The 2021 Booker Prize shortlist will be announced tomorrow, September 14th, at 4 p.m. via a livestream. I’ve managed to read or skim eight of 13 from the longlist, only one of which I sought out specifically after it was nominated (An Island – the one no one had heard of; it turns out it was released by a publisher based just 1.5 miles from my home!). I review my four most recent reads below, followed by excerpts of reviews of ones I read a while ago and my brief thoughts on the rest, including what I expect to see on tomorrow’s shortlist.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Why ever did I put this on my Most Anticipated list of the year and pre-order a signed copy?! I’m a half-hearted Ishiguro fan at best (I love Nocturnes but am lukewarm on the other four I’ve read, including his Booker winner) and should have known that his take on AI would be no more inspiring than Ian McEwan’s (Machines Like Me) a couple of years back.
Klara is an Artificial Friend purchased as part of an effort to combat the epidemic of teenage loneliness – specifically, to cheer up her owner, Josie, who suffers from an unspecified illness and is in love with her neighbour, Rick, a bright boy who remains excluded. Klara thinks of the sun as a god, praying to it and eventually making a costly bargain to try to secure Josie’s future health.
Part One’s 45 pages are slow and tedious; the backstory could have been dispensed with in five fairy tale-like pages. There’s a YA air to the story: for much of the length I might have been rereading Everything, Everything. In fact, when I saw Ishiguro introduce the novel at a Guardian/Faber launch event, he revealed that it arose from a story he wrote for children. The further I got, the more I was sure I’d read it all before. That’s because the plot is pretty much identical to the final story in Mary South’s You Will Never Be Forgotten.
Klara’s highly precise diction, referring to everyone in the third person, also gives this the feeling of translated fiction. While that is part of Ishiguro’s aim, of course – to explore the necessarily limited perspective and speech of a nonhuman entity (“Her ability to absorb and blend everything she sees around her is quite amazing”) – it makes the prose dull and belaboured. The secondary characters include various campy villains, the ‘big reveals’ aren’t worth waiting for, and the ending is laughably reminiscent of Toy Story. This took me months and months to force myself through. What a slog! (New purchase)
An Island by Karen Jennings (2019)
Seventy-year-old Samuel has been an island lighthouse keeper for 14 years when a brown-skinned stranger washes up on his beach. Sole survivor from a sunken refugee boat, the man has no English, so they communicate through gestures. Jennings convincingly details the rigors of the isolated life here: Samuel dug his own toilet pipes, burns his trash once a week, and gets regular deliveries from a supply boat. Nothing is wasted and everything is appreciated here, even the thirdhand magazines and videotapes he inherits from the mainland.
Although the core action takes place in just four days, Samuel is so mentally shaky that his memories start getting mixed up with real life. We learn that he has been a father, a prisoner and a beggar. Jennings is South African, and in this parallel Africa, racial hierarchy still holds sway and a general became a dictator through a military coup. Samuel’s father was involved in the independence movement, while Samuel himself was arrested for resisting the dictator.
The novella’s themes – jealousy, mistrust, possessiveness, suspicion, and a return to primitive violence – are of perennial relevance. Somehow, it didn’t particularly resonate for me. It’s not dissimilar in style to J. M. Coetzee’s vague but brutal detachment, and it’s a highly male vision à la Doggerland. Though highly readable, it’s ultimately a somewhat thin fable with a predictable message about xenophobia. Still, I’m glad I discovered it through the Booker longlist.
My thanks to Holland House for the free copy for review.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
This has just as much of an environmentalist conscience as The Overstory, but a more intimate scope, focusing on a father and son who journey together in memory and imagination as well as in real life. The novel leaps between spheres: between the public eye, where neurodivergent Robin is a scientific marvel and an environmental activist, and the privacy of family life; between an ailing Earth and the other planets Theo studies; and between the humdrum of daily existence and the magic of another state where Robin can reconnect with his late mother. When I came to the end, I felt despondent and overwhelmed. But as time has passed, the book’s feral beauty has stuck with me. The pure sense of wonder Robin embodies is worth imitating. (Review forthcoming for BookBrowse.)
China Room by Sunjeev Sahota
Sahota appeared on Granta’s list of Best Young British Novelists in 2013 and was previously shortlisted for The Year of the Runaways, a beautiful novel tracking the difficult paths of four Indian immigrants seeking a new life in Sheffield.
Three brides for three brothers: as Laura notes, it sounds like the setup of a folk tale, and there’s a timeless feel to this short novel set in the Punjab in the late 1920s and 1990s – it also reminded me of biblical stories like those of Jacob and Leah and David and Bathsheba. Mehar is one of three teenage girls married off to a set of brothers. The twist is that, because they wear heavy veils and only meet with their husbands at night for procreation, they don’t know which is which. Mehar is sure she’s worked out which brother is her husband, but her well-meaning curiosity has lasting consequences.
