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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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The Man Booker Prize judges never cease to amaze me. In this case, I’m going back to 2010, when the prize was awarded to Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question and the book I’m reviewing only made the long list.  Meticulously researched and beautifully written, it seems to me of far greater literary merit than the winner; you can see what I thought of that here. It was also far more popular, going straight to number one on various booksellers’ lists. I know this isn’t a criterion that is taken into account, but there does seem to be a bit of a disjunction here.

The story is set in Nagasaki, and begins in 1799. It centres on a group of people who live on Dejima, a trading concession of the Dutch East India Company. Dejima is an artificial island linked by a land bridge to Nagasaki. Few people aside from Japanese officials such as interpreters and inspectors are allowed to cross over to Dejima or back from it; Japan is the Closed Empire and foreigners are strictly controlled. But the story starts in Nagasaki, where Orito Aibagawa, a skilled young mid-wife, uses Western medical knowledge to save the life of a mother who is having a difficult delivery, and her baby. It then follows the fortunes of Jacob de Zoet, a young clerk who has come to Dejima to make enough money to marry his sweetheart back in Holland. Paradoxically, his main task is to document the corruption of other employees of the Company, which hardly makes him popular. The first of the five parts of this book tells of his small victories and larger defeats and betrayals, of his growing friendship with the Interpreter Ogawa – and of his love for Miss Aibagawa.  The second part follows Orito, who is sold into the shrine of a goddess by her step-mother, and Ogawa, who also loves her. The third tells of a British frigate which comes to Dejima seeking plunder and alliance with the Japanese. The fourth and fifth much shorter sections resolve most the elements of the story.

Perhaps the Man Booker judges didn’t like the structure of the book. If so, I can’t agree with them. Each of the first three sections has a different focus, but the links are carefully constructed, and the story doesn’t feel fragmented. There are links revealed through the material and characters, and in the changes of perspective within each section, so, for example, in the third section, we get the view of both Jacob and the captain of the frigate. In Cloud Atlas, the only other of Mitchell’s books I’ve read – and see my review here – the narrative line is much more fractured, and felt somewhat artificial. This doesn’t. You can read what Mitchell says about the structure here, and you can follow up his reference to Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan here.

Also in that review, I questioned whether the multiple writing styles he uses in Cloud Atlas aren’t a bit too clever by half. Here, there is only one narrative style for all the sections – the intelligent third person observer. I’ve come to see that it doesn’t matter whether this time it is Mitchell’s ‘authentic’ voice; indeed, there is no such thing. There is only the voice the novelist chooses to use at any given time, and the only judgement that matters is about the quality of that voice. And Mitchell’s quality is superb. Each character speaks just as that character should, and this requires a high degree of versatility, particularly as the characters are of a variety of ethnic origins and social classes. In addition, Mitchell has wonderful powers of observation and description. The prose poem near the end of the third section detailing the life of a Nagasaki street is one of the loveliest I’ve read.

I said above that the research behind this book is meticulous, but how would I know? Certainly the general outlines are accurate; you can read about the situation of Dejima, the Dutch East India Company, much of the detail about the exclusion of foreigners and Japanese attitudes to hierarchy and tradition on Google if you want. Even the incident of the British frigate has a basis in fact. But a better assessment may be that the historical content seems real. The physical setting and the views and attitudes of the characters all fit seamlessly into the historical context Mitchell has created. The time and place are intrinsically interesting, and perfect for amplifying his theme of the ‘foreignness’ of the eternal outsider, for Jacob, Orito and Ogawa are all in their way outsiders.

Reading the first section, I was absorbed by the detail, but a bit confused by the unfamiliar Dutch and Japanese names. I wondered where it was all going. Reading the second, I decided that the book requires patience. And I think it deserves it. That I can’t read about Nagasaki without thinking about its modern history just adds another layer to my response.  It’s rare for me to like a book so much.

I wasn’t surprised to find that Mitchell lived for some years in Japan, and that his wife is Japanese. You can read more about the author here.

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I’ve been writing this blog for quite a while now, but I still sometimes find it difficult to say why I like a book, or why I don’t. I can see that this book is one many people will like, and indeed it was long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize. But instead of being moved, or touched by it as I know other readers are, it rather irritates me. The challenge is to find out whether this says something about the book, or about me – or some combination of both.

Harold Fry has recently retired from his job as a salesman for a brewery. He is shy and retiring to the point of self-effacement. He feels he is a failure. He and his wife Maureen scarcely speak to each other, and neither seems to have anyone or anything meaningful in their lives. One day Harold receives a letter from Queenie, a former work colleague, telling him she is dying of cancer. Harold writes to say he is sorry, and goes out to post the letter. But instead of doing so, he decides to walk to see her, just as he is, even though he lives on the south coast of England, and she is in a hospice in Scotland. The story then follows his journey, the people he meets and the memories he has of his life. ‘In walking, he unleashed the past that he had spent twenty years seeking to avoid, and now it chattered and played through his head with a wild energy of its own.’ The narrative is shared with Maureen, as she struggles to come to terms with his abrupt departure and to decide what she really feels for him.

On one level the story deals with the reality of blisters, weather, washing and sleeping arrangements. I didn’t find these details particularly convincing; no one could walk with their feet and legs in the condition that Harold’s are soon in. Nor do I find it convincing that his mind could be occupied only by memories; no one’s mind could be as blank as that. But this isn’t primarily about reality – it’s about Harold’s journey of self-discovery. That the difficulties are unrealistic, and yet he keeps going, is the whole point. He needs to achieve something. ‘I have to keep walking’ is his mantra. And the primacy of memory over any other thought is essential to the structure of the story; much of the narrative drive relies on the gradual revelation of events earlier in Harold’s life. But the hints that are given along the way undermine – for me – the power of Harold’s final revelation.

