Exit West – Mohsin Hamid (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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exitwest

Mohsin Hamid made his first appearance on the Booker shortlist ten years ago with “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” in a year when Anne Enright took the prize.

“Exit West” is a slim, sparse novel with big themes which centres on a love affair amidst turmoil and conflict.  Hamid can be precise in his vagueness and we never learn for sure the country of Nadia and Saeed’s birth but it is, like many others, a nation of escalating conflict. 

They meet at an evening class but their freedoms and opportunities become increasingly diminished as militants take over.  Nadia wears dark robes to cover herself fully as a way of distancing male interest but is actually far less religious and traditional as Saeed who prays regularly and cannot contemplate sex before marriage.  The situation in their homeland worsens and they hear of a fantastical means of escape.  Here I could certainly see parallels with “The Underground Railroad” both with its forced migration and the means to achieve this.  Whereas Whitehead is masterful in drawing us into his tale Hamid keeps us purposely at a distance with a detached documentary style which actually makes some of the terrible events seem even more terrible.

Whereas Colson Whitehead’s book really took off from the escape onwards  I felt that this novel reached its peak before the escape and that the attempts to relocate in a London which is becoming increasingly as tense as their homeland and then to the USA didn’t captivate me as much.  Like Whitehead these locations feel highly fictionalised and have a nightmarish quality which is magnified by the pared down nature of Hamid’s writing.

Like a number of the Booker shortlist novels there were moments that were absolutely first class but although I can see its relevance and importance to our modern world I wasn’t totally enraptured throughout.

fourstars

Exit West was published as a Hamish Hamilton hardback in March 2017

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4321 – Paul Auster (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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Paul Auster has chosen a numerical title for his contender for the Great American Novel which has been shortlisted by the Man Booker judges.  Here are some other numbers for you:

18– This is Auster’s 18th novel in a fiction career which began in 1982 when his first was published under a pseudonym.  A major American writer with poetry, memoirs, essays, screenplays, translation and collections where he has acted as the editor to his name.

1– This is Auster’s first appearance on the Booker shortlist. (US titles have only been eligible sine 2014 and this is Auster’s first novel for 7 years.

5/1– The odds allocated by Ladbrokes for him to win the prize, putting him in 4th position out of the 6 contenders.

1.5– The books I’ve read by this author.  I’m counting “True Tales of American Life” where he acted as editor and collator as a 0.5.  I actually preferred the novel of his I read 18 years ago, his 1987 publication “New York Trilogy” which cemented his reputation as a writer.  This was a well-written read which just missed out on my end of year Top 10 that year.

16– The number of days it has taken me to read this book.

866– The number of pages in the hardback edition.  It’s not the longest book I’ve read but the quite densely printed pages and the stop-start structure of the narrative made it feel like it.

1– The number of other novels I read whilst reading this.  Now, I never normally do this and it caused great consternation for me to pick up another book, but a long train journey beckoned and I’m a book reviewer and not a weight-lifter so I let Fiona Mozley’s novel sneak in, which I completed on public transport and in breaks at work, with me returning to 4321 when I got home.

1307– The number of grams the hardback weighs which explains why I was not ramming it into my bag to take to work.

It this all sounds rather flippant and as if I’m being negative, I’m not but I do have reservations about this book which Auster himself has referred to as a “sprinting elephant”.

In the closing pages Auster gives a rationale for the novel which is basically four versions of a life;

“he would invent three other versions of himself and tell their stories along with his own story (more or less his own story since he too would become a fictionalized version of himself), and write a book about four identical but different people with the same name: Ferguson.”

It actually took me a while to work this out and there was quite a bit of flipping back in the early pages to check what I sensed were inconsistencies but which were actually different versions of the same story.  I would imagine that this would make this very difficult to read as an e-book.  Once the penny dropped the flipping back diminished.  The actual events ceased to matter so much to me, this narrative structure had distanced me as a reader and although I was enjoying what I was reading I was quite happy to live in the present of the novel with the past and the future not mattering much to me.  This is the main loophole of the novel.

