Archive for the ‘Man Booker Prize’ Category

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Authenticity is often what we look for in a book. Is the setting authentic? Are my characters authentic? Is my voice authentic? Is my lexis authentic? It doesn’t take much sometimes to pull a reader from a novel and inauthenticity can do it. I’ve still got concerns about the use of the f-word in Hilary Mantel’s glorious Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Some writers embrace otherness and the inauthentic to create something lyrical and beautiful. Others like Jim Crace’s Harvest and Gift Of Stones are credible and authentic but we never lose track of the fact that these are novels.

Gramme Macrae Burnet goes the other way: His Bloody Project drips with authenticity to the point where it blurs the boundaries of fiction and history. Purporting to be a collection of found historical documents, found when 

“In the spring of 2014 I embarked on a project to find out a little about my grandfather, Donald ‘Trump’ Macrae, who was born in 1890 in Applecross…”

In addition to this preface, Burnet embeds his novel in reality: the villages of Applecross and Culduie are real; the criminologist James Bruce Thomson is real; the grim and ungenerous land is real; the daily trials and hard work required to eke a living from that land is utterly credible and authentic. The temptation is to accept the historical authenticity as fact, to turn to Google or Wikipedia to discover which characters are actually real!

On 12th April 1869, Roderick Macrae – inhabitant of Culduie in the far reaches of Scotland – killed Lachlan Mackenzie – known as Lachlan Broad. Murdered him and his sister and his infant son. Bludgeoned them with a croman and flaughter. Don’t worry, a glossary is provided in the novel.

No spoilers here: we learn that in the opening pages of this Man Booker shortlisted novel. Unlike most crime fiction (and that – along with other things – is what this is), there is never any doubt as to who committed the crime: Macrae is discovered covered in blood and admitting the deed. It is not so much a whodunit as a whydunit. And perhaps an exploration of how impossible a task it is to know the contents of another man’s heart or mind. Because Macrae’s only defence is his own insanity.

And I’m not sure we ever receive any answer: the witness statements and testimony and expert opinion and especially Macrae’s own purportedly personal account all testify to the impossibility of knowing. They confuse and contradict and complement each other throughout.

There is so much to admire here: the wealth of narrative voices, all of which are again authentic; it’s a compelling exploration of the deprivation of the crofters’ life; it’s an examination of the misery that an abuse of power can create. It is comical in the second half’s account of the trial, and absurd – especially when Macrae’s father visits the factor to discover and inspect the regulations under which his tenancy is governed, having been challenged for breaking them, and is told that

“a person wishing to consult the regulations could only wish to do so in order to test the limits of the misdemeanours he might commit.”

It is a fascinating, although ultimately bleak and harrowing glimpse into history and a thoughtful game between Burnet and the reader exploring that boundary between history and story. And also a cracklingly good read behind the literary mind games.

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the vegetarian

This is a very difficult book to review, to consider, to – for wont of a better analogy – digest.

It is also a book which I think will haunt and follow me. And, Heaven forfend, make me think. What an appalling concept!

The plot, such as it is, is devastatingly simple: Kim Yeong-hye is living a quiet, undemanding, unrewarding life in a fairly affluent area of Seoul until she decides to become vegetarian. That decision, simple and implacable, is also utterly inexplicable and has massive repercussions on the rest of Yeong-hye’s family: her husband, Mr. Cheong, her brother-in-law and her sister, In-Hye, in particular. The reason for her decision? That she had had a dream.

The decision, however, and Yeong-hye’s journey are far deeper than that: the vegetarianism marks the start of Yeong-hye’s gradual withdrawal from the world as she abandons sex, clothing, family and even speech. She is utterly inscrutible to the reader, which jars with the novel being almost eponymous and named for her: the first part of the novel is narrated by Mr. Cheong and the second and third parts are in the third-person but very much from the point of view of the brother-in-law and of In-Hye. Cheong-Hye speaks to us as little as she does to her family, becoming enigmatic and evocative as a character as a result. The closest we get to her voice are the italicised and stylised fragments of dreams which read like a vivid prose poetry: brutal and visceral and fractured.

Dreams of murder.

Murderer or murdered… hazy distinctions, boundaries wearing thin. Familiarity bleeds into strangeness, certainty becomes impossible. Only the violence is vivid enough to stick. A sound, the elasticity of the instant when the metal struck the victim’s head…. the shadow that crumpled and fell gleams cold in the darkness.

They come to me now more times than I can count. Dreams overlaid with dream, a palimpsest of horror. Violent acts perpetrated by night. A hazy feeling I can’t pin down…. but remembered as blood-chillingly definite.