In the later storyline, a teenage addict returns from England to his ancestral estate to try to get clean before going to university and becomes captivated by the story of his great-grandmother and her sister wives, who were confined to the china room. The characters are real enough to touch, and the period and place details make the setting vivid. The two threads both explore limitations and desire, and the way the historical narrative keeps surging back in makes things surprisingly taut. See also Susan’s review. (Read via NetGalley)
Other reads, in brief:
(Links to my full reviews)
Second Place by Rachel Cusk: Significantly more readable than the Outline trilogy and with psychological depths worth pondering, though Freudian symbolism makes it old-fashioned. M’s voice is appealing, as is the marshy setting and its isolated dwellings. This feels like a place outside of time. The characters act and speak in ways that no real person ever would – the novel is most like a play: melodramatic and full of lofty pronouncements. Interesting, but nothing to take to heart; Cusk’s work is always intimidating in its cleverness.
A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson: In 1972, Clara, a plucky seven-year-old, sits vigil for the return of her sixteen-year-old sister, who ran away from home; and their neighbour, who’s in the hospital. One day Clara sees a strange man moving boxes in next door. This is Liam Kane, who inherited the house from a family friend. Like Lawson’s other works, this is a slow burner featuring troubled families. It’s a tender and inviting story I’d recommend to readers of Tessa Hadley, Elizabeth Strout and Anne Tyler.
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood: This starts as a flippant skewering of modern life. A woman who became a social media star by tweeting quips like “Can a dog be twins?” reflects on life on “the portal” and under “the dictator.” Midway through the book, she gets a wake-up call when her mother summons her back to the Midwest for a family emergency. It’s the about-face that makes this novel, forcing readers to question the value of a digital existence based on glib pretence. Funny, but with an ache behind it.
Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford: While I loved the premise, the execution didn’t live up to it. Spufford calls this an act of “literary resurrection” of five figures who survive a South London bombing. But these particular characters don’t seem worth spending time with; their narratives don’t connect up tightly, as expected, and feel derivative, serving only as ways to introduce issues (e.g. mental illness, sexual assault, racial violence, eating disorders) and try out different time periods. I would have taken a whole novel about Ben.
This leaves five more: Great Circle (by Maggie Shipstead) I found bloated and slow when I tried it in early July, but I’m going to give it another go when my library hold comes in. The Sweetness of Water (Nathan Harris) I might try if my library acquired it, but I’m not too bothered – from Eric’s review on Lonesome Reader, it sounds like it’s a slavery narrative by the numbers. I’m not at all interested in the novels by Anuk Arudpragasam, Damon Galgut, or Nadifa Mohamed but can’t say precisely why; their descriptions just don’t excite me.
Here’s what I expect to still be in the running after tomorrow. Clear-eyed, profound, international; bridging historical and contemporary; much that’s unabashedly highbrow.
- Second Place by Rachel Cusk
- The Promise by Damon Galgut (will win)
- No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
- Bewilderment by Richard Powers
- China Room by Sunjeev Sahota
- Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
What have you read from the longlist? What do you expect to be shortlisted?
I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (usually 20–30), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents. I’ve realized that, of course, synchronicity is really the more apt word, but this branding has stuck. This used to be a quarterly feature, but to keep the lists from getting too unwieldy I’ve shifted to bimonthly.
The following are in roughly chronological order.
- I read two novels about the disappearance of a 15-year-old girl at the same time: Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth and When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain.
- Two novels in a row were set on a holiday in Spain: Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon and The Vacationers by Emma Straub.
- I encountered mentions of the removal of the Edward Colston statue in God Is Not a White Man by Chine McDonald and I Belong Here by Anita Sethi on the same evening.
- Characters have the habit of making up names and backstories for strangers in Ruby by Ann Hood and Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon.
- The main female character says she works out what she thinks by talking in Second Place by Rachel Cusk and The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler.
- A passive mother is bullied by her controlling husband in Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon and Female Friends by Fay Weldon.
- Two reads in a row were a slim volume on the necessity of giving up denial: What White People Can Do Next by Emma Dabiri (re: racism) and What If We Stopped Pretending by Jonathan Franzen (re: climate change).
- Expressions of a strange sense of relief at disaster in Forecast by Joe Shute (re: flooding) and The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler (re: a car accident).
- The biomass ratios of livestock to humans to other mammals are cited in Silent Earth by Dave Goulson, The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green, and Bewilderment by Richard Powers.
- Two Booker nominees referencing china crockery: An Island by Karen Jennings and China Room by Sunjeev Sahota (yep, it’s talking about the plates rather than the country).
- Teens sneak vodka in Heartstopper, Volume 3 by Alice Oseman and The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.
- Robert FitzRoy appears in The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn and Forecast by Joe Shute, and is the main subject of This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson, a doorstopper that has been languishing on my set-aside pile.
- Dave Goulson’s bumblebee research is mentioned in The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn, which I was reading at the same time as Goulson’s new book, Silent Earth.
