Lincoln In The Bardo – George Saunders (2017) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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saundersI’m feeling a little discombobulated.  Firstly, congratulations are due to highly esteemed American author Saunders who comes onto the shortlist much praised for his previous published works which includes essays, short stories and novellas. This is his first full-length novel and its arrival was much anticipated.

I’m disturbed firstly because it is distinctly odd. The whole thing is written as observations, either as quotes from books or character statements. These are often in short sections and in common with first-hand sources can be contradictory so you get different opinions of the same event. This does make it quick to read but the short length of these breaks up any real flow. It does on occasion lead you in almost addictively when there’s a barrage of different views on an event, but generally, although it is undoubtedly cleverly done, it feels a little too much like style over substance to me.
The subject matter also disturbs. It’s very much an account of grief. President Abraham Lincoln’s young son dies of a fever. The “Bardo” is a graveyard-set half-life where spirits who have not yet resolved themselves to their demise drift in a shape-shifting existence and are joined by the spirit of Willie Lincoln. This disparate group of beings from the cemetery and mass graves beyond attempt to reconcile the boy to his death. At times these sections reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s “Graveyard Book” and what I couldn’t get out of my head was a manic, adult version of “Rentaghost”.

The whole thing just feels a little off-kilter. Anyone actually experiencing grief or recent bereavement would be advised to steer clear. This was the bookies’ early favourite to win the Man Booker Prize. Do I think that this should get the prize for the best work published in English this year? No, I don’t and perhaps I might have enjoyed the whole thing more if I wasn’t aware the whole time if this wasn’t stirring around in my mind and that the judges favoured this over longlisters “The Underground Railroad” and “Home Fire”. I will give it points for cleverness and originality but the style and theme is just too unsettling for me to really get behind this one.

threestars
Lincoln In The Bardo was published in March 2017 by Bloomsbury

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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 as 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.

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

 

Days Without End- Sebastian Barry (2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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Sebastian Barry has already been one of this year’s big literary prizewinners with the Costa Novel and Book Of The Year Awards for this.  I very much liked the story-line and it is impressively written, is selling well and will give the Man Booker judges much food for thought.

 Beginning in the mid nineteenth century Irish emigrant Thomas McNulty, aged around 15, meets the younger John Cole, a boy with Native American heritage.  With tough experiences in their young pasts, poor and road-weary with “the same look of the arse out of his trousers that I had too” the pair strike up a friendship in the difficult adult male environment of Missouri; “We were two woodshavings of humanity in a rough world.”  The boys become female impersonators entertaining miners in a saloon in Daggsville where women are in short supply before enlisting in the military.  Initially hunting down Native Americans they later become caught up in the Civil War.

Written as a present tense account (which is something I’ve grumbled about in the past) this is McNulty’s tale of a relationship which blossoms into love in the most unlikely of circumstances.  This love is at the heart of the book and is portrayed positively and despite these unlikely circumstances, plausibly.  There is a touch of the “Brokebank Mountains” here but the love is underplayed and feels more real as a result.  Mostly, however, this is an adventure tale of battlegrounds, survival and injustices meted out towards the non-white populations of the developing America.

It’s a personal taste thing but I preferred the sections of the book away from the battlefield with the boys in the business of “entertaining” and functioning as a family with their adopted daughter.  In the army sections I found, yet again, that the present tense narrative style put it a little all on one level, and I wearied at times.  I am niggling a little because I did very much enjoy it and the novel is certainly shortlist worthy but I’m not sure that I would be pushing this big literary prizewinner to scoop the actual award.

Irish novelist Sebastian Barry has won the Costa Book Of The Year on two occasions (also “Secret Scripture” in 2008) and has been twice shortlisted for the Man Booker.  “Days Without End” is his ninth novel, could this be the one to “do the double”?

 fourstars

 

Days Without End was published in paperback by Faber & Faber in February 2017.  The hardback edition was first published in October 2016.

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (2017) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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The seventh novel by Pakistan-born London resident Kamila Shamsie, a former Granta Best Of Young British novelist, feels particularly relevant to our world today.  Perhaps more than the other Man Booker longlisted novels I’ve read so far this feels especially for our times, with the most relevance to our modern lives.  Strange then, that this is based upon one of the oldest recorded stories, the Greek myth of Antigone, most famously written as a tragic play by Sophocles in about 442 BC.

