A quick roundup in advance of our shadow panel decision meeting on Friday. I struggled with these two books for different reasons. A 640-page biography of a figure I’d never heard of was always going to be a hard ask; and science fiction is not one of my go-to genres. But I’ll try my best to do them justice with these short reviews.
Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman
By Minoo Dinshaw
Historian Steven Runciman’s life spanned most of the twentieth century: 1903 to 2000. Though born in Northumberland, he considered himself Scottish and was for a time the Laird of Eigg, an island his father, Walter, purchased in 1925. This biography often reads like a who’s-who of the upper classes. Walter led the Board of Education in Prime Minister Asquith’s cabinet, and young Steven was school chums with the PM’s son, Anthony “Puffin” Asquith. At Eton Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) was his closest pal; at Cambridge he was photographed by Cecil Beaton – as in that splendid cover image. His brother married novelist Rosamond Lehmann. He was friends with E.F. Benson, Edith Wharton and the Queen Mother. A young Patrick Leigh Fermor wandered into Bulgaria while Runciman was there for the 1934 International Byzantine Congress, and Fermor and Freya Stark turn up frequently thereafter. Our hero also spent time in China, Japan, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Borneo. My favorite odd interlude in this wide-ranging, adventurous life was a time in Hollywood advising George Cukor on Empress Theodora (to be played by Ava Gardner).
Dinshaw draws a fine distinction between his subject’s professional and private selves. When talking about the published historian and thinker, he uses “Runciman”; when talking about the closeted homosexual and his relationships with family and friends, it’s “Steven”. This confused me to start with, but quickly became second nature. Occasionally these public and private personas are contrasted directly: “Runciman was a great romantic historian; but in his personal affairs Steven had come to be more admiring of that epithet ‘realistic’ than of any height of romance.” Indeed, Steven once confessed he had never been in love. At the shortlist event on Saturday, Dinshaw summed him up as “an old-fashioned, courtly queer.”
Dinshaw doesn’t shy away from his subject’s less flattering traits like vanity, envy and mischievousness. He also gives a good sense of Runciman’s writing style for those readers who may never read his history books – such as a three-volume history of the Crusades and a work on Sicilian prehistory – for themselves:
Runciman does owe some of his lucid style and sardonic humour to Gibbon.
The opening of Romanus established the practice of resonantly gnomic first lines in Runciman’s work: clear in style, epic in resonance, cynical in import and without immediate application to the particulars of the subject.
Chapter titles are mainly taken from relevant tarot cards (for instance, Chapter 22, “The Hanged Man,” primarily concerns Steven’s homosexuality), which also feature on the book’s endpapers. The text is also partitioned by two sets of glossy black-and-white photographs. The book’s scope and the years of research that went into it cannot fail to impress. I never warmed to Steven as much as I wanted to, but that is likely due to a lack of engagement: regrettably, I had to skim much of the book to make the deadline. However, I will not be at all surprised if the official judges choose to honor this imposing work of scholarship.
Other shadow panel reviews of Outlandish Knight:
Annabel’s at Annabookbel
The End of the Day
By Claire North
Charlie is the Harbinger of Death, a role that involves a lot of free travel and some sticky situations. But really, it’s a job like any other:
When he got the job, the first thing he did was phone his mum, who was very proud. It wasn’t what she’d ever imagined him doing, of course, not really, but it came with a pension and a good starting salary, and if it made him happy…
The second thing he did was try and find his Unique Taxpayer Reference, as without it the office in Milton Keynes said they couldn’t register him for PAYE at the appropriate tax level.
After all, they say there are only two things you can’t avoid: death and taxes.
Charlie is Death’s John the Baptist, if you will: “I’m the one who’s sent before. … My presence is not the end. Sometimes I am sent as a courtesy, sometimes as warning. I never know which.” His destinations include Peru, Greenland, Syria, Nigeria and Mexico. In between these visitations – during which he talks to the person in question and gives them something meaningful, like tea or a figurine of a deity – Charlie strives to lead a normal life back in Dulwich with Emmi, whom he met via Internet dating.
I loved the premise of the novel, and its witty writing should appeal to Terry Pratchett and Nicola Barker fans. The more fantastical elements are generally brought back to earth by unremitting bureaucracy – I especially enjoyed a scene in which Charlie is questioned by U.S. Border officials. But the book’s structure and style got in the way for me. It is episodic and told via super-short chapters (110 of them). It skips around in a distracting manner, never landing on one scene or subplot for very long. Ellipses, partial repeated lines, and snippets of other voices all contribute to it feeling scattered and aimless. North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is terrific, but her latest didn’t live up to my expectations. Hopefully this is just a one-off; I’m willing to try more from North in the future.