- Reading two cancer memoirs that mention bucket lists at the same time: No Cure for Being Human by Kate Bowler and Year of Plagues by Fred D’Aguiar.
- Mentions of the damaging practice of clearing forest to plant eucalyptus in The Glitter in the Green by Jon Dunn and Forecast by Joe Shute.
- Mentions of mosquito coils being used (in Borneo or Australia) in Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles and The Weekend by Charlotte Wood.
- Different words to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in In Every Mirror She’s Black by Lola Akinmade Åkerström and How We Do Family by Trystan Reese.
- A brief mention of China and Japan’s 72 mini-seasons in Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles: this will then be the setup for Light Rains Sometimes Fall by Lev Parikian, which I’ll be reading later in September.
- Beached whales feature in Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs and Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles.
- A chapter in No Cure for Being Human by Kate Bowler is entitled “Flesh & Blood,” which is the title of the whole memoir by N. West Moss that I picked up next – and both are for Shelf Awareness reviews.
- A description of a sonogram appointment where the nurse calls the doctor in to interpret the results and they know right away that means the pregnancy is unviable, followed by an account of a miscarriage, in Flesh & Blood by N. West Moss and How We Do Family by Trystan Reese.
- Robin Wall Kimmerer and Robert Macfarlane quoted in Church of the Wild by Victoria Loorz and Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles.
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
This month we begin with Redhead by the Side of the Road (2020). (See Kate’s opening post.) Anne Tyler’s lackluster latest somehow got longlisted for the Booker Prize. Still, I’m a solid Tyler fan and I’m taking advantage of Liz’s readalong to get to the books of hers that I own but haven’t read yet. Currently reading: The Clock Winder (1972).
#1 Sorry to break it to you if you haven’t read the book yet, but the title refers not to a person with red hair but to a fire hydrant: Micah, a typically useless Tyler antihero, makes this visual mistake commonly when he’s out running without his glasses on.
The Unlikely Redemption of John Alexander MacNeil by Lesley Choyce (2017) is beloved of a couple of Canadian book blogger friends, including Naomi (here’s her review). I came across it on my Goodreads TBR the other day and the blurb caught my eye. An old man starts doing peculiar things, like picking up a hitchhiker … except that it’s actually a neighbour’s mailbox. This reminded me of Micah’s folly, not least because of the glasses on the cover.
#2 One of the key images in The Great Gatsby (1925) is of the eyes of optician Dr. T. J. Eckleburg peering out from an old billboard. They’re explicitly equated to the eyes of God looking down on the immoral lifestyle of characters blinded by the pursuit of money and happiness. Gatsby was our neighbourhood book club choice this month. Whether we’d read it multiple times before (it was my third read) or not at all, we found a lot to talk about – and two members took the opportunity to dress up in vintage 1920s fashions for the Zoom meeting!
#3 Although those bespectacled eyes appeared on the copy I read in high school, the book group set cover featured a couple of 1920s figures: a woman on the front cover and a man on the back. They look rather like a young Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, but I can’t find evidence that it’s an original photograph. In any case, I thought the image looked awfully familiar, and finally located it as the cover of Fred & Edie by Jill Dawson (2000), which is set in 1922 and was inspired by a true crime. In a sensational trial, Edith Thompson and her lover, Freddy Bywaters, were found guilty of murdering Edith’s husband and the pair were executed the following year. Cathy’s review whetted my appetite to read it.
#4 Also featuring a murder committed in 1922 is The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (2014). I will say no more – not least because I don’t fully remember what happens, though I have a vague sense that it is quite similar in plot to the Dawson – except that this was a stand-out from Waters. (My review for BookBrowse.)
#5 “Paying guests” was an old-fashioned euphemism used by people who didn’t like to admit they had lodgers. Another random recent find on my virtual TBR was The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman (2000), which is about a 15-year-old prostitute trying to provide for herself and her disabled baby boy during a cholera epidemic in Sunderland, England in 1831. Victorian pastiches can go either way for me, but when they’re good I adore them. There are enough positive friend reviews of this on Goodreads for me to keep it on the list: it sounds reminiscent of The Crimson Petal and the White, and the epidemic theme sure is relevant.
#6 The blue dress on the cover led me to Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold (2008), a novel about Charles Dickens’s longsuffering wife, Catherine. (Though the central pair are given different names, it’s very clear who they’re based on.) I’m a sucker for any book about Dickens. Like Redhead, this was longlisted for the Booker Prize.
This month I’ve gone round to a different primary colour, by way of a classic and much historical fiction (with 1920s settings aplenty, and lots of marcelled hair!).
Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point is Phosphorescence by Julia Baird.
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
This year I correctly predicted Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart and Surge by Jay Bernard as the winners of the Booker Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, respectively. Patting myself on the back!
(Earlier in the year, I had a feeling Maggie O’Farrell would win the Women’s Prize, but wasn’t confident enough to single her out; and I got the Wainwright Prizes all wrong.)
