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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The quality of madness…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One day in 1869, young Roderick Macrae walked along the tiny street of his village and brutally murdered three of his neighbours. He is now in custody awaiting trial, and his defence lawyer is trying to get at the root causes that led him to commit these horrific crimes.

The novel is presented as if it were a true crime book with witness statements, medical examiner reports and so on. The first half is taken up with Roderick’s own account of events leading up to the crime, an account he is writing while in jail, at the urging of Mr Sinclair, his defence attorney. There’s then a shorter section told from the viewpoint of J. Bruce Thomson, an authority in the new discipline of criminal anthropology. He has been brought in by Mr Sinclair to determine whether Roderick could be considered insane under the legal definition of that word then in force. J. Bruce Thomson was a real person, as the notes at the end of the book tell us, and Burnet has apparently used his actual writings on the subject to inform this section of the book. Finally, there’s an account of the trial, presented as a kind of compilation of various newspaper reports.

The quality of the writing is excellent and the structure works surprisingly well. I’ll get my major criticism out of the way first: I found it impossible to believe that a 17-year-old crofter living in a tiny, isolated and dirt-poor community in the Scottish highlands at this period could possibly be as literate and eloquent as Roderick is in his own written account. Apart from just the excellent grammar and extensive vocabulary, he writes in standard English throughout, which would absolutely not have been how he spoke. Burnet is clearly aware of this problem, so shoves in a bit about how Roderick was a kind of prodigy at school who could have gone on to further education if circumstances had allowed, but I’m afraid this wasn’t enough to convince. My minor, related criticism is that this also means the book makes no attempt to reproduce Scottish dialect or speech patterns – a bonus, I imagine, for the non-Scots reader but a disappointment for this Scot.

However, the storytelling is first-rate and Burnet creates a completely convincing picture of crofting life at this period – a life of hard work and poverty, where the crofters’ living was entirely dependant on the whim of the local laird. He shows the various powers who held sway over the crofters – the factor who was the laird’s main representative, the constable, elected by the crofters to enforce a kind of discipline among them, and the minister of the harsh and unforgiving Scottish church. And he shows how easily these people could browbeat, bully and abuse those under their power, who had no rights to assert and no power to protest. The section supposedly written by J. Bruce Thomson gives a great insight into contemporary thinking on insanity, particularly as regards the effects of heredity and of in-breeding in these tiny communities.

The trial also feels authentic, especially the various extracts from newspapers which include word sketches of how the witnesses and the accused appeared to those in the courtroom. The reader has slightly more information than the jury, because we have had the opportunity to read Roderick’s account. But when the jury retires to consider its verdict, the jurors and the reader are left debating the same question of criminality versus insanity, and Burnet has carefully balanced the picture so that it’s not an easy question to answer.

I found it an absorbing read with a great marriage of interesting storyline and well presented research. As a character study, Roderick is fascinating – indeed, his whole family are. There are all kinds of hints of things that are never fully revealed or clarified, all of which add to the uncertainty of Roderick’s motivation; and the structure allows us to see him both as he chooses to present himself and from the viewpoints of the many other people who come into contact with him. I felt Burnet got just about a perfect balance between letting us feel we knew Roderick and reminding us that we can never fully understand what’s going on in someone else’s head – lots of lovely ambiguity.

Graeme Macrae Burnet

The book was shortlisted for the Booker and, to be honest, I can’t quite see why. It’s very well written and interesting and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see it winning crime or historical fiction awards, but I don’t feel it’s particularly ‘literary’ or brings anything hugely original to the table. This is not to criticise the book – it’s more a criticism of the Booker, which seems to have lost its way fairly dramatically over the last few years. Had Burnet taken that extra leap of courage to use at least some Scots rather than go for the easy (and more marketable) option of standard English throughout, then perhaps it would have taken it up that notch that would be needed to raise it from excellent to exceptional.