The language – even in translation – is powerfully sensual: the foods presented to Cheong-Hye, the meats offered to tempt her from her vegetarianism and then ultimately forcefed to her by her abusive father, the peaches and fruits offered by her sister. All are lovingly described in the English translation. And, having won the Man Booker International Award, you can see why the prize is split between Han Kang and Deborah Smith, her translator. Some of the language is a little clumsy – especially the lack of names given and the heavy reliance on familial titles – but that struck me as a cultural feature rather than a linguistic lapse.

Or perhaps a stylistic choice to reflect Cheong-Hye’s distance from the family unit.

There is a yearning by all the point-of-view characters – except for Mr. Cheong – to be and to become something other than what they are, to escape in some ways. The supporting characters, characters like the mundane and unimaginative Mr Cheong, perceive Cheong-Hye to be perverse and contrary and needing discipline; or as mentally ill, to view her as suicidal and self-destructive. Which is understandable: she does slice her wrists open when her father tries to force-feed her. But I’m not sure I do. The need to alienate her, to classify and categorise her behaviour and to control it is such a superficial reaction. The word that comes to my mind is sublimation, the desire to be transformed, converted and different. And possibly better and free. The flowering of symbols in the novel – trees, flowers and birds – ah, the wonderful and beautiful sensuous descriptions of the flowers painted onto Cheong-Hye! – are all, for me, symbols of freedom and escape  and innocence.

What this book prompts in me is, really, the ultimate question: what is real? What is reality? Are we limited to the mundane, traditional lives that Mr. Cheong has – how awful would that be? – or is there something else out there? Are Cheong-Hye’s dreams or her brother-in-law’s videos or her sister’s visions any less real or true than the world?

And, of course, as a novel, is the world of that novel any less real than the world in which I am tapping at my keyboard right now?

Yes, this book will be a haunting one which will continue to inhabit me. Much in the same way as many of the Man Booker prizes will.

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Han Kang

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Deborah Smith

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This book – a Booker Prize shortlisted book from a Booker Prize winning novelist – has been sat on my book shelf since forever.

I was convinced I’d read it.

I am sure I’ve had lengthy and enthusiastic discussions about it. Heated debates.

Yet, having downloaded it from Audible as a re-read, expecting something familiar and recognisable and suddenly I realise something.

I have never read this book before. Ever. It has sat as a treasured icon on my shelf … unread. I had never met Kathy, Ruth or Tommy before. I had never been inside Hailsham before.

And what a ride I’d missed out on!

Ishiguro is so adept! Kathy’s knowing but controlled narration, circling back, hinting ahead, foreshadowing and foregrounding the whole narrative. The precisely controlled and delayed the revelations of the book. Kathy narrates the novel from the final months of her life, knowing everything, but as a reader we don’t share that whole knowledge until the final chapters.

And it never seemed like a gimmicky trick – which in the hands of a lesser writer it could have! Kathy’s voice was authentic and real throughout. Clinical perhaps. Resigned. But who the hell wouldn’t be?

Kathy, Tommy and Ruth – who share a tempestuous history and relationship – are clones, bred to be harvested for their vital organs. Raised in Hailsham, which first strikes us as a simple boarding school with all the usual mixture of cliques and friendships and teenage travails, art shows, lessons and teachers, neither the characters nor readers realise that the school is anything unusual. In reality, the school is an experiment to demonstrate the humanity of the clones and, by extension, the inhumanity of the harvesting process.

And the school and Ishiguro succeed: Kathy in particular is as real and human a character as you’d want to meet.

But the novel offers absolutely no hope to its own characters. In fact, worse than offering no hope, it offers a dream of hope which it’s characters cling to desperately but which is illusory.

And heartbreakingly bleak.

It certainly does not have the tenderness and gentility of The Remains Of The Day

It is not an easy read and listening to it, excellently narrated by Kerry Fox I must say, was even more so.

There is a film of the book with Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan.

I’m not sure I could manage to watch it thoug

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Right,  firstly an apology in advance: this is my first post after changing phones and the larger screen of the Galaxy S6 and different spacing on the keyboard is enough to fox my little mind. And fingers. It doesn’t take much to fox either. So,  as I saw,  apologies for any typos… well,  more than usual!

Anyway,  onto Storm Front,  the first of the Dresden Files, which numerous people I know have been raving about,  and Jim Butcher’s debut novel.

