FictionFan Shadow Booker Award 2013

And the prize goes to…

 

It has taken six months but I’ve finally finished reading the 2013 Booker shortlist – a mammoth task, not made easier by the current fashion for ridiculously long books. The final part of the task is to decide whether I agree with the judges’ choice of winner. So here’s a brief summary of what I thought of the books – click on the book title if you’d like to read any of the full reviews.

Just for fun (and hopefully to provoke a bit of controversy), I’ve put the books in reverse order…

* * * * * * * * *

Shouldn’t have been shortlisted…

 

the lowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

 

Lahiri’s strange choice to leave the interesting character and storyline of Udayan and the Naxalbari at an early point in the book, and instead follow the dull-to-the-point-of tears Subhash and Gauri to the States for (yet) another look at the ‘immigrant experience’, combined with her lacklustre writing and lifeless characterisation, led this to being the only one of the shortlist that I really wouldn’t recommend at all. So, for the FF Shadow Booker Award, it’s been removed and replaced.

* * * * * * * * *

6th and last place

 

a tale for the time beingA Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

 

The quality of writing and storytelling shown in the part of this book that deals with the young Japanese girl Nao is in stark contrast to the clumsiness and dullness of the portion relating to the author’s namesake (and alter-ego?) Ruth. Add in copious and unnecessary footnotes, daft little drawings and the silliest descent into quantum-mechanical quasi-mystical mumbo-jumbo at the end and you have a book that could have been great…but isn’t. (Perhaps it’s great in a parallel universe, though…)

* * * * * * * * *

5th place

 

HarvestHarvest by Jim Crace

 

With poetic, often lyrical writing, Crace’s book brilliantly evokes a rural society on the cusp of overwhelming changes as landlords begin to enclose land for sheep-farming. Unfortunately the narrative voice is somewhat unconvincing and the story falls away badly in the last third of the book. Well worth reading, and worthy of its shortlisting, but just fails to be great.

* * * * * * * * *

4th place

 

Testament of MaryThe Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

 

The strongest and most beautiful piece of writing on the shortlist, this short novella punches well above its weight and will undoubtedly be the book I remember most vividly. But…it’s far too short to be considered a novel, and for that reason, regardless of how much I loved it, I remain surprised that it was shortlisted and can’t bring myself to think that it should have won. However, it comes with my highest recommendation of all the books – if you haven’t read this one, you should.

* * * * * * * * *

3rd place

 

burial ritesBurial Rites by Hannah Kent

 

This book should have been shortlisted in place of The Lowland. A haunting and heartbreaking debut, this fictionalised account of a true story shows a confidence and assurance rarely matched by even the most experienced writers. Kent conveys brilliantly the harsh Icelandic environment, the relentless struggle of the inhabitants, the constant threat of extreme weather; and her use of language is skilled and often poetic. The omission of this one in favour of The Lowland shows that sometimes more account is given to an author’s name and reputation than to the actual quality of the novel.

* * * * * * * * *

2nd place

 

we need new namesWe Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

 

There are significant weaknesses in this book – firstly, the ticklist of horrors that Bulawayo seems to be working through in both Zimbabwe and the US, and secondly, the weakness of the second half in comparison to the first. However these are massively outweighed by the positives – the freshness of the writing, the characterisation of Darling (who has joined my list of unforgettables) and most of all, the beautiful chapter in the heart of the book that reads like a prose poem as it describes the exodus of a generation from their troubled homeland. This book has gained a permanent place in my heart and the decision not to name it as my winner has been a hard one indeed…

* * * * * * * * *

1st place and…

Winner of the FictionFan Shadow Booker Award 2013!

 

the luminaries blueThe Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

 

Yes, I believe the judges got it right! (I bet they’re sighing with relief!) Intelligent, original, and wonderfully crafted, Catton’s structural game-playing doesn’t prevent this from being first and foremost a great read. The only one of the books apart from The Testament of Mary in which the highest standards are maintained all the way through, The Luminaries does what any great book must do – it teaches us something we didn’t know and sheds some light on that nebulous thing we call the ‘human condition’. Despite its ridiculous length, I can envisage re-reading this book more than once and gaining something new each time. A worthy winner!