I didn’t know the myth beforehand and I’m actually rather glad I didn’t, although it did make me want to seek it out once I’d finished Shamsie’s adaptation.  I went with one of her recommended versions and listened on spoken word CD to another 2017 Man Booker longlisted author Ali Smith who narrates her children’s book “The Story Of Antigone” (2013).  In an interview following the story she says of this source material;

“It’s the kind of story that will always be relevant for all sorts of reasons because some things never change no matter what century we’re in and no matter where we are in history and it is a story about what matters to human beings and how human beings make things meaningful and how we act towards one another and what power is, what it makes us do and how much or how little power human beings really have.”

 I’m not actually going to tell you more about the myth as it will give too much information as to where Shamsie’s plot-line will go.  If you know it, you know it.  If not I don’t want to spoil things for you as developments certainly took me by surprise.  It does involve a chilling attempt to stand up against the authorities.

Shamsie has recast the main characters as a Muslim family from Wembley.  Isma, the oldest daughter begins the novel by travelling to the US to commence a long-delayed Sociology PHD leaving her younger law student sister Aneeka at home and Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz removed from the family.  Isma had been a mother figure to the twins after they were orphaned.  We learn early on that their father had died whilst being transferred to Guantanamo Bay.

Isma is attempting to pick up the pieces after family tragedies and the shame and distrust caused.  She has a chance encounter with a family acquaintance, Eammon, son of a British Muslim politician whose career, after setbacks, is in the ascendancy.  On Eamonn’s return to the UK he offers to take a bag of M&M’s to Aneeka setting up a catalogue of events which will lead to tragedy and a startling international incident.

I read very few books as explicitly political as this and did find it difficult to hone in as to what my feelings were or the author’s stance on incidents.  This is because the issues are extremely complex and involves the prejudices of nations, the power of religions and the media.  Shamsie is certainly to be applauded for her bravery in tackling these themes head-on.  The fact that she does it pitch-perfectly in a tale which is brilliantly realised, both unpredictable and chillingly inevitable borders on the extraordinary.  I found it totally compelling to read but harder to always gauge my responses.  Shamsie is educating, entertaining and gripping her readers in a manner which explores the potential of the plot in eye-opening, thought-provoking ways.  This feels like a very important novel for our times and yet has an age-old story as its framework.  Although I wasn’t aware of the relevance to Antigone as I was  reading, it does give the work resonance and great authority.  So here we have it, my first 5 star Man Booker longlist read.  The battle is on…………..

fivestars

Home Fire was published by Bloomsbury Circus in August 2017

 

 

Autumn- Ali Smith (2016) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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Ali Smith is attempting to make her 4th appearance on the Man Booker Shortlist with this longlisted title, her first novel since winning the Baileys Prize and the Costa Novel Of The Year with “How To Be Both” (2014).  That was the only novel I have read by her to date and although I applauded its technical expertise I caught a whiff of style over substance and found it ultimately a little disappointing because I lacked a consistent emotional attachment, which is what I’m always on the lookout for when reading.  Smith is a brave writer whose non-linear narratives can lead to a distancing and if slightly off-balance risks becoming a tad pretentious and ending up with a book of segments of writing (in her case often superb) rather than a coherently flowing piece.

 With that in mind, theories based purely on “How To Be Both”, I hasten to add, I was a little bit unsure about beginning my Man Booker longlist reading with this book.  Coincidentally for the last couple of years the first book I’ve read off the list has ended up scooping the prize, (I’m sure the judges are not bearing this in mind!) so I wanted this to be good.

 And it is.  For me, it is considerably better than the award-laden “How To Be Both”.  The reason?  I got that emotional attachment towards the relationship between the two main characters very early on and this relationship is a thread which runs throughout the novel.

 It’s not going to be easy summing this up in a few words.  A young girl befriends an elderly male neighbour who educates and stimulates moulding her into the adult she becomes.  Now a woman, Elisabeth visits him in his care home where he resides as a semi-comatose centenarian.  From the stories he has told her about the Art world she realises he knew Pauline Boty, a 1960’s female pop artist who Elisabeth bases her dissertation upon.  The time of these care home visits coincides with the Brexit vote and the uncertainty and tensions which fills the country comes across superbly.  Meanwhile Elisabeth’s mother has her own life changes ahead of her when she takes part in a TV antiques programme.

 The writing is often sumptuous, occasionally powerfully poetic as in a section about the mood of the country in the days following the vote and incredibly realistic as the characters grapple with the frustrations of modern life.  A section early on in the novel where Elisabeth attempts to use the Post Office Check and Send Service for a passport is a joy to read and is the section which really pulled me into the narrative, where I remained for most of the novel.  It is also highly visual, not least by its encompassing of art and story into the narrative.

 Smith is both a poet and a storyteller and her sheer unpredictability is both impressive and challenging.  The reader needs to yield to her skills as there is no way to ascertain how the novel will pan out.  There are digressions, plot twists, memories and dreams which make it a narcotic experience in more ways than one.  On this occasion I found her writing addictive and read it quite quickly, it will repay re-reading.  There’s the whole “Autumn” theme which I haven’t touched on which is part of the novel’s life-blood.  If this is the standard of the longlist it is going to be a good few weeks for me and a tough choice for the judges.  This is so close to being a five star read (How To Be Both I rated three stars) and is certainly shortlist worthy.

fourstars Autumn was published by Hamish Hamilton in 2016

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien (2016) – A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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“We were not unalike, my father and I; we wanted to keep a record.  We imagined that there were truths waiting for us- about ourselves and those we loved, about the times we lived in- within our reach, if only we had the eyes to see them.”

 This is a novel about China, about families, stories and music.  Canadian writer Thien starts her sweeping saga in Toronto, with Li-Ling, in first-person narration, a young woman of Chinese parentage.  Following the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 a student refugee Ai-Ming finds her way to Li-Ling’s mother’s house.  The two girls’ fathers are connected in a story which encompasses China during the days of Chairman Mao and afterwards.  I knew little of Chinese history but Thien puts this right.  The very best writing is saved for the horrific times- the “Cultural Revolution” and Tiananmen Square where the involvement of the characters we have come to care about makes painful reading.

Ling’s father Jiang Kai befriended Ai-Ming’s father, Sparrow, when they were together at the Shanghai Conservatory Of Music.  Sparrow’s cousin, Zhuli, a gifted violinist makes up this trio of very strong characters.  Li-Ling comes to know about these people and others through family stories and a sequence of hand-copied chapters of a novel, which, during the difficult times, becomes the ultimate thing to be protected.

“The stories got longer and longer, and I got smaller and smaller.  When I told Big Mother this she laughed her head off.  “But that’s how the world is, isn’t it?”

 There were times when I thought this book was outstanding but also times when my interest wavered, probably most often with the more recent generation.  I think it might just be slightly too long and if pared down somewhat has the potential to be a modern classic.  Nevertheless, this is some achievement of a third novel and Thien’s passion for the subject and characters shine through.

This is my final book from the Man Booker shortlist and I think it is a good job that they do not have to choose a runner up.  As far as I am concerned there is one that edges itself onto the winner’s podium (“His Bloody Project”) but selecting a second place would give me far more trouble.  On reflection, however, I think given the epic sweep, scope and important subject matter of this one that my highly commended runner up award would go to Madeleine Thien.

fourstars

Do Not Say We Have Nothing was published in   July  2016 by Granta.

Hot Milk – Deborah Levy (2016)- A Man Booker Shortlist Review

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“My love for my mother is like an axe.  It cuts very deep.”

 Deborah Levy is the current bookies favourite for the Man Booker prize (wonder how many of them have actually read it?) She is the most established author on the list and was previously shortlisted in 2012 for “Swimming Home.”  “Hot Milk” is my first introduction to her work.

I can sense the sunshine in this book.  Sofia, a procrastinating Ph.D student currently working in a coffee shop travels with her mother, Rose, to Almeria in Southern Spain.  Rose is seeking private medical treatment for a condition which intermittently causes mobility problems.  The unorthodox Doctor Gomez and his daughter, a nurse, take control of Rose leaving time for Sofia  to ponder on her life and dabble with holiday romances.  There are days on the beach, somewhat treacherous waters and the hot, arid atmosphere comes through clearly.  In fact, there’s something of the feverishness of sunstroke (or jelly fish stings) throughout the whole book.  Gomez’ approach to Rose, his desert-set clinic have an unrealness about them and both Sofia and her mother exist in a blur of confusion.

It is also a novel about shields.  Sofia uses her mother as a shield to stop her getting on with her  life and Rosa uses her disability in much the same way.  Rosa is never going to be happy following the doctor’s advice, although Sofia, who is not the patient, does.  Midway through there is a trip to Greece for Sofia to reunite with the father she has not seen for years but I found myself missing the Almeria environment and characters during this time.

I was certainly drawn in by the quality of the author’s prose and found Sofia to be a fascinating character.  The title implies something comforting, even soporific.  I’m not totally clear as to the relevance of the title, unless it refers to breast milk used a symbol of the pull between mother and offspring.  I do think this would be a perfect book for reading group discussion and would not be too surprised to see it win the Man Booker.  With one book left to read, however, I’m still championing “His Bloody Project.”

fourstars

Hot Milk was published by Hamish Hamilton in March 2016

Serious Sweet – A L Kennedy (Vintage 2016) – A Man Booker Longlist Review

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“Every time I see something good, or kind, or silly, or worth collecting, I remember it.  Every time the city gives me something sweet, I remember and write it down.”

I was mid-way through this, my 9th of the Booker longlist reads when the shortlist was announced.  This wasn’t on it but I kept ploughing on.  This does mean, however, I’m abandoning plans for now to read the other two that did not make the cut- “The North Water” by Ian McGuire and “Hystopia” by David Means in order to concentrate on the two I haven’t yet read on the shortlist.  (For more info about this see here).

I have a bit of a chequered reading history with A L Kennedy.  When “The Blue Book” came out in 2011 I decided that a love affair between two mediums would be right up my street and added it to wish lists and to be read lists.  To whet my appetite (as I decided to wait for the paperback) I read a short story collection from 1994 “Now That You’re Back” and it really did nothing for me.  Only one of the stories, the one that bore the collection’s title grabbed me in any way.  In fact, so put off was I by the experience that “The Blue Book” found itself being removed from the wish lists and to date remains unread.

Now I appreciate that “Serious Sweet” is Kennedy 22 years on and it was time for a reappraisal.  I read it with an open mind but I cannot say that I’m surprised that it did not make the shortlist.

This is the story of two characters somewhat adrift in modern London.  Meg is an ex-alcoholic who works in an animal shelter and Jon is a civil servant, working in Whitehall, who is disgruntled with just about everything.  The story opens with a scene which touches on a bit of a phobia of mine as Jon attempts to free a young bird trapped in some netting.  The detail and level of observation in this was too much for someone who regularly has nightmares about this kind of thing.  The author was not to know how disturbing I would find this opening but it nearly caused me to abandon the book (something I just don’t do).

Away from the bird incident Jon struggles to get to work, where all, we quickly sense, is not right.  The time ticks away in this book and yet Kennedy has the ability to regularly make time stand still through the detail in her writing.  There are regular little stand-alone vignettes of London life which are beautifully observed but become insubstantial.

We know that at some point Meg and Jon will meet, but not the circumstances.  Each seem rather bound up with internal monologues of anxiety and self-centeredness.  There will be times when you will be very frustrated with these characters and you may not care about those circumstances.  I read this on the Kindle and at about 80% through I discovered I was actually riveted by the potential of the plot and the way in which it had been set up.  This did not, however, fully sustain me for the rest of the book.

I did enjoy this significantly more than my previous experience of the author and “The Blue Book” is back on those lists again but I still feel there is something about A L Kennedy that is very much an acquired taste.  Is it because of too much internal ponderings by the characters and the jumping between first and third person narratives which ends up making “Serious Sweet” rather jarring?  On Amazon  some reviewers not prepared to mince their words have used “dull” and “ tedious” but there is something there- certainly enough to get it recognised by the Man Booker judges but for me, whatever it is, it’s not there consistently enough to make this an extra-special reading experience.

threestars

Serious Sweet was published by Vintage in May 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.