There is nothing like a good book to while away the hours, have you contemplating a different perspective and take you on a journey into another person’s life. With The Man Booker prize being announced today, Belle About Town reviews the six works of fiction that made it onto the shortlist – and once the announcement is made – update you with the winner!
C by Tom McCarthy
C is the life story of Serge Carrefax, born at the turn of the 20th Century to a wonderfully eccentric family (his sister Sophie poisons the family cat, then puts in a request to stuff it herself ). We follow him through his childhood to the army, where he fights in World War One to the roaring 20s in London and beyond. Tom McCarthy has created a wonderfully entertaining hero, by turns incredibly lucky yet also struck by tragedy. The author’s skill lies in balancing the pathos and the humour – the pages describing Sophie’s breakdown are unbearably poignant, as are Serge’s experiences in the war, while his evening at a séance is nothing short of a comic masterpiece. And it manages to be both a page turner (in the sense that you can’t wait to find out what happens to Serge next) but also makes you want to linger over each chapter, as Serge is such wonderful company you want to make his adventures last forever.
However, it hasn’t been a hit with everyone. Rarely has a novel divided its audience quite so evenly (‘over-literary’ is one of the many criticisms levelled at it by some readers). It’s certainly a book that bears re-reading (and would be just as rewarding second time round) perhaps its inclusion on the shortlist might persuade reluctant first-timer readers to give it another chance. It’s a hugely enjoyable read and would be a worthy winner.
Jack is five years old. He’s spent the whole of his short life in a room that measures 11ft by 11ft with his mum, who we only know as Ma it’s where they eat, sleep, cook and go to the toilet. He has no idea there’s a whole world outside Room, as he calls it, but his mum can’t keep it a secret any longer. Jack narrates his story without any self-pity as far as he’s concerned, he has everything he could possibly want; he gets to spend all day with Ma, he regularly sees his friend Dora the Explorer on TV and he owns some toys they’ve made from household rubbish (when Ma pulls a loose thread from Jack’s trousers, the thread goes straight in the craft box). As Jack learns more about the world, the reader learns more about the circumstances that led the pair of them to spend their life in Room.
Emma Donoghue’s skill is in the fact this doesn’t belong in the ‘misery lit’ category far from it. Page after page, what shines through is the unconditional love they have for each other. Ma is desperate to give Jack as normal an upbringing as she can under appalling circumstances she schedules PE sessions to keep up his fitness, she limits his TV viewing so as not to rot his brain and he, in turn, is completely devoted to her. The saddest moment is when the reader turns the last page and has to say goodbye to the pair of them. Read this book you won’t regret it, or forget it.
Andrea Levy returns with a powerful and moving tale of slavery and it’s legacy in early 19th century Jamaica. The story is told chiefly through the narrative voice of the main character, July, a mulatto slave on a sugar plantation who is ‘elevated’ to the role of house slave/maid as a child after she is noticed by Caroline, the sister of the plantation owner, John Howarth. What follows is the story of July’s life as she re-tells it as an old woman under move favourable circumstances.
Levy’s Jamaican origin has clearly informed the book and she has herself noted that with The Long Song she set out to create a story whereby a reader could sense ‘pride in her slave ancestors’. Pride courses through every page; from the harrowing tales of degradation to the growing surges as the end of slavery becomes nigh with the outbreak of war and the great Jamaican slave revolt.
It is not hard to see why The Long Song, Levy’s fifth book, has been shortlisted for this years Man Booker prize. Although parallels have inevitably been drawn with ‘Roots’, Alex Haley’s authoritative tome on slavery in the US, Levy’s work is a powerful voice that stands on its own.
In the background to this book, Levy has recounted an expression told to her by an acquaintance which resonates throughout the book, ‘If our ancestors survived the slave ships they were strong. If they survived the plantations they were clever’. This is certainly true of the characters in this book.
In A Strange Room sees its narrator – who shares the same name as the author, leading to questions about whether it’s actually a novel at all – embark on three journeys. The first sees him travel through Lesotho with a man he meets on another trip; on the second he latches on to another group of travellers going to Malawi and Zambia; while the third trip is with a mentally ill friend to India.
For various reasons, it’s not an easy read firstly, Galgut switches between a third person narrator and a first person narrator frequently in the same paragraph, and occasionally in the same sentence. Secondly, the narrator never gives away anything about himself we learn nothing about him on any of his journeys, other than he seemingly has a job and lifestyle where he can take off on trips for weeks or months at a time with barely a moment’s notice. We have no idea what he’s escaping from, or why. It may only be a short novel – it’s less than 200 pages – but it’s a lot to ask of a reader to care about a character we know so little about. He returns from each journey unsatisfied, feeling that in some way his travelling companions have let him down. And returning from our own journey with Damon as our travelling companion, this reader at least, couldn’t help feeling a little let down too.
Parrot and Olivier in America could well be Peter Carey back at his best. It tells the story of a French Aristocrat and an English servant from their very different childhoods to their adventures together in America. The circumstances of their meeting and the book’s many coincidences and surprises make it incredibly engaging and hard to put down. The development of the characters and their various relationships is done so skilfully that empathy is easy. Carey’s wonderful humour is present throughout the narrative which makes it a joy to read. He also manages to give great insight into what life was like in Jacksonian America, in particular the contrast with attitudes in Europe at the time of the French Revolution. The land of opportunity compared with an era of upheaval and fear.
Overall, an exceptionally intelligent and charming novel which is a pleasure from start to finish. Carey is one of only two authors to have won the Man Booker prize twice and this novel is yet another triumph for him and well deserving of its Booker Prize nomination.
Loss and misfortune are the only way for Julian Treslove to feel alive – until he really experiences it. Treslove, an unsuccessful BBC radio producer, is fascinated with Judaism, which he explores through his relationship with old school friend Sam Finkler and their former teacher Libor Sevcik. Each represent a different type of Jew – one Zionist (Sevcik) and the other anti-Zionist (Finkler) and the Finkler Question of the title is in fact Treslove’s search for what is Jewish (The Jewish Question).
The three men bond over the loss of the women in their lives. Finkler and Sevcik both being widowers and the narcissistic and morose Treslove being disappointed that he hasn’t tragically lost so mourns that he hasn’t found ‘the one’ to lose. When Treslove is attacked in the street in a seemingly anti-Semitic assault, it forces the self absorbed Treslove to reassess his direction in life and how he measures his successes.
Jacobson’s not only achieves complex characterisation but also approaches the questions of what it is to be a Jew in Britain today with both intelligence and wit.
And the winner is… The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
By Zoe Hill, Devona Anidi, Sarah Brown
[picture credit: Yves]