Archive for the ‘Man Booker Prize’ Category

Run was published in 2007, following the success of Bel Canto (2001), which won the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction, and which I reviewed with some reservations here. I have a few reservations about this book too, but overall found it enjoyable and quite moving.

The action is decidedly domestic. It takes place over twenty-four hours, with background about the characters and their lives filled in along the way, and a sort of epilogue at the end. As one character reflects, ‘he didn’t think the entire story could possibly take more than ten minutes start to finish’. The book begins with background: the story of a statue of the Virgin Mary that has been in the Doyle family for several generations. It then moves to the present day Doyle family. Bernard Doyle and his wife Bernadette had one child, Sullivan, and then adopted two black baby brothers, Tip and Teddy. They were still very young when Bernadette died of cancer, leaving Doyle to bring up the boys. He is a successful lawyer and sometime Mayor of Boston, and hopes that either or both of his two younger sons will take up the political career he never achieved. Sullivan, who is older, has not lived at home for some time and has most recently been working in Africa. Neither of the younger boys is much interested in politics; they feel they have heard it all before. Tip wants to be an ichthyologist and Teddy seems drawn to the Church through his closeness to his uncle, who is a retired priest. One snowy night outside a political lecture, Tip argues with his father, and not looking where he is going, only avoids being hit by a car because a woman, Tennessee Moser, pushes him out of the way, though she herself is seriously injured. Her young daughter Kenya is distraught, but she knows why her mother wanted to save Tip from harm. The rest of the book draws out the connections between the characters, including Sullivan who has unexpectedly returned, and reaches a resolution which establishes new patterns between them.

Family relationships are at the heart of the story; these are teased out through both actions and dialogue. ‘Tip knew how to put words to things while Teddy knew how to follow what was in his heart’. Sullivan can be charming, but so far has been essentially selfish. Doyle is the reasonable parent who is nevertheless unreasonable. Kenya is loyal and honest – a bit unrealistically so. It is from her ability – and desire – to run that the book takes its title, and there is a great description of how she is truly herself while running. The title might also be taken to imply that everyone is running – either to or from something. Sullivan certainly is.

The structure of the story works quite well except for what I think is an extremely clunky way of introducing the backstory of Kenya’s mother, Tennessee. But it reveals information that is known only to the reader; the characters form their relationships without knowledge of it. I think this is a strength of the story because it reinforces the theme that families form in many ways. However I am less sure about the role of the uncle, Father Sullivan, who has attracted an unwanted and, he thinks, unwarranted fame as a faith healer. A series of incidents related to touch suggest Patchett is close to endorsing faith healing. Even if it is allowable in fiction, I don’t think faith healing is necessary to the structure of the story. Father Sullivan is necessary to the book because of Teddy’s attachment to him, but I don’t think he adds much else. Patchett has been praised for her warmth at a time when more cynical writing is the norm. The danger is that warmth can spill over into sentimentality, and I think this is a trap she has fallen into here. If she actually believes in faith healing, does that make it any the less sentimental?

As well as the theme of family, there is reference to both race and class. As black sons of a white father, Tip and Teddy are unusual in their social circle, but they scarcely notice it because they are from a socially and economically privileged elite. Patchett makes us aware of this through Kenya’s eyes; the daughter of a poor, black single mother, she can scarcely believe the comfort in which the Doyles live. Waking in a bright bedroom in the Doyles’ house, ‘she wondered if there wasn’t a way that light was divided and somehow … more of it wound up in better neighbourhoods’. Tennessee has no medical insurance, but Doyle, a Democrat, isn’t interested. ‘The uninsured poor are such a compelling political issue until you actually meet one,’ Sullivan taunts him. Despite this dig, Patchett, who supported Democrat Hillary Clinton for President, makes it clear that Doyle’s insistence that his sons take an interest in politics arises from a hope that they might improve the lives of others, rather than just living out his unfulfilled dream. But though she points out the Doyles’ privilege, Patchett doesn’t really criticise it; indeed there is a Cinderella-like quality to the final resolution. Sums up the Democrats, maybe.

You can read more about Ann Patchett here. Her most recent book, Commonwealth (2016), has been widely praised – see here, for example.