* * * * * * * * *

 

Overall I enjoyed the books and the challenge of reading them all, but I suspect it will be a one-off experience, especially since, by allowing American authors to participate, the Booker has thrown away the thing that made it unique amongst literary prizes – its deep ties to the Commonwealth. (I shudder at the thought of The Goldfinch winning in 2014…)

* * * * * * * * *

Now…let the controversy begin…

 

(puts on some music and steps out of the way of hordes of irate Lady Fancifulls…)

 

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

“Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the luminaries blueWhen Walter Moody, newly arrived in the New Zealand gold-rush town of Hokitika, enters the bar of the Crown Hotel, he doesn’t know at first that he is disturbing a meeting. Twelve of the town’s citizens, some prominent personages, some less so, have gathered to share all they know about a strange incident that has happened in the town, involving the death of one man, the disappearance of another and the mysterious appearance of some unaccounted-for gold. The twelve men fear that when these circumstances are investigated, each may be dragged in to the matter and so they have decided to try to get to the truth of the matter themselves. The book begins as they decide to take Moody into their confidence and tell him of all the events that have led them to be here on this night…

Winner of the 2013 Booker Prize, The Luminaries is a huge brick of a book, well over 800 pages, and with a cast of twenty major characters. So when I say that it didn’t just hold my attention throughout but actually kept me fully absorbed through almost two full weeks of reading, this is high praise indeed. And deserved praise, I think – Catton has achieved something quite remarkable in this book. The crime element has been much talked about, particularly since aficionados are so pleased to see a crime novel achieve such high recognition. But although the book is built round the investigation, the crime aspect is somewhat secondary – Catton’s real achievement is to create an utterly believable and incredibly detailed picture of the town, its citizens and the obsession with gold. And yet, despite the huge amount of descriptive writing, she keeps the action ticking along at enough of a pace – just – to stop the reader from feeling like she’s wallowing in a morass of detail.

Revell Street Hokitika c1866
Revell Street Hokitika c1866

Thomas Balfour’s heart was beating very fast. He was unused to the awful compression that comes after a lie, when it dawns upon the liar that the lie he has uttered is one to which he is now bound; that he must now keep lying, and compound smaller lies upon the first, and be shuttered in lonely contemplation of his own mistake. Balfour would wear his falsehood as a fetter, until the shipping crate was found.

The whole first half of the book is taken up with the twelve men telling their tale to Moody, and the second half follows the developments after that evening. There is a narratorial voice that takes over the telling in the third-person most of the time, which prevents this from becoming a stream of people talking. I’m reluctant to say an omniscient narrator, because I normally find that device awkward and annoying – this narrator is more of an interpreter and one doesn’t get that irritating feeling that the narrator knows more than is being told at any given point. The initial chapters are hugely lengthy and each gives the story as known by one or two of the twelve men in the room, so that the reader, along with the men themselves, is in the position of trying to match up all these stories and see how they fit together. Catton takes the time to tell us in tremendous detail about each man’s character, history, involvement with the others characters both present and absent; and as she does this, she gradually builds up a complete and rather mesmerising picture of this frontier town and how it works. The men we meet are from all strata of society – the banker, the newspaperman, the shipping-line operator, the prospectors, the Maori, the Chinamen. And we learn of what life is like in a place where women have not yet arrived in any numbers and where the few prostitutes are perhaps more highly valued for this rarity. There are very few female characters in the book for that reason, but they play a vital role both in the story and in giving a credible picture of the place of women in this almost entirely male society.

Hokitika township c1870 (en.wikipedia.org)
Hokitika township c1870
(en.wikipedia.org)

Reams have been written by hundreds of reviewers on the games Catton plays with the structure of the book. The highest compliment I can pay her is to say that these games, normally a particular hate of mine, didn’t detract in any way from my enjoyment of the book. Apparently each section is exactly half of the length of the section before, meaning that as the book progresses the chapters shorten and the action seems to speed up – by the end the chapter headings are nearly as long as the chapters. There is also a running (and rather pointless) thread about astrology throughout the structure, but were it not for the section headings and character lists I would probably have remained blissfully ignorant of that and would have lost nothing as a result. Some people have compared this to Dickens – it appears that any book longer than 600 pages is automatically considered Dickensian these days. As with The Goldfinch, I think that comparison lacks validity – although Catton does look at every aspect of society from high to low, the tone of the book remains fairly static without the layers of high farce and tragedy that Dickens normally introduces, and even the minor characters show none of the caricaturing of a Sairey Gamp or a Mr Micawber. That’s not to criticise – merely to say that Catton is not ‘doing a Dickens’; but the greater realism of this book works in its own context.