The concept is no longer original – but it is fifteen years old now! Set in Chicago, Dresden is a wizard working as both a private investigator and a consultant for Karrin Murphy investigating crimes which touch on the supernatural world which lurks beneath our own. Chicago has its own drug and gang crime issues,  primarily in this novel headed by Gentleman Johnny Marconi, reminiscent of the mobs of Gotham City. The supernatural world is itself policed by Wardens and The White Council enforcing their own laws – which are far more important than ours,  hence the fact that they are Laws – and has its own rogue and dark elements. And vampires, fairies and demons and no doubt other creatures for future novels.

All of these elements become involved in a double murder in which two people have their hearts ripped out of their chests by dark magic.

There are all sorts of influences on Butcher which are pretty apparent: Batman is explicitly referenced but there’s a whole literary lineage going back to Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade and Philips Marlowe. Dresden is in that line of hardboiled detectives; however, Butcher is not a writer of the same calibre as Hammett, Chandler or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the book. It had a cracking pace and was decently plotted. But the writing struck me as a tad juvenile in places, a little clichéd and familiar, and his treatment of women seemed perhaps a century out of date. Rarely did he let a description of a woman go without a sensual adverb or adjective slipping in. Women seemed to consist mainly of legs (generally shapely), lips  (usually full and plump), and breasts. The depiction of Bianca St Claire, the vampire madame whose employee had been one of the first victims in the book, was a case in point. Most writers whose vampires who transform tend to focus on teeth or eyes and the facial changes. Butcher lingered uncomfortably long on the changes in her breasts as she transformed into her true vampiric form.

The plotting was also a tad obvious: two apparently separate cases opened in the first chapter. A couple of potions were brewed about half way through. Not a subplot was left unintegral to the main plot; not a potion was brewed that was not required elsewhere.

Was it easy to anticipate who the antagonist Shadowman was? Pretty much so.

Now, that said, it was a decent quick read: 499 pages which you can whip through in a week. It was pretty fun and Dresden – struggling with the temptation of reverting to dark magics himself – has potential as a protagonist. At a personal level, I’ve had a really tough couple of weeks and this novel was a solid escape from that. I’ve also had trouble getting into the various things I’ve been reading recently (personally I blame Kate Atkinson: after reading Life After Life even this year’s Man Booker List haven’t gripped me like they usually do) and something with no pretensions to anything other than a fun genre fiction romp hit the spot well this week.

I find with this blog that some books can be reviewed almost from the moment you finish them. Others, I need time to … ruminate. To cogitate. To digest. To reflect on.

This book, Ali Smith’s Man Booker Shortlisted How To Be Both, definitely falls into that latter category. It is beautiful. It is thoughtful. It is clever, smart and profound. Funny, touching and sad.

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The novel is in two parts and one quirk of the publishing is that some copies commence with one story; others start with the second. I actually had this as both an e-book which began with the story of Francesco del Cossa, a renaissance painter. Simultaneously, my audiobook version started with the story of Georgia, a contemporary teenage girl. I literally had both!

The two characters are connected in a dazzling array of parallels between their stories, their lives, their experiences. Their stories don’t simply parallel each other’s: they intertwine and weave and writhe around and through each other.

Let’s consider the title: what boths are we being shown how to be?

Certainly, this novel clearly explores our capacity to be both male and female. It took me a little while to realise that Francesco was a girl and pretty much as soon as I did she bound her chest and dressed as a man to be accepted as an artist. George has been given a deliberately ambiguous name and her friendship with the equally ambiguously named ‘H’ starts to explore her sexuality. Neither George, nor her wonderfully created mother, realise that Francesco is female. This exploration of gender and sexuality was no surprise: having read her Girl Meets Boy, itself based on Ovid’s account of Iphys in his Metamorphoses, some years ago now.

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We are also asked to be both in the past and present, both alive and dead: Francesco’s life in Renaissance Italy is gorgeously captured for us and made alive; she is brought to the present by George’s interest in her art; Smith grounds George in our present with her text messages, iPad and technology; and George keeps her mother alive by reliving her memories and creating rituals. Ironically, the dead characters (Francesco and George’s mother) almost felt the most alive. This issue of past and present is also addressed at a grammatical level as George constantly reminds herself of the appropriate tense to use to discuss her mother.

We also explore the dichotomies between the real and the painted – and by extension the unreal; the painter and the painting; the art and the viewer; the observer and the observed. As I was reading, and I don’t know whether this is true of any other reader, I assumed that Francesco del Cossa was an invention and only when idly googling did I discover that she was real, that the Palazzo Schifanoia frescos exist in Ferrara, which is itself a city I am familiar with through literature and the staple GCSE poem My Last Duchess by Browning. A poem which is itself based on an historical scandal – and which accuses the Duke, quite wrongly of having his first wife killed. Misrepresentation, history, fiction, reality, creativity all twining around each other. What actually is the real? And does it really matter?