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When the first Benjamin Black crime story appeared – Christine Falls (2006) which I reviewed here – there was no mention anywhere that this name was a pseudonym for John Banville, the highly acclaimed Irish novelist, winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize for The Sea – reviewed here. Banville had told the literary world that he was going to write a crime story, but there was nothing to alert an unsuspecting public that this was it. With The Silver Swan (2007), Black’s second crime story, the cover makes it quite clear that this is John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. And this is fair enough, because what Benjamin Black writes isn’t your normal crime story – there’s too much Banville in it for that.

This book is again set in Dublin in the 1950s and features the pathologist Quirke – he doesn’t seem to have another name. He is asked by a man he knows slightly not to perform an autopsy on his wife, who has been found dead in the sea.  Quirke initially agrees, but finds suspicious circumstances, and does one anyway. So he knows she didn’t drown. But what should he do about it? He gets as far as talking to Detective Inspector Hackett, who he met in the first book, but doesn’t tell either him, or the coroner the truth, and the verdict is death by misadventure. Why does he not speak out? Both he and Hackett are still bruised from the outcome of events in the first book; we now find that the corruption they discovered – ‘the wave of mud and filth’ – has been hushed up. Quirke doesn’t feel like sticking his neck out again, but he suffers from an ‘incurable curiosity’. So will he be drawn into the mystery whether he wants be to or not?

Quirke shares the story with the dead woman, Deirdre Hunt. Black is very clever at managing transitions between past – recent past in this case – and present, not stooping to giving dates and times as some authors do. It works smoothly enough, so we read about events leading up to her death mixed in with events after it. The story is also told through Quirke’s daughter Phoebe, and to a lesser extent through Deirdre’s business partner Leslie White. This provides an opportunity to get inside these characters’ heads, to understand their motivation. This is essential, because this book, like the previous one, relies on characterisation rather than fast-moving action for its interest. Quirke does a bit of traditional detecting, such as asking questions and putting pressure on people. Black also uses the crime story tactic of misdirection to keep the plot ticking along; ‘Nothing,’ he warns, ‘is what it seems’. There’s also elements of family saga, carried over from the previous book; they make more sense if you’ve read it. But overall, the reader is primarily being asked to engage with the disordered psychology of the main characters.  Black says of Quirke: ‘he is a very damaged person, as many Irish people are from their upbringing’. And is what he seems intent on showing – with somewhat mixed success, in my opinion.

For all that Banville continues to insist that he and Black are ‘two completely different writers who have two completely different processes’, the writing is that of someone with a literary sensibility. Where else would you find a crime writer describing a character’s eyes darting with ‘an odd, hindered urgency’? Or feeling ‘the touch of a cold tentacle of unease’? And these are just two random examples. In an interview, he describes Dublin as ‘a beautiful city, dingy and ramshackle with a melancholy beauty’; in the book, the smoky, shabby presence of the city is almost palpable. Banville explains that ‘Quirke lives in the apartment in Dublin which I inherited from my aunt and he moves around in that area where I was when I first moved to Dublin … it’s soaked in my recollections.’ And so it’s not surprising that the language he uses to describe it is sensuous and evocative. Banville says ‘I certainly like the Benjamin Black books more than my Banville novels because they are pieces of craft work and I like to think they are honestly made.’ Maybe the Black books are less verbally dense, but you could read this book just for the pleasure of the writing.

I find this story to be ultimately pessimistic, both in terms of the fate of the characters and the society in which the action occurs. The society Black describes is narrow and stifling; he has an American visitor comment critically on ‘The way you go about in cowed silence, not protesting, not complaining, not demanding things that should change or be fixed or made new.’ We know from the start that Deirdre Hunt’s attempt to change her life ends in disaster; is she being punished for asserting herself in a male dominated society, or simply a victim of it?  And Black ignores the common premise of most crime novels that justice must be seen to be done, and order restored. The Dublin of the 1950s may be beautiful, but in Black’s hands it’s not a very nice place.

