Tag Archives: Man Booker Winner

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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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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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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The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries

The Luminaries is probably the most recently-published book I’ve read so far (2013) and it really came into my consciousness when it was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize – arguably THE most important literary award in the UK, Commonwealth, and Ireland. If a book’s shortlisted for that, you know it’s going to be a good’un. Catton was hotly-tipped to win by the bookies, and her win would break two Booker records: at 832 pages, it would be the longest novel to ever scoop the prize, and at 28, Catton would be the youngest ever winner. Given the furore surrounding the novel, it was unsurprising, then, that the vast Luminaries emerged from the impressive and diverse shortlist as the winner.

With that in mind, The Luminaries was at the top of my Christmas list – and Tez (my dear dad) didn’t disappoint. I began reading the book on Christmas day and was hooked from the start, finishing it in early January. Despite my initial reservations, it ended up being one of the best books I’ve read in years – and I can’t help but compare every book I’ve read since to its elegant prose and storytelling. I’ll mention now that this review doesn’t contain any spoilers (the plot is so tightly woven it would take me a while to give you any), so read on if you fancy giving it a go.

The Luminaries, set amidst the gold rush of New Zealand in the 1860s, opens with a Scottish man accidentally interrupting a private meeting of twelve different men in the lounge room of a hotel. The men have gathered to discuss three suspicious events that took place two weeks ago; a drunk hermit was found dead in his home, a prostitute tried to take her life, and a wealthy man completely vanished. As the meeting (and the novel) progresses, we learn about each of the twelve men and what story they have that connects them together in the mystery, ultimately revealing important information that explains what happened on that fateful night.

A twist to the entire premise is that Catton, a budding astrologer, charted the positions of the stars and constellations on these particular dates and wraps the story around what was happening in the sky. Certain characters represent certain star signs and others represent planets, so when a certain planet moved into a star sign, the two associating characters have some significant relationship or development with one another. At the beginning of the novel we are given a character chart and each section of the book is preluded with a map of the positions, detailing which planets were in which star signs at the time. I initially didn’t follow this too closely as I’m fairly clueless about astrology, and not knowing doesn’t affect the storyline at all, but I think if I was to go back and reread I’d love to pay closer attention to that structural decision.

Catton mimics a Victorian writing style throughout the novel, which initially felt a bit pretentious and difficult to read, but I soon fell in love with it. She has said in interviews that one thing she’s fed up of discussing is her age and her gender, but when you read the novel you can’t help but feel where the critics’ surprise is coming from – it just doesn’t seem like it was written like a 28-year-old woman. It might be the Victorian style she adopted, but something about the prose and the characters feels as if the omniscient narrator and author of the novel is an older man. I should mention that I don’t mean that in the stereotypical sense (e.g. women write about kittens and fairies while men write about serious topics – as a young, female, feminist writer, that couldn’t be further from the truth) but I did study the subtle, fine details between men and women’s writing during my degree and some books do feel more male-written or female-written than others, for reasons I can never put my thumb on.

I suppose I do have a small issue with how the women were portrayed in the novel, which might be influencing why I think it doesn’t feel like a woman wrote it. There are only two of them among a principal cast of around fifteen or so men, and both of them are fairly cliché – the victimised ‘whore’ who is beloved by almost everyone (I hesitate to use the term ‘Mary Sue’ but it gives you the idea), and the buxom, red-haired temptress who plots and brings men to their knees. I don’t know if this was a purposeful decision styled in the vein of literature from the period or if it was done subconsciously, but both women feel under-developed in contrast to the other characters, and you get the sense that without their physical beauty they would be fairly unremarkable – something you can’t say for most of the men. But that’s really a minor point, compared to the overall effect of the novel, which is amazingly readable considering its length.

The Luminaries doesn’t have a film or television adaptation yet, but Catton has supposedly sold the rights to HBO so we’re bound to expect a series within the next few years. It’s well-suited to television due to its complex cast and each character having a different story to tell – I can see entire episodes focusing on one or two characters, the next episode focusing on another two, and so on, particularly as much of the novel takes place on the same day (and the dates are very significant). If it’s done well it should be a very entertaining show, though I’m not sure how they could prolong it out over more than one season. Catton said in an interview that when she was writing it, she had a cast of actors that she would refer to pictures of for inspiration (including James McAvoy, Richard E. Grant, and Mark Williams) so presumably that would be the dream cast. Even though the characters in the novel have different origins (Scottish, English, French, and Australian, to name a few) I noticed that she was mainly indicating British actors, and to be honest I’m not sure if New Zealand has a flourishing television industry, so I’ll be interested to see what the nationality and the accents of the cast are.

So, Goodreads review: another five stars from me. I promise I am actually a bit more discerning with a lot of the books I read, but most of the ones I’ve blogged about so far have been fantastic and fully deserving of the five stars. Thank the lord for good books!

[Coming next: Stoner by John Williams]

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