I watched both the Booker Prize (live) and Young Writer of the Year Award (pre-recorded) ceremonies online; not having to secure an invitation or pay £30 for the train into London has been an ongoing bonus of pandemic arrangements.
The Booker ceremony was nicely tailored to viewers at home, incorporating brief, informal pre-recorded interviews with each nominated author and a video chat between last year’s winners, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. When Evaristo asked Atwood about the difference between winning the Booker in 2019 versus in 2000, she replied, deadpan, “I was older.” I especially liked the short monologues that well-known UK actors performed from each shortlisted book. Only a few people – the presenter, Evaristo, chair of judges and publisher Margaret Busby, and a string quartet – appeared in the studio, while all the other participants beamed in from other times and places. Stuart is only the second Scottish winner of the Booker, and seemed genuinely touched for this recognition of his tribute to his mother.
I’ve attended the Young Writer ceremony at the London Library twice: in 2017, when I was on the shadow panel, and again last year. It was a shame not to be able to meet up with fellow bloggers and the shortlisted authors, but I appreciated hearing the judges’ thoughts on each nominee. Tessa Hadley said the whole shortlist was “so full of young energy.” Kit de Waal called Catherine Cho’s Inferno “an absolute page-turner.” All the judges remarked at how funny, cutting and original Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times is. Critic Houman Barekat referred to Seán Hewitt’s Tongues of Fire as “unabashedly earnest.” Hadley said Marina Kemp’s Nightingale is just the kind of novel she loves, a “delicate, full notation,” and Barekat observed that it is a timely reminder of the value of care work.
It was clear that, for the judges, all five books were terrifically accomplished and would be worthy winners. Still, the unanimous decision was in favor of Surge, which Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate said is “remarkable for its passionate engagement and diversity of voices.” Bernard read “Hiss” (also up on the Granta website) and said that “poems can take on another life” through performance and short films, so the poet can’t predict whether they will stay in poetry or branch out into other genres.
Back on 18 November, I attended another online event to which I’d gotten a last-minute invitation: a “book club” featuring Tracy Chevalier in conversation with her literary agent, Jonny Geller, on Girl with a Pearl Earring at 20 and her new novel, A Single Thread. In 1996 she sent Geller a letter asking if he’d read Virgin Blue, which she’d written for the MA at the University of East Anglia – the only UK Creative Writing course out there at the time. After VB, she started a contemporary novel set at Highgate Cemetery, where she was a tour guide. It was to be called Live a Little (since a Howard Jacobson title). But shortly thereafter, she was lying in bed one day, looking at a Vermeer print on the wall, and asked herself what the look on the girl’s face meant and who she was. She sent Geller one page of thoughts and he immediately told her to stick Live a Little in a drawer and focus on the Vermeer idea.
Intriguingly, Chevalier stated that the deadline of her pregnancy determined the form of Girl with a Pearl Earring: she knew she had to keep things simple, with a linear narrative, one point of view, and spare prose. While the novel had a quiet publication in August 1999, a good review from Deborah Moggach helped, and it became a “word of mouth success,” never hitting #1 but selling continuously. Chevalier believes this was due to a rare coming together of story and writing; sometimes good stories are hampered by mediocre writing, or vice versa. She and Geller discussed the strange coincidence of two other Vermeer novels coming out at the same time (e.g. Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland); she had the good luck of being the victor. The film version is “lovely,” she said. Geller has never forgotten Scarlett Johansson, who turned 18 on set, leaving her gum in during a cast supper of spaghetti.
Chevalier’s actual Highgate novel, Falling Angels, didn’t borrow at all from her contemporary-set draft as it was set in 1900. Incorporating suffragette history, it felt like an untold story ripe for the plucking. Falling Angels has long been the one I consider my favorite Chevalier – as of last month, when we did The Last Runaway in book club, I’ve read all her work – but after this event I’m eager to reread it and GwaPE to see what I think.
Lastly, Chevalier and Geller talked about her new novel, A Single Thread, which was conceived before Trump and Brexit but had its central themes reinforced by the constant references back to 1930s fascism during the Trump presidency. She showed off the needlepoint spectacles case she’d embroidered for the novel. This wasn’t the first time she’d taken up a craft featured in her fiction: for The Last Runaway she learned to quilt, and indeed still quilts today. Geller likened her to a “method actor,” and jokingly fretted that they’ll lose her to one of these hobbies one day. Chevalier’s work in progress features Venetian glass. I’m already looking forward to it.
Like me, she moved to England from the Washington, D.C. area and has never lost the ‘accent’, so I feel like she’s a kindred spirit.
Bookish online events coming up soon: Penguin book quiz, followed by book club holiday social (a Zoom meeting with glasses of wine in hand!), on the 15th
Have you taken advantage of any online literary events recently?