I was interested to see that the first three of the Black stories (there’s now seven of them) have been made into a BBC TV series, Quirke, and though it doesn’t seem to have been shown yet in Australia there’s a DVD available. You can find out more about the series here. And you can read more about the work of Banville here and of Benjamin Black here. The most recent Benjamin Black book is a Phillip Marlowe fanfiction, The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014). The most recent Banville book is Ancient Light (2012); after reading The Silver Swan, you might not be too surprised to find it’s a story of obsessive love.  Two completely different writers? I don’t think so.

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I read a review of At Last (2011) by St Aubyn, thought it sounded interesting, and finding it was the last of five books about Patrick Melrose, decided to start at the beginning – and if you’re going to read any of them, I suggest you do the same. The edition of Some Hope that I read is actually a collection of the first three books – which are all quite short, almost novellas – the trilogy consisting of Never Mind (1992), Bad News (1992) and Some Hope (1994). After a gap in which he wrote two non-Patrick Melrose books, the fourth, Mother’s Milk, was published in 2005 and short-listed for the Booker Prize. Lost for Words, satirising literary prizes, was published in 2014.

Never Mind takes place over one day when Patrick is five. He lives with his mother Eleanor and father David in a rather grand old house in Lacoste in the south of France. His father’s family can trace its roots back to the Norman conquest – the winning side, of course – and his mother is a rich American. Both are totally dysfunctional as parents, his father being alcoholic and cruel, his mother being alcoholic and ineffectual. ‘At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded.’  We also meet Victor Eisen, a retired philosopher, and his wife Anne who live nearby, and Nicholas Pratt, baronet and man about town, and his girlfriend Bridget, who have flown over from London for a short stay. Amidst all the malicious comments, the snobbery, the misery – and to the reader, the cringe worthy embarrassment of it all – one comment by Nicholas stands out: ‘in my opinion, nothing that happens to you as a child really matters.’ Could he be more wrong? What are the consequences for Patrick?

We find out in Bad News. Patrick is twenty two. He’s just received the ‘bad news’ that his father has died in New York and is on his way from London to collect his ashes. He hates his father. ‘What instrument could he use to set himself free? Disdain? Aggression? Hatred? They were all contaminated by the influence of his father, the very thing he needed to free himself from.’ What follows from this paralysis is a drug taking binge, described in detail. Patrick is an addict; he is himself ‘bad news’. I read somewhere that this is one of the best descriptions of addiction ever written, not least because it can be funny. I guess there is a kind of black humour, as for example when Patrick has bought heroine, he parts from the dealer ‘with the genuine warmth of people who had exploited each other successfully.’ I found it excruciatingly difficult to read; I don’t really want to know just how it’s done. It raises for me the issue of rejecting writing because the subject is unpleasant versus reading something that is unpleasant because it is so well written. Or is the reader exploited along with everyone else? A couple of the characters from the earlier book make an appearance.

In Some Hope, we are back in the world of satire, snobbery and malice, this time in London and at a lavish birthday party at a mansion in the Cotswolds; ‘a world in which the word ‘charity’… was invariably qualified by the words ‘lunch’, ‘committee’ or ‘ball’. ‘Compassion’ nobody had any time for, whereas ‘leniency’ made frequent appearances in the form of complaints about short prison sentences.’  It is eight years later, and Patrick is off the drugs, but little happier. He cannot rid himself of the legacy left to him by his father – ‘sarcasm, snobbery, cruelty and betrayal ’ – and he fears turning out like him. A number of characters from the first book and one from the second, are, like Patrick, invited to the party, along with some other mostly pretentious and unpleasant new ones. Few have any redeeming features; only Anne, from the first book, and Patrick’s friend Johnny, stand out. Before leaving for the party, Johnny attends a Narcotics Anonymous meeting to strengthen his resolve not to take any drugs. St Aubyn’s description of the meeting is revealing; he can’t help poking fun at the ‘obscure and fatuous slang’ used by participants talking about their ‘recovery’, but Johnny nevertheless finds that however ‘ridiculous and boring’ the meetings are, they help him stay clean. He is also the one that gets to tell a simpering Princess Margaret at the party that he doesn’t ‘rely on an accident of birth’ for distinction, to which she replies ‘there is no accident of birth’. But the question at the heart of the book is whether there can be ‘some hope’ for Patrick – or anyone else caught up in this world.

