Category Archives: Man Booker

Almost English – Charlotte Mendelson

Why is it that families can be so fascinating to us in fiction? Is it because we all think our families are absolutely mental? Is it because we can’t choose them yet (I find sometimes rather annoyingly) we have this strange bond with them? Is it because in this modern forward thinking age the idea of a ‘normal family’ (with divorces, step parents, deaths, adoption, disowning) of two point four children simply doesn’t exist and the evolvement of it is strangely fascinating? I could go on, but I won’t – just in case my family are reading this. Family saga’s, though I don’t really like the word saga, especially the dysfunctional kind can make for great reading, such is the case with Charlotte Mendelson’s latest novel ‘Almost English’.

Mantle Books, 2013, hardback, fiction, 392 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Marina is sixteen. She has decided to leave the comforts of her comprehensive and her family home in favour of boarding school, a place she believes will be brimming with adventure, midnight feasts, independence, boys and dare she admit it sex. What more could she need. It also means escaping her mother, Laura, and her crazy Hungarian great aunts and Grandmother, Rozsi. However boarding school is not what she expected it to be, she isn’t popular, she isn’t cool and she isn’t on the young men’s radars at all. In fact she is a bit of a loner and a seen as a bit of a geek. She is miserable.

Admittedly I am not known as a fan of the ‘coming of age story’ yet ‘Almost English’ is in many ways such a tale. Though it is just as a coming of age tale of a young girl, it is also a coming of age story for a mother in her mid forties, as Laura is also miserable too sleeping on her in laws couch, her husband having left one day, in a dead end job and having a very unfulfilling and unexciting affair. Laura is also miserable. It was the duality of this in ‘Almost English’ that I found really interesting and indeed one of the things that I liked the most about it, though truth be told there is lots and lots to like here.

As the book goes on we see how as a teenager Marina is struggling to work out just who she is and what she is made of. Also, after meeting the Viney family, Marina is looking at what she might be aspiring to be. She sees adulthood as being the most thrilling time ever, yet we see through Laura (and of course adding our own life experience into the mix) that adult life is just as hard, in fact sometimes all the harder. There is also, as an adult reader, a strange sense of nostalgia and hindsight which makes you feel all the more empathy with Marina as she bumbles, rather awkwardly, through her sixteenth year and the romanticism in her life wanes slightly.

She is shy; clumsy; short; fatherless; scared of cats, and the dark, and the future. She is going to be a doctor but knows she isn’t up to it, and if she doesn’t get into Cambridge her life will be over. And, unbeknownst to anyone at Combe, she lives with old people in a little bit of darkest Hungary, like a maiden in a fairy story. Or a troll.

In case I am making the book sound like it is depressing, it honestly isn’t. One of the things I really liked about the book was Charlotte Mendelson’s sense of humour throughout. Marina’s clumsiness and general teenage angst will make us laugh in hindsight, we have all been there. Importantly Mendelson knows just when to put a laugh in, when the book gets a little dark we get a titter, never a guffaw, to lighten the tension. This also works the other way will ‘the crazy Hungarian oldsters’, as Charlotte calls them, often provide a laugh yet as we read on their background story is a rather tragic one. Throughout the balance is just right, you will laugh out loud but it doesn’t descend in farce, the bleakness and black humour complement each other, laughter sometimes making a dark turn all the darker.

To the casual Englishman, were one present, she might appear as other grandmothers: reading glasses on a chain, worn wedding ring. Do not be deceived. Rozsi is unusually clever and fearless by her compatriots’ standards. Her younger son Peter, Laura’s former husband, used to call her Attila, with reason. Laura, whose references are more prosaic, thinks of her as Boudicca dressed as Miss Marple. This is not a woman one ignores. She has a white bun and black eye-brows, her cheeks are soft and age-spotted, but consider the cheekbones underneath; you think she forgives easily? Think again.

‘Almost English’ is also a book brimming with issues (depression, cancer, desertion, class, race) without ever becoming an ‘issue based book’, again this is a hard thing to pull off but Mendelson deftly combines these elements as she does the humour, nothing feels forced and even when another dramatic twist ensues it’s not melodramatic. I am wondering if Charlotte Mendelson should take up tightrope walking as her sense of balance is spot on.

Most importantly for me though was the writing. Not just the story telling (we all love a good story) and the characters, or indeed the late 1980’s atmosphere, but the prose. In almost every paragraph there was a turn of phrase, a characteristic, moment or just a sentence that loved, be it snigger inducing or thought provoking. It is one of those books.

What does madness feel like? Can you develop it quite discreetly on the bus home from Oxford Street, carrying mothballs? Can it be normal to cry in a department store toilet, at advertising hoardings or thoughts of distant famine? Somebody must know.

The best way I can describe ‘Almost English’ is that it is a human book. It looks at people and how crazy, selfish, funny, heartbreaking we can all be. It is also a novel that will take you back to those awkward school days and emotions and hopefully make you smile with a certain nostalgic affection whilst also inwardly squirming. It is also a novel where you will leave and breathe alongside the characters and their highs and lows. I thoroughly recommend giving this a whirl. I shall soon be off to head to Mendelson’s earliest works for more.

You can hear me talking about ‘Almost English’ in more detail with Charlotte on the latest episode of You Wrote the Book here. It might be one of my favourite author interviews yet.

11 Comments

Filed under Books of 2013, Charlotte Mendelson, Man Booker, Mantle Books, Picador Books, Review

The Lighthouse – Alison Moore

I really should listen to people more and stop making assumptions so quickly, I really should. One book that has certainly highlighted this recently has been reading Alison Moore’s debut novel ‘The Lighthouse’, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. I had assumed that with a lighthouse on the cover it would be about the sea and boats, which it isn’t but I don’t read blurbs so I just assumed it would be. Then I heard it was a ‘walking book’ and as a child who went on too many walking holidays (sorry Gran, I do think of them more fondly now) that put me off too. However Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes raved about it to me when we recorded a Man Booker special of The Readers and now, having finished it, I am kicking myself for having not read it sooner.

Salt Publishing, paperback, 2012, fiction, 184 pages, borrowed from the library

Futh, which I admit I initially found such an unusual name it bothered me to start with and slightly distracted me, is a man who has decided to take himself off on his first holiday alone walking in the German countryside. As we meet him on the ferry we learn that he has recently become separated and in some nostalgic way has done what he and his father did when his mother left and head to Germany for a break of sorts. It is this almost circular and mirroring of the past and the present that we see more and more of as ‘The Lighthouse’ goes on. As Futh walks in the days that follow certain things mainly scents, as he is a chemist who creates artificial scents which I couldn’t help think was inspired by the fact the only thing of his mothers he had was a perfume bottle shaped like a lighthouse, remind him of the past and memories start to come back that he can’t quite figure out, yet as the reader we can which I thought Moore had planned rather intricately.

