Tag Archives: Romesh Gunesekera

Announcement of The Gordon Burn Prize 2015

I have not been to many book prize ceremonies, in fact the first one I went to was actually for The Green Carnation Prize only last year, but who doesn’t love a ceremony and wish they were invited to them all? Last night I had the pleasure of attending the Gordon Burn Prize 2015 ceremony which was, frankly, a ruddy marvellous event for anyone who likes a good book. Not that any of you who pass this blog would be up for that sort of thing would you?

IMG_2006

The night was held in the splendour of Durham Town Hall and kicked off as the very lovely Claire Malcolm, Chief Executive of New Writing North, took to the stage to tell us about why the prize was born and the aims it has and what makes a Gordon Burn Prize longlisted or shortlisted book. In essence it is a book that some how combines the world of the fictional and the factual, yet looks at either from a different standpoint, they also inhabit the kind of world that Gordon Burn was interested in with his own writing, which was varied and covered crime, music, the human condition. Basically rather unusual but bloody brilliant books. Lee Brackstone then got up to talk to the audience, which I should add unlike many a swanky prize was open to the public to get tickets which I think is a marvellous touch as they are the ones who are going to buy the books, about Gordon Burn himself. Well I was already intrigued from the premise of the prize, now I want to go away and read anything and everything that he wrote. I shall be scouring the shelves of every bookshop until I have them all.

IMG_2012

Then the shortlisted authors took to the stage to read from their work and also talk about their books, their influences, the prize and Gordon Burn (who felt very much like he was alive and living and breathing in the room with us) chaired by Peter Guttridge. I found this really fascinating. First up was Dan Davies whose In Plain Sight; The Life and Lies of Jimmy Saville is naturally causing some unease but I can vouch (being halfway through) that whilst being incredibly uncomfortable at points is an amazing book though I can also vouch you will get some really dirty looks, occasionally sneers, if you read on public transport. Dan talked about the first time he was in a room with Jimmy Saville when he saw his TV show being filmed and how whilst everyone else seemed to be in his thrall, he remembered being slightly scared of him and feeling this lack of warmth and emotion. Then as he got older he started to do more journalism around him and then the rumours started and so did the book. Really interesting stuff.

IMG_2013

Honor Gavin, who I feel might be the Lady Gaga of authors (and I mean that in the nicest of ways), read from her novel Midland. She talked about how she used her own memories of Birmingham and the stories of her family (her Gran in particular, and how her Gran reacted to that)to create another kind of literary landscape.  In doing so Peter said she creates a city of memories that is slightly out of sync yet very much part of the world at the same time, in which her characters inhabit making it ‘a novel out of time’ which I was enthralled by and could have heard her talk about for hours. I need to crack on and read that book pronto don’t I?

IMG_2014

Romesh Gunesekera read from Noontide Toll, which you may know I think is really, really fantastic having read it earlier this year. His reading was possibly my favourite as he went totally into the head of his main character, Vasantha a cab driver in Sri Lanka, and made us laugh, think and then moved us with the last line – which he does in every short story that forms the novel. He talked about how the novel started as non-fiction and then how he found the voices of Sri Lanka calling to him and becoming more vivid and then the narrative of Vasantha took over. He also talked about the state of Sri Lanka in a post war and post tsunami world, unsure of itself and where it fits in its own history and skin let alone in the world. If you haven’t read the book do, his back catalogue of work is now calling to me.

IMG_2017

Finally, last but certainly not least, was Peter Pomerantsev (Richard King couldn’t make the event due to personal reasons, though has made a video) who talked about his book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible which is all about his experiences of moving back to Russia in the mid noughties and working in the TV industry to get into all the nooks and secret crannies of the country we are all both fascinated and rather scared of. He talked about how he feels about the country as a Russian and a Londoner, and how he felt as his book became more and more timely and what he feels about the country right now. I suddenly got the Russian bug as he talked and will be attended the Modern Russia talk at Durham Book Festival later today to hear even more.

IMG_2019

We then had a chance for more wine and chatter (I was sat next to Ben Myers who is as lovely as I had hoped after falling in love with Beastings earlier this year) before a musical interlude from Paul Smith of Maximo Park, who had been commissioned to make a song around one of Gordon Burn’s works.

IMG_2020

Then it was time for the winners announcement made my Doug Johnstone, Suzanne Moore and Gavin Turk, and the winner was… Dan Davies!!!

