Tag Archives: Donal Ryan

Man Booker 2018/My shortlist

In advance of the real judges, I give you my personal shortlist. I am naturally confident of some of my choices, wishful about others.

2018 BLL Shortlist

In spite of what I may have said elsewhere, I have dropped Sally Rooney. I have re-read these titles and have decided she is not as good as or better than my selection. I fear though, after all the hype and presentation that she has received already that her place on the genuine shortlist is a shoe-in. This will be a dreadful mistake.

My titles are not placed in any particular order. They are all worthy to win, there is no outright candidate for me. Warlight, for example, might be in with a good chance were it not for the fact that Michael Ondaatje just won the Booker 50 Years Best Booker prize.

Donal Ryan has replaced Sally Rooney in my selection, it is an excellently constructed novel with an extraordinary twist in the very end. Interesting characters – introduced slowly and with some grace, and then wham!

The Guy Gunaratne is wide of my comfort zone and I certainly would not have picked it off the shelf in ordinary times. But what an eye-opener. Grimy, gritty and nail-bitingly fierce, scraped off the street – but how brilliantly managed, everything about it is unusual, and appallingly real.

Picador Poetry have slid in a fast one with The Long Take. It is not even on the shelf with the other novels but in another department all together. As long poems go, though, this is as much a novel as any. Robin Robertson is definitely narrating rather than meditating, and there happens also to be a considerable amount of actual prose, and it is a great story. Which is why it appears, in spite of my misgivings, in my list.

There has been much mining of the Greek myths and legends recently, so why not choose Oedipus for your target. This is a cleverly disguised re-telling by Daisy Johnson, with an androgynous character who fills the place of the abandoned Prince of Thebes, but everything else is there and then much else, because this is also a love story about water, river or canal: the reedy banks and the smell and Everything Under. So evocative and so differently weathered from its original setting: Greece. Almost, a poem. If chopped up to look like verse!!

And finally Washington Black, I wish this was just a little bit better as a book. But here it is on my shortlist. Esi Edugyan is a great storyteller and although I had qualms about the slave-to-free narrative, which I think did not quite get to the heart of the matter, I would certainly think that this is deserving of a second reading, and rewarding once re-read. Truth to tell, I thought her previous long listed title was better. But good luck with this one.




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Man Booker Longlist 2018/1

2018 BLL picturesWhat to say? I have tried Sabrina. I cannot finish it, and will not. It is not so much that I don’t like graphic novels and don’t think they are literature, a graphic novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 which must be a benchmark of some sort.  Art Spiegelman‘s extraordinary, graphic description of his parent’s lives in Poland and later Auschwitz during the 1930s, MAUS was for me the first graphic novel I ever bought. The visceral impact was immense and moving. No, I do like graphic novels, just not this one. Nick Drnaso doesn’t do it for me, the drawing is ironic (I assume) since it is so bad, the story difficult to follow. The basic outline being that Sabrina has disappeared, her abandoned boyfriend moves in with a friend who mainly does night work, so moments together are limited, I cannot say more because I couldn’t bear to turn another page (many of which have no words at all – as is the nature of comic-strip books).

2018 BLL RyanI had better luck with From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan. What a gem!. 181 pages of spare, beautiful prose that lifts off the page like gold leaf, strong and fabulous. There are three characters: Farouk a refugee doctor who loses his family in a Mediterranean boat disaster, Lampy, who lives with his grandfather and his mother (a single parent) and John, a rich man whose past haunts him. They all end up in the same place, and the connections between them, such as they are, become clear.

The sections are written in short, but crafted sentences and the sequences are vivid and gripping. Farouk’s story could have been lifted from any daily newspaper, Lampy’s from anywhere. John’s story is mostly seen from the perspective of the past, though the reader might not realise this at the time. But the denouement is utterly brilliant and without parallel.

2018 BLL BauerFinally this week, I read Snap, the second controversial novel on the longlist. Belinda Bauer‘s crime novel. Belinda Bauer is undeniably a great writer, a page turner of a book this. Hard to put down and desperately convoluted. A crime spree of unusual and spectacular success brings a homicide detective, temporarily out of favour at the top, to help with a series of damaging break-ins. Marvel is not at all happy with this situation, nor with his new colleagues, Reynolds and Parrott; but he knows that he must succeed or he will be doomed to the backwaters for ever…it is the criminal that we focus on but that would be a spoiler, so I am not going there.

If this were not a post about the Man Booker Prize, then I would be unequivocal in my praise for this novel, the best summer read one could hope for. Suspenseful, cunning and surprising. But is it literature? Does it have the heft of a great novel, the layered meanings that are revealed on a second or third reading? No, and I rather doubt whether it would even stand a second reading, honestly. But then very few crime novels, especially if the reader has a good memory, would. Which, for me, rules it out of court in this context.

EdricMy shadow book, by a writer who richly deserves better attention, is Mercury Falling by Robert Edric. Britain in 1954 was a dismal place, austerity like you cannot imagine, rationing and endless rain; winter flooding has destroyed large areas of farmland and gangs of derelict men and boys from the Borstal are engaged in the clear up. The shadow of war hangs over everything and can be used to hide a multitude of things: failures mostly. Devlin is forced out by bailiffs, owing rent and drifting from one bad situation to another in a downward spiral of increasing crime, dragging with him his past baggage which catches up every now and then with chilling effect; so he moves on in the dim hope of escaping from his past. Unsuccessfully for the most part.