Harold begins his journey in the faith that it will somehow help Queenie, even though a doctor he meets along the way tells him that incurable cancer is – well – incurable. But it seems that the world needs ‘a little less sense and a little more faith’. I guess one of the things people like about the story is Harold’s fidelity to his purpose in the face of various obstacles to it. He is a modern version of John Bunyan’s Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), with his own hill of difficulty and slough of despond. Indeed, the book’s epigraph is from Bunyan. But there is nothing overtly religious about this pilgrimage, even if at times it seems almost to take on the air of a search for Buddhist enlightenment. ‘But you have to let go,’ he says. ‘I didn’t know that at the beginning, but I do now. You have to let go of things you think you need, like cash cards and phones and maps and things. ’

All this is perfectly reasonable, so what am I complaining about?  I think it is the way Harold’s self-discovery is expressed. Take this passage where Harold is reflecting, as he often does, on his new understanding of things. ‘He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other, and a life might appear simply ordinary because the person living it had done so for a long time.’ Really? It comes down to whether you think this is meaningful or trite. One reviewer praises Joyce’s ‘unerring ability to convey profound emotions in simple, unaffected language.’ I find the writing too often lacks depth and the story feels contrived. But I can imagine other people, like the reviewer, feeling quite differently.

So is it the book, or me?  Probably both. The book is sometimes sentimental, and I often don’t have the warm emotional response to books that I know other readers have. Best you try it yourself.

This is Rachel Joyce’s first book. You can read more about her here.

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After his book The Line of Beauty won the Man Booker Prize in 2004, Hollinghurst said that it brought to an end the sequence of books in which he has consciously explored gay identity and its fight for recognition.  The Stranger’s Child (2011) is his first book since then, and yes, he has gone beyond being ‘just’ a gay writer – if in fact that was what he ever was.

The story is told in five parts. Each is a fragment, complete in itself but part of a larger story, different aspects of which are revealed in each section. Some of what has gone on in between is alluded to, but some is withheld, and of interest to those in subsequent sections, and of course to the reader. The connections are rich and subtle, and I won’t go into them here, because the interest of them is part of the book’s appeal. Suffice to say it begins in 1913. Cecil Valance is spending a weekend with his Cambridge friend, George Sawle, at George’s comfortable middle class house, ‘Two Acres’, in an outer London suburb – then more of a village. Valance, a poet and something of a celebrity at Cambridge, is heir to a baronetcy and a landed estate, Corley Court. It is clear to the reader from the start that Cecil and George are lovers, but not of course to George’s family. The second part is set in 1926; it deals with another weekend, this time a house party at Corley Court arranged so that a biographer can interview people who knew Cecil, who died in the First World War. The third section is set in 1967; Corely Court is now a school, and two more young men, one of them a teacher there, are falling in love. The main action again involves a party with the Sawle family and others, or their heirs, from the earlier sections.  In the fourth section, set in 1979, another biographer is researching a life of Cecil Valance, and there is a brief coda set at a funeral in 2008.

Hollinghurst says that ‘From the start I’ve tried to write books which began from a presumption of the gayness of the narrative position. To write about gay life from a gay perspective unapologetically and as naturally as most novels are written from a heterosexual position.’ And certainly several of the major male characters here are gay as a matter of course. In a major departure, however, there is also an important female character, Daphne, who is not gay, and Hollinghurst seems to me to do an excellent job of understanding and presenting her feelings. Of course he has never wanted to be known as primarily a gay writer: ‘I only chafe at the ‘gay writer’ tag if it’s thought to be what is most or only interesting about what I’m writing,’ he says. ‘I want it to be part of the foundation of the books, which are actually about all sorts of other things as well – history, class, culture.’ Here, I think he has succeeded brilliantly. The subtle class differences, for example, between Cecil, and George and his family at Two Acres, are cleverly evoked. They help create an almost unbearable narrative tension that originates in the hidden homosexuality of the two young men but goes well beyond it.

But history, in the form of biography – or rather the unreliability of biography – is surely the major theme of the book. Some facts are unknown and unknowable. Others manage just to elude the biographers’ eager (greedy?) hands. Some things that seem like facts are not. Some characters might wish to be truthful, but find it impossible to be so. Daphne, for example, acknowledges: ‘What she felt then; and what she felt now; and what she felt about what she thought then: it wasn’t remotely easy to say.’ Memory is completely fallible. Daphne again: ‘He [the biographer] was asking for memories, too young himself to know that memories were only memories of memories.’ Some of the characters prefer concealment. And how far does the biographer simply assert things without a solid basis of evidence? How far do other people believe them? The reader ends up knowing a bit more than the characters about what happened, but we are still left with a satisfyingly realistic measure of doubt.

In a review in The Guardian, one critic states that Hollinghurst ‘has a strong, perhaps unassailable claim to be the best English novelist working today’, though he thinks this is not his best work. I understand why he makes this claim. Hollinghurst writes beautifully, and the nuanced and clever plot is a delight. The critic goes on to say: ‘It almost seems as if Hollinghurst is refuting the most commonly made criticisms of his work: that he’s not very interested in women; that there’s too much sex; that his writing is too lush; that his characters are not likeable. These objections, incidentally, seem to me largely philistine or dishonest … And, flawlessly executed though this book is, it has rather less bite than its predecessors.’ I agree that none of the characters is particularly likeable. By showing them from a number of perspectives, Hollinghurst shows them as fully fallible – a realistic, though somewhat depressing perspective. But for the rest, I guess I’m either philistine or dishonest.

The book made only the long list for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, but I liked it better than the book that won – Julian Barnes’s The Sense of An Ending; see my review of it here. There’s almost nothing about Hollinghurst on the internet. It’s no surprise that he doesn’t have a web page.