Other shadow panel reviews of The End of the Day:
Annabel’s at Annabookbel
Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books
Dane’s at Social Book Shelves
Eleanor’s at Elle Thinks
Now that the shortlist has been announced in the Sunday Times, I can also share it here:
For the first time ever, the judges have chosen five titles, having apparently found it just too difficult to decide on four!
- Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman, Minoo Dinshaw (biography)
- The End of the Day, Claire North (science fiction novel)
- The Lucky Ones, Julianne Pachico (linked short stories)
- Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney (contemporary novel)
- The Lauras, Sara Taylor (contemporary novel)
My initial thoughts: I only predicted Sally Rooney, and am surprised not to see Fiona Mozley here. My only other disappointment is that no poetry has been recognized this year.
There is great variety on this list, ranging as it does from sci fi lite to biography/history. I have only read part of one of the books: an unsuccessful attempt with The Lauras last December, though I am more than happy to try again because I loved The Shore so much. I am now halfway through.
I enjoyed the one book I read by Claire North very much (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August) so look forward to trying another, and I have heard a lot about the Sally Rooney book and read various reviews (it seems to be a polarizing read, though).
I think we are all feeling a bit daunted by the 640-page biography about a historian I had never heard of. However, I have been getting more into biographies so will be interested to see how the author shapes this life story. I am a few chapters in so far, but have a feeling I will be reading it right up until our decision meeting.
I will be posting 1+ shortlist review per week in November, starting with The Lauras.
Like most fiction readers, I generally stick with what I’m pretty sure I’ll like. For me that means that, unless I’ve heard very good feedback that makes me think the book will stand out from its peers, I tend to avoid science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels (or genre fiction in general). I’m also leery of magic realism and allegories, as these techniques can so often be cringe-inducing. But occasionally a book will come along that proves me wrong.
For instance, last week I finished To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. Time travel would normally be a turnoff for me, but Willis manages it perfectly in this uproarious blend of science fiction and pitch-perfect Victorian pastiche (boating, séances and sentimentality, oh my!). Once I got into it, I read it extremely quickly – finishing the final 230 pages on one Sunday afternoon and evening – and it provoked a continuous stream of snorts. I can hardly think of anyone I wouldn’t recommend it to.
This got me thinking about some other pleasantly surprising books that took me outside of my usual reading comfort zone in recent years:
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett: Six generations ago a pair of astronauts landed on the planet Eden and became matriarch and patriarch of a new race of eerily primitive humans. A young leader, John Redlantern, rises up within the group, determined to free his people from their limited worldview by demythologizing their foundational story. Through events that mirror many of the accounts in Genesis and Exodus, Beckett provides an intriguing counterpoint to the ways Jews and Christians relate to the biblical narrative. Page-turning science fiction with deep theological implications. I liked each of the two sequels less than the book that went before, but they’re still worth reading.
The Flavia de Luce mysteries by Alan Bradley: Normally I shy away from series and tire of child narrators – and yet I find the Flavia de Luce novels positively delightful. Why? Well, Canadian author Alan Bradley’s quaintly authentic mysteries are set at Buckshaw, a crumbling country manor house in 1950s England, where the titular eleven-year-old heroine, also the narrator, performs madcap chemistry experiments and solves small-town murders. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (#6) is the best yet. In this installment, Flavia finally learns of her unexpected inheritance from her mother. The most recent, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (#8), is a close second.
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness: The thinking gal’s Twilight. Harkness, a historian of science, draws on her knowledge of everything from medieval alchemy to recent DNA mapping. The main character, reluctant witch Diana Bishop, is studying alchemical treatises at the Bodleian Library. She calls up an enchanted manuscript from Ashmole’s original collection, presumed missing since 1859. There are three excised pages, and the book instantly draws attention from the myriad “creatures” (non-humans) plaguing Oxford. Enter Matthew Clairmont, a mega-hot vampire with a conscience. From rural France to upstate New York, he and Diana fight off rival vampires and the witches who killed Diana’s parents. As with Beckett’s books, the two sequels are a bit of a letdown, but the first book is great fun.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: A full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on body image, consumerism and conformity. The narrator, known only as A, lives in a shared suburban apartment. She and her roommate, B, are physically similar and emotionally dependent, egging each other on to paranoid anorexia. Television and shopping are the twin symbolic pillars of a book about the commodification of the body. In a culture of self-alienation where we compulsively buy things we don’t need, have no idea where our food comes from and worry about keeping up a facade of normalcy, Kleeman’s is a fresh voice advocating the true sanity of individuality.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North: The theme of a character reliving the same life over and over will no doubt have you thinking of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, but I liked this book so much better. Perhaps simply because of the first-person narration, I developed much more of a fondness for Harry August and his multiple life stories than I ever did for Ursula Todd. Harry, the illegitimate son of a servant girl, is born in the same manner each time – on New Year’s Day 1919, in the ladies’ restroom at Berwick-upon-Tweed rail station! – but becomes many people in his different lives.