>> Thursday, October 10, 2013
The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced next Tuesday . I mentioned when the longlist was announced that I was planning to read all the books on the shortlist (or at least, read enough of each to get a feel of what they are like and how I like them). I loved doing that last year and, although there was a period where I wondered at my sanity, I've enjoyed it just as much this time.
I got started straight away. Obviously, at the time I didn't know which ones would be on the shortlist, but I had a bit of a guess, purely based on prejudice of which ones sounded more like "Booker books".
My first guess was Harvest, by Jim Crace, because everyone was saying he was due for a win, and we all know how that works with the Booker sometimes. It was also one my local library had. I was immediately absorbed by this tale of a small, insular English community in an unspecified past time, confronted by the outside world. I've done a longer review of it here, but to summarise, I adored the first half. The writing was beautiful and in a way that felt appropriate for the relatively uneducated narrator, and the themes really resonated (especially seeing what I interpreted as the point of view of an immmigrant who's been there a while and has become an almost-local, contemplating the arrival of new immigrants). I thought the book then went in a direction that I found a lot less original and interesting, and things went a bit vague and overly "dreamy" on the writing department, but on the strength of the perfect first half, this was a B+.
That one was a pretty quick read, so I was feeling confident. Plenty of time to read several before the shortlist was announced!, I thought. And then The Kills happened. This book by Richard House was one I wasn't sure would get on the shortlist, but it sounded pretty experimental and like it was hard work, which I thought the judges might value after that whole "readability" row a couple of years back. Plus, my library system seemed to have only a single copy, so I thought I'd best order it immediately, in case it took a while. It didn't; in fact, it arrived pretty much as soon as I finished Harvest, before anything else. I started it, and got totally bogged down.
I thought initially that this was purely due to physical reasons. It's a 1,000-page beast, and the actual act of reading it was a complete pain. It was such a heavy book that I couldn't carry it around and say, read it during my commute. Fine, I could read it on those relatively few evenings I spend at home, maybe daytime on the weekends. If I put a cushion on my lap and rested the book on it, it would be ok. Well, it took me a whole month to read 400 pages. Blame Sybil the cat. If I'm sitting on my reading sofa, she's become accustomed to curling up on my lap. And obviously, if Syb was there, I couldn't use the cushion, and holding the book in the air was impossible. Syb does go off to do stuff (like sit on the cable box and jump at nothing at all) in between snoozes, though, and then I'd pick up the book, but it felt like every time I did that she'd immediately come back, leap onto the back of the sofa and look at me balefully until I put the book aside and let her climb back on. She'd sleep for 5 more minutes, then rinse and repeat. I may have told her off a couple of times. I ended up biting the bullet and just buying the ebook, even though it was quite expensive. And then I realised it wasn't just a problem with the format.
Backtracking a bit: the book is made up of 4 independent but connected 250-page books. The first one, Sutler, is about a man on the run from one of those behemoth civilian contractors who work for the US military in Iraq. When he absconded after an explosion, under instructions from the man who hired him, he thought he was doing something only mildly dodgy, but it turns out he's been set up as the fall guy for a multi-million dollar embezzlement. The second book The Massive, goes back to Iraq with a bunch of civilian contractors, whom the same shadowy figure who hired Sutler has arranged work for at a remote burn pit. The third book, The Kill, changes tone and setting radically, and moves to Naples, where a strange murder takes place. Several of the characters in books 1 and 2 are reading a book about a murder based on a book based on a murder (I think I got that right!), and this is apparently that first book I mentioned.
I honestly don't know what the 4th book is about, because I never got that far. I struggled up to page 650, not caring much about any of the characters and only mildly curious about what was going on. I did have a bit of curiosity about if and how book 4 was going to tie it all together, but not much. And then the shortlist was announced, and The Kills wasn't on it, blast it! I immediately put it aside, thinking maybe I'd come back to it after reading the other 5 books, but I can say now that I'm not going to do that. I don't mind working hard, but during the big chunk I read, I got no joy at all for all that hard work, and have no great faith it's going to be such a great ending that it'll compensate for that. So, a DNF, and it really should have become one sooner.
Tomorrow: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton