Tag Archives: Man Booker Prize

Life of Pi – Yann Martel

life-of-pi-book

Life of Pi was a book so regularly spotted on my dad’s bookshelf when I was growing up that I have the image of the white boat with the dark boy and massive tiger curled up inside it forever burnt into my memory. Despite this frequent exposure to it, I never really felt the urge to read it. I only became familiar with the story itself after watching Ang Lee’s recent Oscar-winning adaptation: a visually stunning film, with a moving story. I don’t remember it fondly. I think I watched it a little too close to my mum’s death, meaning I felt the loss and heartbreak that Pi experiences ever the more than I would have if I saw it now, for example. I’m glad I didn’t read the book at the same time – the line ‘to lose your mother, well, that is like losing the sun above you’ choked me up alone. In my head it’s a film I associate with grief, which is the unfortunate consequence of watching the wrong kind of film or reading the wrong kind of book too close to a traumatic event.

Still, it made its way on to the reading list, but I didn’t pick it up for a long time. In fact an ex-boyfriend actually borrowed my (dad’s) copy and read it before me, which is remarkable considering that was probably the only fiction book he’d read all year. (If he’s reading this – which is very unlikely – please do consider that a warm-hearted jibe.) Said ex-boyfriend finished it feeling unenthusiastic, but I went into it with an open mind. After all, it won the Booker in 2002, which will always work in any book’s favour to me. I wanted to avoid spoilers in this review but it seems prudent to discuss the twist at the end of the novel, as it forms a big part of the reader’s experience (if we can call it a twist).

The book is prefaced with a foreword, written by the ‘author’ – I presume this isn’t Yann Martel, but rather a writer within the confines of the story. To avoid confusion with Martel, I shall refer to this fictional author as the Writer (the same name he goes by in the film adap, I believe). The Writer is desperate for fresh inspiration for a novel and travels around India looking for it – until he is told to go back to Canada and speak to a man named Pi Patel, who has a remarkable story about surviving 227 days on the Pacific Ocean when he was a teenager, cooped up in a small lifeboat with nothing but the basic supplies – oh, and with a fully-grown, carnivorous, 450lb Bengal tiger on board. As the Writer begins to tell the story, the narrative switches to Pi’s first person viewpoint, although the Writer occasionally interjects the story with his observations about interviewing Pi, with comments about Pi’s house, cooking, family, and the man himself.

And so the story of Pi Patel begins; christened Piscine Molitor Patel, named after a swimming pool but adopting the nickname ‘Pi’ after seeking to liberate himself from the unfortunate schoolyard nickname ‘Pissing’, Pi grows up in Ponticherry, a French part of India, on a zoo. When he is 16 his family relocate to Canada and board a ship with their various zoo animals but, tragically, it sinks. Pi is the sole survivor. But that’s not quite right – he’s the sole human survivor, I should say, for he finds himself in a lifeboat with a zebra, and quickly an orangutan, hyena and Bengal tiger turn up to share his quarters. While the hyena, zebra and orangutan bump each other off fairly quickly (and rather gruesomely, it must be said), Pi is left to share his space with a bad tempered, man-eating tiger from his zoo in Pondicherry named Richard Parker.

It’s not an ideal scenario for him, and the odds are stacked against him – though remarkably, Pi endures the entire journey with the tiger on board, relying on his extensive zoo knowledge in how to train and cohabit with various creatures, even the ones that would surely be desperate enough to eat you in a matter of days. As you might imagine Richard Parker is initially an enemy and complication Pi wants rid of – whether that be by pushing him overboard, killing him or letting him die of natural causes (though he reflects none of these methods are set for success) – but later Pi realises that having to manage his presence, and indeed, having him there as a companion, keeps him distracted and clinging on to survival. Along the way Pi battles with dehydration, heatstroke, blindness, sores and extreme hunger (goodbye vegetarianism). To avoid spoilers, I won’t tell you the ‘twist’ – but rest assured it’s interesting, and challenges you to select your own beliefs carefully.

The entire novel is beautifully written (as I would expect from a Booker winner), but I’ve read beautifully written books before that I wouldn’t necessarily give five stars. No, this one got the full whammy for one main reason – and that’s because I went through my hour-long commute through London with it, which involved walking to Clapham Common tube station, getting on the Northern line, changing on to another branch of the Northern line at Camden Town, and getting off at Finchley Central – but I was so absorbed in the book that I did the whole journey on auto-pilot. For that hour (and for the same hour home), I was fully convinced that I was on the Pacific Ocean in the company of a 16-year-old boy and a Bengal tiger, not at all in a stuffy underground tube in a crowded and polluted city. It’s such a simple feat that all books should aim for (and I’m sure the best do), but it was remarkable how long it had been since I’d felt that absorbed in something.

I’m not sure why my ex didn’t like it. I chatted briefly with him while I was reading and I think he was put off by the early, God-y pages – something I wasn’t so big on either – but he remarked not being that interested as the book went on, whereas I felt the opposite. I can only conclude that he wanted more from it, whereas I was satisfied with it as it was.

A quick look at Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning film, then.

life-of-pi

Renowned for being a visual feast, Lee created something of a CGI masterpiece with the film adaptation; it must have been difficult enough animating the tiger, let alone a blue whale hurtling through an iridescent ocean (pictured above). The plot is very similar to the book, with a couple of subplots shoehorned in, like a romance Pi experiences as a young boy. Other moments, including some of the more surreal scenes, were removed, which makes sense when it comes to magic realism, as I’m not sure how you can convey magic subtly without the benefit of a narrative voice guiding you through it.

The twist at the end, too, is a little more black and white. But I won’t say anything for fear of spoiling. So I’ll leave it there – as I mentioned, five stars from me. Certainly worth a read – and a watch.

[Coming next: Under the Skin by Michel Faber]

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Us – David Nicholls

us

David Nicholls is perhaps best known for soppy fiction (or at least, soppier than the style I normally read). A good writer he is, but with funny, rom-com novels like Starter for Ten and smash hit One Day under his belt, I don’t think he ever had any pretence of implying he’s an author of literary fiction. Out of the two books I mentioned there it’s worth pointing out that I hated the latter – hate is a strong word, perhaps, but the way the plot zooms into a pair of people one day a year is clever in principle, but madly frustrating in practice. The highly anticipated film adaptation turned out to be a bit of a disaster, too, although this may be explained by the director casting American beauty Anne Hathaway as the dowdy, Yorkshire-born Emma (Hathaway can master a fairly RP English accent, but even the best British actresses have trouble with the Yorkshire drawl – it’s hardly a surprise Hathaway disappointed).

With that in mind, when the Man Booker longlist was announced and Nicholls’s funny, marriage-focused Us was on it, critics were surprised. But the judges were firm – the book was highly deserving, in their opinion. Still, I never planned to read it. In fact, it came to me as a result of rather contrived circumstances – I had an hour to kill in Starbucks and I’d just finished a book. Terrified of spending an hour with nothing to pass the time, I realised it was 6.59pm and Waterstones closed at 7, so I rushed in in a panic and picked up the first book I came across (Us was strategically placed by the door). I remember lamenting it a bit at the time because the hardback is absolutely massive, but the literary snob inside me thought, hey, it made the Booker longlist, it’s got to be some cop.

Wow – sometimes it feels like things happen for a reason.

Us is one of my favourite novels that I read in 2015. Told in first person narration from a man named Douglas Peterson, the book opens when his wife, Connie, wakes him up and announces she wants to leave him. With their only son about to depart off to university, the plot then flips between the present day, when Douglas desperately organises and drags his despairing wife and reluctant son on a tour around all the major European cities, and the past, when Douglas (a relatively dull, intellectual biochemist) meets and slowly falls in love with Connie (an artistic free spirit), as well as the way their marriage and parenthood progress. Spoilers ahead.

It had the typical, easy writing style I was expecting, but the mundanity of everyday life juxtaposed with the vivid description of European landmarks (and some tight artistic observations) made it captivating. I particularly felt very emotionally invested in Douglas’s relationship with his son, Albie, a rebellious 18-year-old who is struggling to connect his creative aspirations with who he feels his father expects him to be (intellectual and straight-laced, to say the least). This is given a whole other poignant level when we as readers eventually find out he was struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality, too. Some of Douglas’s interactions with Albie made me cry quite openly, and Nicholls writes in such a real, hard-hitting way about the struggle of parenthood (and the tragic emotion surrounding ‘cot deaths’) that immediately after finishing I felt a desperate desire to call my dad and tell him how much I love him.

Reviews were favourable. The only thing I noticed is that the Telegraph picked up on the slight implausibility of the Connie/Douglas relationship – even though she seems set on leaving him after the trip ends, in all aspects she still seems very much in love with him. The plot rather cruelly highlights the idea that some people are meant to be together, and others simply get in the way – Connie reconnects with an old boyfriend after splitting with Douglas, and Douglas wonders if he was just a blip in her lifetime, standing in the way of her destined love. The Telegraph review mentions how difficult it is to understand her mentality of wanting to leave Douglas when she so seems so loving and emotionally close with him, and I agreed to an extent, but I wonder if it’s because I haven’t been married and might be a bit too emotionally immature to understand it properly. I can certainly relate to (and observe constantly) the way two people bond, a bond that transcends a break-up – it’s difficult to let go of the intimacy and seems almost unnatural to cut off the familiarity when you’re forced to ‘break up’ with a person so bluntly.

Goodreads review: five stars, of course. This is a book that will stay with me for a while, and one I’d recommend to anyone.

[Coming next: Hyperion by Dan Simmons]

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The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

satanic verses

The Satanic Verses is the first Rushdie novel I read (but it wasn’t the last) – I was drawn to it by my own curiosity about the ‘Rushdie affair’, the period during the late 1980s and 1990s when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a ‘fatwa’ on Salman Rushdie for writing it. For those unfamiliar with Islamic terms (like myself, until recently), this was essentially a plea for Muslims anywhere in the world to assassinate Rushdie and be richly rewarded for it. Despite the fact Rushdie lived in England at the time (and this is an astonishing violation of human rights in the UK), he was forced to go into hiding and undergo a severe regime of police protection for over a decade of his life. This was all I knew about it before I read it, so I assumed it was going to be pretty controversial – and I can’t turn away from a controversial book. Based on the general outcry I expected it to be pretty blasphemous, but I didn’t know how much, and the blurb confused me as it gave me the sense the novel was very much a work of fiction. But enough! I’ll go into all of that later in the review – let’s look at it on purely literary terms for a while. Be warned: this review contains spoilers.

I’ve always thought of Rushdie as a literary genius. He’s certainly a well-acclaimed writer, and his most famous novel Midnight’s Children not only won the Booker Prize the year it came out but was also voted ‘Booker of Bookers’ in 1993, meaning it was the best book to have won the Booker since the award’s inception (in the first 25 years), and again in the ‘Best of the Bookers’ competition in 2008, making it the best to win in the award’s first 40 years. A pretty astonishing achievement (and you know how obsessed I am with Booker winners). The Satanic Verses is his fourth novel (a few years after Midnight’s Children), and it was published during a high point of his life, when he was showered with literary acclaim.

It’s probably one of the most bizarre yet brilliant books I’ve ever read. Rushdie is renowned for his skill in writing magic realism, and indeed he intertwines fantasy and reality so well I was inclined to agree with Nadine Gordimer (one of my absolute favourite writers) and think of it as ‘a staggering achievement’. The book constantly changes up which character(s) we focus on but manages to completely avoid dragging; it has a quick pace and is compelling to the last page. The two protagonists are two Indian actors who fall to earth after a terrorist attack causes their plane to explode in mid-air. They land on an English beach (miraculously surviving) and become locked in a complicated battle of good vs evil – though you’re never sure which man is meant to represent good, and which evil.

