Mostly Books: BookerFest 2013

Ahead of Tuesday’s announcement, MostlyFilm looks over the runners and riders for this year’s Man Booker prize

This year’s Booker list is one of the most readable, if not the most exciting, lists I can remember.  There isn’t a book on the longlist (let alone the shortlist) which isn’t an accessible read. At points this can lead to a lack of ambition; Alison MacLeod’s Unexploded,  of which even for MostlyFilm I’m not reading more than 100 pages, is a ghastly, conceited little book which welds barely-digested research to a hackneyed plot to no real effect.  I’m sure MacLeod has spent a lot of time in the Mass Observation archive, but she never manages to rise above the most trite reflections on the 1940s.   MacLeod aside, though, all the longlisted novels I’ve read are well worth a look;  The Kills is mostly brilliant though drifts a little to close to a  Roberto Bolano knock-off in the mid-section, The Spinning Heart and Five Star Billionaire are both beautifully constructed looks at the contemporary world,  and The Marriage of Chani Kaufman is fantastically entertaining.

After the break, we look in more detail at the six books on the shortlist…

Eleanor Catton: The Luminaries

73.Eleanor Catton-The Luminaries

Big books are my weakness.  It probably comes from a childhood spent reading fantasy, but I  have groaning shelves based on my inability to resist anything over 800 pages.  So I’m predisposed to enjoy Eleanor Catton’s vast period mystery novel.  I also love the setting, a rainsoaked New Zealand shanty town at the height of the 1866 gold rush (you’re all well aware of the 1866 New Zealand gold rush, of course?).  The narrative is framed and shaped by an incredibly complex astrological structure, which never detracts from the push of the story.    What does, occasionally, jar is the probably less intentional echoes of HBO’s Deadwood: when the overbearing pimp and the oily hotelier go to confront the chinese opium dealer over the worthless claim and the suicidal whore, I defy anyone not to think San Francisco Cocksucker

That’s a tiny quibble, though, in a completely original novel which plays with period and structure as inventively as Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and The White or even Charles Palliser’s gargantuan Quincunx. Catton’s novel isn’t quite as rich or as satisfying as Palliser’s, but it’s one of the most intriuging books i’ve read this year . Jim Eaton-Terry


Colm Toibin: The Testament of Mary

Toibin-front uk

This is not a novel. That is not something that would concern me in the least were it not that I am writing this in the context of its nomination for the Booker Prize, an award open to novels. It is not simply its brevity that mitigates against its right to compete: the focus is also too narrow. That is not to say it isn’t absolutely excellent, because it is. It is to say that it is not a novel and is barely a novella. It might best be categorised as a an exercise in creative writing and left at that.

It is a first person narration, one might even consider it a monologue, from the perspective of Mary as she reflects on the last days in the life of her son and on her own actions. Yes, that Mary. If one is going to write about the relationship between a mother and a son then it is perhaps as well to base it on the most famous mother and son in history.

Memory and truth are what Mary possesses but they are not what her visitors want from her. They come to hear her acquiescence in the creation of a myth but all she can do is speak the truth. Her great regret is not that she could not save her son, but that when she needed to perform her role as a mother one final time, for herself as well as for him, she did not. Her visitors say she cradled Jesus’ body after he’d been taken down from the cross but she knows she did not; she knows she sneaked away in fear for her life, and she will not participate in the lie. The book builds towards Mary’s confession of her actions at the death of her son. That is her testament. All she has left of her son – whom she has lost for a cause she declares not worth the price –  is the memory and she will not corrupt it with lies.

Novel or no, it is a beautifully made thing. Perhaps it would be better awarded a pass with distinction in a creative writing module than the Man Booker Prize but nonetheless I wish it good luck.   Marv Marsh.

Jhumpa Lahiri: The Lowland


In 1967 Indian tribesmen armed with bows and arrows ambushed and killed a police inspector in Naxalbari. By 2009 Naxalites were operating in more than a quarter of India’s administrative areas, ruling many of them, assassinating politicians and army officers. They killed 76 police officers in a single day. Yet despite the efforts of several Booker winners of Indian origin the insurgents are not well known outside South Asia. In the 80s Naipaul thought they were a brief distraction quickly and rightly crushed. Twenty years later Arundhati Roy travelled amongst them and argued their case, while not quite approving of their methods.

Jhumpa Lahiri is best known for short stories about middle-class Indian-Americans living quietly in New England, so Maoist guerillas in Bengal seem an unlikely subject for her latest novel.  In The Lowland she is there at the beginning of the uprising, describing two brief acts of political violence that will shape four generations of one family over five decades.

Two brothers in Calcutta in the 1940s are so close that it is often difficult for others to know which one has answered their question but as they grow older their worlds move apart. The older boy is happy to be invisible, the younger always makes his mark, whether leaving a footprint in wet concrete or leading a revolution. Subhash Mitra becomes a marine biologist in Rhode Island; Brother Udayan heads for rural West Bengal with a plate, a blanket and the Little Red Book. The politics is of less interest to Lahiri than it was to Naipaul, Roy and Aravind Adiga but she uses the conflict very effectively to launch her brothers into different career paths.