Smith’s language throughout was gorgeous: sparse and even spare at times, realistic and painful at others, and warm elsewhere. There are philosophical and political stances explored in the novel but at no time does it detract from the humanity created within its pages.

Within the novel, George’s mother refers to Francesco’s art as

so warm it’s almost friendly. A friendly work of art. I’ve never thought such a thing in my life. And look at it. It’s never sentimental. It’s generous, but it’s sardonic too. And whenever it’s sardonic, a moment later it’s generous again.
She turns to George.
It’s a bit like you, she says.

That formulation seems a perfect description of this novel itself: friendly, warm, generous, sardonic.

As a footnote, the novel I’ve moved onto now is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch which also revolves around art, another dead mother and a grieving child. That novel seems to luxuriate in its own language and descriptions – all of which is fine! – but a marked contrast to Smith!

Ahhhhh David Mitchell.

This, for me, is probably your crowning glory. I loved the realism and naturalistic voice of Black Swan Green; I also loved the mysticism and scope of Cloud Atlas. The Bone Clocks incorporates both those elements whilst ramping up the fantastical into a breathtaking and deft novel.

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The novel most closely resembles Cloud Atlas in its structure: a range of interconnected stories narrated by a variety of characters. The connection between them, in this case, is straightforward: the character of Holly Sykes whose voice introduces the novel in 1984 as a fifteen year old girl; whose voice closes the novel as a seventy-four year old in a post-apocalyptic 2043; and who crosses the paths of each of the other narrators in between – Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey and Iris Marinus Fenby.

2015/01/img_6603.jpg Each section works as a self-contained tale; and the whole is coherent, compelling and tragic. The way in which Mitchell incorporates his human voices into a fantasy cosmography and mythology is exquisite.

Let’s take a look at the different sections of the novel.

Our first introduction to Holly Sykes in A Hot Spell sees her escaping her parents’ pub and cheating boyfriend. Holly reveals that she had heard voices inside her head as a child, which she named The Radio People before being ‘cured’. As she walks, she encounters the equally teenage Ed Brubeck, an angling Esther Little to whom she agrees to offer asylum and a somewhat incomprehensible and unexpected encounter with a homicidal magical being. Following a quick memory swipe, we follow her off to The Isle of Sheppey where she picks fruit briefly before Ed Brubeck finds her to reveal that her brother, Jacko, has gone missing.

Holly was a wonderfully engaging character: realistically naive and gullible, regurgitating opinions and half-formed thoughts; childishly impulsive; impetuous and independent. And strong.

The second section, slightly oddly entitled Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume, a line from the carol We Three Kings, follows the Cambridge student Hugo Lamb in 1991. Ironically, that is one year before I entered Cambridge. The Cambridge depicted was not one I remembered – possibly as I wasn’t a member of the choral society, didn’t hang out with minor aristocracy and wasn’t groomed by societies of immortal atemporals. I was somewhat disappointed not to be approached by MI5! There did seem to be an element of caricature in the characterisation … but then, it was still a highly enjoyable caricature!

And I wasn’t a sociopath, which Hugo Lamb was. He seemed utterly devoid of conscience, ethics or morals, leaving friends dead, women used and the helpless cheated. And yet was somehow compelling. I liked him; and felt slightly dirty for doing so! He is also the deeply unpleasant cousin in Black Swan Green and the reveal there was a genuinely pleasurable ahhhh moment!

His encounter with Holly Sykes in a ski resort was brief and tender, offering him (and her) something akin to redemption.

The third installment, The Wedding Bash, set in 2004, was in my opinion the strongest and most tightly controlled section. Holly is now in a relationship with Ed Brubeck who is a war reporter for Spyglass Magazine, the same magazine featured in Cloud Atlas. They have a daughter, Aoife, and have amassed in Sussex for Holly’ sister’s wedding.

This section alternates between the domestic tensions in the Sykes-Brubeck household and Ed’s recollections of a near-death experience in Baghdad. Ed’s feeling of being torn between his world’s – domestic and international – was utterly convincing. As were his almost self-destructive interactions with Holly.

Perhaps the reason for the success of this section was the extremely light-touch fantasy elements.

It was a shame in some ways that it was succeeded by the weakest section, Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet set in 2015 following Crispin Hershey, author of Dessicated Embryos – a thinly disguised Martin Amis of Dead Babies fame – on the literary tour route as his career floundered. Partially as a result of a negative review of his most recent book by Richard Cheese man, whom we had previously met as an undergraduate friend of Hugo Lamb.