It’s fairly obvious at first. The Bollywood movie star Gibreel Farishta lives up to his namesake and essentially becomes the archangel Gibreel (also known as Gabriel), appearing with a glowing halo around his head and visiting prophets from the past in his dreams (including ‘Mahound’, who is also recognisable under the name Muhammed) and causing those he meets to weep and worship him. Meanwhile, his adversary, Saladin Chamcha, metamorphoses into a goat-man, growing horns and becoming the physical embodiment of Satan (fortunately, only temporarily). He has a similar manipulative effect on those he meets, but of course, much less favourable. Almost instantly after they are found on the beach the two men become separated and quickly think of each other as enemies, despite being friends (or at least companions) during the terrorist attack.

Throughout the book, we are tensely waiting for them to be reunited. Even with the physical transformations the two men undergo, the lines are blurred. As a reader you’re meant to doubt Gibreel’s mind; at times he seems to become the angel but this occasionally proves to be part of his schizophrenia, and it is he in the end who you think of as the satanic character, morally, while Saladin Chamcha (who gets quite a hard time considering he’s the more likeable of the two) gets his redemption, even going back to his roots and becoming the good man.

The book is focused on immigration and the migrant’s place in a new world, something close, no doubt, to Rushdie’s heart. Both Gibreel and Saladin are men who have moved from India to England, Gibreel still with ties to his former country (though with an absent faith, having lost it during his first near-death experience), while Saladin has lived in England for a long time and has forced himself to adopt the English way of life as quickly as possible. He sees himself as the opposite of his Indian father, whom he detests – at least until the end of the novel, when he reconnects with him in a touching way that mirrors Rushdie’s own relationship with his father. Generally speaking the book seems to denote the problems of apostasy, which Gibreel suffers harder from and – spoiler alert – causes him to eventually commit suicide. With that overall message, I was surprised to see it being taken as a blasphemous work.

Yet it caused one of the most famous literary controversies in history.

rushdie affair

Rushdie published the novel in 1988, and it was met with both literary acclaim (it was shortlisted for the Booker) and general uproar from the Muslim community. In February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini put the fatwa on him, and Rushdie’s life was turned upside down. On the surface it seemed to be an issue of Islam vs the western world (or rather, the western way of thinking), and everyone on Rushdie’s side of the issue was similarly targeted: his publishers, editors, book-sellers, entire bookshops (some were bombed in Britain), journalists who defended him on the telly – anyone affiliated, essentially. Public book-burnings were hosted, with effigies of Rushdie as Satan being burnt down (pictured above); there’s quite a moving bit in Rushdie’s memoir when he explains having to try to explain the horrifying image to his son, who saw footage of the event on TV. I write this at a time when Islam vs free speech is a narrative that populates a lot of the media, too, what with the coverage ISIS is receiving, and some even described the Satanic Verses backlash as the ‘prologue’ to this kind of extremism. Rushdie was forced into hiding for nine years, with the British government deploying security teams to protect him. To this day the fatwa is still in place (now that Khomeini has died it cannot be lifted), and although some might say Rushdie’s life has considerably improved, supposedly every year on 14 February (the day the fatwa was issued) he receives what he describes as a Valentine’s card from Iran, reminding him of it. (NB: Believe it or not, I hadn’t realised the date when I published this blog post – happy, erm, anniversary, Salman.)

Yet the burning thought I had when I finished the book was: what’s the fuss about? It’s tricky to identify exactly what is offensive in the novel, for while there are derogatory comments made about Mahound and Islam, thay are spoken through the mouths of corrupt and dislikeable characters – the bad guys, essentially. I thought Islam was painted in a good light, but perhaps the Islamic world feared that such a high-profile writer going into such extensive detail for a western audience would exacerbate tension between the two ways of thinking. Rushdie believes he was more of a scapegoat, thrust into the drama as Khomeini needed to safe face after making political mistakes, and the book came along as the perfect distraction: something to unite the Islamic world in Khomeini’s favour. This I gleaned from Joseph Anton: A Memoir, Rushdie’s lengthy autobiography published in 2012 that describes the fallout and his own movements and protection following the fatwa, as well as the political situation of the country on the whole.

In the worst years Rushdie spent a lot of time hopping from house to house, desperately trying to remain undercover and protect his loved ones while retaining his dignity and standing up for what he believed in, thankfully aided by generous friends. Some of the houses he borrowed, some he rented, but either way it was impossible for him to live a normal life and painfully difficult to stay in touch with his loved ones, particularly his young son, which read as the most difficult compromise he had to make. Alongside that he struggled to keep his career as a writer and to get The Satanic Verses published in paperback, which he saw as essential to the cause. It’s difficult to think of him as the tough, dislikeable man the tabloids presented him as when he had such a large flock of friends ready to help him in his time of need, with some huge names across the literary world supporting him (I got a big fangirl-y reading the memoir). In his extraordinary circumstances he showed a huge amount of courage, coping with the backlash while standing by the universal right for free speech, and that comes across in spades throughout the memoir.

Back to the book, then: four stars from me. It’s not quite Midnight’s Children (we’ll get to that one later) but it’s possibly one of the best books I read in 2015, and an excellent introduction to who is now one of my favourite authors.

[Coming next: The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis]

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan-The Narrow Road To The Deep North cover

I read this at around Christmastime last year; it’s an Australian novel that won the 2014 Booker, so it was on the gift list, of course. Got to admit, I’d never heard of Flanagan before I read this. I have since attempted one of his earlier books, which was so overwritten I couldn’t stomach it. So how come The Narrow Road to the Deep North caused such a stir? I confess: I had a bit of a love / hate relationship with this one, particularly with the cheesy writing – it was only when I got to the end did I realise what a powerful impact it had had on me, and I noticed how bloody miserable I was to finish it.

The plot follows Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon who becomes a Prisoner of War on one of the infamous Burma death railways in 1943. The story is not told chronologically but instead opens on Dorrigo as an old man, reflecting on his life. There is a lot of detail about his experience in the POW camp, with flashbacks to Evans’s earlier life and romance with his uncle’s young wife. Flanagan supposedly based the war plot points on his own father’s experience as a Japanese POW and wrote the novel as a tribute to him, which added an element of authenticity to the very jarring scenes (unfortunately, Flanagan’s dad died before the book was published). It was these sections, in particular, that were intensely moving, powerfully written and evocative, and also what drew me to Dorrigo as a protagonist – probably one of the best I’ve come across (for reasons I can’t put my finger on).

