Tag Archives: The Man Booker Prize

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

I have recently mentioned the power and intensity that a novella can bring, and indeed have been favouring novellas over longer, most often epic, tome like novels. Yet reading Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which verges on tome and is definitely epic in scope, has reminded me how much I love getting completely lost in a book for a good long week of reading. Then once finished be left feeling the loss of it, unable to shake it. You see it is one of those books that totally envelops you and also contains everything about the world within its covers. It is therefore going to be one of those books that is a complete nightmare to try and encapsulate everything it does or do justice. (Hence why this is one of the longest reviews I have ever written, despite seven sittings over a week to edit and edit it, do bear with me though as you really need to read this book.)

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Chatto & Windus, hardback, 2014, fiction, 464 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is essentially the tale of one man’s life with all that befalls him. Alwyn ‘Dorrigo’ Evans is one of the survivors of the Death Railway in Burma where he was a prisoner of war. He was the surgeon, having the strange job of helping people escape death only to then have them healed and sent off to work that was likely to lead to death be it from sickness, exhaustion or torture. He is a man who has had a love affair with this uncle’s wife. It is really these two particular strands of Dorrigo’s life that this novel follows going back and forth developing a life lived, with it joy, despair, loss and love. This is what makes the book difficult to write about, yet reads so naturally even as it goes back and forth in time. Essentially whilst it is about Dorrigo’s life, it is also these two main strands that have defined him and that our focus is pulled towards.

Flanagan, I think, does something very clever early on as he draws us to both Dorrigo’s elderly years and his early youth very quickly in interweaving bursts. If you are worried you might get confused, as I was so I am not being patronising, you won’t, you differentiate swiftly as you read. Here we are told of something he witnesses as a young man which relates to something in his older years but it also tells us why Dorrigo doesn’t, and therefore we might not want to, consider him a war hero, as Dorrigo is a fantastically and humanly flawed character.

Inexplicably to him, he had in recent years become a war hero, a famous and celebrated surgeon, the public image of a time and a tragedy, the subject of biographies, plays and documentaries. The object of veneration, hagiographies, adulation. He understood that he shared certain features, habits and history with the war hero. But he was not him. He’d just had more success at living than at dying, and there were no longer so many left to carry the mantle for the POWs. To deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died. He couldn’t do that. And besides, he no longer had the energy.

Before we have even come to the love story or the horrors of war, we spend time with the fascinating and conflicting character that is Dorrigo. Here is a man who people see as a hero, and who has saved many lives, yet who likes to drink drive and sleep with his wives best friends or his best friend’s wives. He is incredibly likeable is some respects and then utterly reprehensible in others. He combines both good and bad, which is something that we forget that those who die or survive fighting for the good are, we all have good and bad sides be we a victim or perpetrator of war. In fact I think the soul of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is what is good and what is evil, though more of that in a bit.

Here I wanted to say that this novel is like a cow as it has two hearts, then I realised that they have two stomachs and Dr Who has two hearts, then I realised that I should just say that the book really just has two hearts to it. Blimey, that was over complicated, let me explain.

One of the hearts of this novel, no pun intended, is the love story between Dorrigo and Amy. Here again Flanagan creates an interesting dichotomy as we read on. When the affair between Dorrigo and his uncle’s wife starts, after a wonderful meeting in a bookshop, I was thinking ‘you awful pair of saucy buggers’ soon though I was caught up in it. Frequenting readers will know I am not a fan of a love story; I was gripped by this one. Flanagan wonderfully captures the passion and almost obsession that love can form and the reckless monsters it can make us. There is nothing saccharine here. Again I cannot spoil anything but I was rooting for Dorrigo and Amy even though I knew morally I shouldn’t be. Once again Flanagan cleverly makes us question what we see as good and bad behaviour dependent on cause and circumstance.

She wanted to bury her face in those armpits there and then and taste them, bite them, shape into them. She wanted to say nothing and just run her face all over him. She wished she wasn’t wearing that print dress – green, such a bad colour, such a cheap dress, so unflattering and her breasts she wanted up and out not lost and covered up. She watched him, his muscles little hidden animals running across his back, she watched him moving, wanted to kiss that back, those arms, those shoulders, she watched him look up and see her.

