Man Booker Prize 2014

>> Monday, October 13, 2014

For the last few years, I've been reading more and more from the Man Booker prize lists. I've found some fantastic books that way, books that I wouldn't have read otherwise, as they don't obviously sound like my sort of thing. Also, I like being able to participate in the very animated discussions about about who should win, and to do so with an informed opinion. The winner will be announced Tuesday evening, so I'll post here my impressions of the books I read.

The experience this year was really interesting. It was a pretty controversial longlist, very white, and with fewer women than in the last few years. There also weren't as many "Commonwealth" novels as usual. True, there were more books there than in previous years that appealed to me a priori, but that only meant that I was going to be more in my comfort zone, not necessarily a good thing.

I started reading like crazy as soon as the longlist was announced, and I was wowed by the books I chose to start with. By the time the shortlist was announced, I'd read 6. I absolutely loved 3 and liked the others very much. Three of those books (2 on the 'liked' camp, 1 on the 'loved') were on the shortlist, so I immediately embarked on reading the rest of the shortlisted books.

And there I hit a bit of a bad patch. I did not enjoy those three books, not at all. In fact, they ended up being DNFs, after reading good, long chunks of each. We're talking between a quarter and a third of the whole book, definitely enough to judge whether it was my thing or not. These 3 weren't.

I'll start with those, just so I can end in a positive note. How To Be Both, by Ali Smith and J, by Howard Jacobson I gave up on for the same reason, even though they are seemingly very different.

How To Be Both is quite experimental with form. It's got two halves, which the author instructs can be read in any order. In fact, half the printed copies have them in one order, half in the other, and the ebook comes with both versions for the reader to choose from. The section I started with is set in the present day, and it's about George, a teenager whose mother has just died. The other section is set in 15th century Italy, and it's about an artist who painted some wonderful frescoes in a palazzo George visits in her section.

J is set in a dystopian future, after an event referred to by the characters as "what happened, if it happened". It's a totalitarian world, in which the approach taken to ensure that event is not repeated is to force people to forget about it and deny what's happened, rather than our world's "never forget".

Both are very much novels of ideas, which is something I usually like. In particular, I thought the ideas explored in the Jacobson were really intriguing (the way I've heard him describe it is what happens when you actually succeed in annihilating 'the enemy', and there's no one to attack but yourself). But in both books the characters created to explore those ideas just weren't up to it. They didn't behave in ways I felt made any sense or recognised as human. It might be that I'm a failure as a reader of serious literature by insisting on characters with internal coherence and with something in them that feels true, but if that's the case, so be it.

The other book that didn't work for me was the one that's the bookies' favourite to win: The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee. It's set in Calcutta in the late 1960s. Mukherjee protests that it isn't a family saga, but in the 150 pages or so that I read, that's exactly what it felt like. The Ghosh family all live together in a large house, and we get to see all the resentments and jealousies and rivalries. Actually, not all live together, because the eldest grandson, Supratik, leaves home early in the book and joins a group of revolutionaries living amongst impoverished villagers and trying to create an uprising.

There were some things I liked here. It's a vivid portrayal of a time and a place, and I'm attracted to the idea of the Ghosh household as a sort of metaphor for the divisions and inequalities of society. I had problems with the characters, though, although in a different sense as in the previous two books. These characters felt real, but they were overpowering and uninteresting in their small-mindedness and pettiness. I particularly resented the way the relationships amongst the women were depicted. They were all purely about competition and nastiness, which made me tired and frustrated. The Supratik sections could have opened up the focus a bit, but I found those much too heavy on the preaching, even if it was preaching of a message I agreed with.

Like How To Be Both and J, I'm sure The Lives of Others is a good book; it's just not to my taste.

And now we come to the ones I actually liked. First, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan (my review here). This one was a bit mixed. The action covers pretty much the whole life of a man who during World War II commanded a group of men being quite literally being worked to death in the Burma Death Railway. The sections directly related to the Death Railway were incredibly powerful. It's not just the sections set directly during the war, but those afterwards, showing what became of the men who were there (both Australian and Japanese) and how they dealt with those events. Unfortunately, there's also quite a bit of space devoted to the main character's private life: forbidden romance with his uncle's wife before the war, his marriage, his constant womanising. Those sections I didn't like at all. They didn't feel emotionally true and frankly bored me. Still, the book is definitely worth reading.

