February by Lisa Moore (House of Anansi Press 2010)
On 15th February 1982 an offshore rig, the Ocean Ranger, whilst drilling an exploration well off the east coast of Newfoundland, sank in bad weather killing all 84 crew aboard. Their mayday call was picked up by the back-up vessel the Seaforth Highlander who were ill-prepared to deal with a rescue in such weather conditions and in the end they were left to watch the crew in the water succumb to hypothermia and drown.
In February 1982 Cal, the husband of Helen the main and unlikely protagonist of the novel, is aboard the Ocean Ranger. Helen has three children and is pregnant with a fourth at the time of the accident and as the story bounces backwards and forwards in time one soon grasps that there are three narrative threads in play. The first is of Helen's grief, contemporaneous with the accident and in the decades that follow. How she has to raise four children by herself and how she tries to learn every little detail about the sinking of the rig; she likes to imagine Cal playing cards when the Ocean Ranger goes down, she doesn't like to think of him knowing too long before and have to suffer the panic. Helen is also persuaded by her sister to renovate her house and the stirring of her physical and emotional desires by the continuing presence of Barry, Helen's carpenter forms the second thread.
Finally her son John followed Cal's footsteps into the oil industry first by working in the pipelines looking for weaknesses that could lead to leaks. John soon moves into a job as an advisor to the industry whose main role is to increase efficiency by making recommendations to discard unnecessary or redundant safety procedures, many of which came into force following the sinking of the Ocean Ranger. John's work requires a substantial amount of international travel and on a work trip in Iceland he meets and unknowingly impregnates a fellow Canadian traveller bringing up questions of whether he wants to inflict the effect of an absent father onto another generation.
As you can imagine of a work where grief takes centre stage, this is a very sad book and it makes you fear ever having to be in the situation of losing such a close loved one so well before their rightful time. There are moments of comic relief as middle-aged spread meets Yoga head-on but the over-arching spirit of the book is sombre and introspective. It is undoubtedly well-written as Moore brilliantly examines the nuances of love and loss. Having said that, I don't see February making it through to the Booker shortlist and whilst these may be tired criticisms of Moore, February is perhaps a little too feminine and a little too Canadian to have a wide enough appeal that the Booker usually requires.
I don't think I was the target audience for this one.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Knopf Canada 2010)
Jacob de Zoet is a clerk in the Dutch East Indies Company stationed in Dejima, a small trading post near Nagasaki in the closed and highly secretive Japan of the 18th century. The port is effectively Japan's only conduit to the outside world and the Westerners are treated with great suspicion, spies are everywhere and Christianity is forbidden. When Jacob falls in love with Orito, midwife and assistant to the grouchy Dr Marinus, he is pulled into the murk and mire that is the politics of a closed feudal society. Things take a turn for the worse when Orito is purchased by a darkly powerful Lord Abbot and emprisoned in his shrine at Mount Shiranui.
David Mitchell is known for playing around with narrative structure as with his excellent book Cloud Atlas and in this book he manages to create instantly distinguishable voices for the Dutch and the Japanese and when the British, who had been fighting on and off with the Dutch for a couple of centuries, finally arrive on the scene, their entrance is felt as that of an alien nation. His prose is, however, far from perfect and there are devices he uses which pop-up with annoying regularity. For instance Mitchell likes to describe two things at once almost as a way of creating a feel of momentum and so there are conversations that take place during a card game, during a game of billiards, during an execution and so on with alternating lines between the different narratives and it's repeated use began to irk me. Also Mitchell's prose verges on the poetic which is perfectly okay but when towards then end of the novel, a description of Japan descends into actual rhyme it is pretty painful.
The novel crosses the boundaries of style, it is a love story, it is partly adventure, partly disturbing fantasy and there is a great deal of mystery to it and the book takes a very dark turn which isn't foretold by the opening chapters. It is, however, at heart a historical fiction and very well researched at that and as with AS Byatt's Children's Book which made the shortlist last year, one can't tell whether the book idea gave rise to the research of whether the book itself became just a vessel for displaying the research. If I was in Britain I would put a tenner on Mitchell winning the booker not because I think it's going to be the best book of the bunch (I'm far too early into my reading to make that kind of estimation) but because I think having been nominated and lost twice already, the judges may feel it is time to reward Mitchell for his course of work rather than for this novel in particular.
It is an interesting book but I wouldn't call it a classic.
Last year Kristine and I challenged ourselves to read the shortlist of the booker prize as way of prompting us to read more contemporary fiction. I read five of the six and whilst I didn't think I read anything that could ever achieve classic status it was a very interesting experiment to capture a snapshot of current literary trends so why not make it a yearly thing?
This year's longlist was announced on 27th July. The aptly named Booker's dozen are:
My early hunch is that one of the usual suspects will win. Either the twice denied but greatly lauded David Mitchell will be rewarded for his course of work or Peter Carey will break the records and win a third Booker prize or perhaps, having just rewarded historical fiction last year with Hilary Mantel's Tudor tome Wolf Hall, they will take a look at the more avant garde Tom McCarthy.
I can't promise to read them all before the winner is announced but I will read as many titles as I can. Keep an eye out for the reviews.
Ulysses: Annotated Students Edition by James Joyce (Penguin Classics 2000)
Last month saw an article in the Guardian regarding some comments made by Gabriel Josipovici, former professor of comparative literature at Oxford University. The thrust of his argument was that the works of the current batch of lauded English novelists are the hollow works of 'prep-school boys showing off'. To quote him in full he said "Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation -- Martin Amis, McEwan -- leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world'.
Josipovici argues that Lawrence Sterne is still far more avant garde than the current self-proclaimed avant garde are. 'An author like Salman Rushdie takes from Sterne all the tricks without recognising the darkness underneath. You feel Rushdie's just showing off rather than giving a sense of genuine exploration'. For all the knowledge of technique they produce books that follow established plot-lines and in the end leave us unaffected because at heart they really have nothing to say.
You can choose whether to agree with Josipovici and it probably wouldn't surprise you to hear that he has a book coming out and so would profit from some timely but controversial words however I will say that there is nothing around now that can challenge Joyce for his ingenuity or inventiveness. Take David Mitchell's much lauded 'Cloud Atlas' for instance, for all his quoting of Nietzsche, his episodic structure and his thin and ultimately trivial connections between the unconnected he cannot offer up the dish of intertextuality or inventiveness of the narrative form that takes place in Ulysses.
Joyce too was frustrated with the state of literature in Ireland at the time he wrote, so much so that it drove him to continental Europe, to Paris and Trieste. He left a country, the servant of two masters (England its colonial master and Italy, its spiritual master), a country trying to muster up some semblance of national pride with a rebirth of Celtic ideals; Joyce also saw the dangers of the new nationalism inspired by people like Yeats and Synge and these ideas are parodied throughout Ulysses.
It is interesting to note that in the current batch of books longlisted for the booker prize that there is no place for Amis or McEwan or Rushdie so perhaps Josipovici is correct but I will also bet you that within the Booker's dozen there will be no author who breaks ground like Joyce did and I think we are all the worse off for it.