One of the things I really admired about The Narrow Road to the Deep North was how whilst a story of Dorrigo Evans’ life we get to see him through other people’s eyes. Above you have the obsessional view of him from Amy, you get his rather blunt and cynical opinion of himself and through characters like Darky Gardiner you also get to see the man he is with his comrades during the war when life is at its hardest and most cruel, just as you do through Nakamura as one of those running the war camps. This also means you get different people’s perception of the war, be they on either side of it, or all the way back in Australia. War is very much the second heart of this novel.

The scenes, and indeed middle section, in the novel that are set on the Death Railway are some of the most devastating that I have ever read. Even thinking about them I genuinely get a shiver up my spine. I hate to use the term that a book was ‘bravely written’ yet I cannot think of any other way to describe Flanagan’s writing at these points. The daily life there in the jungle with the endless back breaking work, the lack of food, the illness, the beatings, the torture, the loss of life are all viscerally depicted. Some of the scenes blow your mind be it with the horror of what occurred, the frank and gruesome nature of some of the surgery Dorrigo must do to save someone, the confronting scenes told by men who like to torture or the moments of love the men show each other as they try and keep their own humanity. Utterly incredible.

As I want to be reasoned with this review and not just bang on about how amazing it is so you think I would have just lapped it anything up, even had Flanagan made Dorrigo sale across on ocean with a talking horse for company, I did have a slight wobble with the books final section. Suddenly Dorrigo’s elderly years go into overdrive and he suddenly goes through a few more devastating things and I did wonder if we needed them. Obviously I can’t give any spoilers but there was one story that made me think ‘really?’ briefly before then something else happened and I was so moved at the end I cried for about the sixth time.

A minor quibble but one I wanted to mention so you know I can see any amazing books flaws, as no book is completely perfect, though this is close. Now, of course, I am worried I haven’t mentioned some of the other amazing things like the Haiku’s that run through the novel and how they accentuate it, or how Dorrigo uses books and literature to work out his place in the world, how the book is constructed in parts that almost mirror each other or discuss some of the other characters that appear in the book but I am in danger of never shutting up. See it really was one minor quibble. Anyway…

As I mentioned earlier I think the main theme of this book is what is good and what is evil. We are taught from an early age that, whichever view you side with, there are goodies and baddies in war. The people who die fighting for the good are untouchable heroes and those who are on the bad side are all villainous and odious. Life is not that black and white and that is what The Narrow Road to the Deep North is really saying through Dorrigo Evans life and all he goes through. He is a war hero and an adulterer. Some of his fellow men suffer and are wonderful people; some are nasty pieces of work. Nakamura heads a prisoner of war camp where abominable things are happening; for him this comes from doing what he thinks is best for his country in the long term and using the enemy to create a better, great and good, future for Japan.

Flanagan looks at the good and the bad in the good and the bad. It is not comfortable and is incredibly confronting, especially in scenes described both on the Death Railway and later some insight into Japan at the time, but it makes us question and think without drip/force feeding us or even giving any answers, as all the best books should.

The journalist said he had done a story on the survivors, had met and filmed them. There suffering, he had said, was terrible and lifelong.
It is not that you know nothing about the war, young man, Dorrigo Evans had said. It is that you have learnt one thing. And war is many things.

The Narrow Road to the Dark North is a book that you experience, one of those books which makes you feel every paragraph emotionally and in your very core. Not only did it introduce me to a period in history, and indeed a place, that I knew almost nothing about; it also made me want to be kinder than I am, note how lucky I am, tell my loved ones I love them more often than I do and reminded me that not a second of life should be wasted because you never know what may come around the next corner. It is a book about war, peace, love, hate, death and life. Yes, it really is one of those life changing and life affirming books, an incredibly written modern masterpiece.