Now I am aware that I have fallen into the trap of making this book sound like it is a ‘walking book’ and actually it is so much more and that is where the second strand of the novel comes from in alternating chapters. Ester is a rather unhappy landlady of a B&B in Germany called Hellhaus (which is German for ‘lighthouse’) where Futh comes to stay. Her husband, Bernard, no longer seems interested in her and so finds herself sleeping with single men who stay at the hotel, and who will have her, in a way of getting her husband’s attention. This works but not in the way she hopes, his reaction is of a darker jealousy which cleverly creates a sense of unease and dread in the reader for all concerned.

“In the past, she always used beds she had already changed, but since receiving complaints about the sheets, she makes sure to use rooms not yet cleaned. Or she uses rooms whose occupants are out for the day, brushing off and straightening up the bedding afterwards, and sometimes, while she is there, browsing the contents of drawers and suitcases, picking up perfumes and lipsticks, testing them on herself. If guests ever notice their possessions, these small items, going missing, they rarely say anything.”

Both the characters of Ester and Futh are polar opposites yet they have similarities and are so fascinating they make you read on. She appears from the outside a little cold, sexually dominant and manipulative; you learn how she went for Bernard when she was originally dating his brother etc. Yet really ester is a woman who fell in love with a man who became bored of her and she became bored of her life, she wanted romance and indeed still collects and reads Mills and Boons, the promise they offer consoled with drinking gin during the day. Futh on the other hand is one of those people who seem to amble through life a little bit confused and is often overlooked, misunderstood or finds himself misunderstanding the world around him. I did love the fact that wherever he stays he has to work out an exit of safety, hence why he doesn’t like planes. He is someone who goes under the radar possibly because he is actually a bit boring. It is this ambling nature and of not understanding or being understood which makes the ending of the book all the more horrifying, but I won’t say more on that subject.

“He has got into the habit of always determining an escape route from a room in which he is staying, imagining emergency scenarios in which his exit is blocked by a fire or a psychopath. This began, he thinks, when he was in his twenties and living in an attic flat. His Aunt Frieda, worrying about stair fires and burglars, gave him a rope ladder. It seems important he should always know a way out.”

Another thing I really admired and found rather enthralling was the circular feel to ‘The Lighthouse’, something which the title seems to allude to right there and indeed the quoted paragraph above does too. Themes of how history repeats itself, with Futh’s mother (also called Angela) leaving his father for being boring, and then his wife does the very same thing. The very walk itself he goes in is circular, the bottle in his pocket is a lighthouse, Esters hotel has the name, the place Futh saw his father hit his mother and ended their relationship was on a walk to a lighthouse etc. Occasionally these fall into symmetries and seem a tad too much, the fact Ester dated one brother then another and Futh’s wife might have had an affair with his estranged step brother, or the fact Futh creates scents and carries an empty bottle of his mothers and Ester collecting perfume bottles seemed one too far but because the book is so, so good I ended up overlooking it, even if it did seem to be one connection that was thrown in for the plot a little.

I think ‘The Lighthouse’ is one of the most accomplished debut novels that I have read in quite some time, and indeed is one of my favourite novels of the year so far. It is a book that says so much and is brimming with themes and ideas in fewer than two hundred pages. It has shades of dark and light, there is some real humour at Futh’s expense making the darker undertones all the darker, the unease build throughout and the ending all the more upsetting. I had to keep re-reading the last few chapters. I would highly recommend you give this book a whirl and am thrilled that the Man Booker judges chose this over some more famous names or I might have missed out.

Who else has read ‘The Lighthouse’ and what did you think? Have you ever been put off a book by its cover and/or what you have assumed about it or thought the subject matter wouldn’t be your thing (I am also thinking of Madeline Miller’s ‘The Song of Achilles’ here) only to love it and wish you had read it sooner? Oh and you can read Trevor of Mookse and the Gripes thoughts here and also Kim of Reading Matters here as it was Trevor who said I should read it and Kim’s review that made me get this from the library!

17 Comments

Filed under Alison Moore, Books of 2012, Man Booker, Review, Salt Publishing

The Man Booker Shortlist 2012…

At some point today (apparently within the next hour or so) the judges of this year’s Man Booker Prize will announce their shortlist. Each and every year, which is swiftly becoming a tradition as this blog has a big birthday this week, I like to guess the long list and then the winner of the Man Booker (and indeed the Orange Prize) even if I haven’t read all of the contenders, which we never know pre-long listing, it just seems to be part of the fun of it all and getting more discussions about books going on here, there and everywhere.

Anyway I say which ones I would like to see go through and which ones I think actually will (because I can almost guarantee my choices won’t be the panels) lets remind ourselves of the long listed novels. I have put the ones I have read, or tried to, in italics. There is a link to the only one I have reviewed so far (as I am being sparing with reviews at the mo) or DNF next to them when I couldn’t finish them, in the case of ‘Communion Town’ haven’t finished yet (HFY) as I am currently reading it in chunks a chapter here and there which is working better than a straight read was. So here is the list…

The Man Booker contenders I’ve had a crack at…

The Yips – Nicola Barker (Fourth Estate)
The Teleportation Accident – Ned Beauman (Sceptre) DNF
Philida – Andre Brink (Harvill Secker)
The Garden of Evening Mists – Tan Twan Eng (Myrmidon Books)
Skios – Michael Frayn (Faber)
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce (Doubleday)
Swimming Home – Deborah Levy (And Other Stories)
Bringing Up The Bodies – Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate)
The Lighthouse – Alison Moore (Salt)
Umbrella – Will Self (Bloomsbury) DNF
Narcopolis – Jeet Thayil (Faber)
Communion Town – Sam Thompson (Fourth Estate) HFY

Overall from what I have managed to read it has been a really interesting list this year and one where three books in particular have stuck out for me. Those are Levy, Barker and Mantel. I would be thrilled to see them in the shortlist and currently I can’t call if I would like Barker or Levy to win the most, Mantel has already won recently so I am sure she wouldn’t mind me thinking this. Joyce’s novel, which initially seems the most commercial of the longlist (along with ‘Skios’ which I liked but wouldn’t short list) is a book which has stuck with me since I have read it and one I keep thinking about, so that is on my list. Oddly, though I didn’t finish it I want Will Self on the longlist too. You see I didn’t dislike the book at all, and I know Will Self takes work to read which is fine by me, it is just a book I needed a lot more time for and one I didn’t want to gulp down and resent because I wasn’t putting enough work in, so that makes my list. Finally, because I can’t suggest a novel that I haven’t read (though I really fancy reading ‘Philida’ when I go back to normal reading in a month or two) I am going to have Thompson as my last choice, though in a way I think its interweaving short stories more than a novel (controversial and why it might not go further), because I am enjoying it, I am admiring the prose and construction of the book and think it’s a book you could return to. So my short list would look like this…

My Man Booker Shortlist

What do I think will actually make the shortlist. Well my hunch is… Barker, Beauman, Brink, Levy, Mantel and Thayil. We will see though. What do you think? Which have you read and what were your thoughts? I will post the proper short list later when it has been announced.