It’s a shame, then, that we had to endure the dodgy romance running alongside it. Dorrigo’s affair with his uncle’s wife Amy was occasionally so overdone it made me cringe, reading like bad erotica; it’s probably no accident that it made it into the shortlist for the Bad Sex Awards 2014 (though, to be honest, to be shortlisted for both the Booker and the Bad Sex Awards for the same book is an achievement any author with half a sense of humour would be proud of). At times the romance WAS written well – particularly in the early days, when both Dorrigo and Amy are torn between paralysing sexual tension and the implications of acting on it – but as the plot continued, it got worse and worse. Thankfully, these questionable areas were compensated by the quality of the POW camp sections, which were often so absorbing it was hard to put the novel down.

I’m unsure what it was about Dorrigo Evans that made him such a captivating protagonist. I certainly didn’t connect with him at the beginning, when we see him struggling under the weight of being a revered war hero (a title he doesn’t think he deserves), and being unfaithful to his wife. He is a flawed protagonist, but as the book progresses, it’s hard to dispute how much he did for his fellow prisoners in their terrible circumstances, using a combination of highly refined surgical skills, courage, and, well, common decency. After emerging from the camp, Dorrigo seems to find more fulfilment in suffering and trauma, which is perhaps an inevitable post-war attitude. His significant relationship with Amy happened prior to his time in the Burma death railway, and it made me wonder if the relationship would have had as much meaning had he found her afterwards. Indeed, they do cross paths years later, but neither choose to speak to the other – too much has passed since their affiar. Dorrigo is by no means the exclusive focus of the novel; Flanagan inhabits the minds of everyone involved, from fellow prisoners to Japanese officers, exploring the mind and mentality behind each individual.

It’s probably fairly morbid of me but I connected to Dorrigo the most during the times when he was suffering. There was one powerful instance in the camp when he is ordered to confirm a certain number of men are fit for work (read: fit for exhausting labour) when, in fact, the majority of men can barely stand up. As he haggles with the numbers, he is forced to hold up an ill man whilst being repeatedly slapped in the face for downright insisting (with his Hippocratic Oath in mind, no doubt) that the men’s health be protected. He’s concentrating so hard on standing upright, on keeping his weight balanced, on holding the man while feeling the painful blows again and again – it’s a shocking scene, and it’s easy for the reader to very intensely connect with Dorrigo.

The plot contained the occasional twist or surprise, but generally the structure meant you were expecting most of what was to come, and in that way it became a little more painful, perhaps. By the end I was a little bit obsessed with it. I strongly recall that moment of finishing it – at my sister’s house, which must have been close to a year ago – and feeling a great sense of despair, which, despite my horrendously long reading list, is a feeling I don’t have very often.

So, on Goodreads, it got four stars. Not the full five, owing to the dodgy romance, but you can be sure this is one story that will stay with me for a while.

[Coming next: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood]

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Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake

If you’ve never heard of Margaret Atwood, you’re missing out. Perhaps most famous for her dystopian fertility horror story The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood has long since proved she’s got a grip on writing literary masterpieces – and futuristic, terrifying, dystopian worlds while we’re at it. If you come across lists of sci-fi novel recommendations, more often than not Oryx and Crake has pride of place – in fact, that’s probably how I heard of it in the first place. And, of course, the Waterstones shop worker told me she liked it. One day I’ll buy a book that one of those shop workers hasn’t read, but I’m still waiting for that day.

I knew Oryx and Crake was going to be good (shortlisted for the Booker AND Orange Prize, not bad), but going from the blurb, I was slightly worried it would be one of thsoe odd, experimental, sci-fi works that takes a while to get your teeth into. You tell me:

‘Pigs might not fly but they are strangely altered. So, for that matter, are wolves and raccoons. A man, once called Jimmy, lives in a tree, wrapped in old bedsheets, now calls himself Snowman. The voice of Oryx, the woman he loved, teasingly haunts him. And the green-eyed Children of Crake are, for some reason, his responsibility.’

Yeah, sounds pretty straightforward.

Thankfully, it was. The story was fairly clear from the start, bar the first chapter, which plunges you straight into ‘Snowman’s’ life – he’s recognisable to us, but his fellow humans seem to view him as something of a commodity, which was intriguing. The story is told through a mix of current events (so to speak) and flashbacks to Snowman’s (aka Jimmy’s) life, bringing the events to present day.

Jimmy’s the best protagonist I’ve read in a while. You despise him, love him, and, overall, pity him, all the way through his emotionally-starved childhood to the harrowing current events that unfold around him. It’s hard to tell how old he is when the book opens, but based on his life experiences I’d hazard a guess that he’s in his mid to late twenties. This is a spoilery review, but it’s a spoilery book (as are most books that open at the end).

The plot focuses on a world where gene experimentation is a common aspect of a futuristic, dystopian society, and one man – Crake – is left to run wild with his ideas. Jimmy grows up in an environment where animals are spliced together for human experimentation and, essentially, for fun. Crake (real name Glenn), his boyhood friend who matures into a genius, becomes so wrapped up in this that he eventually manufactures a new type of human – these, then, are the only ‘people’ left in the new world, who Jimmy refers to as the Crakers, or Children of Crake. The book is a Bildungsroman for Jimmy (and Crake, to a lesser extent), as we watch him grow into a world where commercialism is everything, women are prey to common and uncontrolled pornographic exploitation, and biological experimentation has been taken to the extreme. Of course, things don’t exactly improve when a plague wipes out civilisation.

You can probably guess who created the plague to (presumably) allow his self-created humans to thrive: Crake. Why he made Jimmy immune to the disease is unclear; he never properly explains it to his best friend, but his final lines to him – ‘I’m counting on you’ – seem to suggest he trusts Jimmy above everyone else to rebuild civilisation from the roots up. But why not himself? That, I hope, is something that may become clearer in the sequels. Is Crake a psychopath? It takes a certain amount of manic self-belief to believe you have the power to wipe out society and reconstruct it based on what you deem effective, and Crake shows little emotion about it (or about anything) throughout the novel. That said, the world he lives in is unpleasant. Even beyond the state interference, we are given hints as to exactly what the Earth has become. Global warming has left a huge proportion of the land underwater, and the weather seems overly freakish compared to now (there is a storm every afternoon, for example). If this is the catalyst for Crake’s Godlike plan, it’s disturbingly easy to see the logic behind it.