The two countries in the book are as different as the two men. In India people get killed. In America nobody is violent.  In India the educated new wife is expected to move in with the in-laws to cook and clean and the household gets bigger. When characters move to the US their family get smaller and even when they share a roof they are “a family of solitaries.”  Husbands don’t talk to wives, mothers to daughters. Several years pass without a line of dialogue. People leave the house without a word and don’t return for several decades. This might be a convincing response to the earlier events in India but it can be a problem for the novel. Very little happens in America, which means that the story comes dangerously close to stopping altogether in the second half. But just when you wonder where it is all going, Lahiri gives us a few more lines from Calcutta and the American story can move forward.

When the book begins everybody is Indian and lives in a British colony. By the end they have all become Americans with Obama bumper stickers and we are back in the world of those first Lahiri stories, yet for the two main characters  Calcutta 1967 never goes away.  She is more comfortable writing about the minute details of small town America but manages to maintain a strong and believable connection with the corner of India where everything began. In the 21st century they hear that the Naxalites are stronger than ever and we know that other families will be starting their version of the story we have just read. Nac  

Ruth Ozeki: A Tale for the Time Being

27.Ruth Ozeki-A Tale For The Time Being

Click your fingers. Go on. Right, that was 65 moments of zen time, apparently, and in each one of those moments you had the power to change the course of your life. You just chucked away 65 chances on a click of the fingers. Cheery, eh?

One of the first things you learn reading this novel is that you are a Time Being and your life consists of moments. If you choose to use up lots of those sets of 65 chances by reading on to the end then you’ll find out a bit more about what that means. The short version is that you exist in time, which you may feel you already know, but the novel asks you to really feel it. The more you feel it the more it means and the more it means the more you feel like maybe everything is important, or perhaps meaningless, but certainly real and part of a greater whole.

Time and the connectedness of everything are the big preoccupations but the book’s powerfully beating heart is the intimate story of a suicidal sixteen-year-old girl who suffers horrific bullying at school and her relationship with her depressed father, who is also suicidal and has one unsuccessful attempt already on his CV. That story is told through Nao’s diary and is framed by the story of a woman, Ruth, who finds it washed up on a beach ten years later. They enter into a dialogue of sorts across time, each helping the other.

This is a very readable and often sad book and is for a long while interestingly engaged with the question of the experience of time, and of writing and reading, but the effect dissipates in an unnecessarily didactic final section. Ruth’s husband has a tendency towards the pedagogical and at the last the novel follows his lead. While it leaves much open-ended in terms of plot, it cannot let its wider themes be. The characters’ exploration of and interaction with the world as “time beings” is replaced by what is pretty well a lecture for the reader on the facile similarities between Buddhism and quantum theory and that is a bit of a shame.  Marv Marsh

Noviolet Bulawayo: We Need New Names

we need

In what could be described as a slightly bland year for the Booker, Noviolet Bulawayo has been the focus for the nearest thing to controversy to emerge: Philip Hensher’s slightly pointed dismissal of much of the list as globalised, airport literature and his claim that most of the longlisted authors are essentially American.  Bulawayo, because her real name is Elizabeth Tshele, comes in for a particular jab, in a discussion which reminds me slightly of the Rahila Khan affair in its weird nexus of essentialism and orientalism.  Hensher, in this case, takes the unedifying role of the Englishman accusing women of not being sufficiently ethnic; never a good look.

All of which distracts from the fact that We Need New Names is a pretty spectacular debut.  It moves from the initial portrait of life in Zimbabwe in the ’90s which, though it hits all the beats you expect from the subject matter, does so with a grace and agility that keeps them seeming fresh.  Even the obvious setpieces – a mob attack on a white family, an election – are distanced through the narrator’s naivete.  It’s an old trick, but one that I’ve rarely seen pulled off to better effect.

Once the book moves from Zimbabwe to Michigan, there’s a slight grinding of the gears before a triumphant (for the reader, if not the characters) climax, pulling together the theme of alienation and loss that infuses the whole book.  Jim Eaton-Terry

Jim Crace: Harvest


Harvest is Jim Crace’s 10th novel, and reportedly his last. It’s a book about the tragedy of the enclosures, about the punishment of transgression, and, on a simpler level, a meditation on the turning wheel of the seasons; it might also be a work of abandonment, of an artist openly denuding himself of his vestments.

It’s set in an isolated Tudor village, somewhere in England, and concerns one Walter Thirsk, a peasant working on manorial lands. Thirsk sees his village destroyed over a 7 day period – destroyed by events set in motion by two cataclysms: the arrival of modernising land-owners intent on enclosure, and the arrival, and brutal mistreatment, of newcomers, themselves victims of enclosures on land nearby.

The book’s strength is its prose, which is lyrical, masterfully aware of place and of the language of the time (but never merely colloquial and affected) and always immaculately controlled. The web of Thirsk’s noticing is never less than intense and ripe with detail; the drama, as it gradually unfolds, is expertly imagined and constructed. Yet Crace’s control is somehow overbearing – the book, despite its transgressions, isn’t horrific enough, and the narrative control means it lacks a lived quality proper to the events being described. This might, after all, be the point: that the story is in a minor key because that’s what was demanded – both in a monumental-historical sense, and in a personal sense, in the laying aside of one’s wares.

None of which is to say Crace wouldn’t be a worthy Booker winner. But it’d be career-earned, rather than for Harvest alone.

Matt Poacher

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