My shadow books first. The Melody by Jim Crace and The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. Both writers that I discovered thanks to the Man Booker Prize. Both such mellifluous titles, but both actually about menace.
In The Melody the principal character, Alfred Busi is a widower, in his prime he has been a renowned singer, songwriter. We meet him first as he is about to be significantly honoured by his town, an unnamed seaside town, with an Avenue of Fame: town worthies remembered, pedestalized and in bronze and Mister Al, is to be one of them.
But the might before his honouring ceremony, he had a damaging encounter with a feral creature that has got into his larder. His nights have often been disturbed by urban foxes and other creatures upsetting his bins and scavenging for food; but on this occasion he has been alerted by the tinkling of some Persian Bells, and goes down to investigate, but when he opens the larder door, something attacks him, scratching his face badly and biting his hand.
He calls for his sister-in-law, Terina to help him and she dismisses it as an animal, but he responds “a cat with dentures by the look of it”.
He does not call the police, and later on this incident is reported badly and inaccurately in the press. The town is alerted to the feral menace of possible “Neanderthals” hiding out in the bosk, the wild wooded area away from the sea at the back of the town.
This is a novel about change and “progress”. The first part is about changes in Alfred himself, partly brought on by the first attack, and then exacerbated by another more personal attack, and by a discovery which pulls away all his certainties. Two years a widower, there are bound to be alterations to the daily grind, or in the taking of pleasure but to become a victim in one’s own home is another order of magnitude, a disconcerting and destabilising event.
In the second part of the book, which follows some six or seven years later, the disruption seen in the first part has been completed.
I must first have come across Jim Crace in 2001, when he was listed for Being Dead, and I have gone back into his other novels. One Quarantine, is the book I have given away most often.
Tim Winton, an Australian writer, I discovered through the Booker listings in The Riders. This must have been in about 1992, it is not his best I think, but I have read most of the others since, also going back through earlier novels. The Shepherd’s Hut though, is streets ahead of all of them. I cannot imagine why this is not on this year’s longlist, only that it was not presented for consideration.
Jaxie Clackton is the son of a butcher, his father is one of a dubious but successful breed of bully. Jaxie’s mother has died of cancer before the book opens, his childhood has been punctuated with good times, with his Auntie Marg and his cousins, and bad and worse times at home; his mother has been persistently bullied and beaten, but like so many battered wives, has stuck by her man. Now she is gone, Jaxie is the main punchbag.
After a particularly severe beating, when his eye is pretty nearly punched out, Jaxie goes off to hide out. A night or so later, he returns home but what he finds spooks him so badly that he hastily packs up a bag and makes a run for it.
Monkton, which is where is he is running from, is somewhere in Western Australia. (It may not even exist, I haven’t checked). He heads into the bush, mostly mulga scrub and some tree cover where there are eucalyptus groves. He steers away from the roads and highways, though he can often hear the huge “roadtrains” passing.
He is in pretty dire straits when he discovers the prospector’s shack, where there is water but not a lot else. He has his father’s gun and some cartridges, lives rough for a while but cannot keep the kangaroo meat, as it goes off in the heat. But he realises he is not far from the salt lakes, so he goes off to get salt and finds more than he bargains for.
Jaxie thinks he is a lucky man, and by any definition this must be true, but luck is not always a two-way street, and those whom he meets are not always quite so fortunate.
This is a book full of quite brilliant descriptions: exquisite tenderness and love; the wilderness of Western Australia; survival; and also acute and devastating tension. Tim Winton writes beautifully.
I have camped out by those salt lakes, they are both wonderful and terrifying. Turning the mulga scrub into grassland for sheep permanently damaged the land. The salt lakes are a leprosy left by European settlers and rangers, some of them spread by a metre in diameter every year, the land is no longer good for cattle or sheep, which is why the eponymous hut is abandoned to its present incumbent when Jaxie gets there.
Unless you are completely turned off books by Australians, simply because I love them so much, this is a truly remarkable and astounding novel, which I cannot recommend too highly.
Back to this year’s Man Booker longlist. An extraordinary debut novel by Guy Gunaratne, a BAME writer of considerable talent, who lives in London with a wife and two cats. Anyone who has two cats gets my vote.
In OUR MAD and FURIOUS CITY, the title of Gunaratne’s novel (deliberately written here more or less exactly as it appears on the book jacket) we find ourselves in Neasdon. Not a name to conjure with, honestly. In the novel, it sounds as dreary, messed up and conflicted as its name. We are kicking around with a group of young boys, they have mostly been around each other since primary or secondary school, though perhaps their attendance has not been 100%. They are all of them either BAME or mixed; the novel is bookended by an unidentified voice, but one who clearly knows the group, but may not be part of it.
The characters appear, each in their own section. Part 1 is called Mongrel, the chapters are Estate, Square, Ends. Here, we meet in this order: Selvon, Caroline, Ardan, Yusuf and Nelson. These characters are not all the same generation so the reader needs to pay attention because relationships will be revealed later that make a difference to how we view each boy. Sections 2 and 3 are Brother and Blood.
I do not think I would have picked this book off the shelf; the book jacket is quite threatening even without the title! But I am glad to have read it. The writing is original, visceral and fully-fledged. For a debut novel, even though Gunaratne has written short stories, this is an accomplished masterpiece. The city gets up and whacks you in the face; and has affected its young inhabitants in ways that it is hard to grasp, from its leafier suburbs.
This is a book that I would be glad to see on the shortlist, though I do not see it as an outright winner, so far.