Oh and don’t forget the wonderful new ‘unofficial’ Booker Forum that Trevor from Mookse and Gripes has set up which you can find here. Come and have a natter there too with everyone.

Update: The shortlisted authors are… Tan Twan Eng, Deborah Levy, Hilary Mantel, Alison Moore, Will Self and Jeet Thayil.

5 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Man Booker, Random Savidgeness

Swimming Home – Deborah Levy

‘Swimming Home’ has been a book that I had been meaning to read for a while, because of some lovely bubbling background compliments from various trusted sources, before it was long listed for the Man Booker Prize. That long listing, plus the fact I had loved a previous book by the same independent (and Arts Council funded) publisher, meant that when I saw it in the library I knew that I had to give it a whirl, and I am so glad I did as I think it will be one of my reads of the year.

*****, And Other Stories, 2011, paperback, fiction, 157 pages, borrowed from the library

I have often heard that all the best novels start with the best first lines. Now of course this isn’t always true and indeed is rather subjective to tastes however, for me personally, from the opening line of ‘Swimming Home’ I knew that this was going to be a book I would enjoy. As the novel opens from the very first line we are given a mystery, back story and darkness all in one go, which is very much what ‘Swimming Home’ is like throughout and just happens to be just my reading cup of tea.

‘When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation.’

As the novel opens we soon learn that Kitty Finch is going to be a character that we, and the people whose lives she forces herself into, are never going to forget. Well known, and rather well off, Poet Joe or Jozef Jacobs has come to spend summer in a villa in Nice with his wife Isabel, a war correspondent, teenage daughter Nina and family friends Mitchell and Laura to escape for a while and write. In fact everyone there is really escaping something. However one morning everyone is woken to a discovery of something floating in the pool which turns out not to be a bear, as suspected, but a naked woman and one who is very much alive, Kitty Finch. From the moment Kitty arrives the dynamic of the group is thrown and people start to do things out of character, for example Isabel invites Kitty to stay suddenly, or is it that Kitty brings out the cracks in the veneer that people use to cover their true selves which slowly start to unravel, again ironic as we soon learn that Kitty herself is unraveling rapidly forming a subconscious catalyst in everyone else.

‘Standing next to Kitty Finch was like being near a cork that had just popped out of a bottle. The first pop when gasses seem to escape and everything is sprinkled for one second with something intoxicating.’

This ‘mysterious stranger’ coming into a group unannounced and unwelcomed is admittedly not the most original of plot devices, yet of course with the right author they can do something very different and that is what I felt Deborah Levy did with ‘Swimming Home’. Everyone has secrets, yet as we go on and learn Kitty’s, we start to see those in the other characters whilst they are still sussing out Kitty’s themselves. It’s a great vantage point and one Deborah Levy does wonderfully well by almost seamlessly making us flit from each characters perspectives, a style that has sometimes been known to irritate me, yet here worked wonderfully well.

I absolutely loved Levy’s writing style. A word is never wasted and she can concoct, like in the opening of the book, a whole set of images in a single sentence. Everything is very real and people fully form in front of your eyes without her writing much and certainly never over writing. For example ‘Mitchell lay on his back sweating. It was three a.m. and he had just had a nightmare about a centipede.’ Or ‘Joe Jacobs lay on his back in the master bedroom, as it was described in the villa’s fact sheet, longing for a curry.’ Even the characters who fall slightly off centre stage get the same treatment, like the wonderful aged Madeleine Sheridan, though watch out for some of those background characters as they become more catalytic and important on occasion as the book goes. They are all fully formed, even by the most random of moments. Mitchell thinking it is a bear floating in the pool in the middle of Nice certainly says a lot about him from the off doesn’t it.

‘It was the fat man who liked guns calling up to her. Madeleine Sheridan lifted up her arthritic arm and waved with two limp fingers from her straw chair. Her body had become a sum of flawed parts. At medical school she had learned she had twenty-seven bones in each hand, eight in the wrist alone, five in the palm. Her fingers were rich with nerve endings but now even moving two fingers was an effort.’

I thought ‘Swimming Home’ was a truly marvellous book. I loved how Deborah Levy set up a simplistic and rather conventional premise and made it anything but. I loved how she through a set of characters of all ages (from teenage Nina to elderly Madeleine) all walks of life (from the rich Joe to the poor local business man Claude) together so richly and yet so tightly in so few pages. Most of all though I loved the underlying and brooding darkness of the book and the way Levy kept me on my toes flipping everything plot wise and playing games with prose style too. It is a book I will certainly re-read, one I didn’t want to take back to the library, and if all Levy’s books are like this I shall have to go through her entire back catalogue. It’s definitely one of my books of the year and one I would heartily recommend.

Here’s hoping it gets short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in four days time. I have actually read a few of the long list, though am eking out reviews at the moment while I read the Green Carnation Prize submissions, and this is one of my three favourites so far. Who else has read it and what did you think?

14 Comments

Filed under And Other Stories, Books of 2012, Deborah Levy, Man Booker, Review

The Man Booker Prize 2012

So today is the big day and we will find out what the judges of the Man Booker Prize 2012 have decided as a collective are their best 12 or 13 books of the past year. I personally love all the waiting and the guessing in the lead up to the announcement as well as all the discussion once the list has been announced; all of the ‘oh I can’t believe that this was on the list when that wasn’t’ etc. The debate it creates about books is fantastic and who can complain at that?

I also really love trying to guess the books that will make the Man Booker longlist each year. I am always way of the mark and look completely inept but who cares, again it is all part of the fun. I was asked by the lovely Katie at We Love This Book, rather in advance as I am away; if I would suggest some titles I would love to see on the list this year. You can see it here (which will open in a new window).