I could go on, I won’t. I will just say you need to read this book. I can see why it won the Booker. It is easily going to be one of my books of the year and I now want to read everything that Richard Flanagan has written. If you want to know more about the book, the background it has with his father (the book is dedicated to him ‘prisoner 335’) and more you can hear me and Richard in conversation here, I nearly blubbed at one point – professional. Who else has read The Narrow Road to the Deep North and what did you make of it? Which of Flanagan’s novels should I read next?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Chatto & Windus, Man Booker, Review, Richard Flanagan

Man Booker 2014 Musings

Unless you were like me, in which case you were far too busy moving furniture, walls and the like, then you all probably saw the longlist for the Man Booker Prize 2014. With its rule changes last year, becoming open to any book written in English anywhere in the world published for the first time between October 2013 and September 2014, the long list was one which many felt would now be an American full house. It doesn’t seem to be the case, yet weirdly it doesn’t seem to be a longlist that is doing very much for me.

Here it is in full in case you too were otherwise engaged and have been since…

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)
The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J –  Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us – David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog – Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo – Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both –  Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain – Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

Man Booker Five

I have only actually got five of them, I would have had six but I found the Niall Williams gratingly pretentious when I tried to read it a while back, and have read not a one so I can’t judge them on what’s inside yet very little really excites me here. Actually that is not 100% true or fair. I am excited by the Karen Joy Fowler because that is a book I have been wanting to read ever since I saw it on the sadly (and criminally) now defunct Review Show. I have also heard amazing things about the Flanagan in all the right places, from Marieke Hardy to  Kim of Reading Matters. I have also read Mukherjee, Nicholls and Smith before and really, really liked their work. I am also intrigued by the Kingsmith, which would be a marvellous winner as it is a debut and Unbound, who publish it, are a crowd sourced publishers, exciting. Yet I am still not really that excited and really with a prize like the Man Booker I should be.

The Williams-effect might be part of it, I may be judging the books on that. I may also be feeling indifferent to it because a) I am knackered post festival b) Ferris and Mitchell are two authors many people love yet I just simply do not get. It could be that it just all feels terribly white middle classed male (with the exceptions of the women and Mukherjee) and not the exciting, vibrant, diverse list I always hope it is going to be. I also think it is really strange that at present so many (5) of the books aren’t even out, Jacobson not coming out until the 25th of September, it doesn’t seem a list that can yet excite the public does it? And does it mean if the dates don’t change then the publishers are breaking this rule – Each publisher of a title appearing on the longlist will be required to have no fewer than 1,000 copies of that title available in stock within 10 days of the announcement of the longlist. Will they be withdrawn/disqualified? Today it seems about the only exciting thing that might happen from this list.

It makes me wonder if the Man Booker is really the prize for me anymore. Maybe I should just stick to the Women’s Prize (which I find very difficult to call the Bailey’s, and I love that tipple) and Fiction Uncovered as it seems that is where the well written AND diverse voices most seem to be found with very similar prize remits. Maybe I should read a few and reserve judgement? What do you all think?

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Judging A Book…

So in the not too distant future (or in the recent past if you read this later than I posted it, which is pretty late) there will be a big announcement in the bookish world as to which novel and author have gone and won some award they call the Man Booker Prize, just a small thing no biggie. Of course I jest. In actuality within the next twenty four hours, and actually possibly weeks months and years to come, most of the bookish world is going to be discussing the decision made by five people in a room on the very subjective nature of what makes a truly great book… or possibly which book they all liked equally and therefore chose as the winner. So, not afraid to open a tinned can of worms, I thought I would talk a little bit about the whole book judging thing really.

You see when the Man Booker winner is announced there will be arms in the air with jubilation and also arms in the air with indignation. That is the way with books awards, well with any awards. I have experienced this a few times having judged both The Green Carnation Prize (for a few years) and then this year, yesterday in fact, I had the pleasure of judging the Not The Booker Prize for the Guardian. The latter was all the more nerve wrecking as the judging was all done live, we had no four walls and a swanky lunch (I am imaging the lunch, it might just be a cup of tea and a digestive) unlike the Booker.