I call it Book Serendipity when two or more books that I read at the same time or in quick succession have something pretty bizarre in common. Because I have so many books on the go at once (20+), I suppose I’m more prone to such incidents than some. I also list these occasional reading coincidences on Twitter. (Earlier incidents from the year are here, here, and here.)
- Eel fishing plays a role in First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan and The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson.
- A girl’s body is found in a canal in First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan and Carrying Fire and Water by Deirdre Shanahan.
- Curlews on covers by Angela Harding on two of the most anticipated nature books of the year, English Pastoral by James Rebanks and The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn (and both came out on September 3rd).
- Thanksgiving dinner scenes feature in 666 Charing Cross Road by Paul Magrs and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.
- A gay couple has the one man’s mother temporarily staying on the couch in 666 Charing Cross Road by Paul Magrs and Memorial by Bryan Washington.
- I was reading two “The Gospel of…” titles at once, The Gospel of Eve by Rachel Mann and The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson (and I’d read a third earlier in the year, The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving).
- References to Dickens’s David Copperfield in The Cider House Rules by John Irving and Mudbound by Hillary Jordan.
- The main female character has three ex-husbands, and there’s mention of chin-tightening exercises, in The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville and The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer.
- A Welsh hills setting in On the Red Hill by Mike Parker and Along Came a Llama by Ruth Janette Ruck.
- Rachel Carson and Silent Spring are mentioned in A Year on the Wing by Tim Dee, The Frayed Atlantic Edge by David Gange, English Pastoral by James Rebanks and The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson. SS was also an influence on Losing Eden by Lucy Jones, which I read earlier in the year.
- There’s nude posing for a painter or photographer in The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel, How to Be Both by Ali Smith, and Adults by Emma Jane Unsworth.
- A weird, watery landscape is the setting for The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey and Piranesi by Susanna Clarke.
- Bawdy flirting between a customer and a butcher in The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville and Just Like You by Nick Hornby.
- Corbels (an architectural term) mentioned in The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville and Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver.
- Near or actual drownings (something I encounter FAR more often in fiction than in real life, just like both parents dying in a car crash) in The Idea of Perfection, The Glass Hotel, The Gospel of Eve, Wakenhyrst, and Love and Other Thought Experiments.
- Nematodes are mentioned in The Gospel of the Eels by Patrik Svensson and Real Life by Brandon Taylor.
- A toxic lake features in The New Wilderness by Diane Cook and Real Life by Brandon Taylor (both were also on the Booker Prize shortlist).
- A black scientist from Alabama is the main character in Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and Real Life by Brandon Taylor.
- Graduate studies in science at the University of Wisconsin, and rivals sabotaging experiments, in Artifact by Arlene Heyman and Real Life by Brandon Taylor.
- A female scientist who experiments on rodents in Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and Artifact by Arlene Heyman.
- There are poems about blackberrying in Dearly by Margaret Atwood, Passport to Here and There by Grace Nichols, and How to wear a skin by Louisa Adjoa Parker. (Nichols’s “Blackberrying Black Woman” actually opens with “Everyone has a blackberry poem. Why not this?” – !)
What’s the weirdest reading coincidence you’ve had lately?
The 2020 Booker Prize will be announced on Thursday the 19th. (Delayed from the 17th, the date on my commemorative bookmark, so as not to be overshadowed by the release of the first volume of Barack Obama’s presidential memoirs.) After I reviewed Burnt Sugar and correctly predicted half of the shortlist in this post, I’ve managed to finish another two of the novels on the shortlist, along with two more from the longlist. As sometimes happens with prize lists – thinking also of the Women’s Prize race in 2019 – this year’s shortlist fell into rough pairs: two stark mother–daughter narratives, two novels set in Africa, and two gay coming-of-age stories.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
In a striking opening to a patchy novel, Bea goes off to the woods to give birth alone to a stillborn daughter. It’s such a different experience to when she birthed Agnes in a hospital eight years ago. Now, with coyotes and buzzards already circling, there’s no time for sentimentality; she turns her back on the baby and returns to the group. Bea is part of a wilderness living experiment that started out with 20 volunteers, but illness and accidents have since reduced their number.
Back in the toxic, overcrowded City, Bea was an interior decorator and her partner a professor of anthropology. Bea left to give Agnes a better chance at life; like so many other children, she had become ill from her polluted surroundings. Now she is a bright, precocious leader in the making, fully participating in the community’s daily chores. Settlement tempts them, but the Rangers enforce nomadism. Newcomers soon swell their numbers, and there are rumors of other groups, too. Is it even a wilderness anymore if so many people live in it?
The cycles of seasons and treks between outposts make it difficult to get a handle on time’s passing. It’s a jolt to realize Agnes is now of childbearing age. Only when motherhood is a possibility can she fully understand her own mother’s decisions, even if she determines to not repeat the history of abandonment. The blurb promised a complex mother–daughter relationship, but this element of the story felt buried under the rigor of day-to-day survival.
