The Sea The Sea – Iris Murdoch (1978)

Does anyone still read Iris Murdoch these days?  She seems to have gone out of fashion.  I haven’t read her since 1997 when “The Green Knight” (1993), one of her later novels, really did nothing for me but back in the early-mid 80’s I read quite a few and one of my favourites was this 1978 Booker Prize winning title. I couldn’t actually remember any details of what it was about but I have over the years experienced occasional echoes of what I recalled as a very atmospheric piece which has the sea central to the characters and plot.

Actually, on re-read the sea wasn’t quite as omnipresent as I thought I remembered.  This is the tale of Charles Arrowby, a notable aging thespian, who retires to a simple life in a pretty ropey house close to the sea in order to escape London life.  The novel starts off as his memoir, a record of the women in his life, until the people he is writing about appear back in his isolated existence.  At first it seems almost as if he is hallucinating, early on he spots what he believes to be a sea monster in the waves and with people from his past re-appearing the reader suspects he is losing his grip on his mental faculties.  But, however implausible their reasons for being back in his life they are there and this coming and going at one point resembles a theatrical farce.  When he re- encounters the person he saw as the love of his life the novel shifts into a record of obsession.

Mid-way through I was finding it quite magnificent with the always fairly obnoxious Charles out of control, misjudging situations and behaving inappropriately.  It feels like it has come to a conclusion in a couple of places but Murdoch continues the tale using her love of analysis and philosophy which is both characteristic of her as a writer and occasionally a little wearying which might explain why she is not read as much as she used to be. She is not an easy read, her references make the text quite dense and there is much navel-gazing from her characters.  I remembered why I liked her so much and why I also found her frustrating but I was left with the general impression that I didn’t enjoy this as much as I did the first time round decades ago. The world she creates seems more alien now, it is not always easy to get what is motivating the characters and particularly here why Charles Arrowby is considered an attractive proposition when he is so hard to like. I did very much like the magnetic pull of the sea which she describes brilliantly throughout.

I’m not sure whether the Iris Murdoch revival is imminent but I was glad to revisit as she is one of those people whose demise has overshadowed her work.  The accounts of her heart-breaking dementia in her final years have been famously portrayed by her husband in writing and film adaptation and the image I have had stuck in my mind is this fervently intellectual mind ending up devouring episodes of “Teletubbies”.  Reading a work from when she was in her prime has rebalanced this for me.

The Sea The Sea was first published in 1978.  I read a Vintage Classics paperback edition.

100 Essential Books – Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart (Picador 2020)

This account of a troubled Glasgow childhood in the 1980s blew away the judges of the 2020 Booker Prize and is certainly one of the greatest debut novels of the twenty-first century.  It has an incredible emotional pull.

Shuggie is devoted to his mother Agnes, who, in 1981, is attempting to hold things together to keep her man, a taxi driver, and to eventually escape from the oppressive atmosphere of her parents’ home in a Sighthill tower block with her three children Catherine, Leek and Shuggie.  Her youngest is regularly referred to by other characters as “a funny wee bastard”, out of step with what is expected from a boy living close to poverty in his environment and totally dedicated to his mother.

When that escape is not quite how Agnes planned she resorts increasingly to alcohol and opportunities diminish for her and the family.   Agnes is a superb creation, equally monstrous and appealing, living an Elizabeth Taylor fantasy in an impoverished, tough world.  It is Shuggie, however, who the reader will root for.  His childhood makes often for grim and heart-breaking reading but humour is never far away and Stuart relates the tribulations of this family and those around them with such verve and energy that the reader is allowed to rise above the misery and see this extraordinary work for what it is- a tremendous achievement. 

It is rich in detail and beautifully observed throughout, the characterisation is so strong and there is often sympathy for the most alarming of occurrences.  It’s gritty and raw but at its heart is an incredible beauty and humanity which even when the reader is dabbing away tears of sadness, frustration or laughter is life-affirming.  There are very strong autobiographical elements in this fiction as the author grew up in Sighthill with an alcoholic mother.  He did manage to escape his environment and became a leading designer for Banana Republic, holds dual British-American citizenship and lives in New York with his art curator husband which is light years away from the world of Shuggie Bain.  It is probably this distance and the ability to look back on these years which gives this book its quality and power.  I haven’t enjoyed a Booker Prize winning novel as much since 2004 when Alan Hollinghurst won with “Line Of Beauty”.  The paperback is to be published in the UK next week and this would be one very good way of celebrating the reopening of bookshops after months of lockdown by purchasing a copy.