But excellent it is, and it would be unfair to rate it otherwise because it doesn’t quite live up to the unrealistic expectations the Booker shortlisting has created. As a historical crime novel, then – highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Let’s have a heated debate! On women’s only literary prizes…

If women want to win literary prizes, then they should write great books…


(...where FF defies the prevailing mood of the blogosphere and then hides behind the settee to avoid the missiles...)
(Heated debates…in which FF defies the prevailing mood of the blogosphere and then hides behind the settee to avoid the missiles…)

I intensely dislike prizes that are specifically for women, unless there is an equivalent prize especially for men. It’s so pathetic… do we really feel we need to be patronised in this way in 2016? And, worse, patronised mainly by our fellow women!

Take tennis, for example. It is a biological fact that most men are bigger and stronger than most women and so it would be entirely unfair to expect women to compete against men at the top levels. Though I’m betting Serena could give most of them a good run for their money. (And talking of money, should women who only play three sets – usually two, in fact, 6-0, 6-1, or equally exciting – really get paid the same as men who play five set thrillers? But that’s a heated debate for another day…)

serena and rafa
OK, there are exceptions to every rule…

Back to books – yes, as I was saying, men’s bodies are usually bigger and stronger than women’s, so in sports competitions where physical strength is a factor, separation by gender is often justified. So, if women require special prizes for literature, is the logical inference, therefore, that men have more powerful brains too??? I think not, ladies!!! (Men, be very careful what you say – remember the Valkyries!)

This picture isn't sexist at all, is it...??
This picture isn’t sexist at all, is it…??

In Britain, the Prime Minister, Home Secretary, First Minister of Scotland and leader of Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalists) are all women. A woman is in charge of the IMF. Hillary Clinton has been nominated for the US Presidency. The glass ceiling is lying in shards on the ground (in the West). Yes, there’s still work to do at the other end of society in ensuring equal pay for work of equal worth, but girls are educated to the same level as boys, more women than men go to university, no-one bats an eyelid any longer at the idea of a female scientist or engineer, and Western societies on the whole work hard to ensure that pregnancy is no longer a career-ending disaster. You know what, my feminist sisters? We won! The remaining neanderthals will gradually die out as they find it harder and harder to find women willing to procreate with them!


So why exactly do women writers still think they need special treatment? Haven’t we been demanding a level playing field all along? If I left my entire estate (£6.83 at the last count) to endow an annual literary prize open to men only, wouldn’t you want to bean me with a placard, sisters? (Which, I have to point out, would be pretty tasteless of you, since obviously I’d be dead at the time…)

One argument put forward regularly for the continuance of women’s only prizes, like the Bailey’s, is that statistically books by men are more likely to be reviewed in the news media and literary press. I contend, however, that books by women are statistically far, far more likely to be reviewed, promoted and boosted by reviewers in the blogosphere, with some blogs specifically restricting themselves to women writers. If we want to even up one, let’s even up the other. What’s sauce for the goose, after all…! Or we could just assume that it all balances out in the end.

Balancing the books

Let’s look at a few facts. Since 1975, a year I chose because that’s when the Sex Discrimination Act became law in the UK, women make up 37% of Booker prize winners. Shorten that to the last ten years and the split is 50/50. This year’s judging panel comprises 3 men and 2 women, with one of the women chairing. Of the thirteen books on the 2016 longlist, six are by women. The longlist for the William McIlvanney prize for 2016 has 4 women out of the 10 contenders. Six out of the last ten winners of the Costa Book of the Year were women. The Amazon UK fiction bestseller list as at date of writing (7th August 2016) includes seven women amongst the top ten. JM Coetzee’s last book has 3024 ratings on Goodreads; Hilary Mantel’s last book has 5545. This is not because one is considered ‘better’ than the other since they are both rated overall at roughly 3.5 stars.

My opinion therefore is that prizes such as Bailey’s are outdated remnants of a fight that is over. Let’s stop whinging about how women writers are treated unfairly and instead celebrate the fact that women are doing spectacularly well across the literary board – in literary fiction, crime fiction, memoirs, etc., etc. Let’s start saying that since we are equal we don’t need special treatment. The winner of any literary prize should simply be the person who writes the best book.

If women want to win more prizes
then all they need to do is write more great books.

