253 – Geoff Ryman

I first heard about Geoff Ryman’s novel ‘253’ as a recommendation from Michael Kindness on one of my favourite podcasts ‘Books on the Nightstand’ and it instantly appealed. I then slightly obsessed about it to the point that TCO bought it me as a surprise. Living in London for as long as I have (over a decade) I am still discovering new parts of it, have become rather obsessed in some parts of its history and have begun recently to want to read more books about it and its people, even if they are fictional. ‘253’ is very much a London novel, it is also a great novel if, like me, you really like to get snippets into the average man and/or woman’s life and have a bit of a nosey. 

In London you cannot really avoid the underground, ok you can but you know what I mean, and getting on the underground means that you surround yourself with other people daily. People you know nothing about and yet don’t you occasionally find yourself wondering who they are and what their stories might be. Well ‘253’ is a novel, though in some ways it reads like a succession of very short stories that can interweave, that looks at one particular train during seven and a half minutes between Embankment and Elephant and Castle on one particular day and a very fateful journey in 1995.

As the blurb itself states “a Bakerloo line train with no one standing and no empty seats carries 252 passengers. The driver makes 253” and this is the story of each one of those people as they go through what is a daily routine to them and we step into their thoughts (all done in just 253 words per character) and learn a lot about them and why they have ended up in that particular train surrounded by those particular people. What Ryman does which only makes the book all the more clever is that on the train are people who know each other and so as the book goes you get additional twists to certain tales you have already seen. Coincidence and fate do seem to be a theme in the book the whole way through. 

I did think writing 253 characters in the same amount of words would make the book somewhat repetitive and the fact each character is summed up in the sections “outward appearance”, “inside information” and “what they are doing or thinking” would make it all rather formulaic and possibly a little bit dull. It wasn’t at all. Each character is very individual from Estelle who is in love with Saddam Hussein, Justin a journalist posing as a homeless man, Jason who has just discovered he is made for older women, James who anaesthetises ill Gorilla’s for a living… I could go on and on there are so many marvellous characters and tales to choose from.

Reading 253 on the Bakerloo Line

I do think part of the success with the book for me was that I didn’t read it as a novel. I would read about a carriage of characters or just one or two between other things because if you read it in one go or maybe it was the only book you read for a week I think the charm could wear off and that would be a real shame as this book is brilliant. In fact what proves its brilliant further is that as someone who doesn’t like footnotes or when an author steps into the work to give you extra titbits, I was fascinated by Ryman’s. 

I was interested to learn that this was originally a book published on the internet before it was bought and became available in ‘the print remix’ (it has been republished this year) and how the author felt it changed in differing formats. Online it showed similarities between these strangers and in book form it does show you the major differences. I found it an exciting, funny and refreshing way to read a book and Ryman is definitely an author I now want to read much more of. 

A book that will: be perfect for you if you love books about London, or cities in general and their inhabitants, or if you just like a nosey into people’s lives. If you like original fiction then this is also ideal as it’s something very different. I think this will become a cult classic. 9/10 

Savidge suggests perfect prose partners; 

Anthropology by Dan Rhodes – a collection of 101 short pieces of fiction all told in 101 words and done just as brilliantly as ‘253’ is.
The Maintenance of Headway by Magnus Mills – if you like reading about big cities and the people who work in them then this comic tale of bus drivers and their depot should just do the trick.

A big thanks for the recommendation, which I know wasn’t aimed specifically at me, from Michael Kindness. I also have some of Anne Kingman’s recommendations in the TBR and will report back on those in good time. Have you ever heard about a book on the radio, TV or via a podcast and needed to read it pretty much there and then? Was it as good as you hoped? Have any of you read ‘253’ and what did you think? Which other Geoff Ryman books could you recommend, I currently quite fancy ‘Was’ have any of you read that?


Filed under Books of 2010, Geoff Ryman, Harper Collins, Review

29 responses to “253 – Geoff Ryman

  1. winstonsdad

    been wanting to read this my self since michael recommended it ,sounds very quirky all the best stu

  2. Intriguing! I do love London, and I actually am awfully fond of the Underground. I’ve never heard of Ryman but I’ll have to check this book out!

