Man Booker prize – winner announced tonight

So, if you watch the news bulletins at 10pm tonight they will at some point during the programme “go live to the Guildhall in London”, etc, etc for the announcement of the Man Booker winner 2017. A few weeks ago, I set myself the task of tackling all six books on the shortlist. Alas, once again, I did not manage them all, though I improved on last year’s performance; this time I managed the complete four (see those on the left below), am halfway through the fifth (History of Wolves) and the sixth (4321) is so daunting I’m not sure I’ll sit down with it this side of Christmas!

 

2017-10-17 14.32.46

So, who do I think will win? Well, the bookies’ favourite is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Yes, it’s very unusual, some might say innovative, but I’m afraid I cannot say I enjoyed it that much, so it would not be my winner. The one I have most enjoyed is Elmet by Fiona Mozley, and my book club pals also thought it was an incredible tour de force of a story, like nothing any of us had read in some time. That said, I don’t think it will win.

History of Wolves, for me, is suffering from being read after Elmet. I had to have a bit of a pause after Elmet as I didn’t think I could pick up another book straight away. It had to rest with me for a while. History of Wolves is a much slower burn and, although I’m halfway through, I still can’t really tell where it’s going. It’s beautifully written, but, so far, there is very little plot. I’ll post my review of it soon.

Exit West  was good, but I was slightly disappointed as I had high expectations. Autumn  is also very good, beautifully written and highly topical. For this reason, I think Ali Smith has a good chance of taking the prize. As does, in my view, Paul Auster; although I haven’t yet read 4321, Auster is probably the biggest hitter (with the biggest book!), and the reviews have been very good.

So, my head tells me Auster or Saunders, my heart tells me Smith. That’s hedging my bets isn’t it?!

Overall, the shortlist has been rather underwhelming. I’ve been measuring each book against the yardstick of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which has to be the best book not to win the Man Booker this year (made the longlist but not the shortlist) and is one of my best books of 2017. I’m afraid that none of those shortlisted matches up for me so far.

What’s been your favourite book on the shortlist? Who do you think is going to win?

Man Booker Book Review 4: “Elmet” by Fiona Mozley

Well, I’ve improved on my performance of last year; I only managed to read 3.5 out of six of the books on the shortlist in 2016, but in 2017 I now have four under my belt with a week still to go! Book number four was Elmet by Fiona Mozley and, my goodness, it’s dark! I’m not sure when I last read anything like it, to be honest, although it reminds me very much of the Red Riding drama series which was aired on television in 2009 (I checked this fact and if you’d asked me to guess I probably would have said 2013/14 – tempus fugit!). That resonance could be down to the fact that it is set in the same part of the country (the Ridings of Yorkshire), but the book does have that same ‘Yorkshire noir’ feel to it, the hallmarks of which seem to be violence, corruption, poverty juxtaposed with crude wealth, and the bleak rural setting. Dialogue is mostly sparse, much is conveyed by a common understanding of the rules of social engagement, and by actions.

Photo 11-10-2017, 12 45 36The narrator and central character is Daniel, who lives with his father (always “Daddy”) and his sister Cathy (a nod to Wuthering Heights, I wonder?) somewhat on the margins of society. Initially, they live with Granny Morley somewhere in the north east, and seem to attend school regularry, though not particularly successfully; it is clear they are ‘different’ and considered outsiders, rather akin to travellers. Cathy and Daniel’s mother has been mostly absent, seemingly a troubled soul with mental health problems and probably addiction, but who then disappears completely, assumed dead. Daddy is a more reliable carer, though he too is frequently absent as he tours the country competing in illegal boxing bouts. He is at the top of his game, however, unvanquished wherever he goes, and seems to make enough of a living from this activity, as well as making plenty of money for those with sufficient funds to gamble heavily on his success. 

