Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Tournament of Shortlisted Books 2017’

image

Courtesy of  www.walterscottprize.co.uk

I have no idea, but let me tell you of my hopes.

It’s testament to the quality of contemporary historical fiction (if that is not a contradiction in terms) that this year’s Walter Scott shortlist consists of 7 titles, not the usual 6.  So as the judges were having problems at the shortlist stage, how are they going to determine the winner?  Because there’s no easily separating the five I’ve read.  Deliberations could go something like this:

Sebastian Barry’s already won once, and Days Without End is a much better novel, so he deserves to win it again!

Rose Tremain’s historical novels have won every other prize going. It’s about time she won this one. Let’s declare The Gustav Sonata the winner!

It’s a travesty that Hannah Kent’s first novel wasn’t even shortlisted.  Let’s make up for that now by declaring The Good People the winner!

There’s nothing more powerful that showing the impact of historical events through the microcosm of an individual’s experience.  Jo Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree is our winner.

Our previous winners contain huge amounts of misery and political intrigue. Let’s have a laugh for a change.  The prize goes to Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill!

I obviously can’t advance any arguments (tongue-in-cheek or otherwise) for The Vanishing Futurist and Mothering Sunday, except that the former is in my TBR and the latter is not.

For me, it is a question of which novel is capable of stealing the prize from Sebastian Barry, whose novel has already beaten Francis Spufford to the Costa Novel of the Year Award, and contains awe-inspiring passages of intense luminosity. And yet my doubts as to historical authenticity linger.  The same is true of Spufford’s Golden Hill, which also contains improbable plot twists, but what can you expect from a novel that is primarily a brilliant homage to the 18th-century picaresque novel?  And yet it provides a detailed and spiritual portrait of New York, when it was just a small town.

imageI suspect either Barry or Spufford – if the judges decide to go for the highly original choice –  will take the prize, but, having just finished The Good People, I’m willing Hannah Kent to win.  In short, her reimagining of the events leading up to the tragic death of 4-year old Michael Kelliher in the pre-famine rural Ireland of 1826 is everything I want my historical fiction to be. I need a full interpretation of how things came to be within the context of prevailing societal norms, taboos, beliefs and superstitions.  Kent excels at writing into the gaps of history here – court records tell what happened, not why the two women accused of murdering the child acted as they did.  I was fascinated by the effective and the non-effective herbal remedies at the heart of this novel, and by the conflict between Christianity and pagan folklore. (And I railed at both from time to time.)  The cadence and lilt of Kent’s prose – at times just as lyrical as Barry’s – held me in that time and place. I forgot my own surroundings.  I could feel the cold, hear the fires crackling, empathise with the despair, even as I refused to condone the behaviour.  And I watched as first an individual woman, then an entire town lost their rational minds.  With only hints as to true nature of Michael  Kelliher’s condition, The Good People was puzzling, terrifying, emotional amd utterly absorbing. It well deserves the accolade I hope it will receive tonight.

P.S Even if the judges don’t agree with me on this, they must surely grant that the UK hardback is the most beautiful on the shortlist. From the embossed golden leaf on the cover to the swoonsworthy deckled edges, ’tis an absolute joy to behold and read.

Read Full Post »

Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize
Translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw

Let me say this in advance.  Only one thing would have increased my pleasure while reading this novel of Norwegian island life – and that would have been foul weather in Scotland!  I’m not complaining, but there was a real disconnect while the protagonists were battling the elements and I was sitting under glorious blue skies in Lanarkshire during late May/early June.  Absolutely no reflection on the novel.  I just have to mark the what was perhaps the most wonderful spell of weather since I arrived in Scotland 28 years ago.

Diversions and typically British obsessions aside, let’s get back to the novel.

The island in question is Barroy, inhabited by 3 generations of one family, scratching their living from fishing as best they can.  And yet, the family head, Hans, has ambitions.  He wants to build a quay to connect them to the mainland, to increase their prosperity by connecting them to the milk run.

It’s the early 20th century, and that timeframe is the key to unlock all the underlying themes:  isolation, loneliness, disappointment , ambition, the price of progress, and the meaning of home and motherhood.