Readers will probably not be surprised – though possibly horrified – to learn that under the satire, much in these books is autobiographical. Patrick’s childhood experiences were St Aubyn’s experiences, followed by years of drug addiction and mental illness. In an interview in The Telegraph, it is explained that at the age of 25 he underwent psychoanalysis, which took him, he says, ‘from suicide to creativity’. ‘By that point in my life I was completely ashamed of everything I’d been and done, and the contract I made was to write a book that gets published or commit suicide. It was not at all melodramatic in the state that I was in at the time. I thought about committing suicide every day.’ After the first book was published, he felt he had to keep going. ‘If I don’t write I’ll go mad, and if I go mad I’ll have to kill myself, so I must keep writing,’ he said. Just as well he turns out to be rather good at it.

You can read more about Edward St Aubyn here. There’s a long piece about him and his ‘inheritance’ in The New Yorker here. And you can read a review of his latest book here. It’s definitely on my Christmas list.

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Zadie Smith is a British novelist who made quite a splash with her debut novel White Teeth, published in 2000 when she was 25. This one (2005) is her third, and a fourth, NW was published in 2012. On Beauty was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005, losing out to John Banville’s The Sea, and won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2006.

On Beauty is a campus novel, set mostly in the fictional town of Wellington, located near Boston. Howard Belsey lectures at Wellington College, which we are told is not Ivy League, but apparently sounds rather like Harvard, which is where Smith wrote the book. Howard is English and white; he is married to Kiki, who is American and black. Their children, Jerome, Levi and Zora are ‘several shades lighter’ than black, but this still makes them unusual in white, middle class, academic Wellington. Howard is writing an as yet unfinished book about Rembrandt; his great rival, Monty Kipps, born in Trinidad but now an academic and cultural pundit in London, has recently published his lavish book on Rembrandt, a ‘brick designed to sit heavily atop the New York Times bestseller list for half a year, crushing every book beneath it.’ Monty has recently caught Howard out in an error relating to one of Rembrandt’s paintings, and used the occasion to belittle the ‘extreme poverty’ of his ideas. To say there is no love lost between them is putting it mildly. Then Kipps takes up a visiting lectureship at Wellington, bringing his family with him. All sorts of complications ensue.

One of the themes of the novel is the culture wars exemplified by Belsey and Kipps. Belsey is an academic radical. His view of Rembrandt is that he is a competent artisan who painted whatever his wealthy patrons wanted; for him ‘prettiness’ is ‘the mask that power wears’. He argues against the ‘redemptive humanity’ of Art. Kipps, on the other hand, sees Rembrandt as a painter whose genius is God given, making him one of the elite of the artistic cannon. As neither Belsey nor Kipps is portrayed sympathetically, we can assume that Smith is satirising both views. She takes the title of her book from an essay by Elaine Scarry entitled ‘On Beauty and Being Just’, which argues that appreciation of beauty makes people want greater justice in the world, and the story does go some way to demonstrating this.

The novel is also about the various relationships that develop among all the members of the two feuding families. Howard and Monty have very different views of life, and these at least initially, condition the outlooks and reactions of their families, sometimes in conformity with them, and sometimes as a reaction. At the beginning of the story, Jerome is actually staying with the Kipps family in London, and enjoying their ordered, conservative, Christian home life as a contrast to his own chaotic one in Wellington.  Levi has adopted a Brooklyn accent, and tries to act more ’black’ than he is. Zora has absorbed the feud, as have the Kipps’s children, Michael and Victoria. Only the wives, Kiki and Carlene, are friends. Carl Thomas, the young black street poet, is the outsider who provides the necessary contrast to the middle class Belseys and Kipps, and his role is partly as the truth teller. (The black Haitians, who work in menial jobs like cleaners and drivers in Wellington are also an instructive contrast.) But no one, except perhaps Kiki and Carlene, comes out of it very well.

Smith greatly admires E.M. Forster, and says this book is homage to him. Indeed it has many references to Howard’s End. For example, the first sentence of that book is ‘One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sister.’ The first line of this book is ‘One may as well begin with Jerome’s emails to his father.’ The stories are quite different, but there are resemblances; Carl Thomas plays something of the role of the aspiring lower middle class clerk Leonard Bast, and there is a valuable and unexpected gift in both. Both books are about how – or if – very different people can get on together. ‘But sometimes it’s like you just meet someone and you know that you’re totally connected,’ Levi says. ‘Only connect’ is Forster’s famous epigraph to Howard’s End. Someone is reading A Room with a View. Howard smiles sadly. ‘Can’t stand Forster,’ he says.