* * * * * *

Over to you! Agree or disagree, it won’t be a heated debate without you! 😉

(The image at the top is of Mrs Merton, alter-ego of the late, great comedian Caroline Aherne, who made the phrase “Let’s have a heated debate” her own.)

Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy

Morass of woe…

😦 😦

sleeping on jupiterWhen she was a little girl, Nomi’s house was invaded by soldiers. They brutally killed her father and her mother fled with Nomi, looking for safety. But they became separated and Nomi was eventually taken in by an ashram run by a charismatic guru, where she spent her childhood years. Now, in the present, she is on her way to Jarmuli to make a documentary, and also to seek some answers about her past. On the same train are three elderly women, off on holiday together.

It is an unwritten law that the Booker longlist will always contain at least one book from or about India. Unfortunately that law doesn’t seem to specify that the book should be good. Which is a pity, since some of the best writing in the English language comes out of India, so one wonders why the Booker committee ends up picking ones like this.

This is a trite mish-mash of oh so liberal concerns piled together in yet another of the great tradition of Indian misery novels – the ones that suggest there is nothing good about India and no hope for change. We have child abuse, rape, dementia, the subordination of women and gays, violence – both domestic and war. Oh, and poverty, religious mania, animal cruelty and madness. And a dying dog, naturally.

The following is a genuine quote from the book, not a pastiche of it, I promise. A depressed drunk is swept out to sea on a current…

He would not move his arms. He would not move at all. The sea could have him. Out there somewhere his wife was drinking beer, eating sandwiches, making love with his friend, and that dog was dying.

Or how about Nomi, on a sunlit day, looking out at the sea…

She had seen – she counted – the Sargasso Sea, the Chilean Sea, the North Sea, the Bass Strait, the South China Sea. She’d even dipped a toe in the Baltic Sea – that was icy – and grey like slate. Whole shiploads of children drowned in the Baltic Sea during the Second World War. Think how they died. Frozen.

I am not for one moment suggesting that India doesn’t have deep problems of poverty, inequality and violence, but I am tired of reading books that simply describe these things without offering anything in the way of contrast or hope. It feels like a kind of voyeuristic wallowing, bathos in its purest form; especially in this one, where there’s no feeling of political anger driving it, as there is for example in Mistry’s equally miserable but much better written A Fine Balance. On the upside, this one is much shorter.

Anuradha Roy
Anuradha Roy

For the most part, the writing is average. It starts off quite strongly with the description of the attack on Nomi’s village, and then the introduction of the older women. But within a few chapters it sinks into being a list of one sad or violent or abusive incident after another until it eventually drowns itself in a morass of woe, while the pedestrian prose does nothing to buoy it up. I found the characters became increasingly unconvincing as the book dragged on – as I’ve remarked before about other Indian novels they are merely puppets to be tortured at the whim of the author for the supposed entertainment of the reader. This reader was left feeling unentertained, unenlightened, uninspired and unmoved.

And unbelieving that this book was longlisted when the profound and beautifully written The Way Things Were was not…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus Books.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

J: A Novel by Howard Jacobson

J a novel“Equipoise of hate…”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Set in a near-future society, this is superficially the story of two misfits who fall in love. But the society, a kind of benign dystopia, is one trying to find ways to prevent ‘what happened, if it happened’ from ever happening again. And whatever happened, happened as a result of anti-Semitism, which is the real subject of the book.

After what happened, all people have been given Jewish surnames, the study of history is strongly discouraged, art has been restricted to the inoffensive and unchallenging, and people are encouraged to go through a ritual of saying sorry, even when they can’t think of anything they need to be sorry about. All of this is designed to prevent the build-up of the kind of antagonism that led to what happened. Although the convention is to say ‘what happened, if it happened’, it’s pretty clear that something violently horrific did happen, but it happened mainly in the cities and our story is set in a small village on the coast, possibly of Cornwall, where probably no-one was directly involved. The problem is that the plan doesn’t seem to be working so well – husbands and wives are becoming violent towards each other, friends and acquaintances are brutalising each other, and murder is on the rise. And our two main protagonists, Kevern and Ailinn, feel out of place – Kevern irrationally, (perhaps), fearful each time he leaves home that someone will break in, and Ailinn haunted by dreams in which she plays the part of the whale constantly running from an undefined Ahab.