It is as if Cook’s primary interest was in how humans would react to being returned to primitive hunter–gatherer conditions – she did a lot of research into Native American practices, for instance, and she explores the dynamics of sex and power and how legends arise. As a child I was fascinated by Native cultures and back-to-the-land stories, so I enjoyed the details of packing lists, habits, and early rituals that form around a porcelain teacup.
But for me some nuts and bolts of storytelling were lacking here: a propulsive plot, a solid backstory, secondary characters that are worthwhile in their own right and not just stereotypes and generic roles. The appealing description induced me to overcome my usual wariness about dystopian novels, but a plodding pace meant it took me months to read. A lovely short epilogue narrated by Agnes made me wonder how much less tedious this chronicle might have been if told in the first person by Bea and Agnes in turn. I’ll try Cook’s story collection, Man V. Nature, to see if her gifts are more evident in short form.
My thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Over the course of one late summer weekend, Wallace questions everything about the life he has built. As a gay African American, he has always been an outsider at the Midwestern university where he’s a graduate student in biochemistry. Though they vary in background and include several homosexuals, some partnered and some unattached, most of his friends are white, and he’s been so busy that he’s largely missed out on evening socializing by the lake – and skipped his father’s funeral (though there are other reasons for that as well).
Tacit prejudice comes out into the open in ugly ways in these few days. When he finds his nematode experiments sabotaged, a female colleague at his lab accuses him of misogyny, brandishing his identity as a weapon against him: “you think that you get to walk around because you’re gay and black and act like you can do no wrong.” Then, in a deliciously awkward dinner party scene, an acquaintance brings up Wallace’s underprivileged Alabama upbringing as if it explains why he’s struggling to cope in his academic career.
Meanwhile, Wallace has hooked up with a male – and erstwhile straight – friend, and though there is unwonted tenderness in this relationship, there is also a hint of menace. The linking of sexuality and violence echoes the memories of abuse from Wallace’s childhood, which tumble out in the first-person stream of consciousness of Chapter 5. Other male friends, too, are getting together or breaking apart over mismatched expectations. Kindness is possible, but built-in injustice and cruelty, whether vengeful or motiveless, too often take hold.
There are moments when Wallace seems too passive or self-pitying, but the omniscient narration emphasizes that all of the characters have hidden depths and that emotions ebb and flow. What looks like despair on Saturday night might feel like no big deal come Monday morning. I so admired how this novel was constructed: the condensed timeframe, the first and last chapters in the past tense (versus the rest in the present tense), the contrast between the cerebral and the bodily, and the thematic and linguistic nods to Virginia Woolf. A very fine debut indeed.
I also read two more of the longlisted novels from the library:
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Such a fun book! I’d read the first chapter earlier in the year and set it aside, thinking it was too hip for me. I’m glad I decided to try again – it was a great read, so assured and contemporary. Once I got past a slightly contrived first chapter, I found it completely addictive. The laser-precision plotting and characterization reminded me of Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith at their peak, but the sassy voice is all Reid’s own. There are no clear villains here; Alix Chamberlain could easily have filled that role, but I felt for her and for Kelley as much as I did for Emira. The fact that I didn’t think anyone was completely wrong shows how much nuance Reid worked in. The question of privilege is as much about money as it is about race, and these are inextricably intertwined.
Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward
An intriguing set of linked short stories that combine philosophy and science fiction. Rachel and Eliza are preparing to have a baby together when an ant crawls into Rachel’s eye and she falls ill. Eliza wants to believe her partner but, as a scientist, can’t affirm something that doesn’t make sense (“We don’t need to resort to the mystical to describe physical processes,” she says). Other chapters travel to Turkey, Brazil and Texas – and even into space. It takes 60+ pages to figure out, but you can trust all the threads will converge around Rachel and her son, Arthur, who becomes an astronaut. I was particularly taken by a chapter narrated by the ant (yes, really) as it explores Rachel’s brain. Each section is headed by a potted explanation of a thought experiment from philosophy. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the alternative future of the two final chapters. Still, I was impressed with the book’s risk-taking and verve. It’s well worth making a rare dip into sci-fi for this one.
Back in September I still thought Hilary Mantel would win the whole thing, but since her surprise omission from the shortlist I’ve assumed the prize will go to Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. This was a DNF for me, but I’ll try it again next year in case it was just a matter of bad timing (like the Reid and The Go-Between – two books I attempted a second time this year and ended up loving). Given that it was my favorite of the ones I read, I would be delighted to see Real Life win, but I think it unlikely. My back-up prediction is The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste, which I would consider reserving from the library if it wins.
Have you read anything from the Booker shortlist?
Which book do you expect to win?
The 2020 Booker Prize shortlist will be announced tomorrow, September 15th. Following on from my initial thoughts … I’ve only managed to read one more book from the longlist, reviewed in brief below along with some thoughts on a few other nominees I’ve sampled.
