Something to Answer For by PH Newby

The first Booker winner…

😀 😀 🙂

It’s 1956, and Townrow has returned to Port Said, a place he first visited when serving in the army in WW2. This time he’s there at the request of Ethel Khoury, the English widow of an Egyptian man who had befriended Townrow on his earlier visit. Mrs Khoury believes Elie, her husband, was murdered and wants Townrow to… well, actually I have no idea what she wanted Townrow to do, so, moving swiftly on…! Anyway, Townrow is a bit of a small-time crook and his plan is to con Mrs Khoury out of the possessions the wealthy Elie left her. But on his first night in Port Said, Townrow is attacked and is left with a head injury which makes his memories confused, and then Nasser, the President of Egypt, announces he is nationalising the Suez Canal – one of the last outposts of the dying British Empire. When the British and French decide they must retaliate to keep the Canal under Western control, the situation in Port Said will soon be as confused as the thoughts in Townrow’s head, though not quite as confused as this poor reader.

At the halfway point I would happily have thrown this in the bin except for the fact that I needed to fill the Suez Canal spot on my Around the World challenge and I couldn’t find any other books for it! It redeemed itself a little in the last quarter when finally Townrow begins to live in the present rather than in his jumbled thoughts and memories. It won the first ever Booker Prize in 1969, beating Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark amongst others. I imagine that lots of people decide to read the Booker Prize winners in order, get halfway through this one, and decide not to bother…

Sifting through the general incomprehensibility of it, Newby is satirising the British imperial mindset, and examining the effect of the Suez crisis on the British psyche, I think. It’s clearly aiming at humour some of the time, and even veers towards farce occasionally, but not very successfully – it’s too messy. Although not terribly moral himself, Townrow has a profound belief in the decency of the British in their dealings with their citizens, allies and colonial dependencies. The first sign of a crack in this belief is when he is accosted at the airport by a Jew from Hungary who insists that in 1942 the British deliberately failed to warn Hungarian Jews not to board the trains that would take them to the Nazi death camps. Townrow denies this could possibly have happened (did it? I don’t know), but the question remains in his fractured mind. Then when the British bomb Cairo after the annexation of the Canal, he is shocked to the core. This is not the way the Britain in which he believes would act, apparently. (I find that strange, because of all the things we did in the Empire era, was that really the worst? Perhaps it’s a time dilation thing – to Newby it was pretty much current affairs; to me it’s part of a long history.)

The underlying suggestion, I think, is that it was the Suez Crisis that changed the British attitude from hubristic imperialist pride to the kind of breast-beating shame that followed in the second half of the twentieth century. Again he may well be right, although I’d have thought the loss of India was a bigger milestone on that journey. To me what Suez represents is the British realisation that it no longer dominated the world, politically or militarily, and that America had become the new superpower. So shame, yes, but of our weakness in the present rather than of our actions in the past. But, and I freely admit I didn’t have a clue what Newby was trying to say most of the time, that wasn’t what I felt he was suggesting. However, I’m pretty sure Townrow’s head injury, confusion and loss of faith in British decency is symbolic of what Newby saw as the effects on the national psyche of the sudden collapse of the Empire after the war.

PH Newby

So all very interesting and just my kind of thing. Unfortunately, the rambling confusion of Townrow’s thoughts, the complete unreliability of his memory, the constant shifting back and forwards in time, all left me grinding my teeth in frustration. It should never be quite this hard to work out what an author is trying to say. But more than that, the way Townrow’s memories keep shifting means that there’s no plot to grab onto and no characterisation to give the book any form of emotional depth. Who are these people? Every time Townrow tells us about Mrs Khoury, for example, she is different than she was the last time. His mistress, Leah, shifts about from everything between being the tragic wife of a mentally ill husband to being some kind of sadistic dominatrix, and all points in-between. I didn’t have a clue who she really was even as I turned the last page, but I’m almost positive she was symbolic of… something. Townrow himself is rather better drawn, but unfortunately is entirely unlikeable – even his partial redemption rings false. And either Townrow or Newby, perhaps both, have an unhealthy habit of referring to women as bitches or sluts, and clearly one of them at least finds the most important aspect of any woman to be her breasts. Well, it was the ‘60s, I suppose.

Overall I found this far too vague and frustrating to be enjoyable. It does become clearer at the end, which raised it slightly from the 1-star rating it was heading towards, and made me regret that Newby hadn’t chosen to tell the story in a more straightforward way throughout. He clearly had interesting things to say, but the execution doesn’t match the ambition. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this one.