Considering Jimmy and Crake don’t spend that much time together after they leave high school (at least, until Jimmy goes to work for Crake), they have a remarkably captivating friendship. It’s helped, I suppose, by that uncertainty over whether or not they actually care for one another or rather are bonded by a sense of competition. This is heightened when Oryx comes into the equation; initially spotted as a child on a pornography website when the two of them were teenagers, they both develop lifelong obsessions with her until she makes an appearance in real life as Crake’s girlfriend (of a sort) and seduces Jimmy. It isn’t clear whether or not this was set up by Crake but Jimmy quickly falls in love and is desperate to prevent Crake from finding out. Of course, it’s suggested that he’s known all along (and it is part of his plan). Crake meets his own end by slitting Oryx’s throat in front of a gun-wielding Jimmy – it’s hard to believe he didn’t know what would happen as a result of that.

Oryx is not so interesting. She’s fairly non-descript in the book, and although we get a sense of her upbringing, we get no emotional depth from her; she seems virtually indifferent to what happened to her in her past. It was almost as if she didn’t need to be a fully fleshed out character but was simply there to be an object for both of the men to project their own, emotionally-stunted versions of love on to her. When a female writer writes these male-fantasy type women into novels I’m always surprised, but in this case I didn’t care too much. From what I know Atwood will focus on much more real and three-dimensional women in the sequel, so I’m looking forward to that.

Speaking of … the book is kicking off a trilogy. Oryx and Crake ends on a cliffhanger, but from what I’ve heard the next book doesn’t continue this plot but instead flashes back in time and looks at the same set of events through different characters’ eyes. This suggests that the controlled, dystopian world isn’t entirely left behind, which is intriguing – there are a few loose ends to be tied up (what happened to Jimmy’s mother, for example). I can’t wait.

This gets the full five stars from me; I could hardly put it down. Bring on The Year of the Flood.

[Coming next: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin]

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We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo

68.Noviolet-Bulawayo-We-Need-New-Names

I first heard of this book at Hay Festival in 2013. As you might remember from my other Hay blog posts, the festival puts on regular talks called ‘Fictions’, where one or two authors are probed about the latest novels they are promoting. NoViolet Bulawayo was in front of a tiny audience (with Meike Ziervogel promoting Magda) talking about We Need New Names; the book sounded vaguely interesting at the time, but I didn’t really consider picking it up. Then, a few months later, the book – her debut novel – was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Up against the mammoth contender The Luminaries it’s not overly surprising she didn’t scrape the top spot, but to be shortlisted is a pretty respectable start to a literary career, it’s got to be said. It wasn’t until last year that I had a chance to read it – no spoilers below.

The book follows 10-year-old Darling, a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe before being taken to the USA and spending her teenage years stateside. There’s no doubt an autobiographical element to that; Bulawayo also grew up in Zimbabwe, though she didn’t move to Michigan until she was a litte bit older. The novel is told in the voice of Darling, written in a simplistic style that’s easy to read – I raced through it in a matter of days – which is something particularly characteristic of African fiction written in English. In fact, certain sections reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (and the phrase ‘things fall apart’ was often used to describe the deteriorating state of Zimbabwe in WNNN).

At their Hay talk, Bulawayo and Ziervogel talked about writing about history from a fictional standpoint. In literature, you have to forget about facts and statistics, and instead submerge yourself into the story. Bulawayo said that writing about a crumbling society through the eyes of a child is powerful, as often children are the most vulnerable due to their ignorance and lack of control over what is happening around them. A child’s eye depoliticises a situation, meaning that the writer (and reader) must suspend their disbelief and look at the scenario through innocent eyes (even if they themselves have a lot of knowledge about it). It’s an effective technique but, personally, I’m not totally in love with it. It’s all right when you’re already familiar with a situation, but as an outsider with little or no knowledge it’s tricky to follow current affairs through the perspective of a child, considering children often have a warped understanding of what is happening or are simply uninterested in it. If I had done more research, maybe I wouldn’t feel that way about We Need New Names.

But then does that take away the point? There’s a poignant part in WNNN when the children take a local tragedy and turn it into a game, re-enacting it like a play. Darling’s voice becomes very adult at that point and we are subject to an astute description of the attackers, the victim, and the stoic faces watching the violence unfold with the knowledge that they are powerless to prevent it. When a BBC crew asks the children what game they are playing, one of her friends replies with (paraphrasing): ‘a game? No, this is real life.’ Seeing innocent children accept horrific violence as part of their normality is disturbing, to say the least.

My only criticism of the book is that it feels slightly rushed. It’s not very long, and if each character, very vivid in their own right, was given their due attention, it might feel a little more fleshed out. By the time the book ends we have only seen a brief glimpse into Darling’s life in America – I would have liked to have seen more of it, more of the trials and tribulations she faced there, as well as the generally confusing experience of growing up and going through puberty. Another thing that misled me was the timescale. When Darling was 10 and living a poverty-stricken life in Zimbabwe, her friends were talking about singing Lady Gaga, indicating that at that point in time, Gaga must have been fairly famous (to reach impoverished children in Zimbabwe, at least). However, a fair few years later (maybe 4 years?) when Darling is in America, she mentions a very recent scandal – when Rihanna was beaten up by her boyfriend Chris Brown. Lady Gaga released Just Dance (and began her climb to fame) in 2008, yet Rihanna was attacked by Chris Brown in 2009. Sure, it’s pedantic of me to point out, but given that there were very limited hints as to when the book was set, I relied on these cultural references to give it a framework. It felt a little jumbled.

Bulawayo mentioned at Hay that she was working on a collection of AIDS stories, again addressing a silence and taboo with a creative voice, on another subject that is personal to her. AIDS is touched on in WNNN, with it being described as ‘the sickness’ and presented as a real epidemic. I’m looking forward to seeing her approach to building stories around it, whenever it may appear.

