These days I don’t rush to read entire longlists for any prize. I simply pick out those that are of immediate interest to me a) because the book is already sitting in my TBR or b) the author is going to appear at the Edinburgh Book Festival (longlisting always coincides with this) or c) I simply what to read it.

This year there were 4 Booker longlisted titles of immediate appeal and I managed to read 3 before today’s shortlist appeared. Only 1 made the shortlist. (Neither did my 4th title – Lahali’s The Moor’s Account.). Nevertheless I shall write this post with my views unimpeded by knowledge of the actual shortlist and I shall do so alphabetically by author surname.

The fishermenChigozie Obioma – The Fishermen
I was delighted for Pushkin Press when this novel was longlisted. Pushkin Press has been one of my favourite publishers – if not my favourite – for years. So I was delighted when this novel was longlisted and bought it immediately.

Set in Akure, Nigeria, The Fishermen is the story of a family’s unravelling. The downward spiral set in motion by the ravings/prophecies of a madman.

Although narrated by Ben, the 4th child in a family of 6, years after the events transpire, the narration preserves the innocence of a child of nine and that is what held my attention. The observational skills, yet the lack of understanding. A 9-year old child must accept his world without entirely comprehending its significance. The older narrator tries to inject meaning into events by ascribing roles to the key players, equating them to animal kingdom.

The bottom line is that this is a tragedy; the root cause of which is a prophecy that one brother will kill another. The irony is that the brother to be killed only hears the prophecy second-hand. Without that there would be no character change, sudden and virulent and way beyond the normal sullenness of adolescence and no bullying of his brothers, which leads from one disaster to the next.

There is something Shakespearian, perhaps even biblical about all this, although I can’t put my finger on it. About 2/3rds of the way through, I sniffed a reference to Things Fall Away, which became quite explicit only a few pages later. So I’m now convinced that this text is seasoned with literary references aplenty, that will make a second reading rewarding. That’s possibly why the novel has made the shortlist – that and an authentic recreation of a childhood and familial values amd loyalties that may seem out-moded to us these days. And the element of dubiety – was it really the prophecy that started it all? There are some events prior to that that could have started the rot. You know what? I’d love to discuss this with my book group.

By no means perfect – there are some clumsy sentences, but The Fishermen was by far my favourite among the 3 I’ve read. If I was delighted at its longlisting, I’m ecstatic at its shortlisting.

LilaLila – Marilynne Robinson
My first Robinson was Home, which then became my Book of The Year in 2009. Since then I have been less than enamoured with Robinson’s novels. I disliked Housekeeping and I positively struggled with Lila. (A short novel which took me just under a fortnight to complete – I kept falling asleep.)
I discussed this with my #edbookfest pals and we came to the decision that I was missing something because I have still to read Gilead. That may be the case but surely a novel must stand on its own merits to warrant a Booker longlisting/shortlisting?

That said Robinson’s prose and technical prowess are so accomplished. Impeccable even. Touching too, in places with subtle characterisation. But I couldn’t buy into the premise of this ill-matched couple (Lila, the drifter and John Ames, the aged lonely preacher) settling down together. I didn’t enjoy the drifting in Housekeeping and was dismayed to find it featuring so prominently here.

I certainly wouldn’t have shortlisted it. That said, I’m surprised it didn’t make the official shortlist. So too is the entire world, judging from reactions to the shortlist.

The ChimesThe Chimes – Anna Smaill
Another debut novel and a second purchase for me as I had the opportunity of attending Smaill’s event at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

I enjoy a good dystopian novel and Smaill delivers one based on interesting premises, the loss of collective memory and the abuse of musical power.

In the post-apocalyptic UK of the novel, the Chimes are musical orchestrations, created by a vast musical instrument, that sound out morning and evening. Everything stops during this time. The population listen to and venerate the Chimes. It is almost – nay, it is a religious service. Naturally, the Chimes serve a sinster purpose ….

Within this society, which has lost all memory but that needed to perform daily tasks effectively, there are few who can preserve longer term memories. These are persecuted by the Order, for reasons which become obvious later. Simon is one such, perhaps the last in a line of memory keepers, who makes his way to London and becomes a member of a group prospecting for metal known as the Lady in the Underground tunnels of the city. The lady is a valuable commodity – she enables the group to survive.

The enigmatic group leader, Lucien, is an ex-member of the ruling order, which is seeking to destroy him. He is also blind, but his superior hearing makes up for this. Perhaps too much. (There were times when I didn’t believe in Lucien’s “disability”.) That and The Chimes allow Smaill, a classical violinist, to play the musical metaphors – though to my non-musical self, also to overplay them.

Smaill takes her time setting up her alternative society.  It becomes credible and its secrets are revealed gradually. But fault lines do appear about 2/3rds of the way through when the pace picks up. The denouement is rushed and I must say a tad convenient.

Shame. As I said, a good dystopian fiction. Sadly, not a great one.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2007-2015

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