Okay, so I uploaded a photo of the Longlist a couple of week or so ago. This photo here, from The Guardian:
Since then, I’ve managed to get my hands on half a dozen of the list. Not read them yet but I’ve got hold of them!
What I thought I’d do is read the first page of each and give me humble thoughts. So, firstly, the beautifully bound The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth.
No prizes for guessing the most obvious thing here! As I fear many people would say, my stepson’s response was
“It’s very hard to read”
and my wife’s was
“There’s crappy spelling.”
It appears that Kingsnorth has set this, his debut novel, specifically in 1066. I have no problem with historical fiction: I love Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies as well as Jim Crace’s Harvest and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, last year’s winner, both of which were historical. C J Sansom, Shardlake series are fully enjoyable. But none of these attempted this faux-archaic language as the novel
is written entirely in its own language: my interpretation of Old English, recreated for modern eyes and ears.
Well, that’s jolly clever; it is a brave decision. And, I think, a wrong decision. The story, according to Kingsnorth’s website is set during the Norman invasion as an Englishman’s familiar world is destroyed by the invaders, which is no doubt represented by the “great wind” in the opening page when “all wolde be blaec after and for all time”. Which does sound very similar to Crace’s narrative from last year’s Shortlist.
But why create that language barrier between your reader and what sounds like a gripping story? I have a Literature degree from Cambridge; I’ve studied Chaucer. And it’s not an easy read! To say the least. And not only that, but eliminating all words of a French-Latinate etymology may create an earthy narrative voice but is also likely to adversely affect the lyricism of the writing.
I may be wrong.
I hope I’m wrong because it does sound like it could be a great story.
But I imagine it will be one of those books many people start from a sense of obligation and never finish.
Next, let’s look at Orfeo by Richard Powers.
Now I bought this one in paperback rather than (or actually in addition to) electronically for one simple reason: I’d locked myself out of the house and had to pass a couple of hours in Costa before Mrs P came home to let me back in! So I have read a bit more of this than the others.
It brings us back to the modern day: our protagonist is a retired music professor with a hobbyist’s interest in biochemistry. Which, following the death of his dog, attracts the attention of Homeland Security and he finds himself investigated as a potential bioterrorist. A good premise with the potential for a lot of comedy, actually!
In this opening page, we do come across mismatched jargons: musical and chemical (lexuses? lexi? lexa? lexus?) vocabularies dance together as the
nucleotides … fall in line like enlisted men for a five am reveille
and there’s a certain charm to the description of the pipetting of
no more colorless liquid than a hoverfly might take from a sprig of bee balm
albeit that droplet is then described – somewhat clumsily in my opinion – as a “dollop” in the next line. To me, a dollop is a large quantity of something thrown somewhat carelessly about. It puts me in mind of a prison (or school) canteen serving mashed potato. It sounds almost onomatopoeic, even if its original meaning was more pastoral. In any event, it jars with the description of the droplet.
The narrative continues to interweave the current misunderstanding with Homeland Security with a Bildungsroman of Els childhood and education. It’s enjoyable enough: unlike Kingsnorth’s novel, I got through a fair proportion of it in the 90 minutes I had. I suspect my lack of knowledge of music, rhythm and chemistry may be to blame, but I wasn’t gripped by it. The narrative voice was a little distant for my liking.
Moving on to The Lives Of Others by Neel Mukherjee.
Now, I have only read the first page of this so, beyond the blurb I have no idea of where the novel is going. But there’s a power to that opening page which I love: the harshness of the sun that “burns his blood dry” and the irony of his “lingering grain of hope” for the monsoon. There’s a sparseness to the sentences here which captures the harshness of the world and which isn’t undermined by that metaphorical imagery.
The blurb for this one describes it as
An epic saga telling the story of a Bengali family in Calcutta – exploring a family that is decaying as the society around it fractures, and one young man who tries to reimagine his place in the world.
