In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (McClelland & Stewart 2010)
Set in three parts, 'In a Strange Room' is a work of meta-fiction mixing old fashioned story telling with travelogue in a way very reminiscent of WG Sebald. The stories see the narrator (also an author named Damon) travelling first in Lesotho then throughout central Africa and finally in India. We see him interacting with an unusual rather emotionless dark German figure called Reiner with whom he goes walking, then with a group of Europeans travelling north together through Africa and then with a unstable friend hell-bent on killing herself.
The book takes its title from the William Faulkner quotation "in a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep" and if there is a theme that connects the three stories it is the discomfort that quote speaks to, for the book is a disquisition on uneasiness. Whether it is the hint of unexpressed homosexual desire, the awkwardness involved in being in a group that one has no connection or history with or of facing a traumatic situation in a country that is not just foreign to you but whose social norms are so wildly different from those of the country you call your home. First published as three short stories in the magazine Paris Review you could be forgiven for worrying that the book would be disconnected but that is really not a problem as the themes that connect the stories are so strong. The character Damon doesn't just find himself in uncomfortable situations, he is a character who is ill at ease with the world forcing him to move from place to place.
It is a short novel coming in at only 180 pages and Galgut plays a bit fast and loose with his punctuation but this has been one of the best books I've read in a long while. It stands, in my opinion, easily heads and shoulders above the other Booker shortlist novels I've read so far. I'm not sure how to rate its chances for success because whilst this type of novel is particularly suited to my tastes, I'm not sure how widely popular it would be. All I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The Long Song by Andrea Levy (Hamish Hamilton 2010)
Set in the Jamaica of the early nineteenth century, the Long Song is the memoir of Miss July, a woman born into slavery on the Amity plantation. July is plucked from her mother as a young child by Caroline Mortimer, the sister of the master of the plantation, to be her attendant up at the house where she is renamed Marguerite. When rumour spreads that the King of England has freed all the slaves of Jamaica, the Baptist Revolt begins. Retribution from the plantation owners is swift and violent but the path to freedom is too far advanced.
When Caroline's brother dies, the English and devoutly religious Robert Goodwin comes into the fray. After falling in love (or in lust) for Miss July, he marries Caroline so he can keep July close and the love triangle begins. However, Robert's abolitionist principles are put sorely to the test when his interest change from humanitarian to business and one soon sees that the end of slavery only worked to move the black population of Jamaica from a legal bondage to an economic one.
The story is supposed to be one of a woman with a big character who overcomes some rather extreme adversity and passes plain spoken judgement on a rather dark period of history but I don't feel that July's character was developed well enough to bring about the requisite empathy required of the reader. Her escapades throughout the book make you cast doubt on her moral centre, and okay she is a slave with little or no education but how are you supposed to feel concern for a character that you aren't convinced enough to even like? There are moments of humour and moments of pretty graphic violence but the lack of connection with the main character makes you watch it all as a pretty disinterested observer.
Based roughly on the case of Josef Fritzl who incarcerated and repeatedly raped his daughter Elisabeth, Room tells the story of a woman, kidnapped at the age of 19 by Old Nick and held in captivity over a number of years. Told from the point of view of her five year old son Jack, 'Room' is essentially Jack's universe where everything that exists outside of the sphere of his physical experience is 'TV'. That is until one day 'Ma' learns that 'Old Nick' has been made redundant and she realises that the relative status quo of her past existence in 'Room' has the chance of coming to an abrupt end were the house to fall into foreclosure and so she has to escape one way or another.
Did I mention the fact that the narrative came from Jack, the five year old boy? If I repeat myself it's because that it is something that needs to be seriously driven home. No matter how intelligent or how wide the vocabulary of a child of five years, he is still only five and 300 pages is a long time to go in the mind, as it were, of a five year old. At first this narrative style annoyed me to the stage that my teeth ached and even after I grew somewhat accustomed to it as the book went on, I was glad to be finished. The concept of the book is pretty morbid but there is lots of scope there for examining the impact of such a traumatic life experience on the characters not to mention how one would go about child-rearing under such extreme circumstances so it is understandable that a novel has been written on the subject however the narrative is so important to any novel that it simply shouldn't be left to a five year old to carry all by themselves.