I have written at length about Edric’s books. The joy is that the characters in them live on in one’s mind, you wonder what happened next and you care! He writes about many different things, different times and different people but with a careful depth, so that you end each book immersed in its period. A lovely writer.

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Man Booker 2013 – rural mayhem

There is no simple reason why I am writing about these two books, The Spinning Heart and Harvest, together other than that I read them one after the other. They neatly bookend a career, if what one reads in the Press is anything to go by, and they are both rural tales. Therein any other similarity vanishes.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan is a first novel, a second is already near completion it seems. Set in Ireland after the Tiger economy has crashed and burned, we meet in each chapter another person affected, wounded or imperilled by the sudden change in their circumstances. Women who have been taken up and dumped or abused by their menfolk; employees who have been tricked by their employer, the aptly named Pokey Burke and men damaged by abusive parenting. It is all here in its appalling brutality, but nevertheless some of them have risen above it all and become sons and daughters to be proud of. Bobby Mahon is one of these: an abusive father whom he hates lives in a cottage which has the spinning heart of the title on its gate, a wrought iron heart. The father verbally abused the mother to her grave, forcing his son to distance himself from his mother to his great regret, so that the rift never healed; the father then drunk away the family fortune to spite his own (already deceased) father and lives on and on, seemingly to spite his own son who badly needs the cottage and its remaining land to capitalise on to get back on his feet after having been shafted by his employer…you get the drift.

Sparely written, each new chapter adds another dimension to the previous one until the reader is left with a deepening sense of the pain and anguish, the spitefulness and small-mindedness of a rural community in crisis. The disappointments are riven though, from time to time, with a sense of the goodness of the few who have risen above it all and become decent people, and so the ending, which is not an ending is all the more powerful.

On the other hand, Harvest by Jim Crace is not so much about the spitefulness of people so much as the relentless demands of the land. This is rural England at around the turn of the 17th and 18th century, before enclosures. The villagers are still beholden to the manor, they till the fields, they sow the seed, they harvest the grain for the benefit of the lord of the manor, in return the lord of the manor dispenses justice, fairness and allows for the gleaning of the harvest for the people of the village to brew small ale and make porridge etc. Essentially a symbiotic relationship. But, possibly because village life is so enclosed, outsiders can pose a threat and are treated with suspicion. In this unfortunate circumstance, the novel opens with a scene of mischief that goes horribly wrong coinciding with the arrival of three newcomers. The mischief is suspected by at least one person in the village, Walter Thirsk, himself an in-comer but because of his silence a miscarriage of justice occurs and from this and other events, more disaster follows. Furthermore, there are changes afoot which will affect the whole village for better or worse, the title to the manor passes from one cousin to another, another with very different views as to the future…

According to the Press, Jim Crace has said this is his last novel. If this is so, he has not gone out with a whimper! Harvest stands up with the very best of his writing, and it breaks my heart to think that there will not be any more. This, like Quarantine, is not quite a reality tale but more of a allegory. The ur-village in this book and its inhabitants represent an age in Britain that has been lost forever and their losses stand for a much greater loss which we all have had to deal with one way or another. But the power of the writing lies in the lucidity of the prose, the deftness of touch that makes Jim Crace’s book so memorable, and so re-readable. Just as village life changed irrecoverably once the fields were enclosed and the practice of arable agriculture turned to pasture, the sense of a shared community was also lost; where joint effort is replaced by singularity of purpose then what follows is the rise and rise of a ‘me,my,mine’ mentality and this in its turn led to capitalism and so on. Life dependent on the lord of the manor may not have been an idyll, but the shared sense of purpose both at good times and bad must have ameliorated the basics somewhat. Enclosure and what followed altered that, drove masses of people off the land and into the cities and the consequences for Britain remain visible and actual today.


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The Booker Long List 2013

Well, here it is a list of books waiting to be read. Some new writers, some old favourites but 13 books chosen by this year’s panel under the Chairmanship of Robert MacFarlane. Since I am pretty sure this isn’t Bobby MacFarlane the footballer, it must be the writer of such books as The Old Ways and Mountains of the Mind. I hope he will not mind if I compare his writing to Iain Sinclair, who does for London what Robert MacFarlane does for the countryside: render into words the earth beneath our feet. Mr MacFarlane, the writer, has also brought out a new book, graphically reviewed by another old friend, William Dalrymple, called Holloway, which I haven’t read yet but will have waiting for me once I have got through THE LIST.

On to the list then: we have three new writers – NoViolet Bulawayo We Need New Names, Eve Harris The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, Donal Ryan The Spinning Heart; we have very long books – The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton which runs to over 800 pages and very short books – The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibin, which latter has already been staged in America by Fiona Shaw, it was on in New York but I missed it by a whisker on my brief visit earlier this year, I was very disappointed indeed. There are previously listed authors who have not yet won – Tash Aw Five Star Billionaire, Jhumpa Lahiri (I think) The Lowland, and surprisingly Jim Crace, who was shortlisted for Quarantine, a truly remarkable book which went on to win other awards, but not The Booker, Mr Crace is long listed this year for Harvest, I read somewhere that he has said is his last book which is a pity. Along side those and no less interesting are Richard House The Kills, Colum McCann TransAtlantic, Charlotte Mendelson Almost English and Ruth Ozeki A Tale for the Time Being and Alison McLeod Unexploded.

So: no Khaled Hosseini, Samantha Harvey or Rachel Joyce all of whom are in my pile and will now have to wait. Unless the books that are not pulished until later this year haven’t arrived before I am done with the other nine or ten.

Watch this space!

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