It’s a hard life for the Barroys (yes, the island is named after them, or is it vice versa?).  A dangerous life too.  The summers may be lovely (if short) but the winters are brutal.  Money is short and Hans must work on the deep sea fishing boats for months at a time to bring in the cash needed to advance his plans.  Life is precarious.  His elderly father (Martin), his wife (Maria), his daughter (Ingrid) and his backward sister (Barbaro), never know whether Hans will return …. the sea isn’t always a friend.

Hans spends his months at home gradually improving the facilities.  Building the quay takes years. There’s the question of money and the debt incurred to fund the dream; the question of the weather which continually tears down what is built; the question of the outsiders, enlisted to help the building project, and the changes that follow as a result of their presence.  Also the compromises that must made for the sake of commercial gain.

Reversals of fate play their part too.  Maria doesn’t have the marriage or life she wants.  As for Ingrid, the child we see sent away from her family to school, sent away from her family to earn money, the child we would expect to escape the harshness and poverty of her environment (one in which having one’s own chair is the height of luxury), she returns – admittedly, in circumstances not of her own choosing – and stays to complete her father’s vision.  Home is home, after all is said and done.

The matter-of-factness and stoicism of these ordinary folk – the unseen of history – is not only to be admired, it is an object lesson for the molly-coddled of the 21st century (myself included). Whatever fate threw at them, they just got on with it (with one notable exception). As characters, I came to love them and Ingrid’s final act of generosity just astounded me.  I marvelled too at Jacobsen’s writing, particularly his evocation of the natural environment.  Given the first paragraph of this review, I’m tempted to quote a storm, but shall settle instead for an aspect of the environment that took me by surprise.

… the warm land wind that has blown over the island for many days now, but then it suddenly drops …

There are no longer any bird screams either.There is no rustling in the grass and no insects are buzzing.  The sea is smooth, the gurgling of water between the rocks on the beach has gone quiet, there isn’t a sound between all the horizons, they are indoors.

A silence like this is very rare ….

On an island there is so little silence … It is mystical, it borders on the thrilling, it is a faceless stranger in a black cloak wandering across the island with inaudible footsteps.  The duration depends on the time of year, silence can last longer in the winter, with ice on the ground, while in summer there is always a slight pause between one wind and the next, between high and low tide or the miracles that takes place in humans as they change from breathing in to breathing out.

The translation of the novel is a co-operation between Don Barlett and Don Shaw.  There’s no identifying who translated which sections either.  It’s completely seamless. I particularly enjoyed the direct speech that has been rendered in a Yorkshiresque dialect (at least that’s how I read it) to denote the original dialect I assume is used in the original. This is not only creative, it’s effective in strengthening the sense of time and place.

And finally, the winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize will be announced this evening.  If you haven’t guessed already, I’m willing the victory to Roy Jacobsen.

5stars

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

 

Both novels are shortlisted for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and both focus almost entirely on the experiences of their  main protagonist as well as paying homage to literary history. Apart from that, they are as different as different can be.

Jo Baker’s second novel, A Country Road, A Tree, follows the Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, from Ireland to France, where he chose to stay during the Nazi Occupation, forced eventually to flee Paris and go underground when he became involved with the French Resistance.  Not for Beckett the easy option – he could have sat the war out in neutral Ireland in safety, had he so chosen.  But he returned to France to his partner, Suzanne and remained there until the end of the war. It is commonly accepted that these are the years that formed the writer. Although Beckett published prior to the war, his works thereafter are those which Earned his reputation as a modernist master.

Baker has chosen to chart these formative experiences in third-person present tense.  Thus the reader walks, runs, flees with Beckett through his trials. I’ll admit this didn’t work for me in the early pages, the Irish pages, if you will, which I found slow and stultifying – much as Beckett found his Irish village in real life!  (Mission accomplished then, writer!)  Following the outbreak of war, life becomes much more intense as Beckett and Suzanne are forced to flee the Gestapo to seek sanctuary in the Zone Libre.  The hardships, deprivations and dangers on the road accumulate into a pulse-raising read and, at one point, survival depends on finding a meeting point on a country road, by a tree.  (Just thinking about the chances of waiting by the wrong tree, makes my blood run cold.) When they do find a safe-ish haven, Beckett jeopardises it through his incapacity to resist more resistance work.