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
This short, intense novel is about two women locked into resentful competition. Tara and Antara also happen to be mother and daughter. When the long-divorced Tara shows signs of dementia, artist Antara and her American-born husband Dilip take her into their home in Pune, India. Her mother’s criticism and strange behavior stir up flashbacks to the 1980s and 1990s, when Antara felt abandoned by Tara during the four years they lived in an ashram and then her time at boarding school. Emotional turmoil led to medical manifestations like excretory issues and an eating disorder, and both women fell in love in turn with a homeless photographer named Reza Pine.
When Antara learns she is pregnant, the whole cycle of guilt and maternal ambivalence looks set to start again. Memory is precarious and full of potential hurt here, and Antara’s impassive narration is perfectly suited to the story of a toxic relationship. Neither the UK title nor the one for the original Indian publication (Girl in White Cotton) seems quite right to me; I might have chosen something related to the cover and endpaper image of the aloe plant: something that is as spiky as a cactus yet holds out hope of balm. This was a good fictional follow-up to a memoir I read earlier in the year about dementia’s effect on an Indian-American mother–daughter pair, What We Carry by Maya Shanbhag Lang.
It seems to me now that this forgetting is convenient, that she doesn’t want to remember the things she has said and done. It feels unfair that she can put away the past from her mind while I’m brimming with it all the time. I fill papers, drawers, entire rooms with records, notes, thoughts, while she grows foggier with each passing day.
I will never be free of her. She’s in my marrow and I’ll never be immune.
My thanks to Hamish Hamilton for the free copy for review.
Apeirogon by Colum McCann
Reminiscent of the work of David Grossman, this is the story of two fathers, one Israeli and one Palestinian, who lost their daughters to the ongoing conflict between their nations: Rami Elhanan’s 13-year-old daughter Smadar was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber, while Bassam Aramin’s 10-year-old daughter Abir was shot by Israeli border police. The two men become unlikely friends through their work with a peacemaking organization, with Bassam also expanding his sense of compassion through his studies of the Holocaust.
It doesn’t take long to piece the men’s basic stories together. But the novel just keeps going. It’s in numbered vignettes ranging in length from one line to a few pages, and McCann brings in many tangentially related topics such as politics, anatomy, and religious history. Bird migration is frequently used as a metaphor. Word association means some lines feel arbitrary and throwaway. Looking ahead, I could see the numbering goes up to 500, at which point there is a long central section narrated in turn by the two main characters, and then goes back down to 1, mimicking the structure of the One Thousand and One Nights, mentioned in #101.
The narrative sags under the challenge McCann has set for himself. At 200 pages, this might have been a masterpiece. Though still powerful, it sprawls into repetition and pretension. (I read the first 150 pages.)
Set aside temporarily:
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook: The blurb promised an interesting mother–daughter relationship, but so far this is dystopia by numbers. A wilderness living experiment started with 20 volunteers, but illnesses and accidents have reduced their number. Bea was an interior decorator and her partner, Glen, a professor of anthropology – their packing list and habits echo primitive human culture. I loved the rituals around a porcelain teacup, but in general the plot and characters weren’t promising. I read Part I (47 pages) and would only resume if this makes the shortlist, which seems unlikely. (See this extraordinarily detailed 1-star Goodreads review from someone who DNFed the novel near where I am now.)
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart: Dialect + depressing subject matter = a hard slog. Poverty and alcoholism make life in 1980s Glasgow a grim prospect for Agnes Bain and her three children. So far, the novel is sticking with the parents and the older children, with the title character barely getting a mention. I did love the scene where Catherine goes to Leek’s den in the pallet factory. This is a lot like the account Damian Barr gives of his childhood in Maggie & Me. I left off on page 82 but will go back to this if it makes the shortlist.
So that makes a total of 2 read, 4 DNFed, 2 set aside (and might yet DNF), 2 I still hope to read (one of which I’m awaiting from the library; the other is on my birthday wish list), and 3 I don’t intend to read. Not a great showing at all this year!
Still, I can never resist an opportunity to make predictions about a prize shortlist, so here’s what I expect to still be in the running after tomorrow. Weighty, diverse; a mixture of historical and contemporary.
- The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel (will win)
- Apeirogon by Colum McCann
- The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
- Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
- Real Life by Brandon Taylor
- How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang
What have you read from the longlist? What do you expect to be shortlisted?
The 13-strong 2020 Booker Prize longlist was announced this morning. Looking at friends’ Booker predictions/wish lists (Clare’s and Susan’s), I didn’t think I would be invested in this year’s prize race, yet the moment I saw the longlist I scurried to look up the titles I hadn’t heard of and to request others I realized I wanted to read after all.
In general, the list achieves a nice balance between established names and debut authors, and the gender, ethnicity and sexuality statistics are good.
(Descriptions of books not experienced are from the Goodreads blurbs.)