I’m not adverse to these kinds of experiments.  Indeed, I adored Kate Atkinson’s stop again-start again “Life After Life”  (2013) where I was totally involved.  Here, I loved main character Archie Ferguson but the amount of details needed to convey his lives is just too much to take in and can lead to the reader feeling a little cheated by this narrative device and to see the whole thing as artificial.

In one of the narratives Archie doesn’t last that long (which again reminded me of the many deaths of the main character in “Life After Life”) and from that point on that section of Archie’s tale is marked by a blank page.  The sections do diminish- hence the title 4-3-2-1.

The four Fergusons are born in 1948 and follows childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, predominantly in the New York area.  So it becomes a record of American history as perceived by someone who may or may not have been at some college or another during the tumultuous mid to late 60’s when America turned on itself with civil rights, student action, riots and over the horrors of the Vietnam war.  This is why this feels like an important work- a great American novel with an epic sweep and a cast of hundreds spread over the four sections.  In one narrative Auster relates:

“Ferguson understood that the world was made of stories, so many different stories that if they were all gathered together and put into a book, the book would be nine hundred million pages long.”

It does feel like Auster has had a good go at doing this!

I did feel completing this novel was an achievement (small fry compared to the writing of it) but it is far too long and involvement in it fades in and out which is a shame because it contains lots of great writing but just as I felt I was being really drawn in there was a different Ferguson to consider.  This could be considered a “cliffhanger” but really it’s just frustrating in this format.

Maybe there’s an alternative read here, by completing the sections separately things that drifted away from me may pull together, but oh, hold on, don’t ask me to read it again please……………………

One final number:

 939  -The number of words I have taken to try and get over some of the feelings I had about this book.

fourstars

4321 was published in the UK in 2017 by Faber and Faber.  The paperback edition (lighter) is out now.

 

Elmet – Fiona Mozley (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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elmet2The media buzz when the Man Booker shortlist was announced centred around this young British debut novelist.  Portrayed very much as the David amongst the Goliaths this tactic proved to be commercially rewarding last year for Graeme Macrae Burnet (who I felt should have won the award) and this year it may also pay dividends as quality-wise, I would nudge this book ahead of the others I’ve read so far on the shortlist.

The title refers to the Vale Of York setting, the area of the last independent Celtic kingdom which a quote from Ted Hughes at the start of the novel refers to as traditionally “a sanctuary for refugees from the law”.  Mozley places her novel in the modern-day but this is still a tale of outsiders and the immediate association with Hughes feels appropriate as this book shares the nature-based, naturalistic, elemental power of much of his poetry.

I was admittedly initially resistant.  I tend to balk at openings which are in italics and place an unknown character in a first-person narrative walking or running through woodland with in this case “The remains of Elmet lay beneath my feet.” Once the plot kicks in, however, I’m fine with the lyrical narrative style and evocative descriptions.  It’s just that I like to know where I am at the start of a book and the first few hundred words of this opening hovers towards literary novel cliché.

All is redeemed, however, by the three main characters and powerful, memorable characterisation.  Two young teenagers Daniel and Cathy live with their father in a house he has fashioned for them out of the woodland.  “Daddy” is a powerhouse of a man, who fights for money and who has removed his children away from mainstream society to live very much on the land.  The bond between the three is terrific and this main strength is recounted in Daniel’s tale, a youth so unlike his father attempting to find his place in this harsh unsentimental world where those from outside their family unit mainly threaten their existence.  It’s powerful and haunting and as their place in the woods is questioned it becomes increasingly gripping.

It does feel like a book from a different era, perhaps a harsher 1970’s world with main character Daniel as out of place in his world as Barry Hines’ Billy Caspar from “Kestral For A Knave” (1968).  I’ve not really read a book like this for years, the nearest I could conjure up was Sara Baume’s critically acclaimed “Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither” (2015) which ended up in my end of year Top 10 and had the same lyrical, poetic feel which is rooted in the natural world with its depiction of a relationship between a man and his dog.  Here Daniel’s trust is totally in Daddy and Cathy and there are times when you wonder whether this is such a good thing.

I do think that this novel will linger in my mind.  It feels of less relevance to this particular time certainly than Ali Smith’s very contemporary-feeling “Autumn” but with that timelessness could come longevity and it might just seduce those Man Booker judges not distracted by relevance.  It is what I imagine a “literary novel” to be and yet plot and characterisation gives it a commercial pull which I was both a little surprised by and highly appreciative of.

fourstars

Elmet was published in 2017 as a John Murray Original.

History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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It’s always great to see debut novelists on the Man Booker lists. It feels like we have been given a privileged opportunity to be there right from the beginning. The work a debut novelist has to do to see their book in print is often tremendous and all too often first novels vanish making barely a ripple. So I welcome American author Fridlund’s book onto the longlist.

We are in the backwoods of Northern Minnesota, the home of fourteen year old main character Madeline, known as “Linda” but to some at school as “Freak”. She lives with her parents in the remains of a commune, without a great deal of parental intervention and with mainly the tethered dogs for company.

Two things change for Linda. A new teacher invites her to participate in a Schools Challenge for which she chooses the “history of wolves” and a family move opposite her across the lake with Paul, a young child for who Linda begins to babysit. These events provide Linda’s entry into an adult world as she becomes drawn towards both the teacher and the new family’s life. We learn very early on that this leads to the death of a child.

The tale meanders around different times in Linda’s life but it is the main thread of the teenager’s search for belonging and an end to her aching loneliness that is by far the most involving. The warped values of the world she inhabits also very much motivates the adult Linda. It is a very calm book, perhaps surprisingly with its distressing emotive themes but it lacks a little of the build I would look for in a book of this kind. I felt it petering out before the end. Linda’s existence is evocatively created, however, and a number of scenes will stick in my mind for some time but it never fully realised the potential I thought it had in the first few chapters.

threestars

History of Wolves was published by Wiedenfeld & Nicolson in February 2017

 

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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Whether American author Colson Whitehead’s novel makes the Man Booker shortlist or not this book is likely to be commercially the biggest seller of the lot, due to its very good word of mouth which is creating an army of devotees and also its raft of American literary prizes including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  Deservedly so? Absolutely!

This is a little gem of a novel which has Barack Obama claiming “terrific” on the cover and was helped up the bestsellers lists by Oprah Winfrey’s enthusiasm.  If Whitehead wins the Man Booker and he must be up there with a very strong chance, he will be the third man of colour in a row following Jamaican Marlon James and American Paul Beatty.  Whitehead’s book is, as far as I am concerned better than these two winners.

It is the story of Cora, who begins the novel as a slave on a plantation in Georgia.  The first section is involving but nothing that we have not read before, well researched from slave accounts.  I felt that I knew where the novel was going.  All this changed with Cora’s escape on the Underground Railroad, which many will know as a network of supporters and safe places which helped escapees in their bid towards freedom.  Whitehead has made this a physical thing in his book, an actual railroad which operates underground.  One character says of it;

“Most people think it’s a figure of speech…….. The Underground.  I always knew better.  The secret beneath us, the entire time.”

 Operating in the book almost like a primitive Hogwarts Express characters emerge from this surreal journey not knowing where they are into Whitehead’s fictional representation of a Southern American location, as if they are Dorothy in Oz or Gulliver on his travels but here the new locations provides a different aspect of the black American experience.

A word being used frequently about this novel is “dazzling”, appropriate enough for the characters emerging from the darkness of the underground system as well as for the tale Whitehead spins for his readers.  Strong characterisation, a rich and imaginative plot, this is a book I found myself slowing down as I got near the end as I didn’t want the experience to finish.

I knew I was going to like this book and bought it in paperback as soon as the longlist was announced.  It was a novel I had earmarked for reading whether it made the lists or not.  I was worried that because I had built it up in my head it would be disappointing (which is how I felt about “The Essex Serpent”).  I certainly was not disappointed on this occasion.  It ticks all the boxes for me, an involving, entertaining, well-written, imaginative, educational, unpredictable read.  Whether the Man Booker judges will, in order to ensure a balance of winners, favour a female or British author remains to be seen but this would be a deserving winner.

fivestars

The Underground Railroad was published in paperback in the UK in June 2017.  It is currently number 53 in Amazon’s Top 100 books and is the number 1 bestseller in their “Metaphysical and Visionary” category.