The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (Picador 2011)
The Stranger's Child is a book about the way a literary reputation changes over the years as social mores about behaviour and sexual proclivity change and as biographers and critics become more cut-throat in getting to the juiciest of secrets that will bolster their own literary reputation.
The totemic event of the book is the visit of the upper-class gentleman Cecil Valance, already a budding poetic talent, to the home of his Cambridge schoolmate George Sawle at their family pile Two Acres. George and Cecil's rather close attentions are rather thwarted that weekend by the close attentions of George's younger sister Daphne who is never far away, whether during skinny-dipping antics by the lake or frolicking in the hammock.
Flash forward a few years and Cecil has died, perished in the Great War but his reputation now blossoming as those who were present at Two Acres during Cecil's visit are assembled as a family friend, the rather tame and friendly Sebastian Stokes, gathers the sources for his unchallenging and safe biography. But as the years go by we see different volumes of his life and his letters, what truly happened between Cecil, George and Daphne becomes more distant, the more it is analysed.
This is a truly beautiful book. Cecil Valance is a Rupert Brooke/Siegfried Sassoon type Edwardian poet, perhaps not a genius of style but the creator of memorable lines who finds a place at the heart of a Bloomsbury Group style of Britishness: repressed homosexuality and upper-class excess. The book is set in five sections and in each as they get further from the original event we are not just treated to different social settings, mores and nuances but each adds to the complexity of the whole.
I cannot imagine how much planning this novel took but Hollinghurst is a master of prose and creativity at the height of his powers. The Booker Prize can only now be between this and Barnes's 'The Sense of an Ending' and I'm glad it's not my decision.
A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards (Oneworld Publications 2011)
Fourteen years ago Jinx witnesses the horrific murder of her mother in their flat in the Pemsbury Estate in Hackney, London. It's an event that will blight her future relationship with her future husband and child and force her into semi-obscurity, feeling most comfortable with the cadavers she tends at the mausoleum where she works.
One evening Lemon, an old friend of her mothers, turns up unannounced with news to break. But there's more, and over an weekend of alcohol, music and sumptuous Montserratian cuisine they revisit the events that led up to the fateful night.
Although set in and around my old stomping grounds in London around Hackney Downs and Dalston Kingsland I did not expect to like this book. For a start it is littered with ridiculous name: Jinx, Lemon and Red, names which proffer and unnecessary distraction. However as the book went on I found myself wanting to know where it was going and even enjoying the process. The descriptions of the male characters, especially Berris and Lemon are well developed and harken back to a timeless sense of style, and the descriptions of the food had me salivating.
It isn't in conventional booker territory so I would be surprised to see it going through to the shortlist but for a first time effort by Yvette Edwards, it isn't half bad.
Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch (HarperCollins 2011)
Set in 1857 Jamrach's Menagerie tells the story of Jaffy, a poor but happy child who wanders the streets of the East End of London, through the mire and the open sewers bare footed without the least concern. When one day he encounters a tiger newly escaped from its captivity he brazenly walks up to pet its nose only to end up in the tiger's mouth. His rescue came in the form of the eponymous Jamrach, an exotic animal dealer who leaps atop the creature and forces its jaws apart. Jamrach's menagerie is a place of wonder filled with Tasmanian devils, all kinds of birds and primates and Jaffy takes a job there where he encounters Jamrach's assistant Tim Linver and Dan Rymer, the salty sea dog/animal tracker responsible for collecting some of Jamrach's more exotic products.
When one day a Mr Fledge comes in and asks that he be supplied a dragon (most likely a Komodo Dragon) Jaffy, Tim and Dan join the crew of one of Mr Fledge's whale boats and set out towards the South Seas in pursuit of their quarry. What follows is a somewhat harrowing tale of torture, starvation and whole lot of pain as things go from terrible to worse in a story partly inspired by the true tale of the Essex (a story which also partly inspired another infamous book of whaling ships, Moby Dick).
It is an intentionally difficult book to read as the author tries to put you into the mindset of the protagonists as they go through some pretty extreme torment and the result is that some chapters go by a great deal slower than the rest (reading a chapter about the doldrums is liable to send one into them oneself). It is a very evocative book and as Jaffy, Tim and Dan suffer, I could feel their pain.
