2005 Man Booker Prize Nominee Reviews

My New Year's resolution in 2006 was to read the Man Booker Prize 2005 Long List (the 2006 list wasn't published on Jan 1). It took me until September to track down all the books, as many were first published in the UK and didn't make it to the USA for a while.

The Harmony Silk Factory, by Tash Aw

I read this book in about four hours, on a plane from Salt Lake City to Boston, finishing it as my bags appeared in the claim area at Logan. It's the first book I've finished from the '05 Booker Prize nominee list, and I really enjoyed it.

It's the story of the man who worked his way up from being a Chinese peasant in Malaysia in the early 1900's to the most powerful, and corrupt man in the Valley in the 1940's and 50's. It's told from the points of view of his son, his wife, and his best friend, but never him. We see different facets of him depending on who's talking: the corrupt lying traitor of a father, the distant cold husband the wife falls out of love with as she falls in love with a Japanese officer, and the struggling Communist whose motivations become more clear as his English friend records their conversations in between notes on designing a garden at his old age home. The ending was somewhat contrived, and I had to wait until the last third of the book for certain things to become clear, but the writing style was engaging and the book kept me engrossed to the point of standing there in baggage claim, racing to finish the last five pages before my bags arrived. I was dancing with impatience to find out the last view of things, and it was fascinating seeing how one man could appear so different to three people who were close to him. The author had me disliking the man at the beginning and then finding more and more sympathy with him as the novel went on.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I'm definitely liking this reading list a lot, two books in and I love both of them.
This one is about a woman, Kathy, who's looking back on her life as she's ending her stint as a carer and about to start making donations, and about the friendships she's had with Ruth and Tommy.

It starts from her memories of childhood, and gradually makes its way back to the present day, meandering around England, never localising things too clearly, mapping out the internal landscape more than the external. She grew up in a boarding school, always isolated from the world, until the age of sixteen when she and some friends were sent to live in another group home, only supervised by one aged caretaker and some veterans, older students. From there, they get to choose when to begin training as carers, and after a stint caring for people making donations, it's their turn. The ghost of deferring donating threads through the book, a possibility if two people can prove that they love each other enough to earn three or four years to themselves. They can't dream of being an office worker or a postman, because their future is set for them. But because they're so sheltered, they accept it, and do the best they can, forming friendships, having spats, making up, doing what they must, and only occasionally wondering why.

About halfway through the book, the author spells out the fact that they're clones, bred to donate organs until they die of it. Four is the limit, though he never gives the order or what the last one is, though I suspect it's the heart. Their guardians and other people are uncomfortable around them, and this distresses the children to a certain degree, but the author shows the self absorption of childhood quite clearly, even given the flashback manner of telling the story.
It's a wonderfully self contained story, exploring what it might be like to grow up knowing that you're going to have your organs harvested, but not really bothered by it, because you've been conditioned to accept it. There are no radical clone revolts, just step after inevitable step taken on a premapped road.

Shalimar the Clown, by Salman Rushdie

Somewhat like "The Harmony Silk Factory", this is a story about a man told from many points of view, but unlike that book, we get to hear from Shalimar in places. He kills his wife's lover early in the novel, and it's witnessed by his wife's daughter (christened Kashmira and renamed India by her father's wife, and now living in Los Angeles). Then we learn the history of the love affairs, and how Shalimar came to the point where he could kill Max. Psychic connections between the husband and wife, and husband and daughter, exert shadow forces on the characters, and everything circles around a Kashmiri town high in the mountains. Max's history is almost disjoint from the rest of the story, but his Alsatian background and fighting in the French resistance provide a prequel of Shalimar's life, as he moves from the village in Kashmir to the mountains in order to train and fight in the Muslim Jihad, after his Hindu wife betrays him. Religion, nationality, race, love, hate, death, revenge all pull the story forward. It's not an easy book, good people (well, sympathetic characters) are overrun with events beyond their control, and dark desires culminate in a deadly encounter in the dark, bow and arrow against knife, as high tech security systems wail in the background, and night vision goggles give one of the combatants an advantage. India/Kashmira's voice is distinct, with the the staccato rhythm that threw me off at first, while the older generation has more languid music in their thoughts and words. World events are mentioned, to root the story in recent times, and the story swept me up, making me wonder why I never read about this event or that, having to remind myself that this is fiction, albeit with strong lashings of reality.