These are not my predictions though, I doubt my tastes will match five judges, I also think that we will see a lot of familiar faces this year (Amis, Carey, Banville etc) with previous listed authors being automatically being entered again. I have been thinking about this recently I can’t decide if I think that this is a good thing or a bad thing to be honest, there are pro’s and con’s.

As I mentioned before I am sadly out of the country while the announcement and all the initial debate is going on (the joys of being able to schedule posts ahead of time) which will be lovely as I will (hopefully) be relaxing in the sun but I am miffed that I will miss it all going on at the time, I will have to wait until I am back. So I thought I would ask you all a little favour…

I am hoping that some of you will please leave your comments (which I have been rubbish at replying at, sorry, I will be better when I am back and have had a proper break) below with your guesses or books you would like to see listed (or links to them), thoughts on the books when they are listed and what you would have liked to have seen appear on the list as well as or instead of. Then I can come and join in with you all when I get back – especially as I don’t have Facebook and the Man Booker website forum pages have vanished in the revamp. Oh and… Are any of you planning on reading the lot?

4 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Man Booker

Who Would You Like To See On The Man Booker Longlist?

It is a mere week away that the Man Booker Prize Longlist 2012 will be announced. After the interesting year that it had last year (which some might think is an understatement, I actually liked the surprise list last year) it will be interesting to see what this year’s new group of judges list as their best twelve or thirteen books from the submissions.

I have been asked to write a list of the twelve books that I would like to see on the list for We Love This Book and so I have been mulling it all over this morning (though I have until Monday to hand my thoughts in) as it is very different as to what I think will actually get longlisted next week, which I will report back on nearer the time.

So I thought in the interim, because everyone likes a guessing game and a list of books don’t they, I would ask all of you what you would like (and what you think if you want) will get longlisted for the Booker this year. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Are any of you planning reading the longlist or shortlist this year? I will read some of them, if I haven’t already, but as I am deep in prize submissions for the Green Carnation (hence why for a while there might be more ‘bookish thoughts’ posts than ‘reviews’ on the blog) it will only be the books I really fancy giving a whirl.

Oh and whilst I am asking questions… do you think I should have a Savidge Reads page/account on Facebook?

5 Comments

Filed under Man Booker

And The Man Booker Winner 2011 is…

Today is of course Man Booker announcement day, by the end of this evening we will know just who has won one of the biggest book prizes in the UK. I have almost read the whole shortlist now. I admit I really struggled with Julian Barnes (loved ‘Arthur and George’ this seems to be aimed at a certain market, which isn’t me) which is everyone’s favourite and whilst I like Esi Edugyan as soon as I put it down I find I want to read something else (bet this goes and wins now). I haven’t reviewed all the books so far but I will (I am beyond behind with reviews apols), speaking of which here is the short list if you have been on mars for the last few months (or simply not interested – there is a review coming later if the latter is the case)…

So who do I want to win? To be honest it’s a real toss up between ‘The Sisters Brothers’ by Patrick de Witt and ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ by Carol Birch…

I have I placed a little bet on one. After meeting Carol Birch last week (along with Jane Harris for Bookmarked – see photo below) and spending a lovely evening with her because she is just so lovely (as was Jane) and the fact that I think the journey she sends us on is so vivid and wonderful during ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’, along with the fact (as I told her) that she has converted me to books based on boats which I never thought would happen, that is my favourite. I will have everything crossed. Oh and you can hear me interview Carol here on ‘The Readers’ website.

Carol Birch, Jane Harris, Adam Lowe and Me

What about you? Oh by the way, before I ask more, I know lots of you read this blog from outside of the UK, is the Man Booker as big a deal worldwide, do let me know. It is something I have pondered a few times. So who do you want to win the Man Booker 2011?

4 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Man Booker

The Strangers Child – Alan Hollinghurst

I have been sitting on this review for months, well ok not literally sitting on it but certainly debating if I should put it up. I then thought, as I am out of the country, why not? You see my relationship with Alan Hollinghurst’s latest novel was one of excitement (as I got a bound copy before the advances came in), self hype of my own making, the hype upon release and then the joy of the first hundred pages, before sadly it all began to fall apart. Plus, the books sold a shed load now and I am well aware me being a little grumpy review wise about it won’t do it any harm, and its not really a normal Savidge Reads review, rather a bit of a disappointed grumble. 

Picador, hardback, 2011, fiction, 576 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Before I go into what I hope will be a fair critique of ‘The Strangers Child’ I should really discuss the premise of it. The novel is really a tale of people of years and years, the novel itself is told in five sections each relating to a different decade. The two main characters, well I thought they were the main force of the story though others may disagree, Cecil Valance and Daphne Sawle meet, along with Daphne’s brother George who is equally smitten with Cecil (this made me think of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ though apparently that’s not something you should say to Mr Hollinghurst, oops, but it does give the book a slight feel of ‘oh haven’t I been here before?’) and really we follow their lives from their first meeting and join them at various points in time as the book progresses.

As much as I am being vague to not give any spoilers away, I was also slightly at a loss as to why we meet these characters when we do, and why they tend to wander off. Yes, that’s real life… well possibly real life if you are very rich and can spend life being unlikeable yet fabulous.  These points in time, to me, didn’t seem pivotal, and I couldn’t get a hold on them. I didn’t mind the fact they were all rather unlikeable but as the novel progressed I just kept thinking ‘where is this going, and do I care?’ Some will say the rather random way in which the book is written is one of the cleverest points of the novel, really? I don’t expect my books linear at all, yet I sometimes wonder if ‘clever’ (which is the word I have seen in many reviews) is a good way of describing ‘we don’t get it and so it must be the authors intention to be a little unconventional, it’s the art of the book… how clever’. Hmmmm.

I can say the writing is utterly stunning, yet ‘stunning’, ‘beautiful’, ‘elegant’, ‘effortless’ (as the reviews keep on saying) prose can only go a certain way and I honestly feel in the middle of the book it became all about the prose and it simply didn’t stop. The beautiful prose started to drag and the effect of it started to sag and I thought ‘I’m not going to finish this’. Yet I did and as the last third starts the book indeed picks up again. The random plot threads make a little more sense, then they don’t and tantalise and then they sort of do.The characters stay being dislikeable yet readable and I liked the way it ended. Yes the way it ended, not the fact it ended.

This of course has left me very torn. There is no doubt that ‘The Strangers Child’ contains some utterly gorgeous prose, no question of that at all. I just wish there had been a much tighter edit on the book as with about 200 pages taken out of it, or several thousand of those wonderfully worded words, this book would have become a possible favourite of mine, I do love an epic after all. Instead I became rather bored, if somewhat beautifully.