Shuggie Bain was published in hardback by Picador in the UK in February 2020. The paperback is available from 15th April 2021.

Barneys, Books And Bust-Ups (BBC4 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review



It has been Man Booker announcement week. After the last couple of years of reading the shortlist, beginning as soon as the long-listed titles were chosen so I got some chance of fitting them in time before the winner’s announcement, I decided this year not to read any of them.

There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, last year’s winner “Lincoln In The Bardo” by George Saunders proved what a lottery the whole thing is (Julian Barnes has referred to the award as “Posh Bingo”). Secondly, despite reading a good chunk of eligible literary fiction during the year I hadn’t even read one title on the longlist and when the shortlist was announced I wasn’t motivated enough by the choices to put this right. I did think that after the last couple of last summer/autumns getting through the titles that it was going to become a bit of an obsessive feature in my reading year, but I haven’t missed it in the slightest this year.

That is in many ways a shame because it this Literary Prize’s 50th Anniversary and I don’t know whether the first writer from Northern Ireland to win the award, Anna Burns for “Milkman” was the most deserving winner. (I’d read one previous novel by Richard Powers but not his latest, all the rest of the authors were new to me). I didn’t even watch the announcement on TV.

I did, however, tune in to this BBC4 documentary which was shown to mark the Booker’s 50th and which concentrated more upon the Prize night and the intrigue and controversy which has dogged or (more probably) enriched its history. Apparently, “the Booker has always been a magnet for scandal “ and this hour long documentary was prepared to spill the beans.

It was a mildly diverting hour which saw such anecdotes as John Banville recalling how one short-listed year he had got so drunk that had he won the award he wouldn’t have been able to collect it (he didn’t win), Anne Enright not being able to visit the loo, judges falling out over their choices and Selina Scott floundering on a live TV presentation by not recognising the judges. More shocking than all of this was the amount of cigarette smoke wafting in the air in clips from award ceremonies of just a few years back and also the number of times we saw the same bits of footage (Yann Martel jumping to his feet in triumph on quite a few occasions, for example).

Despite it being one of the literary world’s most prestigious prizes it can be a bit of a rod for the winners’ backs. 2103 winner Eleanor Catton, the youngest recipient, confided it has taken her years to get back on track and Dotti Irving, PR for the prize, said; “Quite often writers are in the middle of their next book. They want peace and quiet for that, well, they’re not going to get peace and quiet in the wake of the Man Booker.”

Nevertheless, this is the one that everyone, whether they admit it or not, wants to win. Kingsley Amis famously claimed he didn’t until he did, then it was a different story. Some of the older clips illustrated how media-savvy the modern writer has to be compared to the intellectual ramblings of literary titans of the 70’s and 80’s a time when everything seemed very beige.

I really want the Man Booker to feel more relevant. You can find the odd gem on the shortlist but they do need to ensure that they are getting the balance between quality and readability right and I do think that the Costas, for one, are currently doing this better. However, I certainly would not turn down the opportunity to be a Man Booker judge. This year there was a different feel to the longlist with both a graphic novel and more commercial crime fiction (Belinda Bauer’s “Snap”), which could have shaken things up had it appeared on the shortlist. With Val McDermid on the judging panel I had high hopes but it was not to be.

barneys22018 judges with the shortlisted titles

Judging from the title BBC4 gave this there was an emphasis on the in-fighting in an attempt to make it all seem a little more sexy and watchable than it turned out to be. It did get me looking up how many Booker winners I have read from the last 50 years and I make it 15, which is probably more than the average reader. Will this year’s winner bring my total up to 16…..? You’ll have to watch this space…..


Barneys, Books And Bust-Ups was shown at 9pm on BBC4 on Monday 15th October. It is currently available to view on the BBC I-Player.

Man Booker 2017- Is it possible to pick the winner?