Shepard paused, forming his business in his mind. The pale light of the day, falling slantwise across Nilssen’s desk, froze the eddies of pipe-smoke that hung about his head – fixing each coiling thread upon the air, as mineral quartz preserves a twisting vein of gold, and proffers it. Nilssen waited. He was thinking: If I am convicted, then this man will be my gaoler.

The river port at Hokitika during the goldrush
The river port at Hokitika during the goldrush

The major female character is the prostitute, Anna Wetherell, and she is at the centre of the story. The scarcity of women means that she is an object of desire for many of the men in more than just a sexual sense, and though she is used and, to a degree, abused by some of the men, she is also respected and even loved by others. A fascinating character, we don’t get to see from her point of view until near the end, so that her personality is rather vague and indistinct for much of the novel; and slowly learning about her is as much part of the story as unravelling the crime at the heart of the book. Anna is an opium-eater and the dream-like feel of much of her part is echoed in an overall mildly dream-like quality to the story, which combined with the New Zealand setting to put me in mind of the Maori ‘Dreamtime’ traditions. Just occasionally the whole thing tips over into mild mysticism but the drugged feel of Anna’s story prevents this from causing too sharp an intake of breath from even this hardened realist.

Eleanor Catton
Eleanor Catton

The book is not perfect and it would be easy to pick flaws. It’s arguable whether the prostitutes of the town would have been treated as respectfully as they are here. The structure means that the early chapters are too long while the later ones are too short. The crime story is perhaps not strong enough to carry such a weight of words. But these criticisms are not ones that I was making as I read – the quality of the writing and storytelling was such that I found myself fully involved and willing to suspend my disbelief as and when required. And although it took me many chapters before I had got all the characters straight in my mind, I found that Catton was skilled enough to give me much needed reminders of who was who and how they fitted in at any point where it was all in danger of becoming too overwhelming. I swithered over 4 ½ or 5 stars, but given that I think the town of Hokitika and its gold-rush residents will stay with me for a long time, I’m going with 5 and highly recommending the book.

So…do I think it deserved to win the Booker? Tune in on Friday…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Disappointingly average…

😐 😐 😐

the lowlandSubhash and Udayan are brothers, growing up together in post-independence Calcutta. Subhash is conventional and studious, fully intending to follow the path expected for him by his parents. Udayan is more adventurous and becomes politicised after the brutal suppression of a communist uprising in the small village of Naxalbari. Udayan soon becomes a member of the Naxalites, an offshoot of the Communist Party, which believes in direct action – i.e. terrorism – to achieve its ends. Subhash meantime takes up an opportunity to go to the States to continue his studies in oceanography.

This is where Lahiri makes her first strange choice. Instead of remaining in Calcutta with the charismatic and interesting Udayan, learning more about the Naxalites and the political situation, we are whisked off with the frankly dull-to-the-point-of-catatonia Subhash, and given detailed accounts of the considerably less exciting environment of the campus of a University in Rhode Island, where the most thrilling thing that happens is that Subhash decides not to get involved in Vietnam protests. From there on, we only learn what is happening in India through the occasional letter that Udayan sends, until an incident occurs that makes Subhash return briefly – but only long enough to marry, when he and his new wife return to Rhode Island. The bulk of the remainder of the book is taken up with detailed minutiae about the extremely dull and miserable lives led by Subhash, Gauri and their daughter, Bela. Subhash and Gauri both spend their lives studying and then teaching in Universities so we rarely get off campus and, after an entertaining start, Bela turns into as dull and misery-laden a character as her parents.

I suspect the aim of the book is three-fold: to show the sense of displacement felt by immigrants, to examine the effect of a violent incident on the futures of those affected by it and to look at the moral questions surrounding the use of terrorism as a political tool. The blurb describes it as ‘epic’, ‘achingly poignant’ and ‘exquisitely empathetic’. It is epic in the sense that it covers a period of 50 years, but geographically and emotionally it remains static for most of that time. The other claims, I’m afraid, would depend on the reader caring about the characters and sadly these characters are not written in a way that induces empathy. Lahiri’s second strange choice is to make the book entirely humourless and passionless, with Subhash and Gauri perpetually wallowing in their self-created misery. Each has a successful career, but neither seems able to form real relationships – not even with each other.

Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri

The writing is completely flat, and so is the story; no passion, no light and no real dark – just greyness, like living under permanent cloud-cover. On the rare occasions that Lahiri discusses the politics of the Naxalites, she does so in a way that reads like a textbook or a Wikipedia article, which means that there is no depth or humanity to it. The old saw of ‘show, don’t tell’ was constantly running thorough my mind at these points. The moral questions around terrorism are only discussed at the end of the book, in a very superficial and throwaway manner. The implication is that these characters were damaged by Udayan’s actions, but we are given nothing to make us believe they were significantly different people before. In fact, it is very clear that Subhash in particular lacks passion and humour before the life-changing incident just as much as after.

For a plot that promises so much, the book fails to deliver. Competently written rather than beautifully, I find it hard to understand why this book was shortlisted for the Booker. If this is really one of the best books being produced in the Commonwealth, it goes some way to explaining why the Booker is being opened up to the rest of the world. But I suspect it was shortlisted for the author’s reputation and the ‘worthiness’ of the message rather than for any real qualities of writing or story-telling. A disappointingly average read that I didn’t feel gave me an adequate return on the time I invested in it.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

we need new namesLeaving in droves…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

I admit to being somewhat conflicted about my view of this book. Worthy of its shortlisting for the 2013 Booker, I agree, but I’m also rather glad it didn’t win. Let me start by getting my criticisms out of the way and then I’ll try to explain why I think it’s very much worth reading nonetheless.

This is the story of Darling, a young girl living in a shanty town in Zimbabwe. When we first meet her, she is ten and spends most of her time with her little group of friends. Through them, we get a child’s-eye view of the devastation that has been wrought on the country during the Mugabe period. At the half-way point, Darling is sent to America to live with her aunt in Michigan, and the second half is taken up with seeing the immigrant experience as Darling learns about this society that is so different from anything she has known.

To play country game…first we have to fight over the names because everybody wants to be certain countries, like everybody wants to be the USA and Britain and Canada and Australia and Switzerland and France and Italy and Sweden and Germany and Russia and Greece and them. These are the country-countries…Nobody wants to be rags of countries like Congo, like Somalia, like Iraq, like Sudan, like Haiti, like Sri Lanka, and not even this one we live in – who wants to be a terrible place of hunger and things falling apart?

The problem I have is that it feels a little as if Bulawayo has started by writing down a list of all the bad things we associate with Zimbabwe and then a similar list of all the downsides of the US. The book is episodic with each chapter being a little story on its own, and each story has a ‘point’. So we get the chapter on Aids, one on female genital mutilation, then incest and rape, white people being run off their properties, the rigging of elections and the violence that goes along with that, and so on. In America, we get out of control kids, school shootings, porn, obsession with looks and weight, celebrity culture etc. It’s a bleak picture of both countries with the over-riding feeling being that the grass isn’t as much greener for immigrants as they expected it to be. It all feels a little contrived and amalgamated, and I couldn’t help feeling that, firstly, it wasn’t telling me much I didn’t know and, secondly, that there was an almost exploitative and voyeuristic element to the stringing together of all of these horrors.

Photo: AFP/Jekesai Njikizana
Photo: AFP/Jekesai Njikizana

However…

The writing is fresh and original and Darling and her friends are brought vividly to life, especially in the Zimbabwean section. With a less than thorough understanding of what’s going on around them, they are the observers – the reader is the interpreter. Although there’s never enough food to go round (except briefly when the NGOs pay their regular visits) there is a sense of community – a community that is tottering on the point of collapse, yes, but still hanging on to old traditions. Despite all the bad things happening around them, the children seem on the surface to be like children anywhere – breaking rules and taking risks, full of bravado when in their group, dreaming of a better future. Bulawayo very effectively uses the games they play to show the effect that their experiences have had on them – games based on the relative importance of countries, with their own country low on the list, games of Find bin Laden; and gradually, as they witness more and more violent and irrational behaviour around them, the games darken too.