On account of their innate aggressiveness, songs of that sort were no longer played on the console. Not banned – nothing was banned exactly – simply not played. Encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude.

This is an odd book that so very nearly works brilliantly, but just misses. The structure is unbalanced – the entire first half is filled with allusion and mystery with the reader struggling, somewhat like the characters, to work out what happened and why the society isn’t working. The second half clarifies everything, but almost becomes too clear – it begins to feel a bit like a political statement rather than a novel in parts. I found it a little problematic in that, in its desire to show the repeating horrors of anti-Semitism, it comes close to suggesting that there are only two types of people in the world – Jews and those who hate them. Anti-Gentilism? The suggestion seems to be that, in order to maintain an equilibrium in society, we must have someone to hate, and it’s easier to hate someone to whom we have already done wrong, hence the Jews are the eternal target. It is satirical, but somehow not quite satirical enough to justify the over-simplification of the message.

But the shouts and smell of smoke had a powerful effect on me. I don’t say they excited me, but they gave a sort of universality to what I was feeling. I am who I am because I am not them – well, I was not alone in feeling that. We were all who we were because we were not them. So why did that translate into hate? I don’t know, but when everyone’s feeling the same thing it can appear to be reasonableness.

The quality of the prose is excellent, and in the early part Jacobson has a good deal of fun with today’s popular culture, from jazz being banned because improvisation should be discouraged, to artists being encouraged to paint only pretty landscapes. But the humour doesn’t always fit well with the overall tone, and the satire becomes rather unsubtle as the book progresses. The characterisation has a feeling of unreality about it – each one feels more like a representation of a part of this society rather than a real person. This works fine in the context of the book, but it prevents the reader from feeling much emotional involvement with the two lead characters. In fact, given the subject matter, the balance of the book is surprisingly weighted away from emotionalism towards a colder intellectualism – though this is not a bad thing, I feel.

Howard Jacobson
Howard Jacobson

The ambiguity of the first half worked better for me than the more didactic second half. The government is invisible, represented only by those who spy on others. But there is a pervading feeling that everyone is being monitored and that even the smallest infractions of the new social code will be punished, though how is left deliberately vague – that very vagueness being the most sinister aspect of it. There are shades of Brave New World here, in the way the people are controlled via seemingly benign means to keep them happy; and of 1984, in the suppression and distortion of history and truth. Although ultimately this book doesn’t have quite the profundity or power of either of these, it’s still an interesting and thought-provoking read that deserves its place on last year’s Booker shortlist.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

the lives of otherSometimes life really is too short…


This is the story of a large, extended family all living under one roof in Calcutta, and of one of the children of the family who becomes a Marxist agitator following the Naxalbari uprising. I abandoned it at the halfway point – sometimes life really is too short. A fellow reviewer* described it as “Like The Lowland, but twice as long and half as good”. I think that’s a perfect description – and I found The Lowland pretty underwhelming…

There are about twenty characters in the family and the book jumps about between them in a fairly random fashion. The timeline also varies and it’s often not made clear what period we’re in, though the main storyline seems to be the one set in the ’60s. Combine this confusion with the fact that the author (probably realistically) uses three or more different variations of name for each character and frankly the book becomes extremely hard to follow. There is a family tree at the beginning, but I really expect authors to be skilled enough to keep me informed without me constantly having to break off to go consult charts, or look up the glossary of endless Indian words that are included in a book which is supposedly written in English (by an Indian born/English resident author).

But I would have been willing to make the effort to plough through the book if the story were interesting, the writing beautiful or the characters enjoyable to spend time with. Unfortunately that’s not the case. The story is simply an observation of this unpleasant family that goes on and on in endless detail but never actually heads anywhere. The exception to this is the strand about the budding terrorist. Cut in at the end of chapters, this strand is told as a series of extracts from letters he sends to an unnamed person, possibly a lover – at the point I abandoned it we still don’t know. Here we learn all about the lives of the rural poor, but from a distance – we never actually get to know any of the poor, just this angst-ridden middle-class Marxist’s interpretation of them, liberally sprinkled with a regurgitation of Marxist theory – at great length.