Goodreads, then: four stars. It was written so well but the abruptness of the ending took it down a notch. I should be on the Booker committee at this rate.

[Coming next: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel]

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Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

BUTB

I didn’t intend to read Bring Up the Bodies directly after finishing Wolf Hall, but I felt such a sense of withdrawal once Wolf Hall was over that I couldn’t help but turn to its fellow Booker-winning sequel. I forced myself to focus on finishing the latest draft of my own book first, with the reward of BUTB once it was done, but I got about halfway in before losing my head and trawling through various Waterstones around London to find Cromwell Part 2. Hey, it’s hard to write when you’re not reading anything. As I said on Twitter, trying to write a book when you’re not reading is like trying to run a marathon without drinking any water. Again, this review is spoiler-y but it’s a story that everyone knows, anyway, and it certainly shouldn’t stop you from reading it.

First of all – what a cool name for a book. It’s a shame the upcoming Cromwell Part 3 has the really naff title ‘The Mirror and the Light’, because there is something supremely awesome about an epic historical novel called ‘Bring Up the Bodies’. The term itself is used near the end of the book as an instruction to bring Anne Boleyn’s accused lovers from custody to be put on trial, yet the word ‘bodies’ instead of ‘men’, ‘accused’ or anything else is harsh and dehumanising. Something about the phrase seems support the bloodlust of the period; you don’t get the sense that these ‘bodies’ will have a fair trial when the gallows are waiting, nor do you feel they’ve had a particularly good run of things so far. Is Cromwell to blame? Very much so. Throughout the novel he is the man bringing up the bodies, finding those who are guilty or can at least be coerced into false confessions to support the king’s interests.

1536 was a big year for Cromwell, politically. After working and striving to rid King Henry VIII of Catherine of Aragon and bringing Anne Boleyn to the throne (seen throughout Wolf Hall), he now has to bin her, as well, while the king falls in love with Jane Seymour and Anne continually fails to produce a male heir. Catherine of Aragon dies fairly early on, but if her death was to result in the clear path Anne Boleyn was expecting, she is sorely disappointed. After she has a miscarriage, Cromwell, in service to the king, has to do all he can to justify an annulment.

Mantel’s Cromwell is still as endearing as ever but the darker edge to his personality that is popularised so often in other historical fiction begins to bleed into his calm demeanour throughout Bring Up the Bodies. His support and affection for Anne has slid away and now, as always, it’s the king he serves completely. He abandons his own gut instincts about Anne’s treatment and the actual crimes committed (if any) and knits together a reason to give Henry the legal right to divorce and execute Anne, as well as some of her spurned lovers. Although he is motivated by loyalty, there is an element of personal revenge to his actions. Still stung by Wolsey’s execution years ago, Cromwell incriminates four men who stood by and later made a mockery of the Cardinal’s demise – and that mockery is very much at the forefront of his mind as he persuades them to confess to sleeping with the queen and plotting the king’s death.

Of course, ‘persuasion’ is a light term – with one man, the musician Mark Smeaton, it’s clear he was tortured at Cromwell’s house, Austin Friars. The description is vague but it’s implied that he suffered at the hands of the Christmas decorations that Cromwell used to enjoy with his family (when they were still alive) – as torture is not permitted, Cromwell later reflects that he’ll have to burn the peacock feathers that were originally used for his daughter Grace’s angel outfit. Given that Austin Friars has always been a happy and vibrant home, it’s quite a shock to see this dark edge to it, the same way it’s shocking to see the edge to Cromwell’s personality that is so often hinted at but seldom explicitly revealed. The use of the Christmas decorations is particularly poignant – Cromwell is using elements of his personal life, ones associated with his own kindness and humanity, to inflict pain on to others. Indeed, he ponders at one point whether the memory of his daughters is slipping away from him, and that without it he’s become a completely different man.

Arguably every one of Mantel’s readers would know the fate of Anne Boleyn, but this doesn’t detract from the masterful sense of fright and tension in the run up to her execution. Even with history behind us, you still read it expecting there to be a catch, an escape, a moment when everything will halt and the queen will be let off the hook. It’s a tragic end for Anne and it unwillingly foreshadows the eventual end of Cromwell, revealing in a stark light what it’s like to be on the wrong side of Henry VIII. Yet another reason to be morbidly excited for The Mirror and the Light.

Was Bring Up the Bodies better or worse than Wolf Hall? I hate to make comparisons, but in a trilogy there can sometimes be a great difference of quality between one or two instalments. Considering Wolf Hall was such a success I’m sure critics were watching to see if Mantel could replicate it, but Bring Up the Bodies certainly stands on its own feet, giving Mantel her second Booker prize in three years. It doesn’t have the same sprawling story as Wolf Hall, which covered many years; in comparison, BUTB only covered a matter of months, with the single, encompassing plotline being one that revolves around the downfall of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s agency in it. It was an easier read – probably for that very reason. Mantel still had her trademark style but the writing was a little tighter, with some specification of the pronoun ‘he’ – you’ll remember in my review of Wolf Hall that I mentioned how carefully you had to concentrate to remember that ‘he’ generally always referred to Cromwell. It seems Mantel’s editors might have flagged that up with her – now you’ll spy the occasional ‘he said: he, Cromwell’. The style is still flawless, however. Critics have deemed Mantel one of our best working writers today, and even when I haven’t read much of her work (I’ve got a lot of reading ahead of me, including her brand new volume of short stories), it’s hard to disagree.

As I mentioned in my earlier review, BBC 2 continues to air its adaptation of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, while I expect the RSC are still strutting around Broadway with their famous plays. Those lucky New Yorkers.

First_look_at_Mark_Rylance_as_Thomas_Cromwell_in_new_pictures_for_Wolf_Hall

At the time of writing this blog post, the BBC drama hasn’t yet reached the Bring Up the Bodies plot, and is still focusing on Wolf Hall. It’s difficult to predict how it will play out. Rylance is not quite the Cromwell I expected from the book – he has a kind of timidity and warmth in his small frame and likeable face that suits the affectionate encounters with his family, but doesn’t sit right in court, somehow. But, at this point in the TV drama, he is only just edging his way in. I look forward to seeing what will happen once he begins his villainous campaign to bring down Anne, and at the end of the last episode (Episode 2; Episode 3 is on this evening), it’s made very clear that revenge is in the forefront of his mind. Can’t wait to see more.

