Category Archives: The Man Booker Prize

Books, books, books again

Actually, although I was fully immersed in the big screen experience I was also reading lots of books between films.

hm-returnOn the publication of his memoir, The Return, by Hisham Matar, I returned to his previous books on my shelves, two novels – In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance. I am not entirely sure whether it is appropriate to describe writing like this as lyrical, but I am going to chance it.

Hisham Matar has been an exile from his own country, Libya, since he was a small boy. Born in New York during a period when his father was in favour, he lived for a short while in Libya and then fled with all his close family to Egypt, leaving cousins and uncles behind at the mercy of the Qaddafi regime.

When he was still a young boy, his father was abducted from Egypt with the connivance of the authorities and taken to Libya and incarcerated in the dreaded, notorious prison Abu Salim. In this dreadful place were also his brothers and some of his nephews. The only way that they knew that he was there was that night after night he recited from memory reams of beautiful poems.

In fact, many people that Hisham Matar later interviewed in his endless search for what had happened to his father mentioned this nightly, comforting and exquisite recital.

At some point, though there is no proof of date or time or where, Jaballa Matar vanished.

The Return is about the search for information, and also about the moment when Qaddafi fell and the family: Hisham, his mother and his brother Ziad, returned to Libya; about the release of the remaining members of his family from Abu Salim and about the search for answers.

So why describe this writing as lyrical? The descriptions of the sea, the light, the sky in Libya are sublime, it is poetic and also the language of the exile. Lyrical, too, are the passages about meetings with family, many of whom had not seen Hisham since he was a small boy, shared meals and companionship in different houses.  Again it is the scents, the light and the sense of realignment which seem to me to be covered by this term.

Clearly, the same cannot be said for the terrible description of the hardship and privation that was the experience of the prisoners in Qaddafi’s network of hidden prisons and torture chambers; but an equal level of descriptive power lies there however horrific. Overriding all the books is a plangent tone of loss, of uncertainty, of fear.


In the first novel, In the Country of Men, a nine year old boy lives in a family situation of secrets. His mother’s secret (since alcohol is forbidden) is that she is a drunk; his own interpretation is that she is ill, but to the practised ear it is clear what this illness is; his father, an importer of European goods, also has a secret. He is not always abroad when he says he is, which untruth Suleiman discovers one day while waiting for his mother by a plinth, he sees his father cross the square and enter a narrow house; but later on the same day, his father telephones home, and on being asked where he is, he says that he is abroad.

Suleiman also witnesses his neighbour being hurriedly bundled into a car, whereupon his friendship with the boy next door cools suddenly. Such is the nature of childhood loyalty – go with the flow; and this need to be helpful, liked and favoured leads Suleiman into a morass of duplicity and eventually betrayal.

This book came out in 2006 and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It is a deeply affecting and devastating novel, a story of love and betrayal, innocence and intrigue and it came out before it was widely known how very close the author was to the horrors unfolding in his home country.

By the time Hisham Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, was published in 2011 more information about his own life had appeared in the national press.

Nuri loses his mother at a very young age; the effect of this loss is spread-eagled over the whole novel. Nuri meets a young woman, Mona on the Alexandrian coast while on holiday and experiences his first feelings of love, imagine the emotional impact then when his father also falls in love with Mona and marries

His emotional turmoil turns in on himself though, because although he profoundly wishes for his father to get out of the way, when he does vanish one night in Switzerland he and his stepmother grow closer, and in their attempts to discover the truth they uncover a wealth of detail which makes them both wonder whether it is ever possible to know anyone, even someone as close as a father and husband.

This is a marvellously constructed novel, travelling through a trajectory of youth to manhood; of animosity to affection and at the same time having a slow reveal that is as surprising as it is affecting. It is hard to stop reading this book.

In all these books the sense of impending doom, the overwhelming sense of mystery and loss, of unfathomable mystery seem from the point of view of the young is presented in beautiful, spare, lucid prose. I am not sure at all in what order they should be read, but if all of them are on the TBR pile, I would start with The Return.

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Man Booker Prize 2016 – Shortlist

Well I never! (Or bien je jamais – as my mother-in-law used to say). How do you put Coetzee on a long-list and then leave him languishing? Well, the judges have done just that; so here is the list:

MacraeGraeme Macrae Burnett – His Bloody Project: this I opined was part of the gore-fest that made up so many of the long-listed titles. While excellently capturing the horror of this random deed rather in the way of Truman Capote‘s – In Cold Blood, it did not really seem to me to be a winner.