Calcutta 1967
Calcutta street scene 1967

The quality of the writing is fine – neither particularly bad nor good. Occasional passages are well written and there’s no doubt he gives a very, very, very detailed picture of everything he describes (including lots and lots of abstruse mathematical theories – well, he obviously knew them, so why not put them in?). I quipped that Donna Tartt had obviously bought a couple of enormous economy sized bags of words and used them all in her writing of The Goldfinch – Mukherjee has obviously been to the same shop. I saw him being interviewed about the book on the BBC News channel and when asked about the length of the book he replied that he wanted the book to be ‘densely rendered’ (Good news! It is!) and that if people were paying £17 for the hardback he felt they should get their money’s worth. Personally, I’d prefer to pay for quality rather than quantity. He also said that he thought even Indian people would find it hard to really understand the ‘Bengali-ness’ that he is apparently trying to portray – I guess therefore it’s understandable that this Scot struggled to feel engaged.

Neel Mukherjee
Neel Mukherjee

The real flaw in the book though is that, out of this huge cast of characters, there isn’t a single one who is likeable, engaging or even particularly interesting. The family on the whole dislike each other and that I did find understandable, since I disliked them all. We have bullying of children, animal cruelty, incest (or as good as), and sexual perversion of the most ridiculous kind about which it has been my misfortune to read. We have some members of the family being treated as second-class citizens within the home, sibling rivalry taken to extremes, obnoxious wives battling for domestic supremacy, servants being treated as badly as servants usually are, and beggars being turned away at the door to starve. Two weeks in this family and I’d have become a Marxist terrorist myself.

I said it when I was reviewing Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and I’ll say it again – I do not believe that India is this unrelievedly awful. The problem with unmitigated misery is that it becomes numbing after a while – there has to be something to contrast it with if it’s going to have an emotional impact.** Or alternatively it has to be written so beautifully that the words themselves become the point. All of these people are so deeply unpleasant that this reader couldn’t care less what happened to them. In fact, I was rather hoping for an alien invasion to brighten things up.

In truth, this probably deserves about three stars for the writing and descriptions but, since I found it such a dismal, tedious and ultimately pointless read that I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, I feel I have no option but to put it in the 1-star slot. It’s been shortlisted for the Booker, of course…

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

* Amazon UK reviewer “Mister Hobgoblin”

** As an aside, I find it intriguing that the three authors I have criticised as portraying such a bleak mono-coloured view of India are all people who have left it to live elsewhere (Rohinton Mistry, Neel Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri). On the other hand the two Indian authors whom I have hugely enjoyed (Aravind Adiga and Chandrahas Choudhury) both live and work there, as far as I know, and give a much more balanced and nuanced picture of the people and of life there. I rather wish someone would do a thesis on differing viewpoints of emigrants and residents…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Abandoned, but not lightly…


a fine balanceShortlisted for the 1996 Booker prize, and recommended by just about everyone who’s read it, this book has accumulated 244 5-star reviews on Amazon UK, and only three 1-stars. Well, four now. I began the book on the 27th July and finally abandoned it on 1st September at just over the half-way mark. So this review is an attempt to explain why I struggled so badly with a book that apparently the whole world loves.

The book is set in the period of the late ’70s/early ’80s, probably in Bombay, I think, though I don’t think Mistry ever actually says so. Mrs Ghandi is in power and ‘The Emergency’ has been declared – a period, it would seem, when the government was cracking down on opposition and civil liberties in general. I say ‘it would seem’ because again Mistry doesn’t really bother to tell us about the political situation – he implies his characters are too poor or disinterested to care about politics and, since we see only through their eyes, we get only a vague, fuzzy view of what’s going on. Fine, if you already have an in-depth knowledge of Indian politics of four decades ago, but unfortunately I don’t.

