Man Booker Book Review 1: “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

Once again this year, I have set myself the goal of reading the Man Booker shortlist. The shortlist of six was announced on 13 September and the winner will be named on 17 October. The title and description of this book did not appeal immediately and it would probably not have been the book I started with, but the others took a few days to arrive and this was the one that was available in the library, so by default it became my starting point.

Lincoln in the Bardo
I’m sorry, I just don’t get it!

George Saunders is a well-established American writer, winner of the Folio Prize in 2014 (for Tenth of December, a collection of short stories) and on the back of my copy of this book are some impressive quotes from literary heavyweights: “A writer of arresting brilliance and originality” Tobias Wolff, “A morally passionate, serious writer…He will be read long after these times have passed.” Zadie Smith. High praise indeed. But this book? I just don’t get it.

The premise of the book is the untimely death of Willie Lincoln, eleven year old son of US President Abraham Lincoln in February 1862, whilst the American Civil War is raging. The Bardo is, according to Tibetan tradition, a kind of interim state that the dead enter prior to their admission to the final place where they will spend the afterlife. The Bardo, as imagined in this book, is a riotous place where the spirits, from different ages and social strata, mingle and squabble. Specifically, here, they argue over Willie’s soul and are fascinated by the vigil that Abraham Lincoln undertakes beside his son’s coffin. The cemetery (or perhaps more accurately the Bardo) is populated by a cast of characters who could easily have stepped out of a Victorian travelling circus; a mixture of grotesques and rogues, troubled souls and tragic misfits. Some are more fully realised than others; Hans Vollman. Roger Bevins iii and the Reverend Everly Thomas are our primary narrators, whose background stories are revealed in some detail, but many others make only brief appearances and are more like caricatures.

The structure of the book is very unusual, like nothing I’ve ever read before. There is no coherent narrative, as such, the story is told from the multiple perspectives. These not only include the restless spirits, but for the events that precede Willie’s death, or outside the cemetery, they are told in short paragraphs by third party observers, reporters and historians. What was most interesting to me, was how different some of these accounts were, despite the writers all seeming to have been present at the event described.

This book has left me feeling like I’m missing something. I know that it has been highly praised, but I’m afraid I just am not seeing anything particularly innovative here. To me it’s all just a muddle, with no story, where nothing really happens. There is one central theme, which seems to be that the dead do not rest easily until the living let them go, allow them to realise their ‘deadness’, but I’m not sure that single point is worthy of a whole book. And I didn’t really find the cast of spirits very entertaining or enlightening. I’ve read many books which have challenged form, which have taken some re-reading to fully appreciate. But for me, this book offers nothing that I want to delve back into. If it wins the ManBooker, I may need to go back to Literature School!

I dislike being critical. Did you find something of value in this book? What is it I’m missing?!

If you have enjoyed this post, please follow my blog and let’s connect on social media.

Summer holiday reading suggestions

The 2017 Man Booker longlist was released yesterday and there are a number of books on the list this year which most avid readers and observers of the book world will recognise. A wide mix of well-known and debut authors, women and men, and diverse countries. So, if you’re looking for some summer reading suggestions, you could do worse than browse the list. I’ve only read Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I reviewed here back in June, and which I absolutely loved, but there are plenty of the others in the list that are on my TBR pile, including Arundhati Roy, Mohsin Hamid and Colson Whitehead.

However, I think it is fair to say that when it comes to holiday reading, most of us are usually looking for something a little lighter? (Which Days Without End certainly is not!) Something you can read and enjoy on the beach with one eye on the kids? Something you wouldn’t mind leaving on your holiday rental’s bookshelf? If these are your criteria, I would suggest the following from my most recent reads (the title links through to the reviews).

Firstly, Holding by Graham Norton, which I enjoyed on audiobook (you will too), but which would be equally good as a hard copy and which, for me, is perfect holiday reading. Secondly, Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney, a decent thriller which I enjoyed, despite it not being my favourite genre. Thirdly, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, which is a lovely life-affirming book.

The Music ShopThere are of course, a lot of titles published in the Spring and early Summer, marketed specifically for the holiday reading market. I’ve been perusing the titles and these are the ones that have stuck out for me. The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce, is a love story set in the 1980s about Frank, a record store owner, and Ilse, a German woman whom Frank meets when she happens to faint outside his shop. It’s had good reviews and Rachel Joyce’s earlier novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, did very well.