Only one so far and, alas, I thought it among the author’s poorest work to date:
- Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus) – While this novella is perfectly readable – Tyler could write sympathetic characters like Micah and his Baltimore neighbors in her sleep – it felt incomplete and inconsequential, like an early draft that needed another subplot and plenty more scenes added in before it was ready for publication. Any potential controversy (illegitimate offspring and a few post-apocalyptic imaginings) is instantly neutralized, making the story feel toothless.
DNFed earlier in the year (but what do I know?):
- The Mirror & The Light by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate) – I only managed to read 80 pages or so, then skimmed to page 200 before admitting defeat. I would be totally engrossed for up to 10 pages (exposition and Cromwell one-liners), but then everything got talky or plotty and I’d skim for 20‒30 pages and set it down. I lacked the necessary singlemindedness and felt overwhelmed by the level of detail and cast of characters, so never built up momentum. Still, I can objectively recognize the prose as top-notch. But is 900 pages not a wee bit indulgent? No editor would have dared cut it…
- Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury) – “In the midst of a family crisis one late evening, white blogger Alix Chamberlain calls her African American babysitter, Emira, asking her to take toddler Briar to the local market for distraction. There, the security guard accuses Emira of kidnapping Briar, and Alix’s efforts to right the situation turn out to be good intentions selfishly mismanaged.”
- How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C. Pam Zhang (Virago) – “Both epic and intimate, blending Chinese symbolism and re-imagined history with fiercely original language and storytelling, How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a haunting adventure story … An electric debut novel set against the twilight of the American gold rush, two siblings are on the run in an unforgiving landscape—trying not just to survive but to find a home.”
On the shelf to read soon:
- Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Picador) – “The unforgettable story of young Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city’s notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings.” (Out on August 6th. Proof copy from publisher)
Already wanted to read:
- Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury) – Yes, I’m going to try this one again! (Requested from library)
- Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books) – “An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.”
- Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward (Corsair) – “Rachel and Eliza are hoping to have a baby. The couple spend many happy evenings together planning for the future. One night Rachel wakes up screaming and tells Eliza that an ant has crawled into her eye and is stuck there. She knows it sounds mad – but she also knows it’s true. As a scientist, Eliza won’t take Rachel’s fear seriously and they have a bitter fight. Suddenly their entire relationship is called into question.” (Requested from library)
Heard about for the first time and leapt to find:
- The New Wilderness by Diane Cook (Oneworld) – “Bea, Agnes, and eighteen others volunteer to live in the Wilderness State as part of a study to see if humans can co-exist with nature … [This] explores a moving mother‒daughter relationship in a world ravaged by climate change and overpopulation.” (Out on August 13th. Requested from publisher)
- Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (Hamish Hamilton) – “A searing debut novel about mothers and daughters, obsession and betrayal – for fans of Deborah Levy, Jenny Offill and Diana Evans … unpicks the slippery, choking cord of memory and myth that binds two women together, making and unmaking them endlessly.” (Out on July 30th. Requested from publisher)
Thought I didn’t want to read, but changed my mind:
- Apeirogon by Colum McCann (Bloomsbury) – I’ve only read one book by McCann and have always meant to read more. But I judged this one by the title and assumed it was going to be yet another Greek myth update. (What an eejit!) “Bassam Aramin is Palestinian. Rami Elhanan is Israeli. They inhabit a world of conflict that colors every aspect of their daily lives, from the roads they are allowed to drive on, to the schools their daughters, Abir and Smadar, each attend, to the checkpoints, both physical and emotional, they must negotiate.” (Reading from library)
Would read if it fell in my lap, but I’m not too bothered:
- Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze (4th Estate) – “An electrifying autobiographical British novel … This is a story of a London you won’t find in any guidebooks. This is a story about what it’s like to exist in the moment, about boys too eager to become men, growing up in the hidden war zones of big cities – and the girls trying to make it their own way.”
- The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste (Canongate) – “A gripping novel set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, The Shadow King takes us back to the first real conflict of World War II, casting light on the women soldiers who were left out of the historical record.” I have seen unenthusiastic reviews from friends.
Don’t plan to read:
- This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga (Faber & Faber) – “Anxious about her prospects after leaving a stagnant job, Tambudzai finds herself living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare. … at every turn in her attempt to make a life for herself, she is faced with a fresh humiliation, until the painful contrast between the future she imagined and her daily reality ultimately drives her to a breaking point.” This is the third book in a trilogy and I have seen unfavorable reviews from friends.
Of course, Hilary will win; skip the shortlist announcement in September and go ahead and give her the Triple Crown! But I always discover at least a couple of gems through the Booker longlist each year, so I’m grateful to the judges (Margaret Busby (chair), editor, literary critic and former publisher; Lee Child, author; Sameer Rahim, author and critic; Lemn Sissay, writer and broadcaster; and Emily Wilson, classicist and translator) for highlighting some exciting books that I may not have been induced to try otherwise. I will probably end up reading only half of the longlist, but may readjust my plans after the shortlist comes out.
What do you think about the longlist? Have you read anything from it? Which nominees appeal to you?