This section didn’t add much to the novel: Hershey was a self-interested and self-pitying egomaniac – without the delicious darkness of Lamb. We do see his character evolve, but it is one of the longest sections of the novel narrated by its least engaging voice. But it does serve to re-introduce both Lamb and the fantastical more concretely.

And that leads us to 2025 and An Horologist’s Labyrinth. This section explores the fantasy element to its full: its narrator is an atemporal immortal b
with psychosoteric powers of mind reading and control (scansion and suasion), telekinesis and others. Magic, in short. We learn of Horologists like Iris Marinus Fenby who reincarnate and Anchorites who decant others’ souls to achieve immortality. We learn of the war between them and the significance of 1984 and the offer of asylum becomes explicit.

This section could have stood as a fantasy element in its own right: the mythologising is deft and detailed, the characters convincing, the familiarity we have with Holly by this point, moving.

I was concerned that this book might not quite work, that the literariness and the fantastical might jar. But I was wrong. Save for the Hershey episode, I don’t think there’s a single misstep.

There is, however, one overwhelming message in this book: stock up on tampons and insulin in 2030. And move to Iceland.

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Many things about being a teacher vex me: longer hours than the public realise, pay, governmental meddling. Paperwork. Ofsted. As a teacher of English though, the lack of imagination in exam boards’ choices for set texts is pretty high on the vexing-list. Really, Of Mice And Men, again? An Inspector Calls as modern drama? Don’t get me wrong, both are great books. But there is an embarrassment when parents point out they read the same book in their generation. As did some grandparents!

So, for me, I avoid the familiar and, if I can, try to teach at least one fresh book a year. Last year, it was The Woman In Black by Susan Hill; this year, Mister Pip. Admittedly, it’s not completely “fresh”: I’d read it when it was nominated for the Man Booker in 2007. But it has stayed with me, the child’s voice of the narrator, the somehow ephemeral Mister Watts. The island.

Mister Pip Is set on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. Near Australia. Now, going back to exam text lists, that is a different culture. 1930s America in contrast seems altogether too familiar! Lloyd Jones, literally, takes us to the other side of the world.

2015/01/img_6581-0.png And this island is gorgeous! Do a quick Google image search. You’ll find images like these.

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And in the middle of the island – the heart of the island – is a vast ugly scar of a copper mine.

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The copper mine and its white owners became the subject of criticism, strikes and eventually rebellion in the 1990s and it is into that conflict which Jones plunges us.

Almost.

We only see the conflict (and indeed the island) through the prism of Matilda’s eyes, a young girl in a village around which threat of the civil war rages. We only see the conflict as it touches on the villagers’ lives: the embargo which means they run out of fuel for generators; the exodus of whites which leads to the closure of the village school; occasional helicopters and gunfire in the jungle; visits by both the rebels and the redskin troops trying to eliminate them. The conflict circles the village, eddies around it, and becomes increasingly threatening until the truly horrific atrocities committed in the final chapters. All the more brutal for the simplicity and directness of the narration.

The war, however, is but a backdrop to the novel: the heart of this novel is the character of Mister Watt, the last white man on the island who declined his opportunity to leave it. Who re-opened the school after the blockade. Who read Dickens’ Great Expectations to a schoolroom of teenage kids. Who wheels his wife around the village on a cart, whilst wearing a red clown nose. Who may be an heroic or a sympathetic or a pathetic character. Or all three. Who clashes with Dolores, Matilda’s mother, about, well, everything!

There is some criticism of the book on Goodreads that Mr Watts is painted as the great white hero, using the great white novel, to save the souls of the helpless aboriginal children. People are uncomfortable that there’s a colonial arrogance in the portrayal of Mr Watts. Perhaps we are meant to be uncomfortable about that. Perhaps the irony of the conflict between the value of the bible versus Great Expectations, both of which symbolise the white colonial presence is intended. Maybe we as white readers are complicit in the ills which befall the inhabitants of this island.

But those criticisms, in my view, miss the point almost entirely. It’s not the fact the it’s Great Expectations that saves the children, it is the power of story. Including the stories, folk tales and jungle knowledge of the villagers. Mr Watts’ final seven day performance to the rebels of his story which stitches elements of fantasy, his own autobiography. Great Expectations and local stories is the absurd, touching, bright gem.

Mr Watts is no imperial or colonial hero: he is an actor who only succeeds in his various roles because his audience has the capacity and imagination to permit him to succeed.