 

Eleanor OliphantEleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is on my summer reading list. Set in Glasgow, it’s about the emotional and psychological journey of a young woman from shy introvert with a dark past to living a more fulfilling and complete life through friendship and love. I’m looking forward to it.

 

 

 

Into the water imgPaula Hawkins’s new novel Into the Water is everywhere, following the phenomenal success of The Girl on the Train which I’ve just finished listening to on audiobook. I had to find out what all the fuss was about! I enjoyed it, but I found most of the characters a bit irritating (that could be the influence of the actors reading, however) and, as I said, thrillers are not my favourite genre. Into the Water is another psychological thriller about a series of mysterious drownings. Like The Girl on the Train, I think, it’s as much about the internal dramas experienced by the characters as it is about ‘events’ so I’m sure it’s gripping.

Your father's roomFinally, a little-known book that has caught my eye is Your Father’s Room by Michel Deon. Set in 1920s Paris and Monte Carlo (perfect if you’re off to France for your hols!) it is a fictionalised memoir based on the author’s own life. Looking back on his childhood in an unconventional bohemian family during the interwar period, the elderly narrator recounts how the events of his early life, including family tragedy, affected him growing up. I really need to read this; I’m writing a book myself partly based on my grandmother’s life in East London in the same period so I think I could learn a lot from how the author approaches this genre.

 

I hope you have found these suggestions helpful. If you have any of your own, I’d love to hear them. 

If you have enjoyed reading this post, I would love for you to follow my blog by clicking on the subscribe button below or to the left. You can choose to receive a weekly digest of my posts (I usually write twice a week), or get notifications direct to your Inbox as soon as I publish.

 

‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

This might be one of the strangest books I’ve ever read and certainly one of the most unsettling reads in a while. It’s the sort of book where you find yourself shifting uncomfortably in your seat as you observe some very disturbing behaviour.

The Vegetarian imgIt’s basically a book about sickness, and the various forms it takes; the sickness of the troubled central character, Yeong-hye, whose decision to renounce meat from her diet is the catalyst to a catastrophic sequence of events; the sickness of some of her relatives who simply cannot accept Yeong-hye’s decision or who use it to perpetrate their own base acts; and the sickness in the society which degrades and dehumanises Yeong-hye. The insidious and malevolent control meted out to Yeong-hye over a period of many years (a control that was legitimised by social and cultural norms) leads to her attempting to starve herself in a desperate attempt to assert her autonomy, and this has explosive consequences

The novel is written in three parts (originally each was published separately). The first part is narrated by Mr Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband. Mr Cheong is a selfish, misogynistic fool who is completely indifferent to his wife. There is no trace of affection in their relationship. Any fondness that may have existed has disappeared and Mr Cheong is now bitter that Yeong-hye makes no effort to be the good wife: she embarrasses him in front of his boss, fails to wear a bra and does not keep the house tidy. Mr Cheong rapes his wife repeatedly and sees nothing wrong in ensuring his physical needs are met in this way. And yet, so desperate is Yeong-hye’s family to save face in what in their eyes is a good marriage, they turn against her when she decides to stop eating meat, seeing it as a kind of protest which must be seen to be crushed. There is a very disturbing family dinner scene.

The second part is narrated by Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, her sister’s husband. At first he appears more sensitive than Mr Cheong and shows some kindness towards Yeong-hye, particularly after the events at the family dinner party. He is an artist and claims he has always been fascinated by his sister-in-law’s fragility, both physical and emotional. At first he seems to be helping her, enabling her to express herself in a new way. But, ultimately, he too will exploit and damage her.

The final part concerns the relationship between Yeong-hye and her sister, In-hye. She emerges as the strongest character in the book and through her we have a reliable witness to the events of the novel. She reflects on the period since her sister became a vegetarian and how her world, and her family’s world has turned upside down. But rather than see it as her sister’s fault (as her parents do) she understands how Yeong-hye’s mental illness has been brought about by the abuse she has experienced.

The Vegetarian img 2

This book won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 and has had universal acclaim. It is a very poetic novel, beautifully translated by Deborah Smith; the motif of Yeong-hye’s dream and her desire to transform into a plant provides a powerful element of fantasy, although for me this was not always coherent. However, it is also deeply troubling. Not one for the faint-hearted!

A bloody good book!

2 min read

This novel was one of the six titles shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize (and one that I did not get to before the winner was announced on the 26th of October). I wasn’t especially looking forward to it (possibly why I left it almost to last); crime fiction is not one of my chosen genres (though I’ve reviewed Frances Brody on this blog, and I like a bit of Agatha Christie now and then). Also, the typeface is quite small and there aren’t any chapters! Pathetic, I know, but I think most keen readers have their little quirks.