LevyDeborah Levy – Hot Milk: This one belonged in the mother-daughter section of the long-list, of which there was more than one and if I had been forced to choose I would certainly have put Elizabeth Strout ahead with My Name is Lucy Barton. Which just goes to show how very perverse these prizes can seem to be.

ManDavid Szalay – All that Man Is: No comment, I do not really accept that this is a novel at all, merely a themed collection of short stories and if this can be considered where is Alice Munro, for just one example?


ThienMadeleine ThienDo Not Say We Have Nothing: This is my outright winner then. Though don’t rush to the bookies as I have very seldom been correct in my personal choice.

This is also almost in the mother-daughter category, although there is more than one mother and it also involves sons as well as daughters. Exceptional crafting has gone into the relationships and how they combine in different spheres and at different times as the developing catastrophe washes over them, scattering them and then bringing them together again. It brought to mind another Oriental writer Kenzaburo Oe, whose novels about his Japanese author with writer’s block also has these complicated and sometimes circular relationships with people (family and other) and things.

This is a book I will definitely and gladly read more than once, in due course. It is a many-layered and intricate tale of love, music, musical careers, records (played and written) and betrayal set against the Cultural Revolution in China with all its concomitant excuses and reasons for not being brave.

EileenOttessa Moshfegh – Eileen: this was an interesting and alternative take on aspects of caring, that is in: who is responsible for caring when the parent has hideously neglected the child, but who now needs to be cared for? Who exactly is responsible in a young persons’ reform prison situation for caring about the inmates, and for making sure decent and responsible people are looking out for them?

Eileen is a very curious, twisted and amoral character, with some depressing side issues about ownership! Her fantasy world, though, leads her into a tangled infatuation which evolves into a situation from which she may escape but not in quite the way she expected.

Humiliation looms fairly large and often in this amoral tale written, looking backwards over her own life, by Eileen; without any sense of self-criticism or remorse – amoral – as I said. This would be my second option as a winner if Ms Thien does not achieve the prize.

BeattyPaul Beatty – The Sellout: I think I made it pretty clear at the time what I thought of this book. I assume it is on the short-list because it is edgy, controversial and different. Great literature it is not!


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Man Booker Longlist 2016 – 9

Here I need to declare an interest, or to be more precise, a lack of interest. The final volume from the Man Booker Longlist is The Schooldays of Jesus by JM Coetzee. I don’t like his writing. You may imagine I have given it my best shot, after all he has won the Man Booker Prize twice already. Do I care? No, I greet this news with dismay, and will howl if he wins again this time. That said, I am committed to posting about the longlist so here goes:

First off, this is the second book in a series and if you have not read the first I think you would be completely baffled and at a loss. I hadn’t, so I have been obliged to catch up with volume one called The Childhood of Jesus.

Coetzee 1This is described by one critic [Sunday Telegraph] as “a moving story of lost childhood.” With all due respect, I disagree. The briefest synopsis will show that it is not the childhood that is lost but the identity, upon which topic there hang a number of philosophical ideas and statements that are explored and thread the narrative.

A middle-aged man, Simón, and a young boy aged somewhere between four and six arrive in a strange land after a long ocean voyage. Somewhere on the boat, David has lost a letter that explains who he is, he is separated from his mother and his father seems not to have been there at all. Simón takes him under his care and resolves to help him find his mother.

On arrival in this place, the newcomers are all given new names, and in some mystical way the voyage across the ocean has washed away previous memory – hence Simón and David are not their ‘real’ names. Which in the second book, the one that actually is on the longlist, entails another protracted philosophical debate – what is the meaning of the phrase “Who am I?”

Simón and David find accommodation, not without difficulty, in a unit – having apparently come from a camp of sorts called Belstar. They are required to speak Spanish.

Simón finds a job as a stevedore and fulfils, in his spare time, the quest for the mother. The filing system in the allocation office will not help them, as they are all living under new names; and as they have forgotten their past, it will be impossible to trace the mother except by looking.

Some months pass and one day, they meet Inés. By intuition it seems that this is the woman he seeks. After some reluctance, Inés agrees to take the boy (though clearly she is not, and never could be, the child’s flesh and blood).

So between them, and the dog Bolivar, they nurture and raise the child.