12 Comments

Filed under Alan Hollinghurst, Man Booker, Picador Books, Review

Heat and Dust – Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

I have never been fortunate enough to go to India in the real world, it’s one of my ‘when I win the lottery’ destinations, but I am always fascinated by the life and culture it has both now and in its past. This is where fiction is a joy because at the turn of the page, with the right author, we can find ourselves transported into the lives of people we could never meet and the worlds we can’t simply pop on a train to. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s deceptively small novel ‘Heat and Dust’, as the title states rather effortlessly, transports the reader into India not once but twice, in two very different time periods.

John Murray, paperback, 1975, fiction, 192 pages, from my TBR

There are two parallel stories running throughout ‘Heat and Dust’. In 1923 we have Olivia who, knewly married, moves to India when her husband Douglas gets a job there working for the British Government. Whilst there she meets the local ruling Nawab, a prince, which leads to (and this isn’t spoiling the story, we know this very quickly) an affair and her desertion. Fifty years later, after hearing of her grandfathers first wife who disappeared, we meet an unnamed woman who wants to find out more about this mysterious Olivia and just what happened to her after she seemingly vanished and starts to follow her trail.

What is so interesting about the book is how the events of both women start to mirror each other yet at the same time are completely polar experiences. They are both in the region of Khatm and yet, with the time between them, they seem like very separate worlds and ones that in each case Jhabvala sets the atmosphere incredibly. The world Olivia inhabits is one of lavishness, to the point of being spoiled, she has lots of money and often bored, verging on miserable, with either too much time on her hands of being forced into ‘socialising’ with other expat wives like the matronly Mrs Crawford and Mrs Minnies, women she doesn’t like and who don’t really like her. It is a world that bares almost no relation to the horrors her husband Douglas sees which the Nawab accepts which Jhabvala gives us occasional shocking glimpses of.

“It happened when Mr. Crawford was away on tour and Douglas on his own in charge of the district. A grain merchant had died and his widow had been forced by her relatives to burn herself with him on his funeral pyre.”

Her step-granddaughter (which seems an odd title as they never met) however inhabits the poorer, if slightly more developed, Satipur. There is the thrill of the new world and also the mystery of piecing this woman and her scandal together. It’s a world of community, the relationship between her, her landlord Inder Lal and his wife, who people believe is possessed by spirits when we could see she has epilepsy, Ritu, also adds a whole new dimension to the novel. This is the world of the ‘heat and dust’ that we are promised from the books title, it’s a foreign, exotic and occasionally scary world, yet she throws herself into the life that greets her, albeit after having to get somewhat accustomed to it.

“The family of the shop downstairs also sleep in this courtyard, and so does their little servant boy, and some others I haven’t been able to identify. So we’re quite a crowd. I no longer change into a nightie but sleep, like an Indian woman, in a sari.
It is amazing how still everything is. When Indians sleep, they really do sleep. Neither adults nor children have a regular bed-time – when they’re tired they just drop, fully clothed, onto their beds, or the ground if they have no beds, and don’t stir again till the next day begins.”

There is a lot of mystery and often some tragedy in ‘Heat and Dust’, yet there is also some bright humour there too, often Jhabvala mixes them at the same time, bittersweet moments or a laugh that casts a dark show. A section in the book where the unnamed narrator takes on an almost obligatory relationship with a fellow Englishman, Chid, who has converted and in doing so seems to have developed a rapacious sex drive had me laughing a lot. Jhabvala wants to add some lighter notes in a world where poverty and lepers are rife, after all for some this is the day to day and it has happy moments. In the case of Olivia’s story line we have her gossiping with the leech-like Harry, a man who has somehow got into the pocket of the Nawab which itself then adds a dark undertone to how manipilative this ruler can be and how controlling.

I thought ‘Heat and Dust’ was a marvellous book, I should add it won the Booker in 1975 – a controversial year. It is a book that is about a country at two very different points in time, the tale of failed marriage, the mysteries of people and love in the unlikeliest of places. Many writers would have needed to write a huge novel to tell this tale, instead what we have is a book you can get lost in for a single sitting and be rewarded beyond expectation. Its an epic distilled in a way, if thats not a cliche. That to me shows the power of Jhabvala’s wonderful prose. I thought it was marvellous. It shocked me it’s not been in print for some time, along with a lot of the authors other work (which I am keen to read), however it’s coming out through Abacus in October, I’d advise you get a copy.

Have you read this and if so what did you think? Have you read any of the authors other novels? I seem to be having a good run with more of the classic Booker novels like this and ‘Moon Tiger’ any others you would recommend?

17 Comments

Filed under Books of 2011, John Murray Publishers, Man Booker, Review, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

The Man Booker Shortlist 2011… Thoughts

With what I thought was a little lacklustre flare, but then again I was in a Museum taking my twin cousins for a morning out, the Man Booker Shortlist was announced earlier today and here it is…

  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
  • Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch
  • The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
  • Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
  • Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
  • Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

I was really pleased to see Carol Birch (and doubly excited as she will be at Bookmarked in October with Jane Harris who a lot of people think was robbed a Man Booker long-listing, oops I might have let loose a secret there) on the list with ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’, delighted about ‘The Sisters Brothers’ too, happy to see ‘Snowdrops’, intrigued by Barnes and Edugyan which I will re-read and finish, and I did a chortle of glee that ‘Pigeon English’ was on the list – I almost cannot wait to see what all the book snobs are saying about that. I liked the book to a point though I didn’t love it, it’s not a typical ‘Booker’ book but hoorah for Kelman, it’s a bit of a fingers up at the vitriol that book has received.

So who do I want to win? Well there are two books it would make me happy to see take the crown, and those are Carol Birch and Patrick deWitt. Birch probably has the edge with me as I love the Victorian era, and this book really pleasantly surprised me. Expect a glowing review of deWitt in the next few days.

 

It could all change with a re-read and a finally finish reading though. We will see. What do you make of the list?

16 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Man Booker

The Man Booker Shortlist 2011

At some point today, probably this morning as apparently the judges decided it a week ago; the Man Booker Shortlist will be announced. I have to say when I first saw the longlist this year I was really, really excited. There were some debut novelists, an almost 50/50 ratio of male and female authors, and lots of independent publishers. In fact the list had a lot of people saying ‘what??!!’. I thought I would update you on what I have thought of the list so far, and what I think (or hope) will be on the list when it gets announced later today.

Thanks to TheLiteraryStew.Blogspot.com where I found all the covers in one image.