And Lloyd Jones prepares and preempts the final twist to Mr Watts’ story and character beautifully.

Anyway, to sum up, this is s gorgeous novel about the power of story, the strength of ordinary people to endure. It is about identity, about mothers, about love. And told through the lips of a remarkable narrative voice in Matilda.

Thank goodness it’s found its way onto the GCSE set text list… Until the new exams hit us and exam boards revert back to reliable classics!

Books appeal to me in a variety of different ways.

Some are intellectually challenging; some have intricate or gripping plots; some tug on the heart strings; some create whole worlds inside me; some create characters who live on inside my mind and imagination.

And some sing to me. They breathe under my fingers. They live

And this was one book that did exactly that.

History Of The Rain, Niall Williams

What is this book about?

A young woman, Ruth Swain, little more than a girl, is ill in bed. Surrounded by several thousand of her father’s books in which she hopes to find him, most of which are names, referenced and catalogued throughout the novel.

That’s pretty much it really in terms of plot! Oh, and she goes to hospital a couple of times. And it rains.

But, as she’s in bed, she narrates the tale of four generations of her family, interweaving this historical saga with her own personal story: yes, the image of the river is a massively significant one in the novel and, as Ruth herself says, her story meanders and potters delving from deep pasts to presents and back again. Compared to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which, of course, won last year’s Man Booker, with its very strict structure to the point of near rigidity, this is a breath of fresh air. The fluidity of the narrative(s) creates a beautiful dance between past and present and it is one of the few books I have read where you really do feel that time is not linear but the events of the past are just as much in the present – in our memories, feelings, in the way it shapes us – as the things occurring before our eyes are. 

There is so much to commend this book that it is hard to know where to start.

Firstly, it is hilarious! The novel abounds with literary allusions both explicit and implicit some of which I got and many of which I am sure flew over my head. Characters in the novel are repeatedly compared to characters in other novels. Beyond that, however, there are moments of pure comedy: the kidnapping of baby Jesus from the school nativity was genuinely laugh-out-loud; the fractious and competitive marriage of Abraham and Margaret which consisted of “silent skirmishes… moving a chair back where he wanted it, leaving open a newspaper he knew she wanted folded away, opening windows she closed” . As Ruth tells us

But in those days once you were wedded you were in Holy Deadlock, and in Ireland the priests had decided that once a man entered a woman there was No Way Out. The vagina was this deadly mysterious wrestler that could get you in a headlock, well, metaphorically speaking, and then boys, you were rightly stuck.

That Will teach You was Number One sermon at the time.

It is a gloriously and joyfully silly, surreal, self-aware, punning social commentary that sums up their marriage, gender relations and a whole range of sociological and religious dogmas. Part of my mind rebels and wants to complain that this generalises and overstates the concerns and is probably not historically accurate. I don’t know enough about Ireland and Catholicism to say. But it is joyous!

Poor Mrs P had the dubious benefit of hearing my reading certain extracts – baby Jesus being one – to her and seemed to find them funny even without the full context.

Alongside the comedy, however, there is incredible tragedy. I’ll avoid giving away spoilers but the Swains set themselves up as a family to whom misfortune, failure and tragedy are familiar. Williams often undermines the failures with comedy. The family has declared itself to suffer from the Philosophy of Impossible Standard bequeathed by Ruth’s great-grandfather The Reverend Absalom Swain and enshrined in the names of her grandfather, Abraham, and father, Virgil.

For example, Virgil Swain, father to our narrator, falls into farming through his marriage and lack of other option and planted potatoes contrary to the local advice and didn’t spray them against blight. The crop failed and Ruth Swain tells us that the following year

… he tried potatoes again.

This time he sprayed.

This time there was no blight.

This time the river worms destroyed them.

Williams continues however with a second account of the same failure from Mary, Ruth’s mother:

Those potatoes were all right, Mam said, when she told it. Aeney and I were maybe ten. All of us were at the table. A large bowl of floury potatoes had summoned the story.

“The way I remember it, those potatoes were all right,” she said. She looked closely at one she held upright on her fork. “If you cut around the worms.”

I screamed and Aeney ughed and Mam laughed and Dad smiled looking at her and letting the story heal….

Somehow the worm-ruined potatoes had become this happiness, somehow the years-ago-hurt had transformed, and I think maybe I had a first sense then of the power of story, and realised that time had done what Time sometimes does to hardship, turn it to fairy tale.