IMG_2025

And then the merriment continued well into the night at Empty Shop, with much book chatter, more wine and possibly with me getting into bed with a pizza at the small hours of the morning – maybe. Seriously though, if you haven’t read the shortlist (or indeed the longlist) of the Gordon Prize please do go and get your mitts on them. I am going to look at all the previously longlisted, shortlisted and winning novels (as well as Gordon Burn’s books) and make it a mission to read them all over time. Who doesn’t like reading something different/unusual/quirky/edgy and a bit out of your comfort zone, after all?

2 Comments

Filed under Durham Book Festival 2015, The Gordon Burn Prize

Noontide Toll – Romesh Gunesekera

When the Gordon Burn Prize shortlist popped/ thumped through my letterbox (kindly sent by New Writing North who run the prize) I thought that I would head to the biggest first and work my way down, literally in size. However as my trip to America gets ever nearer so does my reading for it, which is roughly eight books some of which are massive, so I decided to pick a more slender volume and grabbed Noontide Toll. I soon discovered that Romesh Gunesekera’s latest work might be slender in size yet is a book that keeps on giving and most importantly keeps making you think both whilst reading and long after.

Granta Books, 2014, paperback, fiction, 256 pages, kindly sent by New Writing North

On the island of Sri Lanka we meet our narrator “Vasantha the van man” who, as you might have guessed from his nickname, spends his days driving around the island ferrying tourists, soldiers, business men and their colleagues or wives, ex pats, aid workers and more to their various destinations. In doing so, in what is a collection of short stories which form the novels narrative, he introduces us to all the aspects of present day Sri Lanka, it’s history, its people and also the predicament that it seems to find itself in as a place that has often been torn apart by wars and natural disasters.

‘You ok?’ I asked Chen.
‘Sure, sure.’ His head tilted, not quite as buoyant as he had been at the start. Perhaps he was too young to know any of the gruesome history of his homeland. Maybe there they don’t talk about the terrors of invasion, the herding of people, the famine, the ideological culling, the suppression of the decent. All that probably disappears in the harmonious joy of economic development. At least that’s the idea, I think.

I have to admit that reading Noontide Toll had a slightly shaming effect on me whilst being utterly fascinating, sometimes grimly so. Despite having some friends from the country I had absolutely no idea, other than the Boxing Day Tsunami, what turmoil the country had been through. As Vasantha drives through both the North and the South (which is also how the book is divided in parts as well as stories) we meet the landscape and people who have been scarred by the historical tumultuous past. Old mansions which if haven’t been blown up or destroyed have been ransacked for anything or worth, wrecked ships that have now become the backdrop to music videos. Hotel managers who can throw bottles at rats with such precision you know they have had to defend themselves, people whose grief at losing a family is etched on their faces and yet manage to stay positive on the lookout for turtles laying eggs at sunset.

Whether you know the whole history or not one of the most intriguing things which Vasantha notes when he is with any client, is that his homeland is now free of war yet is struggling in a whole new way as it tries to reclaim itself as a country and with other countries around the world. In some aspects, like with The Weightless World which I discussed a while ago, it is trying to work out what its place and its worth is within the economic worlds (be it tourism or business and trade) of both the West and Asia. It is also a country that is trying to decide what to do with its history; should it embrace it and own it or should it erase any sight of it? Can we really simply remember and move on? What is also somewhat unsettling is that it seems that those who live there are both wary and befuddled by their own homeland being a place of peace can it really last?

I asked the soldier whether I could park the van around the side. He shrugged. In the military I thought one had to be more decisive and heroic, but perhaps that was further up the chain of command and only in times of real conflict. Peace has made us all dozy, I guess. Even the crickets were muffled.

If this all sounds very serious, rather maudlin and a little heavy going, I promise you it is not. With the structure of this book Gunesekera gives you these wonderful intense vignettes from Vasantha that you can read as a single short standalone story in itself or indeed read a few as you are utterly charmed by Vasantha and some of the characters that he meets along the way and interweave creating a patchwork of views and insights into all walks of life from all over the place which form this incredibly complex world yet all in bite size portions which really entertain you whilst leaving lingering, occasionally unsettling, thoughts in your mind.