Indira Gandhi Photo © Bettmann/CORBIS
Indira Gandhi
Photo © Bettmann/CORBIS

The book starts with the coming together of four people whose stories make up the heart of the book. Dina Dalal, a widow on the edge of poverty, takes on a contract to make clothing for one of the big new companies that have taken work away from the traditional tailors. To fulfil the work, she hires two such dispossessed tailors, Ishvar and his nephew Omprakash. At the same time she takes in student Maneck, the son of an old school friend, as a paying lodger. The first half of the book is taken up with the backstories of these characters, explaining what tragedies have led them to this point. And when I say tragedies, boy, do I mean tragedies. Rape, murder, all forms of cruelty, racial and religious attacks, threatened incest – all human misery is here, often several times over. But these poor people don’t realise this has actually been the good part of their lives – things are going to get worse…

But nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain.

Mistry’s writing style is very good. The descriptions of these awful lives in this horrible country are detailed and convincing. So convincing, in fact, that one is left wondering why anyone would choose to go on living at all. Each day is a joyless burden, filled with nastiness and filth. There are only two groups of people in this country: the oppressors and the oppressed. No hope, no chance for escape from the degradations and privations that increase with every passing day. Not a picture of India that I recognise from other novels, the best of which do show the extreme poverty and huge inequalities, but also show the diversity and even vibrancy of the country as a whole.

The characterisation is strong in the sense that each of the four main protagonists is well delineated and their behaviour is consistent with their past experiences. But the problem is that Mistry clearly has a political agenda and the characters are no more than puppets. I felt that Mistry had started with a list of all the bad things about life under Mrs Ghandi, added all the different ways people can be nasty to each other, and then dumped all this misery on the heads of this tiny group of characters. I’m sure all these bad things happened, indeed still do, but I’m equally sure they don’t happen every single day to the same people. If there’s a riot, they’ll be caught up in it. If a slum is pulled down, it’ll be their slum. If a father is murdered for being the wrong caste, it’ll be their father. If a wife is raped for being poor…well, you get my point. Even if one of them pauses to make friends with a dog, you can be sure the dog will die hideously within a chapter. The strange result of this was that I didn’t care what happened to any of them, because I didn’t believe in them as people – merely as fairground ducks for Mistry to shoot over and over again.

Mumbai slum
Mumbai slum

I’ve had a long, long time to think about why I found it so difficult to pick the book up and read even a few pages each day, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that the book lacks two fundamental necessaries. Firstly, there is no plot. There is simply a description of the miserable lives of these miserable people – we’re not heading towards, or even away from, anything. And secondly, there is no glimmer of hope. I’m not suggesting there should be a happy ending with them all becoming rich and happy, but there has to be a possibility of something in the future that would make their present lives worth the horrible daily struggle. But there isn’t – it’s crystal clear that things are going to get worse and worse until Mistry finally runs out of things to torment them with; at which point they will be abandoned to their miserable fates. (When I decided to give up, I flicked ahead to the end to see if I was being unfair – I wasn’t.) I’m a political animal, so I love novels that include an element of politics in them. But there must be something else in them too – otherwise it’s not a novel. This book is about one important sector of society, the poor, at a particular point of Indian history; but I got no overall picture of the society, no understanding of why the political situation had reached this stage, no glimmer of what opposition might be in train. As an extremely lengthy description of how awful life can be for people caught up in hopeless poverty and cruelty, full marks. But then we already know that, don’t we? We watch the news…don’t we? A novel needs to be more than that, surely? It needs to tell us what we don’t already know – it needs to make us think…to care. And ultimately this one doesn’t…

‘Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.’ He paused, considering what he had just said. ‘Yes’ he repeated. ‘In the end, it’s all a question of balance.’

For me, Mistry failed to achieve a balance – the book is too heavily weighted towards misery and hopelessness. The quality of the characterisation and descriptive writing makes me feel that my 1-star rating is harsh, but since I can’t bring myself to finish the book, I feel it’s the only rating I can give it.

If you’re one of the people who loved it, I’ll be interested to hear why…

Amazon US Link

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 (
Hokitika township c1870

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