    • This is a great book and is very much about the underground and unlike Tobias Hills novel which had me very excited and then very dissapointed, this book is as good as you would hope.

  3. I’ve never heard of this book before, but you’ve piqued my interest. I commute on the tube everyday, so maybe this will uplift my hellish journeys during rush hour just a little.

  4. I read (and loved) Anthropology based on your recommendation, so will give 253 a chance. Looks like my library system doesn’t carry it, but will keep my eyes open and check some other sources. Sounds intriguing!

    • I am not sure what the deal with the reissue of the book and where has it yet. My library did the other day though weirdly, for a moment I thought ‘oooh they are reading my blog’ which I am certain is not the case. I did have a moment though.

  5. Nick

    I love Ryman’s books. Lust is pretty outrageous – unforgettably funny and erotic, and stuff about locating the gravity of the soul, too. My absolute all-time favourite that I recommend to everybody is The Child Garden. I have been looking forward to reading Was for nearly a decade – a friend of mine told me it was very, very sad. For some reason, she didn’t like that!

    • I have heard that a very kind publishing stalk is sending me ‘Air’ and ‘Was’ I am particularily excited about the latter and will possibly have to read that instantly.

      I will have to look up Lust and The Child Garden, how exciting to find an author with so many more great books to try!

  6. Eva

    This sounds like such a fun idea for a book! And your photograph is perfect. 😀

  7. Rob

    I’m a huge fan of 253. I read it after I’d read Was which is magnificent and gleaning what I can from your site about your preferred read, I’d say it will be sure to delight you too. It is sad, mythical and life-affirming, and you’ll view The Wizard of Oz in a totally new way.

  8. gaskella

    I read 253 several years ago, and remember being pleasantly surprised that there was an overall story arc to the individual vignettes that really made it work. I’d now like to read it again of course, but gave my copy away.

    Another London book you might like to check out was Bleeding London by Geoff Nicholson in which a chap sets out to find people by walking through the A-Z.

    • That was what impressed me to Annabel, I thought the fact you had mini stories, then mini stories that interlinked and then an overall story was very clever.

      I will look up Bleeding London, that sounds brilliant.

  9. 253 is a book that takes me back a bit, because I read it at the age of 17 (I can still remember where I was, too — spending the week in Oxford). I remember enjoying it, but probably didn’t get as much out of it as I would now, so I really ought to read it again.

    I haven’t read anything else Ryman since, though I’ve always intended to.Air is probably his most highly-regarded book (it won three awards), but I’ve also heard great things about Was.

    (Incidentally, I love that the cover of 253 hasn’t changed since it was published — now, that’s the mark of good design.)

    • I would recommend this for a re-read, I think its one I will go back to one day, and maybe more, in the future.

      I think the cover is brilliant, its another part of the whole thing that made me want to read it.

  10. The premise, the format, everything about this book intrigues me. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find it, but I’m certainly going to try. Thanks!

  11. This is the first I have heard of this book, but I am totally intrigued by the premise. I hope my library is able to find a copy for me!

  12. louise

    I bought this book many years ago when it was first published and it has sat gathering dust on my shelves ever since. Having read your review I am inclined to dig it out and give it a go. I travel on the underground every day so I’m sure it will appeal. I think what has put me off it so far was that I thought it was loads of short stories but now that you mention that they are interlinked I feel better about giving it a go.

    • They are interlinked, I wouldnt read it all at once though as so many characters and soo many stories could be detremental to 253 if you are after a quick few sittings read, and this is a book that should be savoured and loved.

  13. This does sound fascinating. It combines three of my great loves: transit, London, and voyeurism.

  14. This sounds awesome. The first time I visited a major city as a child, I was struck by the crowds of people and wondered about all their individual stories.

  15. Pingback: Lastest Incomings & Postal Problems « Savidge Reads

  16. Parker

    ive wanted to read this sicne michael mentioned it on Books on the Nightstand. it interested me, does anyone know if i could get this online anywhere, i live in the United States

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