I also liked To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris (my review here). It's a deceptively readable and funny book about a New York dentist whose identity is stolen by someone who uses it to get out the word about the Ulm, a lost tribe of Israel even more persecuted than the Jews (in fact, persecuted by the Jews). I say 'deceptively' because behind the comedy and witty conversations is a really interesting exploration of the search for something bigger than onself. It's a good one, and definitely worth a read

Finally, my favourite of the shortlisted 6 was We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler (my review here). It's about a woman who grew up in a family that was unique in a very interesting way. When we meet her we know that the family has pretty much disintegrated, and we explore why. The book looks at themes like how families work, the nature of sisterhood, the treachery of memory, animal rights, and activism, but it does this by telling a wonderfully engaging story. I really enjoyed it.

So, out of the 6 shortlisted books, I have a clear favourite. I'd love it if We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves won. I'm pretty sure that won't happen, though. If I had to call it, I'd definitely go with one of my DNFs, quite possibly The Lives of Others.

But I guess another issue is whether I think these are the right books on the shortlist, and the answer to that is absolutely not. Much as I liked the Fowler, there were two books that didn't make the shortlist that I thought were even better.

My absolute favourite on the longlist was The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth (my review here), which tells the story of the resistance after the Norman invasion of 1066. This was a book that completely wowed me on all fronts. Its use of language is incredible and I loved both the recreation of a time and place and the way it creates a fascinating character in its narrator. One of the best books I've read in recent years, and it's a huge shame that it didn't get on the shortlist. It's a bit of a hard sell, being written in what the author describes as a shadow version of Old English, and I suspect being on the shortlist would have meant a lot more people daring to start it.

But The Wake was closely followed by David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, which I thought was a fabulous read. Mitchell does his usual thing here of having a book composed of a group of novellas, six here. There is a strong narrative thread, though, as we have Holly Sykes in whose point of view we are in the first and last stories, and who's very present in the middle four. There's also a big fantasy Good vs. Evil-type element which is mostly in the background but pops up periodically in the different sections. I'm not describing it very well here, but it's great storytelling, with really interesting characters I cared about intensely and done with Mitchell's gift for mimicking different genres. I didn't want to leave this world when the book finished, and it will definitely be one I'll reread, probably soon.

I did read a couple more from the longlist. In fact, the first book I picked when that was announced was The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt (my review here). It tells the story of neglected artist Harriet Burden. This is done through her diaries and all sorts of different materials (interviews, articles, statements from people involved in her life), gathered by an editor after Harriet's death. It's a story about sexism and the willful blindness of people, who only see what they expect to see and will actually make huge efforts to ignore what doesn't agree with their worldview. It's a bit of a challenging one (some of Harriet's diary entries, in particular), but I liked it very much and found it worth the read.

Finally, as I write this, I'm halfway through Richard Powers' Orfeo. It's about a retired avant-garde composer who has been experimenting with using DNA in his music. For this, he's set up a small DIY lab in his home. This comes to the notice of the authorities, and cue the huge overreaction. Most of that plot line is to come, though. In the first half it has been set up, but mostly we've been hearing about the composer's life and about music... a whole lot about music. And the way Powers writes about it is fantastic. I've been trying to read it at home, because whenever he talks about a real, existing piece I want to hear it (and thank heavens for youtube!). I'm enjoying it.

On the whole, this has been an excellent year. There are always going to be some books that aren't my cup of tea, but the ones I liked, I really, really liked!


Jorrie Spencer 13 October 2014 at 15:17  

I really enjoyed reading about these Man Booker contenders! I often manage one Man Booker book a year, so not near as many as you, but it is a prize I pay attention to, because I’ve been rewarded by some of my attempts in the past. (I can actually only think of Alan Hollinghurst right now, but I know there have been others.) I will have to try at least a couple of these.

Unknown 13 October 2014 at 16:17  

The Man Booker is my favorite literary prize and I think the contenders and the winners are generally interesting, even if I don't like the book. I assign them a lot for my book club.

Rosario 13 October 2014 at 20:23  

Jorrie: Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it! There's definitely some good ones there this year, and quite a variety, too. I actually haven't read anything by Alan Hollinghurst yet. Which one was the one you liked? The one that won it?

Jennifer: It's mine as well, although closely followed by the Women's Prize for Fiction. We often read from the Man Booker lists for my book club, too. Not yet this year, though, so I might suggest one of them for our next book. I think the David Mitchell would be great for that, or the Karen Joy Fowler.

Jorrie Spencer 14 October 2014 at 02:10  

I read The Line of Beauty because it won, but I probably liked The Stranger’s Child better (longlisted in its year). They’re both interesting books. I don’t always necessarily like Hollinghurst's characters but they feel very real to me.

I’ve got Karen Joy Fowler’s out of the library so I’m going to try that one soon. I’ve also got a hold on Neel Mukherjee’s.

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