From this, I anticipate a contrast and conflict between the abject poverty that we see in this opening page and the opulence of, perhaps the ruling classes. I do have a penchant for Indian Literature and post-colonial writing from Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai, Rohinton Mistry, V. S. Naipaul, Vikram Chandra and Arundhati Roy to name a few. So, this one I’m looking forward to seeing on the Shortlist.
It feels like it has been a while since there was a non-Anglo-Saxon Man Booker winner (was it Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger?)
Next is The Narrow Road To The Deep North which is an lovely title and conjured up images of journeys into a mythical and rather British past. Which would be completely and utterly wrong.
The novel by Richard Flanagan
tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted by a wartime love affair with his uncle’s wife. Post war, he finds his growing celebrity as a war hero at odds with his sense of his own failings and guilt.
Again, there is a vividness to the imagery here which is delicious: the description of the crying’s rhythm as a noise which
reminded him of a rabbit’s hind legs thumping the ground as it is strangled by a snare
is particularly striking but what I love in this opening page is the unfolding of the memory: light interrupted by shadow which becomes a shape, then an arm, then a person.
Our final two nominees – the last two that I have anyway – appear to be curiously similar: two somewhat rambling Bildungsromans written from the point of view of two female characters.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler opens not dissimilarly to The Narrow Road To The Deep North as our narrator tell us of her first memory, preserved in a home movie.
There is something beautiful about the way this simple home movie slides into the profundity of a fairytale, the worthless piece of quartz transforms in memory and imagination to a diamond. And perception and the language used to create and convey that perception may be important in this novel: what we don’t realise from this page is that the sister is a chimpanzee.
Meet the Cooke family: Mother and Dad, brother Lowell, sister Fern, and our narrator, Rosemary, who begins her story in the middle. She has her reasons. “I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact: that I was raised with a chimpanzee,” she tells us. “It’s never going to be the first thing I share with someone. I tell you Fern was a chimp and already you aren’t thinking of her as my sister. But until Fern’s expulsion, I’d scarcely known a moment alone. She was my twin, my funhouse mirror, my whirlwind other half, and I loved her as a sister.”
There is a Q & A session with Karen Joy Fowler on the book and her ideas for it here.
The book which has most caught my eye, ear and imagination, though, is this one:
Our narrator here is Ruth Swain, sick with some undefined illness and closeted in the attic room recounting her and her family’s lives as well as searching for her father amongst the books.
There’s an interview with Niall Williams about this book on Radio 4’s Open Book here.
We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling.
This is a book steeped in language and literature and teeming with vivid imagery
the throat of the river laughed, realising what a peculiar thing was a father and daughter
and a genuinely joyful comedic language. The episode where Jesus is stolen from the Nativity is wonderful:
By this time the whole school was on the side of the kidnappers and false sightings were announced hourly. Jesus was in the Chemistry Lab. He was in the Girls’ Changing Room before Games. He was taking French Oral with the Sub Miss Trigot.
That lad is everywhere, Thomas Halvey said.
He is eventually replaced for Mass with “a lamb on whose forehead someone had taped the word ‘Jesus’.”
This book has a lyricism that makes it stand out: the sparkle of a real diamond. As well quirky self-aware narrator. It seems to explore and tease the heart of any writing: the relationship between the writer and reader. It reminds me of nothing so much as The Life And Times Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, along with a smattering of Dickens, both of whom are explicitly referenced in the text itself.
Is it a little too knowing and smug? Is the description of Faha a little too cliched and romanticised? A little too Sunday Evening television? Possibly some people would think so but nothing has grated on me so far. It is a book that has sung.
So, my rank list so far would look like this:
1. Niall Williams, History Of The Rain
2. Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
3. Neel Mukherjee, The Lives Of Others
4. Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road To The Deep North
5. Richard Powers, Orfeo
6. Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake
However, this is an incredibly superficial assessment of only a portion of the books on the Longlist.
Good luck to you all!