When Granny Morley dies suddenly, leaving the children alone in the house with her body for several days, Daddy vows on his return never to abandon them again, and is determined that they will live together as a family. They move back to Yorkshire and set up home in a copse outside a village, land that is said to belong to Daniel and Cathy’s mother. Initially, they camp, while Daddy sets about building a house  with nothing but his bare hands and materials they gather from the woods and cast off items. Daniel and Cathy no longer go to school, but after a time Daddy decides that the children need some sort of educating so he sends them to Vivien in the village, who appears to share some intimacy with Daddy, although the nature of this is never made clear. She too is a bit of a loner and although she never seems particularly enthusiastic about her role as educator she reaches a kind of understanding and accommodation with the children. Cathy never really takes to her lessons, preferring to spend her time outside in the woods, but for Daniel this time comes to be precious and he enjoys the cosy domestic setting and this gentler side of life. Daniel, we increasingly see, is softer, more fragile, physically and emotionally, than either his father or sister, and prefers more feminine company. While Cathy shares the outlook and preferences of her father, Daniel is said to be more like their mother; perhaps this is why Daddy and Cathy love him so much and feel the need to protect him so fiercely.

Thus the scene is set, and the first third of the book is spent getting to know the characters and the setting. The plot thickens when Mr Price enters the novel. He is a wealthy local landowner who owns the land on which the family has settled. He claims that it was signed over to him by the children’s mother in payment of a debt when she ran into financial difficulties, there is clearly some history with the mother, but, again, this is never made clear. Price presents a real and present danger to the family; he clearly is set upon a battle with Daddy, it seems likely that he feels threatened by this bigger stronger man and wishes to emasculate him through his power and authority. There are also Price’s sons, privately educated at some distant boarding school where they learn to play rugby and cricket. They have all the arrogance of their father but their Yorkshire grit seems to have withered. They are particularly interested in picking on the children, especially Cathy, who seems to them to be easy meat, although always out of sight of their father.

Daddy teams up with some of the local villagers and becomes involved in a dispute with a number of the landowners, who are said to exploit poorly paid workers and their poorly treated tenants. They gain some success, but at a cost. Price clearly feels he has leverage over Daddy and says he will sign over the land to the family on the condition that he fights one last bout. Clearly, Price has nothing to lose – he will gain financially from the event, has no interest in the small parcel of land at stake, so it means nothing if he has to give it to the family, and if Daddy loses, well, that’s a problem solved. 

The last third of the book moves at a rapid pace, and events unfold dramatically. This final part of the book is a real page-turner. I read the last 100 pages in one sitting and I was almost breathless by the end! The characterisation is superb, I felt I really knew who these people were by the end. The evocation of the setting is also brilliantly done; Fiona Mozley is a fine writer and it is hard to believe this is a debut novel. The time in which the novel is set is not specified, deliberately so, I suspect, since there is a certain timelessness about it; Cathy, Daniel and their father (and to some extent, their mother) represent those people who will always live on the margins, never quite prospering, always struggling, even if they were to play by all the rules society sets. The world is simply stacked against them, their type, their way of life. But what is also timeless is the profound love between father and children, and Daddy’s instinct to protect is felt powerfully throughout.

This is a dramatic and powerful novel, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s bleak though! Recommended, but don’t expect a traditional happy ending or all loose ends to be neatly tied. But that’s not life either, is it?

Are you ploughing throught the Man Booker shortlist? How are you getting on?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. You can do so by clicking on the ‘Follow’ button. Let’s also connect on social media (various buttons to the right)

 

Man Booker Book Review 2: “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid

The second book in my Man Booker shortlist challenge (two down and four to go, and only 2 weeks before the winner is announced!), Exit West has been on my list of books to read for some time. It is the story of Saeed and Nadia, two young people enduring the horror of civil war in their home city as Islamic extremists take hold of the reins of power. The city is not named – it is not a ‘Raqqa’ or a ‘Mosul’, just two of the cities which have been torn apart by religious fundamentalists and opposing forces seeking to eject them – nor is it clear when in time the novel is set. These are left deliberately vague because this is a novel that wants to focus on the issue of migration rather than historical facts; the movement of people from parts of the world so riven by violence that many able-bodied citizens find they have little choice but to flee. And it is about the impact of this mass movement on those parts of the world mostly unwilling to receive them.