The winner of the Man Booker prize 2017 is announced in just a few hours.  The Duchess of Cornwall is due make the presentation this evening.  I have managed to get through the six titles on the shortlist and thought I’d give a kind of end of term report and make my prediction for the prize.  I’ll list them in the order the bookies are favouring them:


Lincoln In The Bardo – George Saunders – The bookies hot favourite was just a little too odd for me both in structure and content.   Latest sale figures suggest it has sold around 10,000 copies  ***


Exit West– Mohsin Hamid – Also notching sales of around 10,000 this is a sparse novel which impressed but I felt it fizzled out towards the end.  ****


Elmet – Fiona Mozley – A debut which was apparently partly written on the author’s phone which sounds terribly modern but this is a traditional, poetic literary novel which packs a good punch.  Another one with sales figures around 10,000 ****


4321– Paul Auster – It’s just too long and with too much detail.  It’s ambitious, clever and probably has the most memorable moments but it is an exhausting read. Now published in paperback which at least makes it lighter, around 15,000 people have bought this so far.****


Autumn – Ali Smith.  With around 50,000 copies this is definitely the commercial hit of the bunch but the bookies place it at 8-1.  I think it’s a strong contender and is the most enjoyable of Smith’s books I have read.  ****


The History Of Wolves – Emily Fridlund – The Bookies outsider and my outsider as well.  It just didn’t sparkle like I hoped it would.  (So probably the winner then).  Not really tempting the book-buying public with sales so far of around the 3.5 thousand mark. ***

Phil’s Tip For The Prize– I’m going for Elmet by Fiona Mozley.

POST ANNOUNCEMENT UPDATE– And the winner is……………….George Saunders for Lincoln In The Bardo proving once again I just cannot second-guess the Man Booker judging panel.  In her summing up Baroness Lola Young, the Chair of the Panels “This really stood out because of its innovation- its very different styling and the way in which it paradoxically brought to life these not quite-dead souls in this other world.”  I said in my review, with equal gravitas; “what I couldn’t get out of my head was a manic, adult version of “Rentaghost”.” So each to their own, I suppose and congratulations are certainly due to George Saunders for beating off the competition with this great award for his first full-length novel.  Now it has won the prize many more will be seeking out the book.  It certainly hasn’t been the biggest seller of the list to date and a copy prominently on display in one of the libraries where I have been working has been sat ever since it came in without anyone taking it home.  All that will change now………Roll on, Man Booker 2018 where I will no doubt once again be barking up the wrong literary tree.

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


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 are just too unsettling for me to really get behind this one.

Lincoln In The Bardo was published in March 2017 by Bloomsbury

The Sellout – Paul Beatty (Oneworld Publications 2016) – Man Booker Shortlist Review



“And if you think about it, pretty much everything that made the twentieth century bearable was invented in a California garage: the Apple computer, the Boogie Board and gangster rap.”

Oneworld Publications are aiming to take the Man Booker Prize two years in a row after triumphing last year with Marlon James.  There can be said to be a number of similarities between that book and this – the African-American male author, the many cultural references that the British reader might struggle with, the mix of fact and fiction and both novels’ sheer edginess replete with words and images which may make the average reader feel uncomfortable. I’m not a huge fan of satire.  I feel for it to work well  you really need to know about the area being satirised (that’s why Margaret’s Thatcher’s favourite TV show was famously “Yes Prime Minister”).  Now I obviously do not have much awareness of Black American life in Los Angeles so this might not have been a good match. I say this but last year Paul Murray’s  satire on the Irish economy “The Mark & The Void” was my favourite new read so perhaps satire is something you get more into with age and experience as I really enjoyed this book too.

“The Sellout” is the main character (I’m not too sure why he’s considered a sellout) whose father talks down  suicidal African-Americans until he is shot by the Police.  This prompts the son to begin a process of reversing civil rights achievements beginning by redefining the boundaries of his neighbourhood that had become so notorious it was wiped off the map then introducing priority seating for whites on the buses and re-establishing segregated schools all as a way of improving lives.  When he unwittingly finds himself a slave-owner he falls foul of the law.  The satire is biting, there is little of the African-American existence which Beatty doesn’t have his characters comment upon and there are attacks on much of modern-day America.  I struggled through the Prologue but once I got my footing within the book and knew what was going on I really did begin to enjoy it.

An ex-child actor (from the real-life “Little Rascals” series) Hominy attaches himself to “The Sellout” when he takes on his father’s role and stops a suicide attempt.  Hominy is a great character seeking out the now-censored most racist of his film shorts because they contained his best acting.  The importance of The Little Rascals may not be appreciated by British readers as their history is complex.  These films were the first to portray black and white child actors as equals yet have been criticised for the stereotyping used in order to get laughs.

I think that like the Bob Marley assassination attempt themed “Brief History of Seven Killings” this may not appeal to the general reader and reading the “n” word so  frequently is difficult whatever the context but there is much to enjoy in this profane battering-ram of a novel.

