently reliable narrator. I can see why this is - the author clearly wants to make a point about the layers through which memories, and unremembered pasts, are recovered and the resulting resonances - but in general I find this sort of a cheat’s device… Just tell the story, and we’ll get it. Anyway it’s readable, if not fully convincing, but not aiming very high. 2/5
Alan Hollinghurst The Stranger’s Child (Picador - Pan Macmillan) (longlist)
Disappointing, for a Hollinghurst, though there is undoubtedly something significant to this. Five episodes over a century, looking at the interstices of events, the beginnings of things, and in particular at changing attitudes (principally, of course, to homosexuality) and at a literary reputation. There is, frankly, too much detail and of the wrong kind: detail of two lads wandering about the school grounds looking for a quiet spot could, I suppose, be revealing, but really isn’t. Given that Hollinghurst can certainly pile a lot of meaning into a short exchange, I wonder why he didn’t leave out all the waffle. And then the fashionable stuff (pre-WW1, 1920s, 1960s, 1980s) seems almost caricature - token long strings of beads to signify flapperishness and so on. But despite this, the concept is original and pretty clear I think. Cecil Valance, second-rate poet who happens to capture a mood, dies in the trenches and as the people who knew him age, and the people who know them (but not him) capitalise, and the man, poet and work become something else as misinterpretations and personal issues pile up on top of them… tremendous. And it resolves really beautifully in the last couple of pages; an empty cupboard has never been so full of meaning. So I’m ambivalent about this: almost great, but not. And I wish Hollinghurst could give us one significant relationship that wasn’t gay. 3.5/5
Stephen Kelman Pigeon English (Bloomsbury) (shortlist)
This is a quick, mostly light, modest, real, topical piece with a child narrator, Harri the 11-year-old Ghanaian boy surviving for a bit on a sink estate. It’s completely charming, if a little ordinary, and deals with a tiny corner of the universe. There is depth, mostly through the voice of the pigeon (almost mawkishly, but actually not) but ultimately what the book does is slight, but it does it very very well. 4/5
Esi Edugyan Half Blood Blues (Serpent’s Tail) (shortlist)
I’m not sure what to make of this. Unlike Far to Go above, it’s certainly fresh(ish) on the subject of the war: the experience of jazz musicians, black, Jewish and Kraut, in Berlin and Paris in 1939-40, with such highlights as Kristallnacht and the occupation of Paris. The voices grate a little, though I don’t doubt they’re fairly accurate. The story is original, simple and clearly told, and the characters and places are pretty real; the Polish dimension seems a little contrived but I can live with it. As always, I am amazed at how many authors need to split their narrative into then and now (in this case, 1939-40 and 1992) and to mix up the sections: it always feels like a shortcut to me. In any case I can’t quite fault this book and therefore have to give it 4 stars, but a bit hesitantly as it didn’t really grab me, despite my interest in that period. (Edit - in retrospect, it doesn’t do justice to the period, so I’m down to 3.5) 3.5/5
D.J. Taylor Derby Day (Chatto & Windus - Random House) (longlist)
A Victorian pastiche-mystery - not a whodunnit so much as a whataretheyupto, sedate in pace and rich in detail, and possibly saying things very obliquely about societal change, new money, greed, celebrity, mass enthusiasms and the quiet life. The tone is strangely Victorian-but-modern - that is, definitely not Dickens, but not that jarring faux-Vic thing either, and it’s a very good read. I’d never heard of DJ Taylor but will read more. 4/5
Yvvette Edwards A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld) (longlist)
I think this book has wandered into the wrong party: this is not a Booker book, by any stretch of anyone’s imagination. Overwrought family relations, tragic secrets, food and/or sex will heal us, misunderstandings sorted, redemption all round and suddenly we can love again… pah. Also too much sex and some rather creepy notions. Pretty good on food though. 1.5/5
Sebastian Barry On Canaan’s Side (Faber) (longlist)
Excellent - in fact, a little too powerful, but with beautiful language and a tremendous if clouded sense of the immense opportunities (in America, especially) and the narrow railway track that you’re stuck on, observing them. The central character seems extraordinarily real and we are right in her heart… quite draining. This would be a contender for the top spot for me. 4/5
On Canaan’s Side
The Sisters Brothers
The Sense of an Ending
Quite glad this is over - on to the Costa Prize now (via a pile of history and Scandinavian noir) which is already looking a stronger list.