Exit West imgAt first, the novel seems quite rooted in a real time and place, as we get to know the two central characters, Saeed and Nadia, learn the details of their lives, their families, how they were brought up and what motivates them. Though they are quite different personalities they fall in love, and when tragedy strikes Saeed’s family, they make the decision to leave their homeland for what they expect to be a safer and more peaceful life in the West. They escape the city through the first of the novel’s doors (inside a dentist’s surgery) and they emerge in Mykonos. At this point I saw the door as a narrative device enabling the author to focus on their experience of leaving and of arriving, rather than the journey (one can only imagine the horrors of that, see my review of The Optician of Lampedusa). It gradually becomes clear, however, that the door is more of a metaphor for transition from one place, one state, to another. Saeed and Nadia will go through many more doors in this novel.

In Mykonos they feel a mixture of hope (they have escaped and they are beginning a new life together) and fear, as we see the first hints that the receiving population may be less than welcoming to the escapees. There is also the contrast between the tourists, choosing to visit the Greek island on their holidays, and the refugees seeking a new home. Mykonos is where Saeed and Nadia also begin to learn that the way you look, the way you dress and your skin colour can have a dramatic impact on your fortunes in the West.

From Mykonos, the couple move on again to London, where they stay in a disused apartment in an area that gradually becomes a ghetto of the dispossessed. From here the novel becomes gradually darker; darker even than the terror that Saeed and Nadia escaped in their home country. I also began to feel here that the novel was less about the experience of escape and more about envisioning some future scenario where simmering tensions, brought about by the failure adequately to address mass migration, explode onto the surface. Hamid foretells the possible reactions of the indigenous population and the domestic authorities; this was not comfortable reading.

This novel deals with one of the greatest challenges of our age and is bleak reading in parts. But the author also attempts to root it very firmly at the human level by telling the story through this young couple, who could be anyone. The issues and difficulties that they encounter in their relationship as a result of their migration experience provide a moving and accessible dimension to the book. The doors are not only metaphors for the physical movement from one location to another, but they also signify changes in the nature of Saeed and Nadia’s relationship.

This is a tough read at times, but also an important one. Recommended.

How are you getting on with the ManBooker shortlist?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would be delighted if you would subscribe to the blog. Let’s also connect on social media for book-related chat.

My 100th post! (And the Man Booker shortlist)

This is my 100th post and I feel it’s quite fitting that I should be writing on the very day that the Man Booker 2017 shortlist has been announced. Last year, I set myself the task of trying to read all six books on the shortlist before the prize winner was announced. I managed three and a half! This year, I’ve cleared the decks and am going for it again – all six books by 17 October…34 days.

If you haven’t seen the shortlist, here it is:

 

Autumn and Exit West have been on my ‘to-read’ list for a while. Autumn is a post-Brexit novel and is about the fissures that became apparent in UK society after that referendum, seen through the eyes of elderly Daniel and youthful Elisabeth. It may help with understanding this social turmoil. Exit West is also about social and political turmoil and its effect on the lives of ordinary people, lovers Nadia and Saeed, forced to flee their homeland when it is torn apart by civil war, and seek refuge in the West.

Veteran prizewinner Paul Auster’s latest novel, 4 3 2 1, has won praise for the deft handling of a complex storyline in which he explores four possible paths that an individual’s life could take. It’s the longest book on the list by some distance! Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is the first venture into fiction by a well-established writer and is a fictionalised account of the true story of Abraham Lincoln and the loss of his eleven year old son at the start of the American Civil War.

Finally, from two less well-known writers, to me anyway, A History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, which is about a fourteen year old girl living a sheltered life in rural Minnesota, with unusual parents, and her association with a new family that moves into the area, forcing her to confront some uncomfortable truths. And Elmet  by Fiona Mozley, another first novel from a young British writer, is also about the effects of growing up in an unusual family and how that prepares people for a challenging world.

I haven’t read any of these (no head start for me this year then!), so I can’t judge the shortlist at the moment, but I am surprised by some of the omissions. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness are everywhere at the moment and have been highly praised. It’s always surprising to see Zadie Smith left out of this kind of list, huge talent that she is. Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I reviewed here in June,is possibly the best book I have read this year and I’m astonished that it’s not shortlisted. That novel will be my benchmark for judging these.

Anyone care to join me in the shortlist challenge?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog and for us to connect on social media.