Not The Booker’s Prize… a coveted Guardian mug.

For the judges there were two clear favourite books and forerunners, not in the eyes of the public but more on that shortly, those were Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’ and Meike Ziervogel’s ‘Magda’. Two books which couldn’t be more different in terms of length but are equal in how brilliant their stories, writing and vision were – oh and how much they made us think. The winner in the end was ‘Life After Life’ which will tick some people off. Interestingly as we were talking having said at the start I wanted ‘Life After Life’ to win I started thinking ‘hang on a minute Simon, Atkinson doesn’t need the publicity, she probably has plenty of mugs and doesn’t need a Guardian one and Magda is as amazing in so many ways and think what this could do for a debut novelist…’ yet I had to be true to what I considered the best read FOR ME on the list. Which is of course a very personal and subjective thing, for me though I was looking for prose, voice, story, characters, something new, impact and thought provoking nature. Both books had all these things, personally Atkinson just hit that chord where I felt it had been written for me even when Ziervogel blew me away. This probably makes no sense so let us move on; suffice to say I was very torn.

We also went against the popular and public vote of Zoe Venditozzi’s debut novel ‘Anywhere But Here’. We didn’t do this because we were being controversial, we did it because we all agreed that Zoe can write bloody brilliantly (review coming soon) and it is a very impressive debut but we all had a slight issue with what happens in the book as it goes on, which I won’t spoil. That doesn’t mean we didn’t like it, quite the opposite is true, it means we can’t wait to see what she (and indeed Lucy Cruickshanks) do next. Unlike the Booker, or any of the main awards actually, we COULD say that publically which was really nice. I don’t think the Booker longlisters who don’t make the short list get more than a ‘nope’, though I could be wrong – doubts it. Back to my point, the public weren’t wrong, the judges weren’t wrong, it is all subjective. Different judges could have had a completely different outcome.

Books are subjective by their very nature; we will all read a book differently. Even with the people that I respect the most in terms of books, I can sometimes think ‘what on earth did you see in that twaddle?’ It is the same with loved ones; I cannot begin to tell you how many books Granny Savidge Reads and I would debate, be they crime series, classics or modern literature. Yet some books you just meet on the middle on how much you love. It is those, above the ones you all like, that you discuss the most and get excited about the most. Like at a book group. You see when it comes to books we all judge them and that is what makes me laugh when people are up in arms about a set of judges decisions. (I include myself in this; I have been very cross with panels before, and then laughed at my outrage.) From the cover of the book till the final page – if we make it that far – we are constantly judging a book on everything we have read before and what we deem a good read for whatever reason be it on the writing, the enjoyment factor or the dreaded ‘readability’.

The best things about prizes are though that they get us all talking about books and igniting the passion for literature of all types and genres. And they make people want to read long and short lists. All good stuff! So before we judge the judges on what they have judged the best book of the year (remember that the publishers were the ones who actually chose which books to put forward) in whatever prize they are judging, that we all judge books all the time don’t we?

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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!

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

Defending Book Blogging…

Why is it that so many people like to lay into book bloggers and basically say how rubbish they are and how bad for literature’s future blogging is? Peter Stothard, who is chairing this year’s Man Booker Prize, is the latest to have a go at bloggers in the Independent. He basically says that blogging is killing of good literary criticism which I actually disagree with, especially as you look at the article in more depth.

I was asked to contribute to the Guardian’s piece on this yesterday defending book bloggers, which of course I did and you can see here. I also threw in the fact that with bloggers we have more space to discuss literature, no deadlines for print so we can think on books longer and we don’t get paid for the work we do. It is, for me and the blogs I follow anyway, about a passion for books and literature and spreading the word about great books and discussing them and the ones we don’t like as much. How is that a bad thing?

What has been lovely to see is that most of the comments, well the ones I have seen so far, feel similarly and on the whole think, as I do, that bloggers and literary critics can live together quite happily as we all simply love the book and literature. End of.

What do you think?

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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.

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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?

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