I again took advantage of The Book People Man Booker shortlist pack as soon as the list was released, but then my September/October was busier than I expected, so I only managed to read three before the winner was announced (then the winner as it wasn’t one I’d done). I also failed to do most of my reviews at the time, so to tidy up for the end of 2016, I have some quick summaries below.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien
This was a heavy read, about loss in the face of political change, love and family ties. It is also about how music can transcend these things: and how sometimes it can’t. Despite the serious nature of the subject matter I couldn’t stop turning the pages, lost in the worlds of Kai, Sparrow and Zhuli. The writing was good, it led to deep thinking and overall was a good read.
All That Man Is – David Szalay
I only read the first hundred pages of this. It was so tedious in its “plot” mostly about young men wandering every advantage they have and making the worst of themselves. Its gone to the charity shop.
Hot Milk – Deborah Levy
I did manage to review
this one. In summary: a page-turning read, but not really worth of the Booker.
The Sellout – Paul Beatty
This one didn’t particularly call to me from the shelves, so I only read it after it won. I can see why it was the one the judges agreed on; and feels very appropriate given the year we have just had. Because of the format of the writing, it was harder to follow: but that will also have been why it stood out to the judges.
I would have given the prize to Do Not Say We have Nothing: which is a suitably deep book whilst also being good to read.
One of this year’s Man Booker shortlist (and one of only three that I managed this year before the winner was announced: life somewhat got in the way of reading this year) this is an examination of a codependent mother-daughter relationship, a launching of an independent life, a love affair and a battle with hypochondria.
What I couldn’t see is why this could be stand-out enough to win the Man Booker prize (it didn’t) as it seemed to barely be above the standard of usual airport paperbacks. Family drama and a developing sexual relationship are set against the backdrop of Greece and a doctor with dubious ethics to produce something quite unremarkable.
Tóibín has approached the life of Jesus from a new angle, that of his mother Mary. As his mother she is far more interested in her son’s safety than in him being the saviour, and in how his friends lead him astray than what he is responsible for.
I’m never quite sure about men writing novels aiming to capture such a female experience as motherhood, but Tóibín does well. His Mary is emotional without being overly sentimental, and strong in her own way. But she still frames herself against the (absent) men in her story. Women are not a frame, and he doesn’t quite get that concept. Of course the point is the gospel, in which the character herself is not the point, but she does not focus purely on her child.
There is little new here. Of course the story is known, and the concept of it as a tragedy is also unexpected. So there ends up being little new here except a minor reframing. It doesn’t explain why this was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.
Over the last few weeks I’ve read the shortlist, as I’ve always intended to in previous years. There was one big disappointment: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, one slight disappointment: How to be Both, and a few surprisingly enjoyable reads.
In summary I loved:
- J certainly gave me something to think about in a post-apocalyptic world, and reason to contemplate the impact of prejudice.
- I loved We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, although thought it might border on too fluffy to win.
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North was again a book that promoted thought on humanity, in a much darker way.
- But I think that The Lives of Others deserves to win as a well-written, thoughtful piece that enlarged my understanding the most.
Post Announcement Thoughts
Whilst it wouldn’t have been my pick to win, The Narrow Road to the Deep North was a well-written piece of serious literature, a well-deserved prize winner.
The last of the Man Booker 2014 Shortlist prize books, finished the evening before the results are announced. The Lives of Others is a book about family, business and revolution in India not long after independence.
Its told from the point of view of several different members of the family, and I often found myself flicking back to keep track of who was in which generation. This was done well though, and gave a richness as different characters’ viewpoints gave a full view of life within the family.
I did feel I could have benefited from knowing more about politics in India in the mid-twentieth centenary, and will be looking for a non-fiction book on this subject soon. But even feeling this lack of knowledge, The Lives of Others gave a view on the importance of caste in India and a taste for revolution on a wave after the British Empire withdrew.
To Rise Again is the Man Booker shortlist book I’ve been least impressed by. Its supposedly witty and a commentary on modern life, however its very much a self-absorbed, miserable way of life.
I had some sympathy for the protagonist ‘s plight, but still found him fundamentally irritating. A bit of clarity of what was going on with his life earlier would have been better, because I just wanted to give him a shake and tell him to get over himself.
I would be very disappointed if this one won the prize, and think that it possibly shouldn’t have been on the shortlist.
I enjoyed this exploration of how human society functions and who we really are. It is a near-future dystopian world, in which something has happened which is gradually revealed through the book. J builds a realistic world where societal rules have been changed in the wake of disaster.
The selection of narrators wove together well, combined with a few different styles of writing. It only jarred for me on the first transfer, when I was still expecting a single narrator, then felt seamlessly done.
Without revealing the plot, I find the ending bittersweet satisfying. The reveal was also very well done, with gradually less subtle hints as to the true plot until all the pieces had taken into place. With hindsight the meaning of the book name is clear and a perfect choice for the book.
“I’m being facetious,” she said. “Uniquely malevolent is a quotation from then. I use it now for anyone or anything not approved of by junior academics.”
The Narrow Road to the Deep North is book 3 of my Man Booker shortlist readalong. Its much heavier going than the first two, although arguably still a coming of age novel, and feels like serious literature in a way the last two didn’t.
This is a war book, about how men survived, or didn’t, in the Japanese POW camps, which we experience through various narrators, following the memories of the key one.
It is an enlightening look at how low humanity is capable of getting, on all sides, and the impact this has as it echoes through lives. We see heartbreak, love, lust and humanity in the face of overwhelming odds, along with the loss of humanity as it falls into a belief system that doesn’t benefit from its existence.
I’m glad this book was in the mix of the shortlist.
How to be both is my second book in my Man Booker shortlist read, and also the second coming of age book. This meant I already felt a bit jaded about it from the first chapter, and then it compared poorly against We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Unfortunately it didn’t improve from that low bar.
The structure is two distinct halves, the first a fairly mediocre coming of age story, and then it takes a surreal twist that I found difficult to both catch up to what was happening and believe in. As a fantasy fan this takes quite some doing. I also found the writing style (probably intended to impress serious literature experts) clumsy and faintly disorientating, and some of the more abstract parts were more impenetrable to me.
Its stuffed full of references, links and metaphor which should be fascinating, but I just couldn’t get past the writing style to appreciate it.
I was feeling inspired when the Man Booker shortlist for this year was announced and I noticed that there was a deal to buy them all on the Book People. My aim is to read the lot before the final announcement. I’m only 2 books behind at this point (although have also just finished a knitting project so can dedicate my train time to this for the next few weeks).
So this one was the top of the pile and I grabbed it without even glancing at the blurb as I’m aiming to read the lot in the next few weeks anyway, so don’t need to decide if its worth investing my time. From reading reviews after the fact, I’m glad. There’s one hell of a twist part-way through that a lot of people were spoiled for, but I had no idea. Therefore I’m not going to mention the actual plot.
I loved it though, devoured it all in a day and then went back to reread other parts and read the “book club” questions at the back and thought about them for a good long while.
Fundamentally its a book about family relationships, and how events in childhood echo throughout our adult lives. Not a live changing book, but a very reflective one.