In the Fold, by Rachel Cusk

This is the first one on the list that I had to work to get through, because it wasn't engaging me.
It's the story of a man who helps out an old college friend, going to the family sheep farm to help with the lambing. It's a very localised story, taking place mostly in houses in two small English towns, with some transitions between them, but it took place mostly indoors. It focused on the relations inside the farm family and Michael's, not a lot of cross talk happening, or at least not substantial. The relationships were fairly bad, lots of arguments, secrets being revealed, affaires re-hashed, and general remarks just made to hurt. Not very enjoyable to read, for that reason, and I didn't come away with any feeling of having explored the depths of the human character. People squabble, great. Granted I might be missing something, but I have no wish to dig deeper to find out what it is.
The funniest thing is that I next started "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time", and as the autistic narrator is describing the kinds of novels that he doesn't like to read, his sample say-nothing quote could have come from "In the Fold". I'm liking this book a lot better, and empathising with the narrator quite a bit (esp his panic attacks in crowds).

Saturday, by Ian McEwan

This one I enjoyed. :) At one point I'd wondered if someone could write a novel that took place in a single day, and it turns out, someone has. This novel covers about 24 hours in the life of a London neurosurgeon, from waking up to see a plane flaming out over London, making love to his wife, a car accident, a squash game, a visit to his mother, a concert, a dinner party, and being called in to operate. It's his inner life that's the richest part - his thoughts on 9/11, the coming war in Iraq, diagnoses of people he encounters, thoughts on his family and where his life is going, they all enrich his movements through the day. There's a slow build up to the main conflict and a satisfying resolution; it's a classic construction, but solidly built and well detailed.
I seem to have picked up more than I thought from staring at images of brains for the past four years, most of the neuro stuff made sense to me, and I enjoyed getting lots of detail about a couple of surgeries, as well as the squash game, and cooking dinner. :) This novel reminded me that even a regular day can be made special by how you approach it - there's an undercurrent of mindfulness in the story, of being present and seeing and reacting to what's around you, rather than just what you expect to see. It's enhanced by having read "The Curious Incident..." right before, seeing the contrast between the thoughts of an autistic teen versus a middle aged dad - both are observing the world around them, but at differing levels of detail.

The Sea, by John Banville

"The Sea" is about a widower who goes back to an old vacation town on the sea after his wife dies, and he tells the story of her illness and of his summer by the water with the Grace family. He talks of his first loves more than his wife, he's hard on himself, and meanders in memory, trying to find himself again after a year of nursing his wife by reminiscing about when he first became self conscious, separate from the world.
This is the book that actually won the Booker prize, though it wouldn't have been my first pick. It's beautiful and lyrical and sad, but self consciously so. It feels like, when I stumble across a glorious phrase, that the author left it there deliberately to stay me, demanding that I linger over it and cherish it. There were many words that had me reaching for a dictionary or paging through my own memory for definitions, to the point of disrupting the flow of the novel. Maybe it was that the narrative tone wasn't quite consistent all the way through, that the author had these phrases and built the rest of the story around them, I'm not sure. Jeanette Winterson is better at this style of story telling, her books feel more cohesive than this. Maybe it's partially a function of the protagonist, an old man reliving life versus Winterson's youngish females. There was one horribly jarring paragraph where Max obscenely berates his wife for losing him, and then goes on being lyrically descriptive of the past. It does convincingly portray a man dealing with grief, the thoughts he expresses feel very immediate, due to digressions in the text and statements of explicit clarification. I guess it's growing on me a bit more as I think about why I didn't enjoy it as much as I'd hoped. It's not bad, but maybe I just couldn't relate to the emotions he was experiencing. I seem to need to make an emotional connection to characters in novels in order to really enjoy them, and Max's state was just too foreign for me to grasp.