If Parts 1 and 2 are anything to go by then Cromwell Part 3 is going to be fantastic. It looks as if it’ll chronicle the last four years of Cromwell’s life, his mistakes and his downfall, with a meaty political plot running alongside it. After two novels I’ve built up quite an attachment to Cromwell so it will be heartbreaking to see his disgraced end – although who knows how his character may change over the course of the book. Presumably it will also include details of the rise of Cromwell’s beloved son, who marries, fathers children and becomes a very respectable gent from 1537 onwards (all of which is considered to be a credit to his father). That will be a great element of sweetness to the otherwise unpleasant plot – I’ve built up an attachment to Gregory, too. Will Part 3 scoop the Booker as well? Time will tell! I feel sorry for any writers up against Mantel once again (if indeed, it makes the shortlist – although it’s hard to imagine it not doing so).

So – another five-star rating from me on Goodreads. As all good historical fiction should do, it inspired me to delve back into history – not long ago I finished Simon Jenkins’s A Short History of England, which I thoroughly recommend – so there can be no higher praise than that.

[Coming next: Money by Martin Amis]

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Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

Hilary-Mantel-Wolf-Hall

Oh crikey, I need to read more Booker winners.

I’m not an historian, nor was I ever particularly good at History at school. My memory of learning about Henry VIII et al. was when I was 12 and we learnt a bit about his reign; I also remember a little rhyme I learnt at primary school:

Henry the Eighth, he had six wives
All of them lived in fear of their lives
Two were beheaded and one of them died
Two were divorced and one survived!

That’s about it. Really intelligent stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Of course, I know who Thomas Cromwell is, as an historical figure. I have no doubt that I probably studied him in depth at some point during my school years but before reading Wolf Hall I couldn’t remember much about his life and career. I know he’s generally villainised in popular culture, and some of the reviews of Wolf Hall that I heard before reading the book praised Mantel’s portrayal of the man as someone who is a little more well-rounded and fleshed out than your average two-dimensional scoundrel. I particularly enjoyed a soundbite from Rachel Cooke from the Observer who was so unsettled by this depiction that she was led to remark: ‘I have my suspicions that Hilary Mantel actually is Thomas Cromwell’.

Wolf Hall, the first of a trilogy about Cromwell’s life, won the Man Booker prize in 2009; the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, scooped the prize in 2012 – making Mantel the first woman to win the award twice and perhaps the first sequel to win when its predecessor also won, but I’d have to fact-check that before making any bold claims. The final instalment The Mirror and the Light is due this year, and whether that will give Mantel a Booker hat-trick remains to be seen. It seems absurd to talk about winning the Booker three times in a row as if it’s comparable to potting a ball of paper in a wastepaper basket; I mean, this is the sodding BOOKER, arguably THE most prestigious literary prize in the world. It’s no easy task to win it once, let alone twice. Of course she’ll face stiff competition this year now that they’ve opened the doors to American writers, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it. Either way, I knew this book was going to be brilliant. With that reputation hovering behind it, how could it not be?

Hard to know if I’m giving you spoilers here as you probably learnt it all at school, but I’ll give you the gist. Wolf Hall follows Cromwell from around 1500 – 1530, with a brief opening chapter about his life as a teenager before it skips forward to his life at Austin Friars in 1527, married and with children, and in service to the Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Very little is known about Cromwell’s early life and this is echoed in the book; he reminisces occasionally about his past and his escape abroad from a violent father but he doesn’t know his own birth date, nor is he completely sure of his age. Fairly early on we see the downfall of the Cardinal who wouldn’t agree with annulling Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Queen Katherine, as she is referred to in the book) so he could marry Anne Boleyn – Mantel seems to be relying on her readers’ own historical knowledge here, as the reason for his downfall is never explicitly stated in the book. From then on we see the ‘rise and rise’ of Thomas Cromwell, who did indeed rise above the potentially damaging association with the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey and, using his wit and political know-how, became the king’s right hand man.

Mantel paints a vivid picture of 16th Century England – or rather, a decent picture through the eyes of someone who lives in it and hasn’t seen it any other way. That is a triumph; there is no modern hand hovering over this novel, nor is there any sense of hindsight, which helps keep the reader absorbed in the characters’ immediate stories. I’m no real judge myself but critics have praised Mantel’s dedication to historical accuracy, particularly with such a huge cast of characters – so big that it requires its own list at the beginning of the book that takes up pages and pages, which I had to refer back to continually while I read. Of course, there are certain elements that seem ridiculous to the 21st Century eye. One of the main being the sexual politics at play, and how much worth a woman’s virginity has, even to someone as high up the social ladder as the king. The entire political tension revolves around the idea that Queen Katherine MIGHT not have been a virgin when they wed, and Anne Boleyn definitely is (though you’re never sure). There is, of course, an obscene amount of pressure placed on Henry’s wife – whoever she is at the time – to produce a son, and therefore an heir, for him. Knowing as we do that Henry had no legitimate sons that lived to reach adulthood, it’s particularly wince-inducing to see him despair over and over again.

The sexual politics may seem old fashioned but, echoing the words of another Observer reviewer (‘[the book is] a dark mirror held up to our own world’), they aren’t entirely out of place to a modern reader. At one point, Mary Shelton comments to Cromwell that when a woman produces a son, the man takes the praise, but when she fails or it is evident that one of the party is infertile, it is the woman’s fault. This kind of one-sided parenthood still rings hollow in the modern age, with all kinds of pressure placed on women as mothers, whether it’s raising a child as a single parent when the parents have split or having to deal with the stigma and consequences of abortion. All of this because of the simple biological fact that the baby happens to grow inside the woman, not the man. We’ve moved on from the Tudor times but we’re not out of the woods yet.