So I think the best place to start is looking at the longlist as a whole. I should say that there is a slight clause in this, I have read at least 100 pages of each of the books of the longlist, and I just haven’t finished all of them, or indeed reviewed all of the ones I have read. So I thought I would give you  a brief round up of the longlist reading experience. And if any of the ones I haven’t finished yet end up getting shortlisted then I will go back to them…

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – The bookies favourite, but not actually mine personally. Whilst I agree it is beautifully written and emotive I personally didn’t ‘get it’. I think maybe, and this isn’t meant to sound as ageist as it will, I was too young for it, rather like last years winner. I didn’t think it was eligible being so small, but it did mean that I managed to read it in two naughty sittings at a Waterstones in town, but shhh don’t tell anyone. I wouldn’t be cross if this was on the shortlist, and think it probably will be, I just think there were more exciting rather than ‘literary’ reads. Oh, I know this is a ‘literary’ award in case you think I am being silly. I just think ‘literary’ is very subjective, shouldnt a ‘literary’ book be a work of literature accessible to all? Not that I am saying this book is being bandwagoned by critics… maybe I need to read it again, and not sneakily hidden away in a shop.

On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry – I will actually be rather cross if this book doesn’t make the shortlist. I had enjoyed Barry’s previous novel ‘The Secret Scripture’ but this one just blew me away. I was expecting another ‘Brooklyn’ (which is wonderful in itself) with the tale of a young Irish girl and her journey to America, I got something equally wonderful but utterly different and utterly devastating. I loved it.

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch – Another favourite, I read this a while back and didn’t expect to like a book that was set so much on a boat (I have issues with books based on ships) I also loved this. It’s like a proper Victorian adventure, something that Conan Doyle would read and frankly he would have won a Booker prize, well he should have, if there had been such a prize then. I also found the emotional twist that develops in the second half of the novel was a pleasant surprise and one I wouldn’t have guessed.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt – Possibly my favourite ‘surprise find’ on the list. I don’t think that I would have read this if it hadn’t made the longlist (and there will be a very positive review coming soon) because it is by all sense and purposes a western, which I would normally avoid if I am really honest. I thought this was, excuse my French, bloody brilliant. There is something so fresh about this book that if you wouldn’t normally touch this genre then you really should try deWitt.

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan – A book I knew nothing about and I am still not too clear on. I started it, popped it down and haven’t gone back to it yet. That makes it sound like I didn’t like it, not so as I would like to return to it, I just wasn’t grabbed and I am not sure why. Well written, interesting subject, one to return to and think over more maybe?

A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards – Another novel that I would have heard nothing about had it not been for the Man Booker Longlist. I was intrigued from the title and the intrigue carried on in the pages as I started to read. It is in some ways a murder mystery, and yet not all at once. That makes it sound experimental and it isn’t a particularly experimental novel, it just has some good twists and turns both in terms of story and delivery. I hope that makes sense. Oh and I liked not liking anyone in it, how odd is that?

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst – Oh, oh, oh… ‘The Strangers Child’. Hmmm. I have the same issue in a way that I have with the Barnes novel. It is beautifully written… but. Whilst Barnes is a short novel, Hollinghurst’s is almost never ending. I totally understand people who are saying ‘oh my goodness the prose alone…’, I just think you need to have a story. Hollinghurst’s has several stories and yet none all at once, it’s also got a middle that (oops, ouch) sags and drags, it’s about 200 pages too long. They are a beautiful 200 pages though. I have been mulling reviewing this book ever since its release but am still on the fence… or simply undecided.

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman – I want to start off by saying that this book doesn’t deserve the vitriol that it’s been hit with since getting long listed. Give the book a bloody break people. It’s immensely readable, which is a quality that I think every good book needs. Sadly the story, for me, of teenage gangs and crime including murder whilst being very timely looses something in being told by a child narrator. A shame as I loved the narrative voice, the two aims of this book just didn’t quite go hand in hand.

The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness – I am midway through reading this. I can’t say that I think it’s the best book ever written but it has a certain something about it. It’s one of those things that you can’t quite put your finger on. I think the fact it’s slightly thrilling, slightly surreal and yet seems based so much on fact all merges to work for me. In fact it is reading about something that I know so little about that I think I am currently really enjoying. I haven’t finished it yet though but might just go out on a limb, there’s books that could be deemed ‘better’ and yet…

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller – Another one I have finished and haven’t written about properly yet as I only finished it recently. I liked this one despite the fact it was nothing like I was expecting. There’s a slight black and white noir film aspect to it, which I think sets it apart from ‘The Last Hundred Days’ which actually thinking about it now it is quite similar too in its sense of Englishman thrown into the unknown (how have I only just thought about this, too close to them), and then develops and becomes more and more compelling.

Far to Go by Alison Pick – I have reviewed this for We Love This Book but not on here yet. The more time I have had away from it the more it has grown on me. It didn’t fully blow me away, but only three or four of this years longlist have, yet the story  of the Bauer’s and the Kindertransport has stayed with me more than I expected. It’s a WWII story with a twist and is a little bit different. The modern story just bothered me a little, it felt a tiny bit like a forced ‘see how the war keeps affecting people’ device, if one that leads to an interesting conclusion.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers – I wanted to like this one, I liked the idea of a dystopian novel on the list and a small publisher being on the list too. I just didn’t really think it was a great book and have stopped. I think anything can happen in fiction, no limits, if the author can take you with them and sadly I am not convinced. I gave up at page 105! I might try it again though as it does have promise, just not as much as I hoped.

Derby Day by D.J. Taylor – I was excited about this one, I love all things Victorian after all. It started off so well. I loved how dastardly all the characters were and how much planning and manipulation there was. Yes, there is a but coming… I sort of got confused and too much started to go on… and someone else ordered it from the library so I let them have it. If it gets shortlisted then I will order it again, but I would rather see Carol Birch on there if we have a Victorian novel on there.

So from that I have decided (and I swapped two titles on the Man Booker forum but this is my final guess) that these are the six novels that I most hope make the shortlist…

  • On Canaan’s Side – Sebastian Barry
  •  Jamrach’s Menagerie – Carol Birch
  •  The Sisters Brothers – Patrick deWitt
  •  A Cupboard Full of Coats – Yvvette Edwards
  •  Snowdrops – A.D. Miller
  •  Far To Go – Alison Pick

What do you think? What would your short list be made of? Could you give a monkeys? I have to admit the reason so few of these novels have ended up on Savidge Reads yet in more detail was my initial excitement started to turn into Man Booker Boredom, let’s hope the shortlist excites me again. Which six books not listed would make your ideal Man Booker Shortlist this year? I need to think about mine actually, I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours. Oh, and I will report back once the announcement is made. Thoughts please.