Suzanne’s frustrations are entirely understandable – by this time they have been through hell.  She is worn out with stress and grief.  Beckett is able to detach/distract himself from everyday realities (fatigue, hunger, cold, distress at the ever-increasing loss of friends) through his writing, Suzanne has no such luxury.  Their relationship becomes strained, and it appears that another choice of Beckett’s at the end of the war might just be the end of them.

The novel ends, however in January 1946, with the words This is where it begins. Beckett is sitting down to distill his experiences into his first post-war work. His writing is about to free itself from its pre-war influences, including that of James Joyce.  Just like the winter coat that Joyce gave Beckett, and which kept him alive during his time of tribulation, Joyce’s exuberance and linguistic excesses have had their day.  Now that he is wearing a coat of his own, Beckett is about to become his own writer.

The cover of Francis Spufford’s debut, Golden Hill, gives a good indication of what is to follow.  Gentleman in 18th century garb fleeing over the rooftops, with a larger than life female overseeing the action. And indeed that is the era to which Spufford transports us; his plot a homage to the picaresque tales of Henry Fielding, albeit with Fielding’s wordiness pared down – somewhat – for 21st century readership.

There’s only one word to describe this novel – it is a riot!

It’s 1746 and Mr Smith arrives in New York with a promissory note for 1000 dollars.  But his arrival is unexpected and the merchant who is to cash the note is suspicious, particularly as Smith refuses to give any details regarding the nature of his business. He agrees to wait for six weeks for his money – it’s not a hardship, he has 4 golden guineas to tide him over.

The novel follows the course of those six weeks, which become a time that Smith is unlikely ever to want to repeat.  Firstly he is robbed, forcing him to live on his wits, although they are not the sharpest a fictional hero ever possessed.  Secondly, thirdly and fourthly – suffice, he suffers an extraordinary conspiracy of circumstance, adventure and tragedy, and his life is endangered more than once.

He also falls in love with Tabitha, the Dutch merchant’s daughter, a spirited girl though entirely jaundiced by the limited options available to her.  This manifests itself in her cruelty to others, her biting tongue and her bad temper.  And yet this world is not without its opportunities.  Smith understands that she is not the proverbial bird in a cage.  She is the bird and the cage. Will she find the courge to fly from the cage of her own making?

There’s honestly never a quiet moment as Smith negotiates his way through post-colonial New York, never able to make a move (good or ill-advised) without the whole village (for New York was still that small at the time) knowing of it, and celebrating or shunning him in the morning.  I’m making a huge assumption here in that I believe Smith’s tale to be entirely fictional, the historical detail of Spufford’s novel consisting of his almost Hogarthian portrait of the society of that time.  It’s meticulous and unflinching.  But never dull.  How can it be when Spufford uses card games for high stakes, steamy encounters with buxom actresses and duels to advance the plot?

There is a more serious nature to Smith’s business, but he keeps his secret – secrets, actually – until the very end, thereby obtaining the last laugh. And Tabitha? Well the girl, who wants more than anything else to control the plot,  also plays a hidden role in all of this.  It’s a brilliant twist and that’s all I’m saying.


Time now for a tough decision as these are both very fine novels.

I loved the immediacy and the humanity of A Country Road, A Tree, the present tense finally winning though and I felt all the anxieties of Beckett and Suzanne as they sought to survive in a hostile world.  I was in that world with them.  The novel also taught me things I didn’t know, About Beckett, in particular, and I may now consider reading him.

I never felt that emotional connection to Golden Hill.  Whether that was because I was reading an e-book, I can’t say, but I was always an observer.  And yet, writing this review, looking beneath the surface of the entertaining plot, I begin to see other literary merits adding to the cleverness of an already clever novel.

So, on the basis that my head almost always rules over my heart, Spufford advances to the next round of my tournament.

Read Full Post »

China Miéville has said that he wants to write a book in every genre. If the brilliant The City and the City is his detective novel, and October  (the latest addition to my TBR,incidentally) his contribution to the history shelves, then what is This Census-Taker? A novella of only 140 pages obviously, but is it post-apocalytic realism, futuristic fable, or perhaps even a horror movie …

,,, because it is very visual even if it is really hard to pin down.