A short history of tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka

This title is the one that first caught my eye when I scanned over the list of books that I'd be reading this year. It's the story of a daughter whose father remarries when he's in his eighties and the disruption that it engenders in the family. Nadezhda and her sister Vera join forces, after years of partial estrangement, to try and oust the middle aged floozy from their father's life. The story's structure shares some similarities with "In the Fold", but the details are much more charming. Stories from the past come to light (moving from the Ukraine to England via work camps), radically different from each perspective that's offered, and there's a lot of conflict with the interloper and within the original family. A lot of the quoted dialog is rendered in English as a second language, with the conversations translated from Ukrainian flowing more naturally, but this somehow works well to put me down in the middle of the bilingual family.

The deceased mother's presence is felt throughout, in comparisons to the new wife, in the tins of preserved food she'd left behind, in a locket that's a bone of contention between the sisters, in her garden that's going to seed behind the house. Nadezhda's husband and daughter are only lightly sketched in, and we never meet Vera's daughters, this story concentrates on the siblings and their parents. The father is a retired engineer who's writing a book about tractors, and excerpts are presented in the novel, and sometimes it seems to be the only thing that's keeping him together as he weathers the failure of his new marriage, his wife pressuring him for more and more money and immigration support, and eventual death threats. The past story is just as engrossing as the present one, as the sister digs for the reasons why her sister and father are at odds, and the two parts are skillfully woven together. There are moments of humour, as when Nadezhda's following the new wife trying to find out if she's having an affair, and some sad/scary ones as we see how her father is deteriorating, barricaded in his room. Overall, though, it's a happy sort of novel, not as biting as "In the Fold". There are even moments of sympathy for the new wife as well, as we get glimpses of why she's acting as she is.

Beyond Black, by Hilary Mantel

This book was creepy, in the skin crawling up your spine, here there be ghosts and they be not friendly sort of way. The protagonist is a medium with a spirit guide who happens to be someone from her childhood, who scared her then and still scares her now. The group of men that hung around her childhood shack, taking turns with her prostitute mother, betting on fighting dogs, and "teaching her a lesson" slowly gather back around her after they've died. Al's memories are a bit wonky due to always having seen spirits and a childhood full of abuse, and she's not quite sure what the men did to her, or what she did to them. That forms the central mystery of the book, and franky, it's not strong enough to hold the whole thing together. There's a strong sub plot of Al's manager and how prickly she is, to the point of constantly abusing Al for her weight and forcing her to diet, but the unpleasantness pales in the face of the threats from the dead. Al is a working psychic, so we get to meet her colleagues as they move around England working at various fairs and performances, as well as seeing her interact directly with clients. Al tries to do good deeds, sheltering a homeless man, and taking all sorts of insults without complaint, in an effort to build up karma against the bad things she attracts, and I had a lot of sympathy for her, but I wish that the novel had ended more strongly.

Slow Man, by J. M. Coetzee

This book grabbed my attention on the first page, opening up with a bike accident, and the victim flying through the air. The bicyclist in question, an older man named Paul, ends up having his leg amputated and having to totally rearrange his life. He goes through a succession of nurses, and the last one cares for him so well that he becomes smitten with her, and her children. Then a possibly psychic writer turns up on his door step and urges him to take action, to woo the woman he encountered in the hospital, or to declare himself to his nurse, something, so that he moves forward, gets out of his gloomy flat and starts to live again. The writer seems to know things she shouldn't, seeming a personification of the author's omniscient point of view. The medical issues aren't dealt with in as much detail as they were in "Saturday", and the psychic stuff isn't as obvious as in "Beyond Black", and it doesn't seem like the protagonist really gets to know his own self. I did empathise with him a bit, mostly due to the bike accident and the loss of mobility, but his pushing to enter the life of a self contained family to avoid living his own, to take care of them when he can't take care of himself, was a bit too escapist for me. There were some abrupt introductions of elements into the narrative that felt jarring, the book could have been a bit longer and more fleshed out. The ending left more questions than answers, highlighting that every person has a point of view on events, and that sometimes you just don't know what's the right thing to do.
Or something. :) I need to think about this one a bit more, I think.