NoViolet Bulawayo
NoViolet Bulawayo

I found the American portion of the book patchier in its effectiveness, but Bulawayo gets across very clearly the difficulties of learning to live in a new culture, always speaking in a second language, and the longing for home. She writes very movingly about the people left behind in Zimbabwe, relying on the dollars that the immigrants send home. And she gives a believable and poignant picture of this young girl gradually losing touch with the friends and family back home, unable to explain to them what she is experiencing in the reality of this new world they have dreamed about.

I found Bulawayo’s writing style hugely skilful in giving an authenticity to Darling’s voice throughout and allowing her language to grow and change as she moves through adolescence. Although I had a problem with the tick-list of horrors, I still found myself moved deeply on several occasions, and in particular by the short chapter at the centre of the book – an interlude between the two sections, where Bulawayo describes the exodus of a generation from her troubled homeland in language so beautiful and evocative it could fairly be described as a prose poem.

Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical cords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay.

So in the end, the quality of the writing and language, together with the emotionalism that Bulawayo achieves without ever allowing mawkishness to creep in, makes this a book that I am glad I have read and highly recommend.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

a tale for the time beingSlow-moving existential angst…

😐 😐 😐

Shortlisted for the 2013 Booker, this tells two intertwined tales – of Nao, a Japanese schoolgirl, and of Ruth, a Canadian author of Japanese heritage. Ruth has found Nao’s journal washed up on the shore and begins to obsess about finding out whether the people and events Nao discusses are true. Nao’s story is of a young girl who has lived most of her life in California but has now returned to Japan and we see the society through her eyes.

Nao’s story is interesting, if bleak. Having been brought up in California, Nao is seen as an outsider by her classmates on her return to Japan. We learn of the extreme bullying she is both subjected to and participates in at school, leading her to drop out. Meantime, her suicidal father is making repeated failed attempts to end his own life, leading Nao to harbour suicidal thoughts of her own. In an effort to break this cycle, her parents send her to spend the summer with her old great-grandmother, a Zen nun, who rapidly becomes Nao’s sole support and spiritual guide. While here, Nao learns the story of her great-uncle, a war-hero who died during WWII.

Ruth’s story is a dull distraction. Ruth is a writer, struggling with long-term writers block, giving Ozeki the opportunity to tell the reader, at length, how very, very tough life is for writers – even one who lives in fairly idyllic surroundings with no apparent real health or money worries and with a partner who loves and supports her. She is also in a perpetual state of existential angst and this part of the novel merely serves to interrupt and slow to a crawl the telling of Nao’s tale. And to make matters worse, Ozeki introduces a quasi-mystical, quasi-quantum-mechanical element into Ruth’s part that turns Nao’s believable and often moving story into some kind of mystical fantasy in the end. The underlying questions that are being examined – of identity and the nature of time – are addressed with a subtlety in Nao’s story that is almost destroyed by the clumsy handling of Ruth’s portion of the book.

Ruth Ozeki
Ruth Ozeki

The writing is skilful and confident for the most part and, when telling a plain tale, Ozeki writes movingly and often beautifully. Unfortunately she has attempted to be too clever in this, not just with the supernatural nonsense, but with the whole conceit of Ruth translating Nao’s diary as we go along. This leads to lots of unnecessary footnotes, silly little drawings and playing with fonts, all of which merely serve to distract from the story. Ruth will translate a sentence except for one or two words, which she leaves as Japanese in the main body of the text, and then gives the translation a footnote – why? It would be understandable if she only did this with concepts which may be unfamiliar to a Western audience, but she does it for normal words – like leaving in ‘zangyo’ and telling us in a footnote that this means ‘overtime’. The flow of reading is constantly interrupted by the need to check the bottom of the page to find out what the sentence means.