My first reaction to this book was a violent dislike and from working in a book shop I know that quite a few people have given up on this book early on, probably people who were equally put off by the childish voice introducing them to the world of Room. I started to warm to it as events unfolded (something I didn't forsee at the outset) and I will concede that this is quite an original book on a very difficult subject and told, and developed in an intelligent way (even if it would not be the way I'd do it). Room has also been subject of many laudatory reviews and is a front-runner for the Booker Prize. This is where I start to get a sense of deja vu; here we have a book I didn't particularly like but that was loved by the critics and is also favourite with the bookies. If it does go on to win this will be exactly what happened with Wolf Hall last year! Although whereas I wanted AS Byatt's 'Children's Book' to win last time round, there has been none of the short listed books leap out of the list at me as particularly worthy winners this year but as I'm only half way through the list I shall put off my wailing and lambasting the state of modern fiction, well, at least till I've read another one.
C is for Serge Carrefax who is, I guess, what passes for the hero in this tale of the son of a wealthy family whose patriarch runs a school that teaches deaf children how to speak. Set in the early 1900s the book is split into four sections that deal with his adolescence and his intense relationship with his sister, his teenage years at a spa in Central Europe to treat his unexplained build up of what historically would have been called black bile, his young adulthood as a spotter/navigator in the budding air force of the First World War and finally his life in Egypt as the representative of the murky Empire Wireless Chain scrambling to deal with an country in the throes of a struggle for independence.
If C is for Carrefax then it is also for communication as a strong theme that runs through the novel. As a child Serge is fascinated by CB radio, tracking the beeps and background noises he picks up on the waves. His father is also interested in communications and as he experiments with an ammeter he believes that the world reverberates to the echoes of past conversations and thoughts, what he believes makes up white noise and that if it was possible to isolate the individual strands of thought and expression then one might be able to listen to the words Jesus said on the cross.
Tom McCarthy is an unusual author whose own pretensions to avant-gardism and involvement in the semi-fictional (whatever that might mean) group the International Necronautical Society makes me think he is either an interesting and boundary pushing author or someone whose head has been sucked in by the vortex created in the general area of his backside. This is certainly not a book without flaws as the plotting is patchy and the last quarter is disappointing, ending on more of a whimper than a bang. However there are some interesting scenes such as one early on where Serge and his sister start playing an early version of Monopoly then take to making it a physical game played around their estate and finally one of the imagination directed from their bird's eye view of their grounds up in the attic of the house.
McCarthy has previously written about Tintin and aspects of C hearken back to Herge's creation but given the post-modern treatment. Serge's character whilst at school studying architecture has troubles drawing buildings with any perspective and so creates a portfolio made entirely of top-down plans and that is very reflective of a character who has little depth. As booker prize prospects go I would be tempted to put my money on this one to win (although my previous selection didn't even make it into the shortlist) as the strongest of the picks I've read so far despite the problems I've found with the book but there is the chance that the judges might think it too inaccessible generally to be a suitable pick.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (Random House 2010)
Parrot is the son of a journeyman printer and apprentice engraver whose master, Mr Watkins, appears to die in a fire set by the owner of a publishing house on the discovery by local officials that the particular skills of Watkins have been used in producing forged currency, a crime punishable by death. On the run he meets a one-armed Frenchman, the enigmatic and mysterious Tilbot, in whose services he travels first to Australia, then to France and finally to America to provide assistance to Olivier.
Olivier is essentially a re-imagining of the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, the son of a noble family who managed to avoid the guillotine during the reign of terror. On finding himself snubbed as the Bourbons return to the throne following the July Revolution, Olivier's father fears for his son's safety and so with Tilbot's help Olivier's mother arranges for him to travel to America ostensibly on behalf of the French government to undertake a survey of the American Penal system but what he writes is a book on the people and institutions of the budding democracy.
If any of this sounds complicated then I can assure you that this is very much a simplification of what is a sometimes irritatingly convoluted book. The narrative goes back and forwards between the two main protagonist as the old world invades the new and there are some very telling judgements made on the culture, political institutions and the nature and social etiquette of the people of the new democracy and as an Englishman living in Canada it has made think a lot about the differences of living in a nation that still has some notions of aristocratic entitlement as compared with a nation when essentially anyone can reach the heights that come with public office, especially when one has money to grease the wheels.
Peter Carey I think had a great theme for his novel and there is in evidence some first rate research and one can almost see the 18th century America through de Tocqueville's ever widening eyes however he didn't really seem to have thought up a story to match his vision and as the story meanders its way with little or no conclusion at the end one can't help but feel that the plot was made up on the fly, so to speak. There are some great set-pieces but they don't do enough to rescue the book from its faults. I don't think Parrot and Olivier in America deserves to be short-listed for the Booker and it is definitely not strong enough to win.