A Long Long Way, by Sebastian Barry

This book follows a young Irish man who joins up in Dublin to fight in World War I, and ends up in the trenches in France and Belgium. The descriptions of the brief glimpses of beauty in and amongst the horror were brief respites in a tale that was pretty much just matter-of-factly bloody. Willie gets caught up in putting down a rebellion in the streets of Dublin when he's about to leave for the continent and it really twists him up that he's had to fight his own as well as the Germans. He holds tight to the images of his father and sisters, despite some friction over the events in Dublin, and tries to be true to his love, Gretta. His friends in the trenches fall in a hail of bullets and bombs and gas - the description of withstanding the second gas attack after the first was weathered without masks, trying to suppress the memory of fleeing in front of the deadly yellow cloud as a new one rolled over them, was quite powerful.
I'm describing this really poorly. The writing is strong and beautiful and the story is affecting. It gives a strong sense of what it was like to sit in muddy trenches with death all around, yet at the same time we get to share in Willie's coping mechanisms and don't quite get over whelmed. Not an easy book to read, but a good one.

The People's Act of Love, by James Meek

Wow, this was a substantial book - the themes were grand and the scope felt sweeping, for all that it's set mostly in a Siberian village.
It's about love, for people and causes, but it detours through abandonment, castration, cannibalism, communism, lies, sacrifice, and military atrocities. It seemed like every time I started to build a picture of one character, it would be revealed that they were lying about something big.
There are two main couples, and in each one, one partner does something that they believe in but that forces them away from their other. The book starts with a short description of these events, then dives into the consequences. The characters are richly drawn, changeable, very human. The horrors and surprises that the story exposed were like a series of gut punches.

the accidental, by Ali Smith

This book managed to be very structured and yet free form within that structure. The three parts are explicitly called the beginning, middle and end, but within each part, the story is unfolded through stream of consciousness writing from each of the five characters, one after another in the same order, daughter, son, husband, wife, and then Amber. The family rents a holiday house in Norfolk and spends the summer months there, and one day Amber appears on the doorstep. Eve thinks she's one of Michael's students, he thinks that she's one of Eve's interview subjects or reviewers. Amber insinuates herself into the fabric of the family, instantly accepted yet still an irritant, and changes everything for the better though it seems the opposite at times. Amber's thoughts are the most obfuscated and have the smallest amount of space dedicated to them, she's the unknown that catalyses the family into change. The daughter stops looking at everything through the lens of her video camera, the son stops obsessing about the girl at his school who committed suicide, the husband is forced to deal with his infidelity, and the wife stops pretending to be someone else. The tone of the sections shows a progression in the character's attitudes, they become more linearly narrative as the book goes on and Amber's influence is felt.
Very well written, and it pulled me through the pages quickly after I became accustomed to the structure.

Arthur & George, by Julian Barnes

This books starts from the births of two men, and goes until the death of one of them. Each man's life is detailed in sections under the heading of their name, with a couple of supporting characters getting random sections.