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True to form, I’m reading the 2011 Man Booker Prize winner nearly a year late; the short-list for 2012 was announced on 11 September. Also pretty much true to form – see some of my other reviews of Man Booker winners – I wouldn’t have voted for it. I haven’t yet read anything by any other of the 2011 short-listed candidates, so it may have been the best of the bunch. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

This short novel is described as a meditation on memory, ageing and regret. Tony Webster is middle aged, middle class, retired from his job as an arts administrator, divorced, but on friendly terms with his ex-wife and daughter. He tells his story in two parts. In the first, he reflects on his youth, his last year at school, his time at university, and the period just after. He knows he may not be remembering things as they really happened. These are ‘approximate memories which time has deformed into certainties,’ he says. ‘If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impression those facts left.’ What he recalls in particular is Adrian, a friend from school, and Veronica, his first girlfriend. After they break up, Veronica goes out with Adrian. In the second part, he tells how he has now been left a small bequest and another document in the will of Veronica’s mother, whom he met only once. This prompts him to try and find out why she left anything at all to him. What is the relationship between what he remembers, and what he now finds documentation of?

Questions about an understanding of the past – ie history – are central to the novel. Early in the story a history class debates the nature of historical responsibility – an important issue in the book. But what is history? Tony’s history teacher asks this question of his students. Tony suggests it’s the lies of the victors, which in a sense sums up the first part of his account, he being the ‘victor’ in the sense that it is his version we are reading – though equally it could be ‘the self-delusions of the defeated’. His friend Colin suggests it is cyclical, events essentially repeating themselves. And yes, there are at least two crucial elements that seem to be repeated in this story. Then Adrian quotes a (fictional) French thinker, saying history is ‘that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’ Yes, of course we were pretentious,’ Tony admits. But pretentious or not, everything else revolves around such imperfections of memory and inadequacies of documentation. The unreliable narrator is a fairly common literary trope – I’ve even reviewed a couple of examples (Balthasar’s Odyssey, by Amin Maalouf and the classic Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). But in this case, unreliability is woven into the structure of the story. Fiction is necessarily contrived, but I can’t help feeling that here it is contrived to make a historiographical point, rather than a good story. I’m not sure what the point is, though.

It seems that the title of this book is the same as that of a book of essays by the literary critic Frank Kermode, published in 1965. This can hardly be a coincidence, so in order better to understand Barnes’s book, I had a look at some of the essays. Kermode says he is trying ‘to make sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.’ Barnes seems to be saying that the sense we often make of our lives is illusory, because based on unreliable memories. As Adrian says, ‘we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us’. Not a lot of help. How can we know ourselves, if the narratives we construct about our past lack all objectivity?

Barnes’s book, and its award of the Man Booker Prize, were mostly greeted with critical acclaim. He has been praised for the ‘intricate’ structure of the novel, for the ‘precision’ as well as ‘the nuances of language’. But I couldn’t help agreeing with one critic who said it ‘occasionally feels more like a series of wise, underline-worthy insights than a novel’.

You can read more about Julian Barnes on his informative website here.

PS. Veronica has a ‘comfort book’ – I Capture the Castle – which happens to be one of my favourite comfort books, though most people don’t seem to have heard of it. It’s by Dodie Smith. Not sure what this says about either of us, but I’ll write about it one day.

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On one level this is a compelling book. But on another level, I’m just not sure whether David Mitchell isn’t being too clever by half.

The novel is made up of six separate stories. There are some links, which I’ll talk about later. There are eleven sections, with six consecutive stories, the first five of which come to an abrupt finish, one even ending mid-sentence. The sixth story is complete, and is then followed in reverse order by a further instalment of each the other five, more or less resolving them. Mitchell uses a musical example to describe this structure. One character is writing ‘‘a sextet for overlapping soloists’, piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and colour. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order.’ ‘Revolutionary or gimmicky?’ he asks. And that’s a very good question.  The name given to this piece of music is ‘Cloud Atlas Sextet’.

The first of the six stories takes the form of diary entries by a young, God-fearing American sailing between Sydney and California around 1850. His ship puts in for repairs to the Chatham Islands, where he learns of the fate of the Moriori people who have, with the assistance of white ‘entrepreneurs’, been enslaved by the more war-like Maoris. The style writing in this section, and the views expressed by the characters are brilliantly authentic, reminding me of the writing of Joseph Conrad, though I gather that Herman Melville’s Typee and Moby Dick may also have been a models. The second story is about the sextet composer, and is set in 1931. It takes the form of letters he sends from Belgium, where he has fled from his creditors, to a lover in England. The style is quite different, but again I am reminded of the writing of that period: Evelyn Waugh, perhaps. The third story is an American style thriller set in 1975, about a young reporter who is chasing the story of a cover-up of faulty design of a nuclear plant – The China Syndrome, anyone? The fourth is a sort of Kingsley Amis style farce about an elderly publisher who finds himself imprisoned in an old folks’ home; it’s set at the time of writing. The fifth story is a piece of speculative fiction about a future where society is run by a corporation, with genetically engineered ‘fabricants’ doing all the labour; one of these recounts her story to an archivist.  I use the term ‘speculative fiction’ rather than ‘science fiction’ in Margaret Atwood’s sense that the drivers which could produce such a future outcome for society are already in place. (Similarities between this section of Cloud Atlas (2004) and Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) must surely be coincidence.) The sixth section is set even further into a dystopian future, after ‘the Fall’, and is an account of a visit of one of the few ‘Prescients’ left in the world to a Pacific island (Hawaii) inhabited by people living in conditions equivalent to the early mediaeval. So much of ‘civilisation’ has been lost that language itself is but a shattered remnant.  I read these stories with a mixture of pleasure, amusement, interest, and horror. But also with an increasing sense of frustration. Is this anything more than mimicry? If it is convincing does this matter? Do the six pieces somehow make up a whole?