16 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Man Booker

Moon Tiger – Penelope Lively

Some books you buy because you think one day you should really get around to reading them. This is the very feeling that I had when I snapped up a copy of Penelope Lively’s ‘Moon Tiger’ in a charity shop years ago because it had won the Booker Prize in 1987 and because I thought Lively was one of those authors ‘all book lovers should really read’, we all have books we buy in those circumstances don’t we? And yes I did say I bought this years ago, because after I snapped it up I promptly put it away in one of my book boxes and it then stayed lingering in the TBR pile limbo. If it hadn’t been for Natasha Solomons choosing it as our ‘Reading With Authors’ choice (discussion coming soon) I think that is where it might have stayed, which would have been a crime frankly as this is an utterly wonderful book.

Penguin Books, paperback, 1987, fiction, 208 pages, taken from personal TBR

There is, I think, a major problem for anyone wishing to write about ‘Moon Tiger’ and that is how to tell people to read the book without divulging the plot. You see ‘Moon Tiger’ is the life story of the beautiful writer Claudia Hampton, told by herself, starting from her childhood just after the First World War up to the present day, where we know she is in hospital at the age of 76 dying of cancer. This should therefore be easy to sum up should it not? Well, no, not really because we don’t get the book in a linear chronology by any stretch of the imagination, we have to work at it, and so (as I am going to tell you that you all have to read this if you haven’t before) it would spoil things to say anymore. I even think the blurb gives too much away.

It was actually this stopping and starting, backwards and forwards narrative (which I admit annoyed me for the first fifteen pages or so) that had me hooked into the book. It seems Claudia is in a delirious state, possibly from the drugs I imagine she would be on for her terminal illness, and so is slightly confused therefore her memory flits, and so do the tales she tells us. Only its not just that simple, Lively adds another brilliant twist. We get Claudia’s memories as she sees them, strangely in third person, and as the other person sees them. We get some very conflicting sides of each tale which I found fascinating. In fact sometimes she will do this with a situation but from four peoples perspectives. I loved it, I didn’t think I would but I did and I wanted to see how on earth Lively could keep making this work, which she does effortlessly. It also felt like a book and word lover’s kind of book, in the way Lively writes she almost tells us how she writes. I loved that too.

“The cast is assembling; the plot thickens. Mother, Gordon, Sylvia. Jasper. Lisa. Mother will drop out before long, retiring gracefully and with minimum fuss after an illness in 1962. Others, as yet unnamed, will come and go. Some more than others; one above all. In life as in history the unexpected lies waiting, grinning from around corners. Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.”

The other thing, apart from the clever way it is told and the great story I cant say too much about, that I loved about ‘Moon Tiger’ was Claudia herself, even though in all honesty she is not the nicest woman in the world. I found her relationship between Claudia and her daughter a difficult and occasionally heartbreaking one. (‘She will magic Claudia away like the smoke.’) She gripes about her life, she has incredibly loose morals (there is a rather shocking twist in the novel that I didn’t expect and made me queasy), isn’t really that nice about anyone and yet I loved listening to her talk about her life. I think it was her honesty. I wanted to hear and know more, even when she was at her wickedest.

“Harry Jamieson has a damp handshake, damp opinions steeped in the brine of the local Rotary Association and the Daily Telegraph, an appalling homestead on the outskirts of Henley with tennis court, swimming-pool and sweep of gravel that apes the country estate to which he aspires. I have not spent more than half a dozen hours in his company since the wedding. This, let me say, out of charity as much as self-preservation: the poor man is terrified of me. At the very site of me his vowels falter, his forehead glistens, his hands dispensing gin and tonic or Pimms No. 1 fumble with ice cubes, send glasses flying, cut themselves with the lemon knife.”

So I loved ‘Moon Tiger’. I don’t think there is much more that I can say other than read it. This is yet another prime example of why I think I need to get off this almost constant contemporary road of reading, I am missing out on gems like this (and I don’t just mean Booker winners or books from the 80’s – I mean all sorts of books) and that is something I have to work on. So a big thank you to Natasha Solomons for making me read this wonderful book. I am very excited that I will be talking about it further with her in the near future, and again with you hopefully.

Have you read this and what did you think? Where should I go next with Penelope Lively, I think I could currently happily binge on her books after this one, what would you recommend?

30 Comments

Filed under Books of 2011, Man Booker, Penelope Lively, Penguin Books, Reading With Authors 2011, Review

On Canaan’s Side – Sebastian Barry

There is a rare moment, as a reader, when a narrator’s voice makes the hairs on the back of you neck stand up with emotion, a kind of book lover’s bliss – even when the content is sad. I had this within a paragraph of ‘On Canaan’s Side’ when Lily Bere asks ‘What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year old heart breaking?’ and from that moment on I was hooked by Lilly’s voice. Which is a good thing as in Sebastian Barry’s latest novel she is the woman whose life we follow and through whose eyes we see all.

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2011, fiction, 272 pages, sent by publisher

Lilly Bere, it first appears, has decided that her life is over since the suicide of her grandson, who survived the Gulf war physically though not mentally, and the cause of her heart break. You are left to wonder if the death of her grandson reignites memories of her brother Bill’s death in 1919 during the war, and starts the reminiscence that we are then told over a period of seventeen days. In fact it is her brother’s death which introduces her to Tadg Bere, a former soldier who fought with her brother, a moment which sparks a romance and changes her life for the better. Happiness doesn’t seem to last, it soon forces her to flee Sligo for America after Tadg joins the Black and Tans, this is itself again like an echo or rippling of the previous effects of her past and her fathers’ time in the police force which we learn of in her childhood.

There is a sense of tragedy from the start, you know that Lilly’s grandson’s suicide is not the first tragedy that has befallen her in her life and so we go back to her childhood and look to the present and how she ended up in Long Island and why. Initially fearful leaving her homeland and the family she loves, fear always seems a few steps behind her.

“Fear is a force like a seasickness, could you call it a life-sickness, a terrible nausea caused by dread, creeping dread, that seems to withdraw a little in dreams while you sleep, but then, just a few moments after waking, rushes back close to you, and begins again to gnaw at your simple requirement for human peace. Gnawing, gnawing, with long rat like teeth. No one can live through that without changing.”

You would be forgiven for thinking this is a melancholic piece of writing, yet through her character and highlighting life’s tragedies Lilly also emphasises the pleasures in life, often the smallest of them being the very greatest. I can safely say from the character of Lilly and her narration alone this will be one of my favourite reads of the year, sometimes she will break your heart and other times you will laugh out loud at her frankness because she doesn’t sensor herself be it from the first time she and Tag become properly intimate, to the fact in her old age certain bodily functions are playing her up.