The two men don't encounter each other until about half way through the book, when Arthur takes up George's cause, trying to get him compensation for being wrongfully imprisoned. Well, I assume it was wrongfully, they never actually solve the mystery of who committed the crime. The book seemed to meander through their lives, very linear and accepting of what comes next. George sits through 3 years of imprisonment, a patient unimaginative solicitor, while Arthur charges around being enthusiastic about stuff. We get to learn about Arthur's interest in spiritism, his long platonic affair while married to a consumptive wife, and his annoyance at always being associated with Sherlock Holmes. The book takes place in England in the late 1800's and early 1900's, glossing over the first world war in the latter pages, and sprinkling the text with references to personalities of the day.
George's trial is frustrating, as it's all built on circumstantial evidence, and George himself is astonished that he's convicted. With this being the central event that connects the two men, it's doubly frustrating that we don't get to see closure on it. Arthur's personal life proceeds apace, with him waiting dutifully for his wife to die before he can marry his love.
The book is richly detailed, the characters are engaging, and it kept me turning the pages, but it felt ... unsatisfying. The references at the end show that Barnes did his homework, it's all based on fact, so maybe that's the point, that life isn't neat and tidy, that sometimes you just don't know. But I'd rather a novel tell me what bloody well happened to kick off the whole thing. :)

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

This book focuses on a family of five, living in a college town just outside of Boston.
The father is a dry, self absorbed prat of a non published professor who tries to keep a firm grip on the lives of all in the household as they all slip merrily between his fingers. His control is irrevocably lost when his affair is brought to light. The mother/wife, Kiki, is very strong and she forgives him until she learns more details, and the scandal breaks over the town. The daughter is actually attending the father's classes, the son is highly religious & at loggerheads with his agnostic family, and the younger son is pretending that he's from Roxbury, hanging out with Haitians, rapping and being an activist. The author mixes their points of view throughout the story, and throws in a random chapter from another young woman's perspective (which I felt was one of the strongest chapters in the book) as she prepares for the professor's class. Then add an academic/familial rivalry between the main family and another one that conveniently moves in down the street from them, add in sexual high jinks and a controversial bequest, and it gets complex. Too complex, really. Plus there's a whole sub plot about a random young guy they meet on the Common who ends up taking a class with the daughter and trying to be friends with the son, and who falls for the girl that the other son lost his virginity to, while the daughter falls for him. Gah. And the whole thing ends on an anticlimactic note, not seeming to really wrap up anything much inside the family. The outer issues are dealt with more cleanly, but all in all, it had me annoyed when I reached the end.
The writing style is clear and descriptive, the plot could use some more editing. The point of view changes arbitrarily, sometimes she explains things just in flashback, and sometimes we get long drawn out descriptions of things as they happen. The tensions raised by it being a mixed race family are handled okay, but it could have been more polished - it felt like she was trying to say too much, about fitting into a college town, about fitting into urban circles, about affirmative action pro/con, about religious differences between related people.
There were a few characters who were consistently described as beautiful, but only the daughter of the rival professor was sketched out enough so that we could see her from a few different angles, using and reacting to her looks. The professor's infidelity didn't seem to be about his wife gaining weight, it was just him not saying no. Hrmph.
Overall it was okay, had some good bits, but would have been a lot better if the point of view didn't jump around so much, and she didn't try to cover so much ground.

This is the Country, by William Wall

From when I was about a third of the way through the book:
It's set in modern day Ireland and told from the point of view of a junkie who's semi-sort-of trying to clean himself up. It took a while for me to get into the method of story telling, it's very much like listening to someone tell you about stuff that happened to them, with tangents and digressions and not being able to interrupt to ask "what were you in the hospital for?" but if you wait a bit he'll tell you. :) So far it feels like a view of a life while wearing blinders, you only see what you're allowed to see.

Impressions now that I'm done: Still very much a story told as if over a pint, with going back and filling in things, and skirting around the painful parts, and not really listening to the first bit and then finding out that it's important.
It's about family, those you love and those that want to kill you for getting with their sister, about taking responsibility, finding a job that you end up loving, and falling back into habits from a youth on the council estates (breaking into homes and living there for a bit while watching a foster family take care of your daughter).
It's dreamy in places, disjointed in more, mostly non-linear in time, and I really liked it. At the start is a poem called "This is the country", and each line of the poem forms a chapter title, and is used in the chapter (but never really in a forced way). It's as if the poem inspired a dream, influencing some of the action, but not appearing right in the centre of it. It's still threading through the story though, but reading it first didn't spoil the novel (unlike reading the list of thanks at the start of a recent novel, I can't recall which one now, but it basically gave away most of the plot to see for what the author was thanking people).
And when certain characters were speaking, I could hear the lilt in their voices.