David is by turns preternaturally intelligent, and utterly, exasperatingly silly. They try all sorts of remedies, and Simón tries to teach him to read using a child’s version of Don Quixote. David likes the stories but shows a great reluctance to learn his letters or his numbers. He wishes to know how to read by magic.

Once established in a school, things go from bad to worse. He is disruptive, and disinclined to learn (ADHD?). But when summoned to the school, Simón and Inés do their best to explain his odd behaviour. After seeing a child psychiatrist, David is still obliquely challenging and difficult, so there is a suggestion, even an obligation to act upon it, that he should be sent to board at a special school.

In despair they take him home, whereupon he demonstrates that he can both read and write.

I am not going to say any more about this book, if it appeals to you, go read it yourself. But if you intend to read the one that is on the Man Booker Longlist, I suppose I have given you just enough information (though not of the details) to get you started.

Coetzee 2On the run from the authorities, because David has run away from the special school, Simón and Inés drive north to a new town. Here, since it is summer, they work in an orchard farm, first picking grapes and then harvesting olives while David plays around with the other children of the pickers.

The farm is owned by three sisters. At the end of the season, it is time to move on but the sisters have taken an interest in the precocious David. So they agree to pay for him to go to an Academy of Dance in another town.

I am slightly at a loss for words here.  I am going to quote some of the epithets that have been printed on the back cover about the first volume:

Richly enigmatic [Guardian]; mesmeric cunning…limpid, gnomic and surprising [Independent]; powerful and poetic [Financial Times]; haunting [Daily Express].

Am I missing something here? I can see aspects of all these adjectives in parts of this book, but equally some of it is simply silly and one principal theme is melodramatic, all of it wound about with known philosophical maxims.

If these books are about anything at all (and forget about Jesus, so far this child’s life bears no relationship at all to JC, except that the adults do not understand him) they are about identity, memory and how we fit into ourselves and into each other; the nature of nurture and what exactly constitutes parenting. Simón never claims to be more than David’s guardian (uncle, godfather) but the relationship with Inés is more complex.

David alternates between accepting and denying these relationships, and forming intense relationships of his own, which sometimes fail and cause great mutual harm. He is wilful, bossy and at times very unpleasant, judgemental (doesn’t come close) in a childish and unconsidered way; then suddenly gnomic, mystical and rather exceptional.

Simón is a very interesting character, Inés more difficult – but not enough for me to engage. If you try to see this through the prism of the expanding refugee crisis, then some of it begins to make a sort of sense, but that breaks down almost immediately.

There must be further volumes to come – will I read them? Doubtful. As to the opinions of the critics – I suspect that there is a mild case of emperor’s clothes going in here – see for yourself.



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Man Booker Longlist 2016 – 8

Kennedy This is a love story.  The action takes place over a single day; Margaret is a bankrupt accountant, an unmarried, recovering alcoholic and Jonathan is a civil servant, at the time in an interim period between an election.  He has been married but is now divorced, he has one daughter, Rebecca.

How these two met, and what has led them to the day in question – a day which has started, and is looking like ending, badly is the substance of the narrative.

The sections are labelled with the time of day, and it begins with Jonathan at daybreak trying to free a baby blackbird from some unsuitable fruit netting in his ex-wife’s Chiswick garden, this humane activity is going to make him late for work, and an important meeting.

Meg, on the other hand, starts her day in a gynaecological clinic and although she has had to arrive at a given time, she has had to wait quite a long time before she is actually seen. To add to her distress, one of the other patients is clearly an inmate of some female prison and has to be accompanied by a guard, who is actually chained to her (or the other way round – to whom she is chained).

The plan for the day, though, is that Jon and Meg will meet at lunchtime.  However, there are all sort of hurdles which rise before them which prevent this, so the meeting gets postponed.

Alongside the narrative, there is back story for both characters and also quite a lot of font changes. The narrative is in a regular font; their thoughts, which appear interspersed throughout the progression of the day, are in italic; there is also a third eye in a slighter larger font which seem to be verbal snapshots of ordinary London situations – families on the Underground, incidents on platforms, women having coffee – although it is clear that there is an observer, it does not become plain, until nearer the end of the novel, who this is.

There is yet another font, sort of ‘handwriting’, that represents letters exchanged between Sophie and Mr August, a post office box correspondence which is also a cover for another sort of correspondence, but who is writing to whom and why?