The book is far from perfect. Some of the characters aren't developed well enough such as Skip whose madness is just accepted but never questioned or explained, or Tim who becomes incredibly two-dimensioned once they set foot aboard the whaling ship. Also the ending is a little too rose-coloured as things at last come together in an ending Disney would be proud of. However, these are comparatively minor complaints and I wouldn't be surprised to see this making the Booker Prize shortlist.
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (House of Anansi Press 2011)
The narrator, Harri Opoku, is an 11 year old recent Ghanaian immigrant who moved over to England with his mother, aunt Sonia and sister Lydia. They live on the Dell Farm housing estate in South London. When a kid gets stabbed to death outside chicken restaurant, Harri and his CSI loving friend Dean decide that it's their duty to investigate and unearth the killer and on an estate where the Dell Farm Crew rule they are not short of suspects.
The title is something of a play on words referring both to the mixed Ghanaian and South London pidgin of the narrator (words and phrases like 'asweh', 'hutious' and 'advise yourself' abound) and because of his fascination with a wild pigeon who one day flew into their ninth floor flat and from then one believes is watching over him ready to poop on anyone who threatens him. In some of the most clawing and hackneyed passages we are treated the philosophical musings of the pigeon itself.
Reading the booker prize novels has taught me something about myself. Starting with Room last year and now Pigeon English I have learnt that I cannot stand to read narration written from the perspective of a child simply because I believe that a narrative is far too important to be left to such an undeveloped mindset. Harri's thought-processes are so frenetic and changeable one would imagine it giving the novel a certain pace but instead it is just becomes tiring.
Partly inspired by the stabbing of the Nigerian schoolboy Damiola Taylor in 2000 the book taps in on the prevalence of gang culture and knife crime in the council estates of London. Because it is one of few if any novels that attempts to deal with this issue, it is a novel that will do very well whether or not it is artistically merited. It wont be too long before this graces the syllabuses of the United Kingdom and the BBC have already commissioned an adaptation. I also expect it to make it through to the shortlist but sadly I don't think it merits it.
Set in Moscow in the mid-noughties, Snowdrops is the story of Nick Platt is a British Lawyer who when travelling home one night on metro fights off a would be mugger. His intended target is Masha and her younger sister Katya. As Masha and Nick begin to become involved he is introduced to their aunt Tatiana Vladimirovna and finds himself compelled to help out in the sale of her apartment. The other thread of the story is that of Nick's involvement in the financing of an oil project off the coast of Murmansk on the Barents Sea.
The eponymous snowdrops are not just the pretty bulbous early blooming flower - in Moscow slang it is a corpse that only unearth's itself in the thaw following the long Russian winter. As one of the characters of book says, 'in Russia there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories'. True or not, this is most certainly a crime story.'
Overall it is a pretty disappointing book. It is one that continues to promise action and intrigue but never actually delivers upon it. The plot is transparent and the ending easily forseen. The central character is so spineless and amoral that he simply isn't believable and the three threads of the story are essentially the same. Add to this a character called 'the Cossack' who could have stepped out of a cliché spy novel and characterisations of the Russians which verge on the racist mean that there is little good to be said of this book and once again I am left wondering how this made it into the Booker prize long list.
Far to Go by Alison Pick (House of Anansi Press 2010)
The Toronto based Alison Pick goes over somewhat familiar ground in her tale of a family of well-to-do Sudetenland jews and the events of their lives leading up to and following its annexation by Germany in 1948. At the heart of the story are the Bauers, Pavel who is a Jewish factory owner, his glamorous wife Annelies, their son Pepik and their maid Martha who narrates. Ultimately it is the story of the Kindertransport, for as the Bauers see that their options for escaping ever fiercer grip of Nazi rule diminish their only hope is to see Pepik out of the country safely.
The other aspect of the story is that of another Annelies, a holocaust researcher who is trying to track down Pavel in modern day Canada so that between them they can piece together the true story of what happened back in Czechoslovakia during the war.