There was, however, a heartaching inevitability to the central core tragedy which unfolds in the novel: most readers will be able to see it coming from a distance but I won’t make it explicit. For two nights this week, when I was towards the end of this book, I set it aside because I knew what would have to be described in the final 50 pages and I needed to steel myself for it and screw my courage to the sticking point. That doesn’t happen with many books!

Gender is interesting here too. Sorry, this is just a little digression but Niall Williams has chosen as a man to write in the voice of a female character, despite the fact that she had a male twin whose voice he could have used. The first half of the novel felt very masculine: Absalom and Abraham Swain held sway both in their households and in the narrative. Virgil himself is an almost silent character: he is seen through his actions and the prism of other people. Once his narrative commences, female characters start to come to the fore: Nan, Mary, Ruth herself, even Mrs Quinty. Just an observation.

This is a book that – as stated before – is steeped in literature. It is also written in a particularly beautiful and lyrical way, wonderfully balancing the natural realism of Ruth’s narrative voice with the lyricism of poetry. The world around Ruth lives and breathes and moves exquisitely 

The River Shannon passes below our house on its journey to the sea.

Come here Ruthie, feel the pulse of the water, my father said, kneeling on the bank and dipping his hand, palm to current, then reaching out to take my hand in his. He put our arm into the cold river and at once it was pulled seaward like an oar. I was seven years old. I had a blue dress for summertime.

 

Here, Ruthie, feel.

 

His sleeve darkened and he rowed our arm back and let us be taken again, a little eddy of low sounds gargling as the throat of the river laughed realising what a peculiar thing was a father and his daughter.

How beautiful is that?!

The tenderness of the relationship between father and daughter. Look, look at the use of the phrase “our arm” as if the two people were one. Feel the immense imaginative symbolic and mythic power of the river water tugging “seaward”: a metaphor for life, for story telling? Hear the onomatopoeia; see the personification. That river is as much a character as either of the human beings reaching into it, isn’t it?

And that quote is from just the second page of over 300.

The book’s ending is also exquisitely balanced – and the pinnacle of the lyricism of the novel. The final pages are some of the most gorgeous writing that you are likely to find. It is, i think, impossible to give spoilers because there is no ending to spoil: Ruth is in hospital for some form of investigation and is aware that she may not be strong enough to recover – details of Ruth’s illness are left deliberately blank throughout and she explicitly tells us she does not want her story to be weighed down with science instead relying on euphemisms like having Something Amiss, Something Puzzling, being Fine except for Falling Down – and she is “taken down” as the novel closes.

Niall Williams has very consciously – I think – not given any suggestion whether she is ever brought back up again. How much self control must that have taken! 

But how much better is that act of silence than either a Disney Happy Ending or a clumsy attempt – presumably by another narrative voice – to explain how she died. The reader, instead, is left waiting for news.

If you read, you will love this book. If you write, you will love this book. If you believe that we as people are as much a creation of imagination as we are of genetics, you will love this book. If you believe that stories matter, you will love this book.

So, go forth and read this book!

Stop wasting time reading reviews of it: go out and but it, download it, borrow it.

And love it.

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Ahhh, Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker winning The Luminaries. It’s certainly not a quick read!

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It took such a time to read it – and admittedly my reading coincided with a stroppy baby and a hectic few weeks at work – that the beautiful cover started to wear off! The M of LUMINARIES on the front cover is being rubbed away by my finger as I hold it like this

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It was at such risk of becoming dilapidated that I asked the librarian at work to cover it for me!

My 11 month old daughter also loved this book. Not so much the words (she prefers Ten Little Fingers for that!) but the pages being flicked through. In fact, she liked it so much that she’d make a beeline for it as soon as she saw it. Pages became torn as a result.

But I adored this book. I loved Harvest, The Testament Of Maryand A Tale For The Tome Being and I wondered whether this would hold its own and live up to the hype as Man Booker winner. And it did. In spades.

I am a simple fellow and I am sure much of this book swept past me. I am, after all, looking for very few things in a book: a cracking plot; compelling characters; and beautiful language. In addition to all that, there is an effort to create astronomical and astrological connections between the characters.

20140628-225718-82638357.jpg I am sure that much of this passed me by!

The story centres around one evening in January 14th 1866 when Crosbie Wells, a reclusive hermit, dies near to the New Zealand gold rush town of Hokitika; Lauderback, a politician, arrives in Hokitika and discovers both Wells’ body in his cottage and the unconscious body of Anna Wetherell, a whore, insensate in the streets through an opium overdose; and a famously rich man, Emery Staines, disappears from the same town.