There are a number of superficial links. Luisa Rey, the reporter, reads the letters of Robert Frobisher, the composer. Omni, the fabricant, sees a film made of the story of the publisher, Timothy Cavendish, who in turn will publish the adventure of the reporter, now presented as a book, rather than as ‘reality’. Omni is considered a goddess in the final story. And so on. Some of the characters have a similar birth mark, and at times feel a strange sense of familiarity: Luisa, for example, stands ‘entranced, as if living in a stream of time’ when she hears the Cloud Atlas Sextet. And Omni, in the act of falling, has an earlier memory of falling, which is an experience of Luisa. But none of these links lead anywhere in narrative terms that I can see.

The search for unifying themes is perhaps more productive. Characters in the first – and therefore the last – story propose that progress and civilisation are the destiny of the white man, despite the terrible cost of colonialism on display. All of the other stories in their own way dispute the idea of progress, either personal or material, with accounts of exploitation and betrayal. They seem rather to endorse another view from the first story: that ‘The Weak are Meat the Strong do Eat’. This nihilistic position is somewhat modified in the sixth and central story, where the Prescient character suggests that the difference between being civilised and uncivilised is that civilised people can see beyond their immediate desires. All people have both civilised and uncivilised impulses, but there is hope that the civilising ones may win out. There isn’t, however, much evidence for that in these stories.

Despite the cleverness of all this – or perhaps because of it – I can’t help feeling there is a whiff of the Creative Writing class about the book: Postmodernism 101. Produce a piece of writing that illustrates the principle of fractured narrative. Write a thriller that makes use of all the conventions of the genre. In a series of short pieces, show mastery of six different writing styles. ‘Revolutionary or gimmicky?’ I think for once I agree with the judges of the 2004 Man Booker Prize. They short-listed Cloud Atlas, but the prize went to the conventionally structured The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst. I’m glad I read it, though.

You can read about the book here. A film based on it is due for release later this year. It sounds more optimistic than I thought the book was; maybe I’ve overstated the darkness.

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This book, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2007, is described on the cover as ‘Witty, original, inventive … utterly compelling’. I didn’t find it so. I didn’t much like it. Why do I feel so differently from experienced critics and readers like the Man Booker judges?

The story is narrated by Veronica, one of a large, dysfunctional Irish family, (‘why are we all so fucked’), and deals with how she reacts to the suicide of her younger brother, Liam. The book is about feelings, emotions, memories and relationships. The narrative wanders from past to present and from real to imagined, the boundaries of the latter not always being clear. The ‘gathering’ of the family for Liam’s funeral could be considered the climax of the book, though Enright undermines any sense of this by describing much earlier in the story some of what happens after the family meets for the funeral. ‘The seeds of my brother’s death were sown long ago’, she says, and for much of the book she is casting about for someone to blame for what took place. But she is not even certain that the incident she considers vital really did happen. And of course she blames herself: she is ‘looking for the point where she betrayed her own brother’.

This is no doubt a very credible evocation of how someone who is unhappy, unbalanced even, and dissatisfied with their life might feel, and Enright deserves credit for a sensitive portrayal of this state. She is in general in control of her material, and the changes between past and present – or imagined past and dream-like present – are handled well. By the end, it is possible to see shape in what seems initially a shapeless account.  And though there are things I don’t like about her writing style, it can be arresting, as for example in the following passage. ‘There were girls at school whose families grew to a robust five or six. There were girls with seven or eight – which was thought a little enthusiastic – and then there were the pathetic ones, like me, who had parents who were just helpless to it, and bred as naturally as they might shit.’ That last word explodes like a little bomb.

Now for what I don’t like. Enright’s writing is often described as lyrical, which I take to mean that she sometimes writes metaphorically, as in: ‘The air between them was too thin for love. The only thing that can be thrown across the air of Dublin town is a kind of jeering.’ Whether or not you like this kind of writing is probably a matter of taste – and I don’t. The Man Booker judges apparently do.

I’ve acknowledged that the story has a structure which contains its disparate nature, but I don’t feel the resolution, such as it is, really resolves anything. This is partly an issue for me of organisation, and partly of moral content. I’m left at the end with a sense of anti climax.

Then there is the question of whether Veronica is a character the reader can engage with. You don’t have to like a character, but where a book is so dominated by one narrator, you do have to be intrigued, even fascinated by her. And I’m not. I found myself thinking ‘get over it’, as she drove – well over 0.05 – around Dublin in the middle of the night, no doubt echoing her inner journey of discovery. Her insight that she is somehow living her life ‘in inverted commas’ only made me shrug. Her weighty pronouncement on her grandmother that ‘For a woman like Ada, every choice is an error, as soon as it is made’ seemed merely pretentious. It’s true she is self aware and mocking at times, but even that doesn’t endear her to me. Exploring the love/hate relationship she has with her siblings – Liam included – should be stimulating.  I find it merely unrealistic. But I know that lots of other people would disagree with me, and even label me un-empathetic.

An author can reasonably expect a literate and empathetic reader, and readers can expect that good literature will engage them. And here we have the old problem: if it doesn’t happen, is it anyone’s fault? Is one side or the other deficient? Or is it just a matter of personal preference?

You can read more about Anne Enright here. And some more favourable reviews are listed here.

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If seeing the film of Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy has got you interested in George Smiley, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s a sequel – both as a book and mini series (starring Alec Guinness) – called Smiley’s People. This is just a gentle reminder for those who already know it.