This book suffers from the comparison to far greater books such as the immeasurably better Austerlitz by WG Sebald for all its haunting melancholic meta-fictional brilliance, or one can even look to last year's booker prize longlist for a more interesting holocaust novel in Simon Mawer's 'the Glass Room'. Alison Pick barely moves her narrative above the pedestrian and does nothing with her story that has not been done many times before.
Stylistically too the book has its flaws and one would never guess the author to be a poet because her symbolism and analogy are drab and obvious. Pick also hit against a pet peeve of mine by the pointless use of well-known foreign words to try and add an international flair, something usually the preserve of mediocre travel books.
Pick has clearly been inspired to tell the story of her own family history so I can understand why she has chosen to write it, but it's predictable conventionality means that it never lifts itself above the mediocre and I am at a loss as to explain how it made it into the Booker long list. I would be very disappointed to see it make the short list.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Random House Canada 2011)
This is a novel of youthful friendship and relationships, budding pretensions, teenage angst and middle-aged memories, reverie and regret. The book is told by Tony Webster, a middle-of -the-road type character who can best describe himself as peaceable. The first half of the book centres on the schoolboy friendship with Adrian Finn, a more intelligent, Camus-reading fellow pupil at their sixth form in central London. After the two separate for university, Adrian going to Cambridge and Tony to Bristol, we follow Tony's relationship with Veronica a woman who remains an enigma to Tony and whose feelings for him seem to swing between care and contempt. His relationship with Veronica simpered out after a year and she then goes out with Adrian. The chapter ends with the news of Adrian's death by his own hands.
The second half of the novel is set after Tony has retired, his marriage with Margaret lasting much longer but ending in amicable divorce. He is suddenly forced to reassess his past when a letter from a solicitor turns up informing him that he has been bequeathed Adrian's diary by Veronica's mother but also the news that Veronica, whom Tony had edited out of his past in discussions with Margaret, is currently in possession of the diary and looks unlikely to pass it on.
At the heart of the novel is an almost Proustian analysis of memory and history and Tony is much more at home with the historical certainties of the Greeks and Romans than of the mess of uncertainty of the near past. The focus of his reminiscence is a disastrous trip he took with Veronica to spend a weekend in Kent at her home with her family and every nuance and uttering is re-evaluated with each new exchange with Veronica as he tries to prove to her for once and for all that he finally gets it.
This is a short volume coming in at 150 pages but every word packs its power. Only on looking back do you begin to realise the complexity of the story as you begin to wonder whether your memory of earlier events or his is the one which is correct. I haven't had a chance to reread the book but I'm sure it's one that would get even better on a second visit. It more than justifies its inclusion in the Booker long list and unless Alan Hollinghurst has pulled out a gem with 'the Stranger's Child' I believe this one could go all the way and bag the prize.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (House of Anansi Press 2011)
And so the Booker reading begins. Set in 1851 right in the middle of the California gold rush, the novel tells the story of two infamous brothers Charlie and Eli Sisters who set out on a mission by the commodore from Oregon City to apprehend and kill Hermann Kermit Warm.
The chapters are short and the pace is brisk as the brothers drink, swear, trick and shoot their way west in pursuit of their quarry encountering a witch, an orphan and a prospector gone mad in the solitude of his work.
The narration of Eli Sisters is in a evocative cowboy patter and the description of the fairly frequent violence is vivid the effect being to put you in the saddle as they slaughter their way across the west toward California but it's not for the feint-hearted.
It's an entertaining yarn, the relationship between the younger Eli and the elder Charlie is an intelligent mix of admiration, jealousy and competition and the vivid prose is a real highlight. It is very light reading and I went through it in a couple of days without really trying. My judgement is that it's good but not booker good and I can't see this one getting through to the longlist.
For the third year I am going to try and read as many of the Booker Prize longlist and hopefully all of the shortlist before the winner is announced. Last year my favoured book 'In a Strange Room' by Damon Galgut was beaten by what I think is the far inferior 'The Finkler Question' by Howard Jacobson. Perhaps this year my opinion and the judges will intersect, well stranger things have happened