I love A L Kennedy! I listen to her on Point of View on Radio 4 – I admire and mostly agree with her opinions, most especially recently in her assessment of the Kirkaldy Testing Museum in Southwark Street. This appears again in this novel.  In case you don’t know, David Kirkaldy was an inventor of machines for measuring. It is a marvellous building and the motto, carved into the pediment is “Facts not Opinions”. This appeals to Jon and in his small, albeit illegal, way he is trying to disseminate facts about how government works.  For all I know, A L Kennedy may share his view!?

No one wants contact with actual, undeniable information: it’s the equivalent of shit, you don’t want to touch it.  If information exists then it should be known and it must be consulted. If it’s consulted in advance then those we serve will feel constrained by it, oppressed – like having their legs jammed under a pub table. And if information exists to lie in wait, to reproach them in retrospect, point out wiser paths not taken, or just plain inevitable failures … Then it can feel like a reproach, which is upsetting. Opinions Not Facts – these are our watchwords.  Run a Discovery.  Stay Vague.  If reality is malleable then anyone can do what they like: either join the mediocracy, be a mediocrat and pursue nothing much, or else be a zealot and design impermissible calamities you’re sure you can withstand while others of less worth will perish as they should. [My underlining]

The metaphors in this book are original, graphic and telling; whole sections of the book hit the solar plexus and leave the reader slightly breathless. Painfully observant about the way we obsess about ourselves, agonisingly accurate about relationships and yet at times, immensely funny and kind.

I will be exceedingly surprised if this novel is not on the shortlist. I have enjoyed it, but it is not quite a great book. I have only one more book to read.

I am afraid this is one of the more disappointing longlists of recent years, some of these are worthy books but great literature – no. I have read many books better than this in the last year, but since I cannot not tell what was presented to the judges for consideration there is no way I can establish why these were chosen above another.

I have said before, some notable titles are missing: the new Julian Barnes – Noise of Time [but he rubbished the Man Booker so that might be a clue]; the new William Boyd – Sweet Caress [Boyd eminently back on form]; the new Rose Tremain – The Gustav Sonata; Maggie O’Farrell – This Must Be the Place; Thomas Keneally – Napoleon’s Last Island; any one of three Shakespeare for the 21st Century novels – Jeanette Winterson, Anne Tyler and Howard Jacobson, the list of missing titles is pretty endless. Of the less notable authors where was Sarah Perry, Chris Cleave, Guinevere Glasfurd et al?

So if you are looking for a recommendation of books for your own TBR list, any one of the above before any one except Madeleine Thien – Do not Say We Have Nothing.



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Man Booker Longlist 2016 – 7

ManI am not sure in what way All That Man Is qualifies as a novel. David  Szalay is clearly an accomplished and interesting writer – of long short stories. There is a consistent theme – existential angst in the male population – but apart from a link in the final story with the two teenagers Inter-railing in the first story, and a tangential reference in the same final story to a wine mentioned in the penultimate story, there are no character links at all.

The fact is that this is mostly about men, and about men judging themselves and their friends and colleagues and finding nothing to feel very satisfied about. There is a masculine admiration for the cars they drive, or have driven; there is a pre-pubescent, youthful and adult male fascination with women – fancying them, getting them, loving them, using them, judging them which wends its way through all the permutations indicated by the above, as well as its opposite and the accompanying sense of failure, misery, inadequacy and its attendant self-generated methods of satisfaction.

Then there is the angst – is this all there is? What am I? What have I done? and what was the point of it all?

In this whole book, there is no one of any age who sees his achievements as fulfilling, and taken on balance the men in this book are losers.  Only in the final story is there any sense that the central character, Antony, has reached his seventies and looks back, not in dismay at what he has done, but dismayed that there is so little time left to do anything more. But he is also not without some regret, but who doesn’t have some regret?   The unexamined life is one that has not been fully lived.

The other stories are, one after another, about men who have dead-end jobs, travel a lot (mostly in Europe) and are restless and unhappy, but seem to feel powerless to change anything. The inertia is dreadful, the endless pursuit of a better life while never getting off the treadmill – gruesome.

There are other common themes – Tarot cards for example, sleazy hotel rooms, shallow sexual encounters, food.

There is a trajectory – in the first story the two males are teenagers, each story covers another decade (roughly) until the final story the man reaches his seventies. Does that make it a novel? Not to my mind.

None of this though is to say that this is not worth reading. It is well written and even though few of these characters are particularly likeable or admirable, the situations in which the author puts them, the ways in which he depicts their predicament is persuasive, if not entirely riveting.