TTSS was published in 1974; Smiley’s People came out in 1979. The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) which is also a Smiley story, came between them, and deals with the pursuit of another Soviet mole, this time in China. But while Smiley as Head of the Circus instigates the case, the main player is Jerry Westerby (who has a small part in TTSS); it is only incidental to Smiley’s battle with the Russian spymaster Karla. Smiley’s People resumes that struggle.

The book starts, as does TTSS, not with Smiley, but with the introduction of two of the minor characters, Ostrakova, a Russian émigré in Paris, and Villem, an English long distance lorry driver of Estonian extraction. But it is not long before Smiley is again called from retirement to tidy up after the murder of his former agents. This is Vladimir, once a general in the Russian army, now living in London and still in touch with the dwindling émigré groups who once provided important information to British Intelligence. The Circus in now prohibited from dealing with such groups; they just want Smiley to demonstrate that Vladimir no longer had links with the intelligence community. But Smiley soon has other ideas, and his quest to find out what information Vladimir possessed and why he was murdered leads him inexorably in pursuit of Karla. 

Le Carré is a master story teller. Smiley starts with a small piece of evidence, which leads to an encounter with someone who provides more evidence, which leads to a further encounter, and so on. About three quarters of the book is taken up with this quest. In the final section, Smiley acts on the evidence he has amassed. This is not the stuff of the ‘action thriller’; there is no ‘bang bang kiss kiss’, as Ian Fleming put it. There is menace and violence, and Smiley increasingly feels he is working against time. But he is essentially solving a puzzle, not, for most of the book, directly confronting an enemy. It is a very clever story in that little happens by way of coincidence; Smiley’s steps are all soundly based. Perhaps he has an ability not shared by others to see significance and draw conclusions, but even his guesswork is informed by knowledge and experience. ‘Instinct – or better a submerged perception yet to rise to the surface – signalled to him urgently that something about these cigarettes was wrong.’ Or on another occasion:‘Some questions are hazard, some are instinct, some – like this one – are based on a premature understanding that is more than instinct, but less than knowledge.’ Le Carré is too clever a writer to rely on chance to resolve his plots .

The quality of his writing also shows in the development of his characters. Some, such as Oliver Lacon and Connie Sachs have already been introduced in TTSS; others, like Ostrakova and Villem, are new. But old or new, all are fully drawn. Le Carré does not mind spending time filling in the details of their lives, even though these might not be directly relevant to the story. Connie Sachs, now old and ill, is looked after by her much younger lover, Hilary, a former cipher clerk in the Circus. Hilary had a violent breakdown (smashing furniture and writing graffiti) which Smiley witnessed when he was in charge. There is no need for this information in terms of the plot, but it heightens the sense of both Smiley and Connie as outsiders, even rebels against the intelligence establishment. Lacon is as he ever was: ‘sophistry was Lacon’s element. He was born to it, he breathed it, he could fly and swim in it, nobody in Whitehall was better at it.’ It’s wonderful writing.

As I noted in an earlier post, Le Carré was short listed for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize. It is books like Smiley’s People that earned him this nomination; in writing about espionage, he explores the human condition. 

You can read more about Le Carré here.

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This is a beautifully written and thoughtful book about important subjects. But I found it so depressing that it was hard to keep reading.

The story is set in the mid 1980s, mostly in Kalimpong, near the border of India and Nepal, at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains. It concerns the doings of Jemubhai Patel, a retired judge, Sai, his orphaned grand daughter, and their cook – who is never named. The experience in America of Biju, the cook’s son, forms a counterpoint to the main narrative. There are also flash backs to the judge’s marriage and the time he spent in England preparing to sit for the Indian Civil Service exams.

The judge has imbibed a respect for doing things the English way. He spends his time reading English newspapers and playing chess; he doesn’t even mix with the small Anglophile community in Kalimpong. He eats meat with a knife and fork in a country where most people eat rice and dahl with their fingers. Sai is a teenager who has been brought up at first in a convent and then in the judge’s house. She also speaks English and respects English customs. She is in love with Gyan, her maths tutor, a young man from the local college. The cook does his best to look after them in the proper English way. He is immensely proud of his son. Biju entered America on a tourist visa which he has overstayed, and is now working illegally – or rather, being exploited – in a succession of poorly paid jobs in dirty restaurants. Then one day a group of young men calling themselves the Gorkha National Liberation Front steal the judge’s old hunting guns, and nothing is the same thereafter.

Desai ties the small doings of the characters – going to the market, arguing over brands of cheese, reading the National Geographic, stealing guns – into the larger themes that concern her. These include poverty, ignorance and inequality in India, the legacy of colonialism and the alienation of Anglophile Indians from their society, the growth of globalisation and consumerism, the experience of emigration, and the attractions of insurgency. In all of these, nearly everyone in the story loses out, partly through their own choices, but more because of the shaping forces of these broader themes which they have inherited.

The judge is a horrible man, who covers his insecurity – so dramatically heightened by the hostility and prejudice he encountered in England – by shouting and abuse. In England, ‘He retreated into a solitude that grew in weight day by day. The solitude became a habit, the habit became the man, and it crushed him into a shadow’. ‘He envied the English. He loathed Indians. He worked at being English with the passion of hatred, and for what he would become, he would be despised by absolutely everyone, English and Indians, both’.  Sai is a pleasant enough young woman, but she is drifting and purposeless. Biju is simply overwhelmed by the ‘unbearable arrogance and shame of the immigrant’ – the frustrations and miseries of his existence, inflicted, often enough, by his more successful fellow countrymen. The cook is kind, but his whole being is defined by his status as a servant. What happens to them, and to most of the other characters, amounts to misery piled on misery, humiliation on humiliation. As one character says, ‘There is nobody who won’t abandon you’. There is nobody who is redeemed. As for the Gorkha National Liberation Front, they ‘were living in the movies’. If they stirred up hatred, ‘extraordinary hatred was, after all, a commonplace event’.