Most critics consider this book a comedy. The series of set piece  incidents that make it up nearly all seem designed to show the participants at their human worst. That phrase ‘one may as well begin’ illustrates nicely the detached, ironic attitude with which Smith pins her characters, with their foibles and weaknesses, down like the specimens in a display case. Personally, I don’t find this funny; I cringe with embarrassment. This is not to deny the power of the writing; indeed it’s probably a testament to it.

You can read more about Zadie Smith here.

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As everyone knows, this book, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2012, is the sequel to Wolf Hall, which won it in 2009. I loved Wolf Hall, but for some reason, I have found Bring UP The Bodies much harder to get into. Is it Mantel or me?

Thomas Cromwell, Master Secretary to King Henry VIII, has done what his master desired by arranging his divorce from his wife Katherine, leaving him free to marry Anne Boleyn. She has given birth to a daughter but has so far failed to provide him with the desired son. And Henry is getting tired of her, turning his attention instead to the demure young Jane Seymour. Was there something wrong with his marriage to Anne that is revealed by the failure to conceive a son, he asks? It’s up to Cromwell to engineer the end of this marriage, and to make possible the next one. There would hardly be any reader who doesn’t know how this turns out; Mantel’s skill is in getting us to share every step of a journey Cromwell doesn’t know the end of. And of course he doesn’t know his own end either, though there are hints of it throughout.

The Cromwell of Wolf Hall is striving for wealth and power. Here he has achieved it, though he knows it is all dependent on the King’s favour. Somehow his striving made him a more attractive character than he appears in this book. Of course Cromwell – both in reality and in fiction – must have been both ruthless and callous to get where he did, but it was less obvious in Wolf Hall, where his more honourable side was on show. Here his coldblooded agenda to bring Anne down is to the fore. He is a skilled conspirator; he has had a lifetime’s ‘education in hypocrisy’. He is generous to his household, diplomatic or manipulative to people he can use, but unrelenting towards his enemies – of whom there are many, as he well knows. And can his ‘strange and sudden friends’ be trusted? How far is he carrying out Henry’s agenda, and how far does he have one of his own? He is, as someone says, ‘without false compunction’. ‘He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.’ I can see that I am coming dangerously close here to saying I like the book less because I like the main character less – a very silly response. Mantel’s skill surely lies in showing us all sides of her creation. But I can’t help feeling more anxiety and less delight when reading about him than in the previous book.

Mantel adopts a number of stylistic devices in making this story intimate and compelling. The first is the use of the present tense. This gives wonderful immediacy to events, and is important in carrying the reader down Cromwell’s tortuous paths. The conversation is sharp and modern. Then there is the almost universal use of ‘he’ for Cromwell. The story is told in the third person, but entirely through the prism of Cromwell’s perceptions. The absence of his name seems to make it more thoroughly his story – though I found it occasionally confusing, and Mantel has at times to resort the rather clumsy ‘he, Cromwell’. He also sometimes confides in the reader as ‘you’: ‘You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But … it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.’ I guess this is an example of the use of free indirect speech, where there is ‘a blurring of the subject’s first-person experiences with a grammatically third-person narrative perspective.’ Whatever it is, it mostly works really well.

Then of course there is the historical appeal. Alongside the superb historical detail, there is the enduring mystery: what was the truth of Anne Boleyn’s conduct? No one really knows. Mantel doesn’t pretend to; hers is an imaginative recreation. ‘In this book,’ she writes in the author’s note, ‘I try to show how a few crucial weeks might have looked from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view. I am not claiming authority for my version; I am making the reader a proposal, an offer.’ And it’s one that despite my reservations, I was happy to take up.