I suppose I read the entire book thinking ‘there must be a link somewhere, a common thread that links all these people’ and becoming more and more puzzled when there wasn’t.  All that you can say is that it is a novel about male angst, a portrait of modern man? Certainly, it flags up some of the stresses of life, the perpetual search for meaning – but there is so much more and this doesn’t seem a very insightful way of examining it.

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Man Booker Longlist 2016 – 6

BeattyPaul Beatty‘s The Sellout. I have nothing good to say about this book, so I will say nothing, save to give you a health warning. The N-word appears more times on each page than in each page of Huckleberry Finn (unless you read the bowdlerised version).

I think it is a transatlantic thing and it appears I am not alone in that opinion.

ManySo it is something of a relief to turn to The Many, a first novel by Wyl Menmuir.

This is also a vernacular novel, in the sense that it is rooted in place, in this case Cornwall, or Kernow as I am sure he calls it.

This is not a perfect book, there are many threads that hang in the air like spider’s webs, it is mysterious, troubling and there is one extra non-human character – dread.

An emmet (stranger) moves into an empty cottage that has stood untenanted since the last occupant Perran died, a matter of about ten years. Though his reasons for choosing this particular place to move to are more than puzzling.

It cannot be an accident that Perran is also a version of the name of the patron Saint. St Pyran or Piran is one of several saints associated with Cornwall, Petroc and Michael being others. St Piran was thrown into the Irish Sea with a millstone round his neck, but he miraculously survived and made landfall at the coastal town, now called Perranport.

So it is particularly upsetting for the local fishermen that Perran drowned. Ethan, his friend and shipmate is particularly upset at the arrival of Timothy, and others too give the impression of being suspicious.  Clem has taken Perran’s job looking out for boats coming back to harbour to work the winch that drags them to the beach, he seems more accommodating but just as clammed up when asked questions.

But all is not well at sea either, a ring of container ships prevent vessels from going far out to fish, and in the permitted area chemical waste had polluted the water so badly that such trawls that catch any fish at all, find the fish are hideously deformed or damaged. The men from the ministry greet each successful fishing expedition, and there are not many, buying up the entire catch.

It is all redolent with misery, failure and fury. The violent outpouring of which comes suddenly, and centres on Perran: the untouchable, the pure, the faithful.

The ending seems like a non-sequitur, though not one of the cobwebs.

This is another edition from  a small imprint, Salt.


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Man Booker Longlist 2016 – 5

There have been many grotesques in literature, both fictional and real. It would be hopelessly tedious to name even a few, and probably mine are not the same as yours, anyway.

EileenBut the eponymous grotesque in the new novel by Ottessa Moshfegh is right up there near the top of the list. Of all the books on the longlist that I have read so far, Eileen is outstandingly the creepiest, most unsettling book.  I would go so far as to say, the most disturbing book I have read in a very long while.

Quite apart from the fact that Eileen is a really ghastly woman: grimy, dysfunctional, anorexic, sexually deluded AND virginal.  She is quite simply unpleasant.

One cannot blame her exactly for any of these qualities. Her upbringing, even before her mother died, was inadequate to say the least.  Her father is a drunk and is now retired from the police force; the house they live in is squalid, filthy and neglected; Eileen is in a dead-end job in a local youth offending institute, a job she took up to be near her mother in her last, thankless, illness and one she has never had the energy to leave; X-ville, where she lives seems to be a dead-beat place and on top of that her fantasies of leaving to find a better life are hopelessly unrealistic.

The novel is written from a first person perspective some fifty years on from the events that Eileen describes, but the coldly impersonal way that she tells the story indicates in some measure her lack of empathy. Her cruel observations about the boys in the institute and her immediate colleagues; her sexual fantasies about the in-aptly named Randy; and her deluded ideas about friendship all add up to a picture of a dismal lack of self-awareness.

That she has got away is clear, and it is also clear that she has found some sort of a life, though exactly what is not made obvious; she mentions two marriages but now is gleefully living alone.

However, this book is almost un-put-downable.

In spite of the fact that reading it made me feel dirty, I kept reading; transfixed and struggling, I turned page after page long into the night. The writing absolutely nails the subject, it is totally remarkable. In tone, mood and characterisation it is a masterpiece.

Ottessa Mossfegh is another American author, which makes three so far, though there are more in the pile.

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