Desai writes all this in a delicate and whimsical style. But that only makes the frustrations and misunderstandings, the betrayals and the losses seem even worse.

I know literature is supposed to tell us truths about ourselves, and this Desai does with a vengeance. Looking back at the end of the book, I couldn’t find one single untainted moment where happiness or hope wasn’t about to be disappointed. Things just are, and must be accepted. No wonder I felt depressed by the book.

The Inheritance of Loss won the Man Booker Prize in 2006. You can read an interview with Desai about herself and about writing the book here. For a different view of some of the same issues in India, see my post on The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008.

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The White Tiger won the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and I’m not sure how I missed it at the time. But I’m really glad I’ve made up for it now. Funny but sad to the point of tragic, it is a biting satire on the divisions between rich and poor in India. At least I assume it’s satire, and that the details are an overstatement to make a point; if it is an accurate description of reality, then I guess it’s not in the least funny.

The book takes the whimsical form of a letter from Balram Halwai to Wen Jiabao, Premier of China, the purpose of which is to explain, by reference to his own experience, how India fosters entrepreneurship. China, apparently, lacks entrepreneurs, whereas ‘our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewerage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs’. Written over several nights, most of the letter focuses on Balram’s life up to the point where he starts his own successful version of outsourcing (ie ‘doing things in India for Americans over the phone’); this is covered in a few very clever pages. So most of the book is about his experiences as the son of a poor village rickshaw-puller who becomes a driver for a rich master in New Delhi, and how by a single act of ‘social entrepreneurship’, he becomes an entrepreneur himself.

Balram uses two metaphors to describe the life of the poor in India. They live in ‘the Darkness’, whereas the rich live in ‘the Light’. And the poor live in ‘the Rooster Coop’, meaning not only do they live confined in terrible conditions, but they think of themselves as having no escape. ‘The greatest thing to come out of this country in the ten thousand years of its history is the Rooster Coop’, Balram says. The essentials of the coop include the bonds of family and location, economic dependence on the rich, chewing paan and a deep sense of servility. Anyone who tries to buck the system is picked off and destroyed. ‘Democratic’ elections, the police and the justice system are nothing more than shams, and inequality is cemented by corruption at every level of society. Hence the picture of the rooster on the cover.

So how does Balram escape? He isn’t sure himself. ‘If you ask me to explain how one event connects to another, or how one motive strengthens or weakens the next, or how I went from thinking this about my master to thinking that – I will tell you that I myself don’t understand these things’. When he is at school, he is able to read, and so rare is this accomplishment, the school inspector dubs him a ‘white tiger’ – a creature that comes along only once in a generation. Poetry also has something to do with it: Balram hears the lines ‘You were looking for the key for years/But the door was always open!’ and realises ‘a man can make himself vanish with poetry’.  ‘The moment you recognize what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave,’ he says. ‘To hell with the Naxals and their guns shipped from China. If you taught every poor boy how to paint, that would be the end of the rich in India’. But it takes more decisive action for Balram to free himself. Hence the title, and picture of the white tiger accompanying that of the rooster on the cover.

You might wonder how all this poverty and misery can be funny. Here are just two out of many possible examples of Adiga’s skill with words and ideas: first, while Balram is still a driver – ‘From the amount of garbage thrown outside the walls of the house, you knew that rich people lived here’, and second, when he has become an entrepreneur – ‘You’ll see my friends when you visit Bangalore – fat, paunchy men swinging their canes, on Brigade Road, poking and harassing vendors and shaking them down for money. I’m talking of the police, of course’. However dark the story, and as Balram warns, it is dark, Adiga’s light touch and ironic view make the book thoroughly satisfying for me. His achievement is all the more remarkable, given that this is his first novel.

You can read more about Adiga here. His second novel Last Man in Tower (2011) is described as a painful tragicomedy, so I guess it’s pretty much in line with his first.

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I saw the BBC mini series (2009) based on Small Island (2004) before I read the book. But I’m happy to report that even knowing what happens, I still found the book immensely appealing. Perhaps I’ve hit on a new definition of good literature: a book that gives pleasure even if you’ve already seen the film.

Andrea Levy was born in London after her parents migrated there from Jamaica in 1948, and she draws extensively on their experience. The book moves back and forwards in time and place from before World War II to 1948 in England and Jamaica. The story starts in 1948 with Hortense arriving in London to find Gilbert renting a room in a house belonging to Queenie Bligh. Hortense reveres England as the mother country and Gilbert has experienced it as a volunteer in the RAF during the war. But will it live up to their expectations? Queenie is letting rooms to make ends meet. She married Bernard to escape a life of drudgery on a farm, but although he returned to England after serving in the army, he hasn’t come home. Each main character tells how they arrived at this point in their lives, and what happens next.

One of the reasons the book holds my attention is that it offers a more complete picture than the film. That concentrated on Hortense and Queenie; the book gives space to Gilbert and, to a lesser extent, Bernard as well. Each character tells their story in the first person, and each character has a distinctive voice. This means that the reader gets to see the same situation from two or even three different perspectives, and can understand the feelings and responses of each participant. Hortense’s and Gilbert’s misunderstanding of each other are part funny, part heartrending. Hortense’s coldness to Queenie is equally painful. Bernard is the least appealing of the characters, but even he has moments where redemption seems possible. Creating this web of interactions with understanding and compassion, humour and pathos, is no mean feat, and Levy has managed it very effectively.

A second reason for finding it compelling reading is the inherent interest of the subject matter. Racism is a major theme; Levy is interested in exploring what it meant to be black and British in London immediately after the war. She shows the variations of prejudice, first in Jamaica, where light skin is more socially acceptable than dark skin, then in its brutal manifestations in England during the war, where Jamaicans were included in the colour bar imposed by the US Army on its black troops and finally in the ignorant bigotry of the post war British population at large. Queenie is a wonderful exception, though even she cannot ultimately escape the general intolerance. The lesson is that the West Indian community has to rely on itself.