The award of the Man Booker Prize to Mantel for this book was treated with almost universal acclaim; certainly most critics don’t seem to have had any doubts. Here’s an example. But the award to Mantel of the 2012 Costa Prize (formerly the Whitbread Prize), occasioned one rather venomous response. This prize is awarded to ‘well-written, enjoyable books’. And this critic thought the book a ‘middlebrow triumph’, much too reassuring, a crowd pleaser and likely to be nothing more than ‘a fascinating curiosity’. I have been trying to work out why, despite all the good things I can see in it, I still prefer Wolf Hall; here is someone saying it’s too easy to like. I’d really like some other opinions.

You can read a bit more about Hilary Mantel here; she doesn’t seem to have her own website. She’s working on the third in the trilogy, Mirror and the Light. Oh – and make sure you read Wolf Hall first if you haven’t already.

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Colm Tóibín is highly acclaimed, but up till now I hadn’t read anything by him. So I’m putting that right, and starting with one of his earlier novels. The Blackwater Lightship is his third, and was published in 1999. It is set in the early ‘90s, on the east coast of Ireland.

The story begins with Helen comforting her younger son who has had a nightmare. Helen, her husband Hugh and her two children prepare for a party, where there is Irish singing. The next day, Hugh and the children leave for a holiday; Helen is to follow later. But her plans are interrupted when she receives a message that her brother Declan has AIDS and is very ill. He wants to see her, and he wants her to tell her mother and grandmother how ill he is and why. They do not know that he is gay. Helen has recently become reconciled with her Granny after a long estrangement, but she has had no contact with her mother Lily for many years. Lily has never met her husband and children. Helen, Lily, Declan and two of his friends arrive at Granny’s isolated house by the sea. How will they cope with the tension of being together under these circumstances?

Though Declan’s illness is described in some detail, this is not primarily a book about AIDS, or even about being gay. Its main theme is mothering – which is why Helen is first shown as a mother, even though Hugh and the children are peripheral to the rest of the action. Helen feels a ‘bitter resentment’ towards her mother, which has ‘clouded her life’. ‘I would really like to run my mother over in the car’, she says, ‘that’s what I would really like to do.’ Declan hasn’t lost contact with Lily in the same way as Helen, but the best mothering in his life has come from two of his gay friends. Lily feels ambiguous about her own mother, who in turn is critical of her. Is it too late for these wounds to be healed?

A second and related theme is absence and loss. The Blackwater lightship of the title is an absence. There used to be two lighthouses off the coast, and Lily remembers as a child thinking that the two were a woman and a man who sent ‘mating signals’ to each other with their lights. Now the Blackwater lightship is gone and only the Tuskar lighthouse remains. ‘I thought it would always be there,’ Lily says. The death of her husband when he was still young is a loss that has shaped her life, just as the loss of her father has shaped Helen’s. What, she wonders, will it be like to be ‘back as a member of this family she had so determinedly tried to leave’? There are various symbols of loss in the story, for example the ruined house further down the beach which has fallen victim to the erosion of the cliffs. The sea, on the other hand, is a constant – though one that is indifferent to human needs and feelings. This is not the most cheerful of stories. But it is also about love.

A review I read of this book by Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books was more than usually helpful to my understanding of it. He sees the novel as particularly Irish, in part because of the mixture of old and new in Irish life and culture it depicts. The young, for example, are not stereotyped as ‘modern’, or the old as ‘traditional’. Hugh teaches in an Irish school; Helen is principal of a comprehensive. Lily runs a company that sells and installs computers. (‘Just call us,’ she tells her customers, ‘and we’ll be here for you’ – they get more mothering than poor Helen ever did.) Granny carries a flick knife, and is learning to drive. The responses of the characters to Roman Catholicism and homosexuality are also somewhat unexpected.

Eagleton also places Tóibín’s prose in an Irish context as ‘post-colonial’. He describes his style as ‘austere’, as opposed to some earlier ‘colonial’ Irish writing which was ‘elevated, extravagant, mythopoeic, laced with surreal fantasy’; English, but deliberately dissociated from England. Tóibín, he says, has moved on from this. His writing is spare, but does not lack detail; in fact it is very precise. But it avoids any hint of sentimentality, which is something of a feat, given the subject matter – though the book is much the stronger for it.

The Blackwater Lightship was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1999; the prize went to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. If I were choosing which of the two to read, I’d pick this one; despite its subject matter, it is much less depressing.