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34 thoughts on “Something to Answer For by PH Newby

    • Haha – thank you! Yes, I felt the book would have been much better if some kind friend had told him before the final draft that they didn’t have a clue what he was going on about… 😉

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  1. Especially having been on a tour of the former Budapest Ghetto last year, I think that’s a very odd thing for the author to say. Yes, Britain, the US, etc were aware of the existence of the death camps by the time the mass deportation of the Hungarian Jews started – and it was in 1944, not 1942 – , but it’s likely that most of the deportees were too … but refusing to board the trains was hardly an option. If people had refused to go, the Nazis would have shot them dead where they stood. Getting on the trains wasn’t exactly a matter of choice. I think I’ll give this book a miss!

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    • Interesting – thank you for that! The problem with this book was that it was impossible to know what bits you were supposed to believe and what bits were supposed to be part of the narrator’s fractured mind issues. And unfortunately that meant I didn’t feel I really learned anything since I couldn’t take anything at face value. Maybe his style works better for other people, but it was all to vague for me…

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  2. Very nicely reviewed, even though you’d issues with the book. I did not know this was the first-ever Booker Prize winning novel. I like the setting, Port Said and the Suez Canal, as I have read quite a bit about the various international issues surrounding the region, including Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s plan to “nationalise” the canal, one of the highlights of the Cold War. While I have not read P.H. Newby, I probably won’t start with this book.

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    • Thank you! I didn’t know it was a Booker winner either – in fact, I’d never heard of it till I mentioned to my brother that I couldn’t find a book set around the Suez Canal and he suggested this one. It’s a period I only know about vaguely, so maybe having more knowledge of the details of the history might have helped, but I’m not sure it would, He did seem to write quite a few but many of them seem to be out of print now.

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  3. Sounds like this is one of those books where the focus is on a certain style, rather than on clearly sharing a message or telling a story, FictionFan. If I’m being honest, that’s not exactly my sort of thing, although the topic’s really interesting, and some of the issues solid topics for debate. Hmm……Nope. Booker Prize or no, I think I’ll wait to read this one…

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    • I’m afraid I like a good story plainly told, so this kind of vague, fragmented style never works well for me. It’s a pity because the politics and empire aspects are exactly my kind of thing, as you know, so theoretically I should have loved it. But I do like to be able to make sense of what the author’s trying to tell me… 😉

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  4. Oh dear — this one sounds like a hot mess! But look on the bright side — at least you conquered that Suez Canal challenge and you found the ending somewhat tolerable. Thanks for telling us in your forthright, genuine way what we can anticipate if we decide to tackle it, too!

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    • Haha – thank you! I know, I’m so relieved to tick that Suez box off! I wonder why there haven’t been more books about an interesting moment of history – seems odd. But I don’t feel I learned much about it from this one, sadly…

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  5. Ah, the things we do in order to tick off those boxes in a reading challenge! At least it ended on a little better note than it began. It’s not one for me, I’m certain. 😉

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  6. I wonder how this managed to win the Booker Prise, as it sounds as if there is too much style and not enough substance. I can’t sea myself ever reading this, as apart from anything else, I’ve read a fair amount of WWII fiction over the last year or so not exactly on purpose, and my mind needs a rest from it now.

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    • I think the Booker has always been dodgy, quite often going for style over substance. Some of the winners are great, but loads of them have fallen into obscurity or out of print completely, so I’m not sure how good a guide it is to future classic status. There’s been a real upsurge in WWII fiction recently – I’m tending to avoid it, as really I’m not sure what there can still be left to say…

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    • I genuinely feel it’s usually the author’s fault when that happens. I don’t mind having to work to get the author’s meaning but it should never be this hard, and there should always be a good story anyway…

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  7. Hmmm…this sounds potentially interesting but very spotty. I’m sure I would be lost as I know very little about the Suez Crisis. From my 21st century perspective I agree that that doesn’t sound like the worst thing the British did, especially looking not far back into World War II. But I’m also willing to believe that in 1952 the general public was less aware of what had really gone on so I could see this being an interesting topic for its readers at the time. I’m glad you read this so I don’t have to!

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    • I suspect you’re right that he wouldn’t have known about WW2 stuff in any depth – even when I was at school WW2 teaching was still very sketchy, and I don’t think we were taught about the Suez Crisis at all – far too recent to be history! I’d love somebody to write a good fiction set around Suez – it has the makings of a great story, but sadly this one just didn’t do it for me…

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