I also found the siren call of the mother country to her colonial subjects fascinating, especially when contrasted with the indifference and even hostility of the British to those subjects. Gilbert, for example, realises that while his education in Jamaica was British centred – he can name all the canals in England – few in England even know Jamaica exists, let alone acknowledge the right of its black inhabitants to live in England. Even though the country has been shaken up by war – all the bits that had been blown up ‘settling in different places’ – there is almost no understanding that changes in the empire will have implications for people in Britain. I wondered if the picture of herself Levy has included in the book is intended to underline the legitimacy of West Indian aspirations to European culture; it shows a smiling black girl pointing her toe, dressed in a frilly white tutu.

Small Island was the winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2004.  Levy’s most recent book, The Long Song, was short-listed for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.

You can read more about Andrea Levy here.

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Anne Tyler is another writer who was on the Man Booker International shortlist. She is an American, but that must be about the only thing she has in common with the winner, Philip Roth. Her books deal with the personal and the domestic, rather than the broad themes of American experience – though arguably the domestic is important in the American experience, whatever critics think. Her main characters often find themselves at odds with their role in life, needing to come to terms with themselves in some new way. This is certainly true for Liam Pennywell, the protagonist of Noah’s Compass (2009),Tyler’s eighteenth book.

Liam is sixty, widowed, then divorced from his second wife, with three daughters. He has just been ‘downsized’ from his job teaching grade five students at a private school. Seeking to economise, he moves to a cheaper apartment, where on the first night, he is assaulted, and wakes up in hospital with no memory of what took place. He is distressed by his amnesia, and wants to find out what happened.

Liam is not an assertive man. If his back is agonizingly sore, he will tell the doctor he is ‘experiencing some discomfort’. Nor is he confident and successful. “But face it:” he says, “I haven’t exactly covered myself in glory. I just … don’t seem to have the hang of things somehow. It’s as if I’ve never been entirely present in my own life.”  He has lived, it seems, on the margins of his family’s lives. Will this experience jolt him into a new direction?  But as he tells his grandson Jonah, a compass for finding direction wouldn’t have been of any use to Noah; he wasn’t going anywhere, he was just trying to stay afloat on the flood.

A major theme in the story is memories – lost and found. ‘The trouble with discarding bad memories’, Liam thinks, ‘was that evidently the good ones went with them’. Offered the chance to confront his attacker, he wonders how important the memory, if it returned, would seem in comparison with other things he has forgotten. ‘Where’s the rest? Where’s everything else I’ve forgotten: my childhood, and my youth, my first marriage and the growing up of my daughters?’ he asks himself. ‘Why, he’d had amnesia all along.’ But the story is also about contentment, and while this is  a less passionate state than happiness, Liam’s pleasure in his quiet, sparse life is one of the joys of the book, as he thinks to himself of what Socrates said about ‘the fewer his wants, the closer he was to the gods.’

I hope I haven’t made the book sound depressing, because it isn’t. Tylerwrites with quiet amusement about her characters and their various foibles. Some of the humour is achieved through the use of parenthesis, as in: ‘To be honest, Liam thought, the Pennywells were a rather homely family. (Himself included.)’, or ‘“You’re dismissive and sarcastic and contemptuous,”’ Louise – his daughter – says. ‘(Anger seemed to broaden her vocabulary – a trait Liam had noticed in her mother as well.)’ But everyone has their good side, even if they can appear inept or comical. There is no malice in the humour.

Tyler’s work attracts rather conflicting responses. Some admire her unassuming prose and empathy with marginal people.  ‘She chooses subtlety over grandeur; she thinks in minuscule rather than capital letters’, says one critic.  But others (perhaps including the Man Booker International judges) consider her bland and unchallenging: ‘our foremost NutraSweet novelist’, as one critic apparently called her. I don’t think memory loss is a bland topic. And I detect a bit of sexism here: if it is domestic, it can’t be important. But perhaps I’m over sensitive. And she has won a Pulitzer Prize – for Breathing Lessons, in 1989.  

You can read more about Anne Tyler here.

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Philip Roth has won the 2011 Man Booker International Prize, which is awarded every two years to a living writer for their overall contribution to fiction. This choice has caused considerable controversy, as one of the judges, Carmen Callil, who is an author and founder of the feminist publishing house Virago, resigned from the judging panel rather than endorse the decision of the two other male judges. She is reported as saying: ‘He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe’, and ‘I don’t rate him as a writer at all’.

I’m not well placed to comment on her first objection, as American Pastoral, the book Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for in 1998, is the only one that I’ve read. (I did read the bit about the liver in Portnoy’s Complaint forty years ago but that doesn’t count.) And based on American Pastoral, I think he is capable of great writing. But I nevertheless know what she means about him sitting on your face.

The book is in three parts: Paradise Remembered, The Fall, and Paradise Lost. In the first part, Nathan Zuckerman, who has appeared in a number of Roth’s books and functions as his alter ego, recalls details in the life of Seymour Levov, who lived in the same Jewish neighbourhood inNew Jerseyas he did during the Second World War. Levov, called ‘the Swede’ because unusually for a Jew, he is blond and blue-eyed, was a great athlete, and now appears to be a successful business and family man. Zuckerman meets him in 1995, and concludes that while he is genial and liberal-minded, he has no inner life at all – his life ‘just unravelling … like a fluffy ball of yarn’. But later meeting the Swede’s younger brother at a class reunion, he learns that in 1968, at the age of sixteen, Levov’s daughter, Merry, was responsible for a bomb blast in a local postal agency that killed an innocent bystander. Zuckerman concludes that the Swede must have felt himself to be somehow responsible for her actions, and the rest of the book is a reconstruction of the disintegration of the family, both before and after the bomb, from the Swede’s tormented point of view. Of course Zuckerman can’t know how the Swede actually felt – but Zuckerman – aka the author – can make him feel anything he likes.