It starts with a young boy running down a mountainside screaming that his mother has murdered his father, or perhaps his father has murdered his mother. Either way the child is deeply traumatised and as the history of his childhood unfolds, we can understand why. It turns out that his mother has disappeared and the boy suspects his father of having bludgeoned her to death and disposed of her body in a hole in the mountainside, as he does the corpses of the animals he kills during periodic apoplectic rages. So when the child is returned to his father, the sense of foreboding is palpable, even if there is no evidence of murder or even of physical maltreatment.

Time passes living “uphill”,  in isolation with this maniacal parent, the boy biding his time until he can mount another escape bid. The second time he seeks help from the waifs and strays of the “downhill” town, a run-down/partially destroyed (?) place where resources are scarce. This attempt to flee also fails. It’s not until a census- taker knocks on the door that flight becomes a distinct possibility.

But who is this census-taker and where does he come from? Why does he take the boy’s tale seriously, when the locals did not? What does he find when he descends the mountain-hole to corroborate that story?

I’m not sure answers are actually provided in the text, although there’s sufficient information to interpret  (rightly or wrongly).   Normally this would infuriate me, but here it adds to the overall strangeness of a tale, told at times with such precision, at others deliberately cloaked in the mists of vagueness.  In any event, the arrival of the census-taker precipitates the denouement, resulting in our boy becoming a census-taker in his own right: in fact, this census-taker of the title and narrator of his own history even though he doesn’t remember specifics – such as his age at the time of his mother’s disappearance. He also tells his story in third-person, suggesting the need for psychological distance even when years removed from events.

Miéville seamlessly employs multiple techniques (helpfully explained by Francis Spufford here). The result is a compelling yet puzzling novella, requiring a second, and maybe even a third read for me to get a proper handle on it. Perhaps I shouldn’t have raced through it in one sitting!

Read Full Post »

Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017
Translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell

Technical issues mean I am resorting to reviewing on my mobile phone and it’s not ideal. So taking a leaf out of Schweblin’s short novella, I shall attempt to be short myself!

Amanda lies dying in hospital. A young lad, named David, sits at the bottom of her bed, prompting her to remember the events of the last few days. Because she has no idea what happened to cause her collapse and imminent demise.

As the story emerges of a vacation gone tragically awry in what turns out to be the most innocuous moment imaginable, so too does the underlying message about environmental pollution.  Not in a didactic way – it’s part of the plot  That it happens is sufficient for Schweblin to make the point and give the reader food for thought.

I’m not saying what happens but it does so twice, because David suffered a similar accident a few years before. Again in an innocent moment and during an inattentive split second on the part of his mother, Carla – a moment for which she has never forgiven herself. The “rescue distance” – a concept that Amanda uses to measure her ability to keep her daughter Nina safe – was effectively reduced to zero at that moment.   And it was to do so again for Amanda and Nina during that holiday.

David survived though by means of some local hocus pocus, though he was never to be the same child again, according to his mother.  It appears that the same procedure is to be used to save the life of  Amanda’s daughter Nina.  And that idea destroys Amanda’s peace of mind. Mothers never stop worrying about their kids even in the face of their own death.

So there we have it – the past (Amanda’s memories), the present  (the conversation in the hospital) and (Nina’s) future all converge by one hospital bed, alongside the terrors of reality and other worldly uncanniness. Not only is it a marvel of structure and technical ability, but it is also a fine yarn, full of mystery, including one surrounding the title. Could the fever dream refer not only to the conversation between Amanda and David, but to the figure of David himself.  Could it be he is just a hallucination?

Read Full Post »

So my tournament of books pitched two novellas against two long epic novels, and in both cases the novella KO’d its opponent.  It’s a knock-out when one competitor  doesn’t make it to the final bell page, isn’t it?

Now this surprised me because I’ve been in the mood all year to immerse myself in a    long epic read (450+) pages, but it’s just not happening.  In fact as hinted above, both tournamented epics were DNF, for different reasons.

C E Morgan’s The Sport of Kings (Pulitzer Prize finalist, shortlisted for the Rathbone Folio Prize, the James Tait Black Prize and The Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction) came with such resoundingly positive reviews that I was sure that immersed I would be.  And yet at 200 pages, feeling impatient, and with absolutely no investment or even interest in where things were headed, I stopped. For now.  I will revisit this as it’s one of the novels to be discussed on this summer’s online How to Read A Novel reading course (free from the University of Edinburgh). Perhaps I will even finish it.