I found Vasantha a really interesting character. By the end of Noontide Toll you are utterly charmed by him and yet he remains something of an enigma. He gives you insight into the history of Sri Lanka and the lives of those in his van, yet bar the occasional titbit keeps himself something of a mystery. I wondered if this was because Gunesekera wanted him to literally be a vehicle for the reader, or if we were meant to feel like one of his clients on a long road trip around the island being told the tales of previous clients yet never themselves, as is the case often when you go aboard and have a driver. That slight customer and contractor relationship which is intimate yet distant all at once.

I think Vasantha is a marvellous creation and a brilliant character. He embodied everything l  admired so much about Gunesekera’s colourful and vivid writing. As you go along his humour and (mainly) joyful wonder of everything around him is a delight. He always knows just when to tell you something funny amongst it all, one of my favourite moments which I think sums him up is when he describes a lighthouse as a naughty beacon of the south, perfect. I was completely charmed by him and his narration as we drove around and often felt his musings about life were very much like mine and in particular my thoughts on why we read.

I like to know about the world beyond our shores. About faraway countries where people behave differently. I like to hear about their food and customs. How they deal with the cold and the rain. What it is like to drive on the other side of the road. I like to take foreign tourists around because it gives me a glimpse of a place that is different in touch, taste, smell, sound and look, from the place I am stuck in. I watch how they sit, how they walk, how they talk, and I try to see what they want to escape from and return to. They are not all driven by the desire for sex in new places. Some want to know our history and our culture and what makes us live the way we do. So do I.

I am not sure I would have read Noontide Toll if it hadn’t been shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize, as I have  to admit I hadn’t heard of it until then, so I am very grateful that it has. It is a wonderfully narrated and intricately detailed tale of a country its history and its people, by the end I felt Gunesekera had educated me with writing of delicacy, wit and slight horror. It is also a book that will remind you why we read and why we should read as widely as we can to experience and learn through other people’s eyes. I would highly recommend giving it a read.

Have any of you read Noontide Toll or any of Gunesekera’s other novels? I have that lovely feeling you get when you discover a new-to-you writer where you want to run off and get your hands on everything else that they have written.

4 Comments

Filed under Gordon Burn Prize, Granta Books, Review, Romesh Gunesekera

The Gordon Burn Prize Shortlist 2015

Sometimes it seems like it is another week and another book prize, however there are some quite different and unusual ones and for that reason (along with the fact that we all love a list of books don’t we?) I wanted to mention the announcement of The Gordon Burn Prize shortlist for 2015. One of these will join previous winners Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers and The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (another two books I have been meaning to read for ages) when the winner is announced in October.

The criteria for the Gordon Burns Prize, set up by New Writing North with Faber & Faber, are books which challenge our perceived notions of genre and make us think again about just what it is that we are reading and non-fiction that explores in innovative and exciting ways topics that reflect Gordon Burn’s interests such as social history, sport, true crime, music, celebrity and art. Books where the reader begins to question the very nature of what he is reading. Fiction? Non-fiction? Faction?

 I think this sounds really interesting and (possibly bar sport) quite different which you all know I am a huge fan of. The shortlist has now been announced and the five books that judges actress Maxine Peake, authors Doug Johnstone and Roddy Doyle, journalist Suzanne Moore and artist Gavin Turk have chosen are…

IMG_0281

I don’t have the books I stole this from Twitter, apologies to the owners but its for a good bookish cause 😉

  • In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile by Dan Davies (Quercus)
  • Midland by Honor Gavin (Penned in the Margins)
  • Noon Tide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera (Granta Books)
  • Original Rockers by Richard King (Faber & Faber)
  • Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev (Faber & Faber)

Now I have to say other than the Dan Davies, which with its subject matter of Jimmy Savile has had a lot of debate and discussion going on about it, I have not heard of any of the other books and that always makes me really, really excited. So for that reason, along with something that I will be able to tell you all about on Thursday, I have decided that I am going to read all of them before the winner is announced on Friday October the 9th ‘oop’ north in lovely Durham as part of their literature festival.

Have any of you read any of these titles? What did you make of them? Are there any that intrigue you, might you be up for reading all five? Have you read either of the previous winners, Benjamin Myers or Paul Kingsnorth? What are your thoughts on the more left field (and I think rather exciting) book prizes?

6 Comments

Filed under Book Thoughts, Gordon Burn Prize