While sometimes telling a story from different points of views adds depth, in this case unfortunately the contrast serves only to weaken the thrust and impact of the main story. Had this been a plainer telling of Nao’s story alone, it would probably have got top rating from me, and overall there is enough talent on display here to mean that I may look out for more of Ozeki’s work, keeping my fingers crossed she finds a way to end future books without resorting to the fantastical. But, for me, it’s hard to see how this could stand in contention with either of the other Booker nominees I’ve read this year – Harvest or Testament of Mary. Of course, that probably means it will win…

For an entirely different view of this book, please click through to read Lady Fancifull’s review. Sometimes we agree, sometimes…not so much! 😉

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Harvest by Jim Crace

All things change…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

HarvestWhen strangers arrive in Walter’s village, they herald the end of a way of life that has been unchanged since anyone in the village can remember. Mr Quill, the Chart-Maker, is mapping the land and the villagers are soon to learn that the new landowner has plans to enclose the land and change its use. Meanwhile a family of strangers has arrived in the village, driven here when their own land was lost to them in the same way. Although no date or location is given, it seems that we are in Tudor England.

The book begins strongly with a tale of two fires – one started maliciously, the other as a signal of new arrivals setting up home. The action takes place over the period of a week, during which we see the effects of change on this isolated group. The tone is elegiac – although the author tells us of some of the less pleasant aspects of village life, on the whole he paints a picture of a rural idyll where all work together for the common weal. But when the outsiders come and the villagers feel under threat, we see darker aspects of village life as the original inhabitants draw closer together and incomers suddenly find themselves on the outside, mistrusted, maltreated and betrayed.

Jim Crace(Source: Wikipedia)
Jim Crace
(Source: Wikipedia)

The author’s use of language is evocative, often poetic, and his descriptive style gives us a beautifully drawn picture of village life. However, for me, there are a couple of problems that mean that in the end the book doesn’t quite live up to its early promise. Told in the first person, our chronicler is Walter Thirsk, previously a servant and now a farmhand, and yet Walter’s language is that of a poet and philosopher. As a result, lovely though the writing is, the narrative voice didn’t ring true. Also most of the story is told by halfway through the book and the second half feels very empty and unnecessarily dragged out. The plot device allowing the book to play out as it does felt contrived and unrealistic and for the last 70 pages or so, I was really longing for it to finish – I felt that the author had said everything necessary and that the book had lost any thrust or momentum.

Despite these criticisms, I enjoyed the early part of the book very much, the prose throughout is beautiful and the descriptions of village life, particularly the working of the land, are particularly well done; all of which makes this a book well worth reading.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

‘Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Testament of MaryThis short novella is an amazingly powerful account of a mother’s love and grief for her son. The fact that that son happens to be, perhaps, the Son of God is secondary. Beautifully written and with some wonderful, often poetic, imagery, Tóibín shows us Mary as a woman who lives each day with guilt and pain that she couldn’t stop the events that led her son to the cruel martyrdom of the cross.

As Jesus’ followers encourage her to embellish her story to tie in with the legend they are beginning to create, Mary feels that she must tell, even if only once, the true story of her involvement in these momentous events. We see her cynicism and doubt about the miracles attributed to her son; her dislike, contempt even, for those followers who seem intent on feeding his ego, who seem to be provoking his martyrdom to serve their own ends. And most of all we come to understand and almost to share her guilt and fear.

Emotional, thought-provoking, at points harrowing, this book packs more punch in its 104 pages than most full-length novels. Its very shortness emphasises Mary’s driven urgency to tell her tale before her chance is gone. Despite the subject matter, it will appeal to lovers of great writing of any faith or none – this story is first and foremost about humanity.  Highly recommended.

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín

Update to original review –  may contain mild spoilers

Since I first posted this review on Amazon US in October 2012, I have become very aware from other reviews that many Christians have found this book offensive, though being honest it seems often to be people who haven’t read it who find it so.  From my perspective, there is no denial of Christ being the Son of God in the book. Indeed, Tóibín tells the tale in such a way that there is no doubt that Christ performed miracles, though Mary may question their worth. The story of Lazarus is one of the most haunting parts of the book.

This is the story of an old and lonely woman, who has lost her son in the most horrific way, living with grief and pain and, not unnaturally, doubt as to whether it was worth it. The guilt Mary feels is the creation of her own mind – at no point did I feel that Tóibín was implying that her guilt was well-founded. How many mothers feel undeserved guilt when their children suffer? Why would Mary be different?

As I said in the original review, this is a very human story that moved me deeply and remains fresh and sharp in my mind six months later. I can only encourage people to read it with an open mind. If it is read as fiction, not fact, then it is a very beautiful piece of writing and a master-class in story-telling.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link