2016-11-16-15-34-36I have to say, though, that it’s a totally gripping story. Roddy Macrae is the 17-year old son of a crofter in a small village in the Scottish Highlands. The book begins with five short police statements from different witnesses who later testify in Roddy’s trial. They recount the incident, in August 1869, when Roddy murdered three other residents of the village: Lachlan Mackenzie, the village Constable and long-time foe of Roddy’s father, Mackenzie’s teenage daughter, Flora, and his young son Donnie. These witnesses observed Roddy walking through the village covered in blood and in addition to their account of the events they saw, they make observations on his character and background. Thus, there is little doubt that Roddy carried out the triple murder and the scene is set for an account of how these events came to pass.

Continue reading “A bloody good book!”

A brilliant but complex novel – an essay passing as fiction?

It’s a week since Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was announced as the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, and, finally, I have finished it. There at least two other books on the shortlist that I have enjoyed more (I reviewed them here recently, Hot Milk  and Eileen), but by golly this is an extraordinarily clever book! I’m not even sure I’m clever enough to review it! The blurb doesn’t really tell you what it’s about and the arty commentators I heard talking about it on the news when it won the prize, didn’t really say what it was about either (I’ll bet most of them had not even read it!) And I’m not surprised, because it is a really difficult book to describe. But, for what it’s worth, here goes…

the-sellout-imgThis is a novel about race in modern America where the white population seems to feel it has solved the problem of racism. Firstly, it abolished slavery and then set in place several pieces of legislation to reinforce racial equality. Unfortunately, this has not addressed a fundamental problem of disparity of outcomes between whites and blacks (or people of colour more widely), in academic achievement, income, social status, crime, you name it, the statistics paint a troublesome picture. The thesis of the novel is that, whilst white America is slightly uncomfortable with the facts as they stand, they can point to a number of black high achievers (not least the first African-American President) as evidence that they have done all they could. The under-achievement of the rest can be put down to, for example, their own fecklessness or problems of character.

The novel is set in Dickens, California, a predominantly black suburb of Los Angeles that is undesignated as a city and, literally, disappears from maps. Our central character, the eponymous Sellout, but otherwise nameless, known to us only as ‘Me’, seeks to restore its place through some unconventional methods, whilst also seeking to address problems associated with racial inequality. He decides to reintroduce segregation. He also takes a ‘slave’, Hominy an elderly bit-part actor who made a very small name as a black ragamuffin in minor films, made in an era when the black and white minstrels were quaint and funny. ‘Me’ takes his authority to do this from the fact that his father, an intellectual and social scientist, was a local hero of sorts. Known as the ‘nigger-whisperer’ he had a reputation for being able to calm down violent or suicidal black people, using his own brand of counselling and persuasion. He also set up the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, which met in the local Dum Dum Donut’s store to engage in great philosophical debates. We learn a great deal about Me’s bizarre upbringing; he had no mother and his father used some unusual techniques, including violence and intimidation, to instil in his son his own theories about the ‘black condition’.

The novel starts with a prologue, where ‘Me’ is being tried in the Supreme Court for slavery. The rest of the novel tells us how a black man could possibly get to this point. The novel has been described as a ‘satire’ (although I’ve heard that the author does not like it described thus) and as darkly comic. Certainly, there are parts which are very funny, in a bleak sort of way, such as the circumstances surrounding the father’s death. I can see it is also satirical in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, it is both poking fun at and calling out the self-interested and those who perpetuate injustice. It is a really tough book to pin down, but there is a moment towards the end where ‘Me’ is describing what he calls “Unmitigated Blackness” as “essays passing for fiction”. For me, that’s exactly what the book is, and it’s the author having the last laugh.

It’s hard to say I enjoyed this book; I admired it, most certainly. It’s brilliantly written and if you just love seeing how artists can put words together in unique and beautiful ways it is a treasure trove; I spotted a 218-word sentence which was absolutely breathtaking. It has quick wit, brilliantly acute observations of the absurdities of life, and is rich in irony (not normally seen as an American trait). For me, though, it was slightly too much essay and not quite enough story (fiction). Besides the satirical politics of the novel, which are, it has to be said, profound and thought-provoking, there is the story of a nameless black man in a modern-day, still racist world, in the shadow of a domineering father trying to work out his place in the world. This did not come through as much as I would have liked, until the end.

It’s a great read, but a complicated one. You need to be up for the challenge.