“This is a day the land is being absolutely thumped by rain. Millions and millions of little explosions in the fields, making the soil jump. The roots of things I am sure are delighted by it, if it doesn’t actually kill them.
                I walked over to the other side of the pond to see Dr Earnshaw, because, even if my stay on earth is to be short from here on in, I had to do something about the constipation that is plaguing me. I had my umbrella, and my long plastic coat, but the wind was very disrespectful of me, and blew the rain against every bit of me, so that I arrived to the surgery drenched.
                ‘Mrs Bere, did you fall in the pond?’ the receptionist said, with her spiky blonde hairdo.”

If there were a theme in this beautifully written novel, and the prose is quite something else as I hope you can tell from the quotes I have used; I would say that, after death and grief, it is the fact that history has a way of repeating itself no matter what. It also highlights the stupidity of those who don’t learn from the past over those who seem to unwittingly draw the same events to them time and time again. I had hoped I would love it after reading The Secret Scripture’ I wasn’t quite prepared for the journey that Lilly and I would have together, and what a journey it was, one I won’t be forgetting for quite some time.

Regardless of how far after the Man Booker longlist ‘On Canaan’s Side’ gets, this is a book that is a deceptively small epic novel. As the blurb says it is ‘at once epic and intimate’ and I think quite extraordinary. I thought this might be a re-hasing of Colm Toibin’s ‘Brooklyn’ which is a book I don’t think any could match, my fears were unfounded, the only similarity s a woman’s journey from Ireland to America. I have heard that Lilly is in fact the sister of one of Sebastian Barry’s earlier novels, a lot like the narrator in ‘The Secret Scripture’ met characters from his previous novels, if they are all as good as this I think I need to read much more of the Dunne family and their interspersed yet connecting stories, any recommendations?

11 Comments

Filed under Books of 2011, Faber & Faber, Man Booker, Review, Sebastian Barry

Pigeon English – Stephen Kelman

There was quite a lot of furore when the Man Booker longlist came out wasn’t there? First up there was all the titles we hadn’t heard of, then there was the fact the big names were missing, and then there was debate over which titles should definitely not be on the list. ‘Pigeon English’, the debut novel by Stephen Kelman, seemed to be the novel that became the particular scapegoat in all this and so, along with the fact it was one of my ‘Reading With Authors’ choices with Naomi Wood, it became the one I most wanted to read first in part to see what all the fuss was about.

Bloomsbury, Fiction, 2011, 263 pages, sent by publishers

There is an underlying issue with ‘reviewing’ a novel like ‘Pigeon English’ and daring to critique it. It almost makes you wonder should you dare to because the subject matter is a delicate one, in the main it seems that Stephen Kelman took the story of school boy Damiloa Taylor’s death and wrote a fictional response about/to it. ‘Pigeon English is told by eleven year old Harrison Opuku, a young man who is also an immigrant from Ghana now living on one of the tower block council estates in London. This is an area of street gangs, poverty and violence; in fact the novel opens with the death of a school boy who Harrison sort of knew.  

“Me and the dead boy were only half friends, I didn’t see him very much because he was older and didn’t go to my school. He could ride his bike with no hands and you never even wanted him to fall off. I said a prayer for him inside my head. It just said sorry. That’s all I could remember. I pretended like if I kept looking hard enough I could make the blood move and go back in the shape of a boy. I could bring him alive in that way. It happened before, where I used to live there was a chief who brought his son back like that. It was a long time ago, before I was born. Asweh, it was a miracle. It didn’t work this time.”

Writing in a child’s narrative has become something of trend in modern contemporary writing, long before ‘Room’ we had ‘What Was Lost’ (and indeed the theme of child detective comes up in this book as Harrison and his best friend decide to hunt the killer), it is also a hard act to balance when on a tough subject. Can you hold the reader’s belief? Does the narrative ring true? Does the simplicity of the voice dilute the events that are happening? Sadly, for me at least, whilst I loved Harrison’s view on life, which often made me laugh out loud, it took away the impact of the novel. When you are spending time in the company of this lively witty young man you are also left missing a lot. I never felt I got to know any of the other characters deeply, the other school kids like X-Fire (pronounced Cross Fire) or Killa became almost like cartoon caricatures, his sister and mother has no real back story other than one being the matriarch and the other a bit of a pain. I also felt like there was a whole back story in Ghana I simply didn’t know enough about. Oh and I haven’t even started on the talking pigeon, something I didn’t think was needed or added anything other than making me a bit cross.

I’m aware this sounds harsh, and indeed there are many things that make this book highly readable. Harrison’s voice rings true and is a delight, it’s a novel very much ‘of the time’ and I it was highly readable – almost too readable for its topic. I wanted Stephen Kelman to give me more though, I wanted the wonderful ‘council estate whodunit’ thread to be more of a story rather than a game/accidental thread/plot device, I wanted to know much more about his mother and what was going on with Ghana. There was a certain vagueness, or maybe it was simply too closed in a horizon which children can have, for me and that turned what could have been a fantastic book into a good one but one that didn’t pack any emotional punch for me. If you have read this book then you will know it should have hit home harder all the way through but especially at the ending.

“You could see lighter burns on Miquita’s hands all shiny like wax. They weren’t even for a good reason like Auntie Sonia’s burns, they were just a trick. Killa only made them so Miquita would admire him. I even felt sorry for him then. I didn’t even have to burn Poppy to make her admire me, I only had to make her laugh. Somebody should tell him, laughing is the best way to make them admire you. It’s even easier than burning.”

All that said I would recommend ‘Pigeon English’ but maybe not so much for the adult market, and here I think Bloomsbury have missed a bit of a trick. This is a book with a wonderful child’s voice that should be being pushed into schools and aimed at a young adult market. In that setting, and with that audience, I honestly think this book would have an incredible impact. I would also recommend this as a good ‘book group’ novel, it’s a great one for discussion. Not just for its subject matter, but also for the joys and pitfalls of the child narrator in fiction.

Has anyone else read this? What did you think? I feel a bit like I am being ‘bah-humbug’ about it, but I did enjoy reading it, and whenever I did pick it up I certainly read it quickly. I just felt something was missing amongst all the signs of promise. I will certainly read Stephen Kelman’s next novel. You can see a discussion between Naomi Wood and myself about ‘Pigeon English’ here, be warned there was almost a fig roll fight so watch for any low flying biscuits.

14 Comments

Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Man Booker, Review, Stephen Kelman