The Sellout won the National Book Critic Circle Award for Fiction and has been shortlisted for the Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction.  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.

Shortlist worthy? – Yes

Update – Sept 13th – Congratulations to Paul Beatty and Oneworld  for making the shortlist.

Update- October – He’s done it! Paul Beatty has won the Man Booker Prize 2016 with Oneworld making it two years in a row.  This was the first book of the longlist I read and although it did stick in my mind I did not think it was going to be the first past the post.  Congratulations!


The Sellout was published by Oneworld in 2016.  Many thanks to the publishers for providing a review copy


The Green Road – Anne Enright (2015)


It is 1980 in County Clare and Rosaleen Madigan takes to her bed after her son Dan tells he is going to become a priest.  This family tale is Man Booker Prizewinning author Anne Enright’s 9th novel.  Spanning twenty five years of the life of Rosaleen and her four children we meet them at various times in their lives until they are all brought together again for a final family Christmas in the house they grew up in.

Eldest daughter Constance waits for a mammogram test, son Emmet saves lives in Africa but is thwarted by a relationship and a dog and actress daughter Hannah struggles to cope with motherhood and alcohol.  The most vibrant of these is Dan, whose route to the Priesthood is diverted by trips to Fire Island, grappling with his sexuality at a time when men are falling rapidly to AIDS.  This provides a very haunting section of the novel.

Although the family go their separate ways , the men getting a considerable distance away, there’s no real escape from the complex relationships they each have with their mother whose presence lurks in the background.

“Why she could not be nice to them, she did not know.  She loved them so much.  Sometimes she looked at them and she was flooded with love, she just had to go and spoil it.  It made her angry in the after-wash.  They were so beautiful.  They used to be so beautiful.  They were so trusting and good.  It made her feel not good.  Unappreciated.  It made her feel irrelevant.  That was it.”

It is full of “moments” this novel – vignettes of excellent writing on coping with the complexities and tensions of life.  The bringing together of the family for the final section works  beautifully, returning home is so often poignant in fiction and this is no exception.

The Green Road of the title is a coastal road running through Burren in County Clare and provides a surprising dramatic highspot of the novel.

The characters are well-drawn and the dynamics of the relationships with one another is handled subtly and convincingly.  I have never read Irish novelist Anne Enright before (and I must admit I didn’t feel that inspired when I saw the cover) but I am very glad I picked it up and will now add to my reading list “The Gathering” which scooped many awards including the Man Booker in 2007.




The Green Road is published in hardback in 2015 by Jonathan Cape.  It has recently been nominated for the Eason Book Club Novel of the Year in the Irish  book awards.

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton (2013)


Now this really is a big book, in every way. Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and holds the title of the longest book to win that award. It really does take some reading, although, the feeling I got on completing the book was one of satisfaction. Reading this was a rewarding experience. Set in 1866 in New Zealand’s gold mining district where a group of twelve men meet to put together their stories of a rogue sea captain, a prostitute and the death of a hermit, later found to be rich. It is a densely plotted, shifting book with a swirling pattern of events and narratives, likened probably (although I admit to being a little vague on this aspect)to the night sky and astrological patterns. That aspect of the novel, the occasional chart and astrological chapter headings didn’t really grip me and I didn’t feel that it added to the experience of the novel. As a literary device it felt a little too artificial. What did grip me, however, were the memorable characters and the authentic feel of the novel. It did feel very much like a lost piece of mid-Victoriana. Perhaps most impressive was the author’s skill in leading us through her lengthy involved work with its twists and turns without getting the reader lost. I recently read a shorter, Man Booker 2014 shortlisted novel which would have benefited from Catton’s skill with this. It is ambitious, brave, literary and an unsurprising winner. However, I still harbour this lingering feeling that I had missed out on something (it’s the astrology theme again), that there was something allegorical I hadn’t been able to decode. I’ll keep it on the shelves for a re-read, but because of its length it won’t be for a while!  fourstars

I’ve just had a look at the previous winners of the Booker Prize (first awarded 1969) and have discovered I have read just twelve of them, which isn’t a particularly impressive total. I’ve read six of them this century, which is a little better but most of the earlier books have passed me by.

My top three Booker Prize winners

  1. Sacred Hunger – Barry Unsworth (1992)
  2. Line Of Beauty – Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
  3. The Life Of Pi – Yann Martell (2002)

with honourable mentions to Peter Carey, Margaret Attwood and Iris Murdoch.