Despite the sheer amount of characters (I counted the list – there are 96), the characterisation is strong. Obviously we get the best picture of Cromwell, who is an incredible literary protagonist simply because of the amount of depth he has. My copy of Wolf Hall included an interesting interview with Mantel at the back, in which she said she chose to focus on Cromwell because of pure curiosity as to how a blacksmith’s son could rise up to such prestige, and also from a letter he’d penned that revealed he had a strong sense of humour. She mentions that biographers don’t touch on his personal life at all, and while he can be seen as something of a wolf in court, letters from the time suggest his household was pleasant and his children had happy upbringings. One of the most poignant parts of the book is when Cromwell has his famous painting done, which you can find easily on Google but I’ve included it here:

Cromwell,Thomas(1EEssex)01

What impression do we get from the man in this image? Cold, regal, unemotive, perhaps. But Mantel’s fictional Cromwell doesn’t see himself like that – in fact, he is taken aback by the painting, as are his family and loved ones. I feel these quotes from two of the members of his household sum it up well:

‘”I don’t think you look like that,” Helen Barre says. “I see that your features are true enough. But that is not the expression on your face.”
Rafe says, “No, Helen, he saves it for men.”‘

I have to constantly remind myself that throughout the novel, this isn’t really Cromwell speaking, that this is just a fictional version – for all I know the painting might have been a faithful representation of his face and character – but it does make a fair point about how much emphasis we place on portraiture from certain periods when we have little else to go on. We make our own assumptions of character based on a person’s image, but we forget how staged the whole process is. Mantel details a little bit about the procedure: how Cromwell was asked to sit, what he should be holding, how he should place his hands, his clothes. For royalty, this is even more of an orchestrated process. How much about a person’s real personality can we glean from these images?

The other characters are similarly complex; you don’t get the sense that there is one wholly good or one wholly bad person in it. Henry VIII is particularly fascinating, portrayed as almost childlike and flaky with his own emotions and decisions – a familiar sight to historians, I’m sure, but it was far from the grand figure I expected him to be (based on, well, his portraiture). In other ways, he is exactly the kind of character you WOULD expect, what with the way he moved through wives and his own mood swings (though Mantel attributed those partly to the numerous health conditions he suffered with). Anne Boleyn is also an interesting character, portrayed as fairly cunning and unsympathetic but, by the end and particularly when her long-awaited son turns out to be a daughter, as much a victim of the oppressive monarchy as Henry is. Keep track of the characters if you can, as Mantel’s style means 9 times out of 10 when you see the word ‘he’, the pronoun is referring to Cromwell – even if it follows on directly from the mention of another male character. It takes a little getting used to but it’s another individual facet to Mantel’s style that makes it so enjoyable, and increases the overall suspicion that Cromwell is actually narrating the story, referring to himself in third person.

This was a few years post-Wolf Hall (closer to Bring Up the Bodies, I think) but it seems prudent to highlight that Mantel herself was villainised to the general public when she wrote a perceptive essay about Kate Middleton and her place in the modern monarchy. Kate is the nation’s darling, as beloved as Diana was, although seemingly having a much better time with the royal family than her would-be mother-in-law did. Mantel said that modern expectations of Kate only require her to exist and look pretty, making sure to keep any personality or quirk under the rug. This wasn’t an attack on Kate herself as it was an attack on the system and the media – it’s a fascinating essay, you can read it here – but the press turned on Mantel and even David Cameron said her comments were unjust. The problem is, I suppose, is that there’s an unspoken agreement to adore and never criticise or question our royal family. We assume from a few smiles and snatched whispers that Kate and William have simply the perfect relationship; that Kate is flawless, and that no doubt Prince George will grow up and fit right into the cookie-cutter mould he needs to be the future monarch. Things are slowly moving on from the stiff, traditional monarchy – George is the first heir who would succeed to the throne regardless of whether he was born male or female, for example – but if you dare to imply that Kate is having to hide her personality from the media (which of COURSE she is, come on now) you’re the enemy. At any rate, I saw Mantel’s comments in a new light once I’d read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies and observed the kind of measures the Boleyns would resort to in order to have access to the throne. Could that irresistible Tudor power be comparable to anything our modern royal family has? Definitely not. Although, for what it’s worth, I’m not sure I agree with Mantel entirely. She might have implied that Kate is as much a victim to her public image as Marie Antoinette was, but you can bet Antoinette didn’t have Hello magazine and the obsessive celebrity culture of the 21st century stalking her footsteps.

The Royal Shakespeare Company created two plays based on Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies which I hear they often stage back-to-back – a hefty experience for all involved, but no doubt a fantastic one. I was desperate to snag tickets, but they were just too expensive, which is a real shame. My friend Misha’s mum saw the Wolf Hall play with a hardcore theatre buddy who came out remarking that it was a perfect play: perfectly cast, perfectly staged, perfectly acted, and so on. They’ve now taken the productions to Broadway. On the small screen, the BBC created a six-part TV adaptation of the two books, with the first episode airing on Wednesday night. It’s got a pretty amazing cast – Mark Rylance takes the lead as Thomas Cromwell, with Damian Lewis as Henry VIII (yes!), Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, and Jonathan Pryce as Thomas Wolsey. I suspect they’ll carry it on once The Mirror and the Light is published, but we’ll have to wait and see. Spoilers below.

wolf hall 1

Like the early pages of the book, I thought the first episode of Wolf Hall was particularly confusing – I have no idea how those who hadn’t read the book were able to keep track of the plot and immense cast of characters, or even appreciate the finer touches in the script. For example: there’s a scene where Cromwell looks over his dead wife Liz and is told she spoke on her deathbed about a time she held a snake in Italy. As Cromwell is told about this, his eyes widen, as readers will know that that was his own anecdote to tell, not Liz’s – but beyond that brief flicker on his face, it is never mentioned again. Generally speaking, the critics adored it, with some calling it ‘close to perfect television’, and Mantel herself, who wasn’t involved in the drama (unlike the RSC play, which she oversaw), supposedly gave it the thumbs up. Good enough for me!

So, Goodreads! Five stars. I won’t say this was the best book I read in 2014 because I remember The Luminaries only too fondly, but it’s in the top three. Now to sink my teeth into Bring Up the Bodies

[Coming next: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel]

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