You can read more about Colm Tóibín here

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Maybe it’s a coincidence that I read The Year of the Flood (2009) in a week when new reports show human-caused climate change is accelerating at a dangerous rate, but such warnings sure add punch to this book’s dystopian message. It isn’t about climate change as such. The world’s climate has changed drastically in the story, but ‘the Flood’ isn’t caused by it. It happens, however, because of the same greed and stupidity that is inhibiting action on climate change now. If you don’t believe in human-caused climate change, you will probably find this book an improbable flight of fancy. Atwood doesn’t see it like that; she says the book is fiction, ‘but the general tendencies and many of the details are alarmingly close to facts.’ And I fear she is right.

The book is set in the same time and place as her earlier novel, Oryx and Crake (2003); see my review here. While the earlier story is set in the heavily guarded and privileged Compounds where scientists and their families live and work on genetic engineering, this one is set in the pleeblands, the decaying and crime-ridden urban areas outside the Compounds. Some of the same characters appear in both novels and both explore the immediate impact of the catastrophe that has overtaken the world, and the lives of some of the characters leading up to it. The technical challenge here is to write a stand-alone book when the material relates so closely to the earlier story. For example, you know right from the start of The Year of the Flood that there has been a catastrophe, but you only know what caused it if you have read the earlier story. I don’t think this matters, as the ‘cause’ in this story isn’t really relevant; the disaster is just something that happens to people, whatever the immediate cause. But then I’ve read the earlier book.

This story is about a greenie Christian group, God’s Gardeners, who get a brief mention in Oryx and Crake. They live in the pleeblands but reject the consumerist and hedonistic culture that thrives there, and in the Compounds. Instead they try to be to be self-sufficient by growing their own food and recycling cast-off consumer goods. They respect all living things as created by God. Short sermons by Adam One, the leader of the group, and hymns from their ‘Oral Hymnbook’ are scattered throughout the story. This is carried in linked but separate narratives by two of the group, Toby – told as third person – and Ren in the first person. This is again a considerable technical challenge, especially as there are numerous time changes covering the periods before and after the catastrophe, but Atwood is a master at this sort of thing, and I found it easy enough to follow once I got a little way into the story. Toby and Ren each has her own story within the larger trope of a small number of people who survive a catastrophe but then have to battle to survive its aftermath – Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids comes to mind as an earlier version (though that is science fiction, not speculative fiction).

Atwood gives full reign to the horrible detail of the society the Gardeners live in – the gangs, the violence, the crazy quest for permanent youth and beauty. At one point Toby has to advertise a health spa. It doesn’t do gene therapy, but it does do ‘herbal elixirs, system cleansers, dermal mood lifts; vegetable nanocell injections, mildew-formula micromesh resurfacing, heavy-duty face creams, rehydrating balms. Iguana-based hue changes, microbial spot removal, flat-wart leech peels.’ What a wonderful list! Details of the Gardeners’ own practices are equally inventive. Ren, for example, has no cavities in her teeth; ‘The Gardeners were against refined sugar and were strict about brushing, though you had to use a frayed twig because they hated the idea of putting either plastic or animal bristles inside their mouths.’ Atwood’s skill makes what might seem ridiculous totally believable.

Atwood’s characteristically ironic style makes it hard to know exactly how to take the Gardeners’ religion. They believe that one day soon there will be a second flood which will overwhelm the human population of the earth. Unlike Noah’s flood, this one will be waterless, leaving the flora and fauna of the planet, which they see as just as important as humans, to recover from the desolation wreaked by humans. Adam One has many sensible things to say in his sermons, but surely some of it is a joke, as in the suggestion that Jesus called two fishermen as his first apostles, ‘to help conserve the Fish population. They were told to be fishers of men instead of being fisherman of Fish, thus neutralizing two destroyers of Fish!’ The Gardeners are right about the ‘flood’ but I think the story is open-ended in terms of otherwise endorsing their views.

I understand Margaret Atwood is writing a third book in this series. You can read more about her here. She won the 2000 Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin, which I reviewed here. Oryx and Crake made the short list in 2003, but this one didn’t even make the long list in 2009. I really don’t know why, though maybe some people find it preachy – all that stuff about species extinction and extreme weather ….

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