The Swede’s experience is clearly offered as a microcosm ofAmerica’s loss of innocence through its involvement in the Vietnam War (assuming it was ever innocent). While Merry is growing up, the Swede’s life seems to typify the third generation immigrant’s achievement of the American dream; he even lives onArcady Hill Road, to underline the point. Then his daughter’s act ‘transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral – into the indigenous American berserk’. To further underline this point, Merry has the radical Weathermen slogan on the wall of her room (a year early, as it happens) – ‘We’re against everything that’s good and decent in honkyAmerica. We will burn and loot and destroy. We are the incubation of your mother’s nightmare’. What can the Swede, with his liberal values, do in the face of this? I find his dilemma both confronting and compelling.

Yet, strangely, the structure of the story seems to undercut this parable. We know from the meeting of Zuckerman and Levov that he has three children from a second marriage, all of whom appear to be a source of pride and pleasure to him. This second marriage is not encompassed in the story as imagined by Zuckerman; his account ends on an unresolved and sour note in 1973. But if Levov does find happiness, what are the implications of this for the counterpastoral?

There are many passages I’d like to quote to show the power of Roth’s writing; here’s just one. ‘But for the wilted weeds that managed to jut forth in wiry clumps where the mortar was cracked and washed away, the viaduct wall was barren of anything except the affirmation of a weary industrial city’s prolonged and triumphant struggle to monumentalize its ugliness.’

So what about ‘sitting on your face’? Roth seems to me a very self indulgent writer. There are too many reflections, too many digressions, simply too many words – and despite the power of many of them, you can’t always breathe under the onslaught.

No female character is treated sympathetically, but I won’t even start on the charges against Roth of sexism.

You can read more about Roth here, and about Carmen Callil’s resignation from the judging panel here.

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We now know that Amin Maalouf did not win the Man Booker International Prize for 2011. (It went to Philip Roth – more on that later.) But seeing him on the short-list prompted a friend to recommend his books to me – to my eternal gratitude. I can’t yet speak for the rest of his work, but Balthasar’s Odyssey is delightful.

Amin Maalouf was born of Catholic parents in Lebanon, which he left during the civil war in 1979; he now lives in Paris. He writes in French; Balthasar’s Odyssey (2000) was translated by Barbara Bray in 2002.

It is the year 1665. Balthasar, whose family was originally from Genoa, lives in Gibelet, known in modern Lebanonas Jbneil, or Byblos. Then it was part of the rambling Ottoman Empire. Like his father before him, Balthasar is a dealer in books and curios. Like others, he has heard rumours that 1666 will be the Year of the Beast, with the coming of the Apocalypse and the end of the world. He has also heard of a book by an Arabic scholar that purportedly contains information that might save the person who learns of it. The Koran contains the ninety-nine names of God; this book, The Unveiling of the Hidden Name, is said to reveal the as yet unknown hundredth name, knowledge of which will ensure salvation. By strange chance, this volume comes into Balthasar’s keeping, but before he can read it, it passes into other hands. Why did he let it go? In pursuit of the book, he sets out on what becomes his odyssey.

The story is in four parts, each contained in a notebook in which Balthasar records the events of his journey and his thoughts about it. ‘I write’, he says, ‘to record events, to explain myself, or to clear my mind in the same way as one clears one’s throat, or so as not to forget, or even just because I promised myself I would.’ The word ‘picaresque’ – a hangover from a long ago English 101 course – came into my mind when reading Balthasar’s story; it is episodic, moving on not only from place to place, but from one set of characters to another. While he often gives their points of view, the story is essentially his version of events. He frequently cannot know how incidents he witnessed, or took part in, turned out; much consequently is left open ended.

The single narrator strategy can be a risky one, but in Balthasar, Maalouf has created a likeable character who has no difficulty in holding my interest. He tries to be honourable, even in the face of lies and trickery, but is drawn into deceit himself, and his good intentions seem to have a way of backfiring. He tries to be rational in face of superstition, but can’t help seeing signs and portents of doom around him. Is it really likely that God has chosen him, a not particularly devout Catholic, to be the person to whom the hundredth name will be revealed? Is it fate, or his own desires that drive him? He is full of earnest self doubt. ‘What is the good of travelling all over the world just to see what is inside me already?’ he asks himself.  ‘I record in my notebook’, he says, ‘the various decrees of fate, interspersed with my own passionate shilly-shallyings’. ‘Perhaps’, he decides, ‘the honour of mortals resides in their inconsistency.’ By the end, he has concluded that ‘Surrendering to fate is nothing to be ashamed of; it was an unequal contest, so honour is satisfied.’ But you get the feeling he will probably have changed his mind again by the next day.

One of the things I found interesting about the novel is the way it presents as a matter of course the interconnectedness of the Islamic and European worlds of the seventeenth century. The books and curios Balthasar sells are an eclectic mixture of Greek, Roman and Arabic texts and archaeology, reminding the reader that theOttoman Empireencompassed what had earlier been major Greek and Roman settlements, the remains of which can still be found inByblos. For someone brought up with a Eurocentric view of history, it is refreshing to read about a merchant of Genoese extraction living in theLevant, and comfortable – more or less – in all the European places he visits. Maalouf is no doubt raising the question of identity: where is Balthasar (and perhaps Maalouf himself?) really at home? But I was fascinated by how easily Balthasar adapts to the wider world.

There is not much information about Maalouf available in English. It’s probably best to translate his French web page found here.

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