The second DNF – after only 70 pages – surprised me even more, particularly after the anticipation following my visit to the Leipzig Book Fair earlier this year.  Matthias Enard’s Compass, winner of the Prix Goncourt and the Leipzig Prize for European Understanding, is surely the favourite to win this year’s Man Booker International Prize. Even after only 70 pages I could recognise the intelligence of Enard’s writing, the erudition resulting from his research and the worthiness of the novel.  Compass is a plea for better understanding and cooperation between East and West, and  seemed to be gearing up to encompass a complete history of occidental literary and musical culture within the stream of consciousness of a terminally-ill man. It’s an interesting concept and not necessarily a bad thing, but it wasn’t entertaining me.  As I am no longer a student, I abandoned it – probably for good.

Interestingly Enard’s opponent in the tournament also features the stream of consciousness of a terminally ill patient and a worthy cause.  But Samatha Schweblin’s Fever Dream is altogether much more – oh, dare I use this word – readable with a page-turning quality that satisfies my need for pleasure, not just instruction.

A full review of Fever Dream will follow in due course  (i.e when the sun stops shining, which won’t be long, knowing Scotland as I do). As will a review of the second giant-killing novella, China Miéville’s This Census Taker.   I don’t know what has taken me this long to return to Miéville; it’s 6.5 years since The City and The City blew me away for goodness sake!  Still I’m here now.  Nor will it be 6.5 years before I read him again.

 

 

Read Full Post »

imageWinner of the 2014 Nordic Council Award
Translated from Swedish by Neil Smith

I was rooting for this novel to lift the Petrona Award (for best Scandi Crime novel) on Saturday night, but it was not to be.  All I can say is that the winner (which I will be making a beeline for) must be utterly fantastic because The Wednesday Club was one of the most satisfying reads of 2017 to date.

It’s not your standard crime novel. In fact, after the prologue, in which Claes Thune’s secretary, Matilda Wiik goes missing, there’s no mention of the police for another 300 pages! Instead the narrative rolls back eight months to describe the events leading up to the disappearance.

Set in Helsinki 1938, following the Austrian Anschluss, it documents the unrest and tensions arising in Finland through the eyes and attitudes of Claes Thune’s fellow members of the Wednesday Club, a group that meets once a month to drink lots of liquor (!) and to debate issues of the day. Long-standing friendships mean that there is no rancour when disagreements arise. It is very civilised. For the sake of the group, Thune even swallows his pride when one of them runs away with his wife! And yet at this critical point in time, political attitudes are diverging and hardening. The group’s cohesion begins to weaken, and division becomes inevitable.

This group of gentlement works as a microcosm of society. There are Nazi sympathisers, supporters of appeasement, adherents of resistance and others, like Claes Thune who seem to be as bemused politically as he is personally. Hoping for the best. And there is the Jew, Joachim Jary, destined to be the victim, not only because of his race, but because of his chronic depression. His illness enables a disquietening discussion on the Nazi rationale for euthanasia of the disabled.

All of which is not necessarily specifically Finnish. The novel becomes so through the revelations of Mrs Wiik’s history. She’s a woman with a past she would love to forget and keen to keep secret. Why? Because 20 years previously she was on the wrong side of history, finding herself on the losing Red side of the Finnish Civil War. Even now this counts against her even though she was punished for it at the time with internment in a concentration camp, where unspeakable things happened to her. Yet her memories flood back, when she hears the voice of her persecutor on the night she works late to deliver drinks to the Wednesday Club.

And while she recognises him, he doesn’t recognise her, leaving the way free for her to plan a leisurely revenge. The identity of the man and how Mrs Wiik’s intends to revenge herself are the mysteries at the heart of this novel, both solved, along with her disappearance, only in the final 5 pages.

I didn’t see any of it coming, possibly because I found the historical revelations alongside their warnings for our future fascinating; the characterisation equally so.  Westö’s characters are not ciphers, one dimensional representations of political viewpoints; they are fully human with the capacity to surprise, by acting in ways contrary to their utterances.

So even though I now know the outcome, this is a historical crime novel with sufficient depth to fully repay a reread or two.  It is, in summary, quite brilliant!

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »