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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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

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.

The Man Booker Prize 2017 – From Longlist to Shortlist

manbookerYesterday saw the announcement of the six titles deemed worthy to be on the 2017 Man Booker shortlist.  I’d been attempting to read as many as possible on the longlist in the hope that I would pretty much have the shortlist covered and read before the announcement of the winner on 17th October  just over a month’s time.  I read six of the titles on the longlist.  The reviews can be found be following the links:

Swing Time – Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton 2016)    ****

Autumn – Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton 2016)   ****

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury Circus 2017) *****

Days Without End – Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber 2017) ****

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (Fleet 2016) *****

History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson 2017) ***

With two excellent five star reads discovered I was confident that I had maybe even read the eventual winner.  But good old Booker, unpredictable as ever.  The Whitehead and Shamsie books have failed to make the shortlist.  Of the six I have read only two have made the cut and one of those is the only one I rated as three star.  In case you missed out here is the shortlist.

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Autumn- Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton 2016) –  I described this as “it will repay re-reading” and “it is certainly shortlist-worthy)

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History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson 2017) – I said “it never fully realised the potential I thought it had in the first few chapters.”

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4321- Paul Auster (Faber & Faber 2017) – Yes, thanks for this Man Booker judges.  I got this from the library where I found it taking up a good chunk of shelf space.  It’s 866 pages of large hardback which probably explains why it hadn’t been borrowed much.  I’ve been saving it until the shortlist announcement, secretly hoping that it might not make it and then I would return it unread.  Now I’m going to have to go for it.  Hope it’s worth it.  It’s presence on the shortlist means that readers will now start requesting it so I better crack on with it asap.  Paul Auster is the only one of the four authors who I have read books by before.

elmet

Elmet – Fiona Mozley (JM Originals 2017) – A debut novel from a British author.  I originally thought it odd that someone would write about those large cans of hairspray you see in hairdressers, but apparently that’s Elnet.  I bought this yesterday from Waterstones and I will be reading it if there is anytime left after I’ve finished 4321.

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Lincoln In The Bardo – George Saunders (Bloomsbury Publishing 2017)- American author.  This is currently not yet available as a paperback.  I bought a Kindle copy as it is much cheaper.  (£4.99 on Amazon yesterday).  According to Ladbrokes this seems to be the early favourite.

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Exit West – Moshin Hamid (Hamish Hamilton 2017) – I saw this at Waterstones (they actually had signed copies in the branch I was in) but thought I’d hold out on this for a bit until I’ve cleared the backlog of reading, which probably means that this will be the winner!

Many congratulations to the six authors that have made the shortlist.  I hope the four I haven’t read are outstanding as they have taken the places of sure-fire contenders Colson Whitehead and Kamila Shamsie.  It’s very unusual for me to back the actual winner but I’m certainly going to get reading in order to voice my opinion.

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

 

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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hotmilk

“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

The Man Booker Shortlist

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Yesterday the shortlist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize 2016 was announced.  My aim was to get reading the longlist so that when the shortlist was announced I would not be overladen with unread books.  I am currently reading my 9th book on the longlist of 13 (“Serious Sweet” by A.L Kennedy- which did not make the shortlist- I’ll let you know my opinion soon) and have actually now already read 4 of the 6 on the shortlist.

So huge congratulations to the final six, one of which will be scooping the £50,000 top prize and will be a guaranteed best-seller.  The six who made the cut are

sellout The Sellout – Paul Beatty – The rather wonderful Oneworld Publications are aiming to make it two years in a row with this.  I concluded  “It deserves a place on the Booker shortlist but the jury might opt for something very different from last year so would be an outside chance to scoop the prize.”  Read my review of this  book here

hotmilkHot Milk – Deborah Levy -Published by Hamish Hamilton and the Bookies Favourite to win the prize.  I still haven’t managed to get my hands on a copy yet but I’ve scheduled it into the reading list.  I’ll let you know what I think.

bloodyproject His Bloody Project – Graeme McRae Burnet-Published by Contraband, a very small Scottish Publishing house I am absolutely delighted to see this on the shortlist.  I said  “This is a book which will be strongly competing for my Book Of The Year and will hopefully win over the Man Booker judges much in the same way as it has won me over. “.  Read my review of this book here

eileenEileen- Otessa Moshfegh- Published by Vintage.  I said  “It is undoubtedly well-written and Moshfegh keeps us guessing throughout…………I would be very happy to see this on the shortlist.”.  Read my review of this book here

szalay All That Man Is – David Szalay – The second book on the shortlist for Vintage.  I really enjoyed this but had some reservations about the structure of the book, saying; But is it a novel?  This obviously did not worry the judges too much.  Read my review of this book here

madelinethienDo Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien – Published by Granta and the second of the two not to make it yet onto my reading pile.  I’ll let you know what I think, hopefully, before the announcement of the result on 25th October.

Obviously, I still have two to read but at the moment the book I will be championing is “His Bloody Project”.  The book I am most disappointed by it not reaching the shortlist was “Work Like Any Other” by Virginia Reeves (Scribner 2016).  I have read this but not yet posted my review so look out for it soon.  It’s a good one.