This Thing of Darkness, by Harry Thompson

This novelisation of real events covers the historical voyages of the HMS Beagle, telling the stories of Captian Fitzroy and Charles Darwin. The ship voyages to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego on a scientific survey, before taking on Darwin, and the crew brings back natives to England to educate them. Darwin signs on for the return trip, where the natives are restored to their homeland (not without repercussions), and the ship continues on to survey the coast of South America, the Falklands, and the Galapagos. The birth of Argentina is witnessed, and then ship and crew take off across the Pacific to make precise measurements in a string of locations around the world. They stop in at New Zealand and Australia, and South Africa, before returning home to a changed England 5 years later. The story continues to follow the captain and the naturalist as they write and publish the accounts of their journey and deal with the debate that rages around Darwin's theories. Fitzroy is a staunch Christian and opposes Darwin on religious grounds. He goes on to pioneer weather forecasting techniques, but due to his nature, continues to fall afoul of politics. Their wives are sketched in but barely, the focus of the book is on the debate about geology, transmutation of species, and the "civilisation" of native races.
The book was tough to read from a 21st century viewpoint, as the mores of the day were represented without much apology. Fitzroy believed in the intelligence of the South Americans and Maori that he came into contact with, while Darwin (and everyone but a few of the Beagle's crew) tended to view them as barely above apes. The South Americans that went to England were mostly unprepared to deal with their reintroduction into their home society, and Fitzroy agonised about their fates.
Despite the title of the book and the cover blurb's mention of Fitzroy's manic-depression, his episodes are few and far between in the novel, and the manic episodes occur more frequently. The descriptions are evocative though, and the effect that the mysterious fits have on the regulation bound and proud Fitzroy are distressing. Darwin is represented less sympathetically, though the men remain friends through the majority of the book, debating theories on what could have caused the phenomena that they encounter while trying to skirt around the fundamental divide in their philosophies.
There's a fair amount of nautical detail but it's not overwhelming, especially considering that the bulk of the story depends on a brig to move them from place to place. The long ocean crossings are shortened in the text to touch on the high and low points, the story moves along briskly.
Overall, a fascinating historical novelisation, and an enjoyable read.

All For Love, by Dan Jacobson

This novel covers the love affair between Princess Louise of Saxe-Coburg and Geza Mattachich, with some details about the woman who loved and helped both of them, Maria Stoger. The Princess and her cavalry officer cuckold Prince Phillip, run away to Paris, spend all their money, Mattachich fights a duel with Phillip, and they get caught up by a forgery on a promissory note that ends up putting the officer in jail and Louise in an insane asylum. Maria manages to get them both free, indulging her obsession from afar with Mattachich, but since the other two were the ones who left behind autobiographies, she's given short shrift here. She's the most sensible of the three, able to live within her means and care for her original son and the one that she had with Mattachich. Louise is buffeted by events, spending freely, sure that someone will cover her debts, then waiting to be rescued. Mattachich seems to be genuinely in love with Louise, and fond of Maria at least, but that doesn't come across very clearly in the novelisation. The author is candid about starting from the original sources and taking liberties with them, and Jacobson's voice is clear throughout, putting a modern spin on the events taking place at the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries. WWI and WWII are lightly touched upon, as well as some tangential scandals. I'm not very familiar with the events covered in the book, and it doesn't really stand on it's own as a love story, the author's doubts as to the claims made by each party in their memoirs leech all the romance out of the inter-class love stories. It was interesting, and short enough that I got through it pretty quickly, though I don't quite feel inspired to read up on Leopold II any time soon.