Around this cluster of events, twelve men recognise their own and each other’s involvement. Each man circles this single evening whilst circling the other men as well. Orbiting is clearly an apt word to describe the way each character (and they are all men) become closer to one part of the events of 14th January and more distant from others. That much, I could recognise and – as I said – I’m sure the way each man influences the others around him probably bears some astrological significance. But one I’m ill equipped to identify.

In terms of style, this book piles narrative upon narrative, again orbiting that one night and never quite revealing the truth until the final pages. There is a very much self-aware third person narrator here who, in the opening chapters, is reminiscent of the nineteenth century self conscious narrators. This narrator initially takes the side of Walter Moody, a newcomer to Hokitika who stumbles into a conference held by the twelve men associated with the 14th January events. It is to him that each character tells their tale of involvement. And each of those tales is knitted together for us by the narrator. Circles Within Circles is an incredibly apt name for this part of the book. Courtrooms reinvent one narrative into a quite different story. Flashbacks in the final chapters cause you to re-evaluate and re-think almost all that’s gone before.

The two main characters – Emery Staines, Anna Wetherell are marginalised throughout most of this book! Staines disappeared before the book began; and Anna is sequestered away for large parts of it. They are, however, brought centre stage in the final sections, and it is their voices which resound deepest. I am assuming that this pair of (star-crossed?) lovers are the luminaries, the light givers, of the title, the solar and lunar lights in the sky. I do await to be corrected, however.

It is impossible to pigeonhole this book into a genre: there are elements of Romance between Staines and Anna, elements of Crime around the investigation into Wells’ death, gold thefts, fraud and embezzlement; elements of the Gothic aboard an ill-fated sea journey; elements of the mystical in the relationship between Anna and Staines as bullets that should have struck one inexplicably wound the other, addictions suffered by one and the other’s ability to read and write and sign a signature likewise transferred. It is, however, simply a beautiful book! The vivid quality of Hokitika brought to life with these men orbiting the town and passing by each other; the structural complexity and aesthetic beauty of the book; and the enchanting beauty of a language which feels simultaneously natural and authentically reproducing the prose of another time and place.

After six weeks and 850 pages, I have finished the book with a strong sense of loss and a surprisingly strong urge to re-read it so that the opening chapters can be read in light if what I now know.

That urge to re-read is jolly unusual and a clear mark of just how compelling this book is.

A deserving Man Booker winner to stand alongside Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books.

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This book had been on my to-read list since it was listed for The Booker Prize. The copy I had was electronic and just stopped about 20 pages in… And I never got round to replacing it.

Until it cropped up whilst I was browsing on Audible.

This was a perfect book for an audio file: not only is it a first person narrative which is always going to work best on audio, the voice of the narrator is the key to this book. Initially, the infantile voice of the five year old narrator was off putting but that was quickly overcome by the purity and innocence of his narrative voice. That voice was created through the hyper extension of grammatical rules and the omission of articles in sentences (which had the effect of personifying almost every element of his environment, presumably filling the social void caused by his isolation). There were one or two moments when I did question the authenticity of the voice: he discusses minus numbers within the opening chapters which jarred a little. Do five year olds have a concept of negative numbers? Really?

For those who’ve not come across this wonderful novel, the narrator Jack is five years old and it’s his birthday which opens the book. Throughout those five years, he believed the world to be comprised of the 11 foot square cell in which he and his mother had been incarcerated by an abductor. In fact, Jack’s mother had been abducted seven years previously and Jack was the product of the sexual abuse she suffered through that time. The appalling abuse suffered is mediated for us through Jack’s eyes: Donoghue strikes a very sensitive balance between her reader’s need to understand and her narrator’s innocent lack of understanding. We know what the noises Jack hears mean when Jack has no idea.

In the opening chapters, I was not sure in what direction she was taking us. Was this going to be a bleak tale of the destruction of innocence and hope (not unlike the 2014 Carnegie Medal winning The Bunker Diaries)? When Jack and his mother managed to escape perhaps a third of the way through the book I was genuinely elated at their freedom but continued to dread what might be in store for them in the last five hours of recording. I did genuinely pause my listening for a couple of days!

The story, I suppose, progressed in a fairly predictable manner in that the difficulties faced post-escape were just as traumatic as the horrors of the capture. The media. Lawyers. Police. These institutions all play their role in constructing a narrative around the abduction for their own ends. I loved the moments in the book where Jack was watching snippets of the media coverage of his own escape: stories within stories within stories, none of which were narrated with any degree of reliability.

It really is a remarkable book, purely through the voice of Jack. There’s a strength and beauty to the power of humanity to persevere despite the horrors we experience. It is, unlike The Bunker Diaries, a very optimistic and hopeful read.