Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Booker in Question

Fiction choices are a very subjective matter; what is pleasure for someone can be angst for another. Nothing brings this more out in the open than speculation about how some of the leading book prizes are selected. Just what do the panel of learned judges look for and how do they come to their decision? Last year, The Man Booker prize, which has a whopping £50,000 attached was awarded to Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Yet it has had mixed reviews in particular from the buying public who tend to judge a book on its readability and not on its literary merit. Certainly, everyone I know has at least struggled with parts of it or not finished it and, alas, my copy still sits on my waiting-to-read shelf. With over 650 pages I can't help but keep passing over it for more novels which appear to be less of a challenge.

Anyhow, this year the prize has been awarded to The Finkler Question by Harold Jacobson. Generally, my impression from the articles I've read is that it is an unpopular choice. So, what made the judges choose Jacobsen and did they reach the right decision?  The only way to decide is to read all the novels. So exactly what I'm going to do! It'll be an interesting project to see, if over the coming weeks/months, I concur with the panel of respected judges chaired by the former poet laureate Andrew Motion.

The Finkler Question

I've already read 3 of the contenders The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet  by David Mitchell and In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut. Here's a run down of the books and my thoughts so far;

In third place so far isThe Slap

The Slap: A Novel

Set in Australia, the novel tells the story of a group of friends and family who meet for a barbecue. During the event a child who threatens another with a cricket bat is slapped, not by his own parent but the parent of the child under threat. The novel then explores the repercussions of the slap and the effect on 8 of the witnesses from their differing perspectives. The book and language are very contemporary so the novel is easy to read and there is enough interest to keep the reader hooked until the very last page. However, if you are easily offended by coarse language and explicit sex this is not the book for you.

The concept and format of The Slap is an original and interesting idea and overall I found the book highly enjoyable. However, I felt it never fully explored the moral issues of physical punishment and some of the characters felt less well rounded than others. However, the slap incident did provide the author with an opportunity to explore the nature of closely interwoven lives and to get inside the heads of his characters. To this extent it worked well as the net result is an entertaining tale of a microcosm of Australian life. The reason I felt The Slap didn't truly get to grips with its promising title was because neither the parents of the child victim or their child were very likeable; indeed my empathy was only fractionally above zero. Although Tsiolkas attempted to give them redeeming features and establish their friendships with other characters with a shared history he didn't really pull it off successfully. So although a few characters adopted the anti-slapping stance you couldn't help but feel their position was untenable, perhaps even tokenism, and that the victim really did deserve his punishment.

From my perspective, I know plenty of children who have been slapped who are are genuinely lovely children but on rare occasions their parents have needed to clearly establish between right and wrong and there was no other effective, immediate way of punishment. I've done it myself. You don't have to be a drunkard or a self righteous woman who breast feeds her child to the age of 4 as in The Slap to have a child who behaves badly. All children behave inappropriately from time to time; it's part of growing up. Learning about what behaviour is socially acceptable is an important lesson and, I believe, there are a few times in early childhood which smacking is an appropriate method. And I mean a few times; I don't mean uncontrolled, frequent slapping which might be categorised as physical abuse.

So, to this extent I felt it would have been far more interesting if the victim and his parents had been genuinely pleasant people and the book could have used that as instrument to discuss the morality of the issue to a far greater degree. Instead, the readers reactions are coloured by a lack of empathy for the offended family whereas a more balanced argument would have been far more intriguing - particularly as many parents, even reasonable ones, would be disconcerted to have another adult discipline their child with a slap.

There was one other issue that troubled me with this book and that was the amount of recreational drugs that appeared.  None of users suffered any dramatic or unpleasant consequences - I felt drugs were shown in a positive manner with the users generally gaining personal enjoyment or heightening their sexual experiences. Now this may indeed be an accurate reflection of this type of socially affluent Australian life and indeed the effect of casual drug usage- I've no idea as I'm not Australian and I've never even taken so much as a whiff of a joint- so it's not a criticism of the book just an observation. However, if this sort of drug usage is indeed so common place amongst affluent Australia then I find it very worrying indeed. Call me old fashioned - but I thought drugs were a bad thing! Maybe I've been missing out? I'm not so sure I want to find out but I can't help wondering what a young adult would feel when reading The Slap..

On to my second place so far which is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel

That's a ghastly cover above to this wonderful book so please don't be put off. If you do get it buy the UK edition which is as gorgeous as the novel. Some of you may remember I went to London and listened to David Mitchell talk at the BBC about his award winning novel Cloud Atlas and later wrote a review of both Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet at The View From Here. So for an in depth review pop over here to The View. However here's a very brief summary of my thoughts....

Firstly, if you struggled with Cloud Atlas have no fear, you won't with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The novel is set in late eighteenth/ early nineteenth century so although the language has a period feel it doesn't have anywhere near the complex language of Cloud Atlas . The novel is also overall far less experimental than David's previous work so if you like a cracking good yarn with a traditional beginning, middle and end you won't be disappointed.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet tells the story of Jacob de Zoet a Dutch clerk of the East India Company who travels to Dejima, a trading port of the coast of Japan, with the aim of establishing his credentials and returning home as soon as possible to marry his sweetheart. However, Jacob is soon caught up in the corruption and intrigue of the trading post as well as finding himself attracted to a Japanese midwife. That's just the absolute bare bones of the novel; there's so much colour and entertainment going on that a few sentences don't begin to do justice to it and with Mitchell's skill at description this book is an absolute joy to read. I'm pretty surprised it didn't make it to the Booker shortlist. Like The Slap it's another long read at 450 pages so if you're not keen on sagas, historical fiction or flowery descriptions it's not for you. Other than that, I can't come up with any fundamental criticism of Mitchell other than occasionally I feel his plots can be a little forced. It seems to me he really would like right an out and out adventure/thriller novel which isn't confined by his "literary" tag. Now wouldn't that be a real treat....

...And onto Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room. 

This is my favourite so far. I read it in just a few hours and not just because it's only 180 pages but because it is a riveting read. The story is divided in three journeys and recounted by a "Damon" in the third and first person. It's been debated whether it's an autobiography, a memoir or a travelogue but ultimately it's a work of fiction based on Galgut's memory. The way he switches between third and first person reminded me very much of the way I write on my blog when I tell a story about my life - slipping into third/first seems entirely natural format for me and I suppose for Galgut too. But that's where the comparisons end, for whilst I produce silly ramblings, Galgut has produced a work of incredible emotional honesty.
In a Strange Room

The three stories of In a Strange Room deal with power, love and the responsibilities that occur within relationships and it's difficult not to be caught up in poignancy of the heartfelt stories. Galgut's writing is sparse and doesn't have all the flowery descriptions of Mitchell yet he still manages to conjure up a very vivid, tense atmosphere. He breaks away from grammatical traditions too - there are no speech marks or questions marks; it's almost as if you are inside his head. The style reminded me very much of Cormac McCarthy's The Road ,another powerful novel. I closed In a Strange Room, much as I did Galgut's breakthrough novel The Good Doctor, acknowledging that Galgut is not just a hugely talented writer but also an intensely emotional and honest human being. It takes courage and integrity to produce a work like In a Strange Room.

So there we have it. In the lead by far at the moment is Galgut. Now bearing in mind I think all the other contenders, bar one, are still only available in hardback I've ordered them all from the library so I don't break the bank. Next up will be Trespass by Rose Tremain and February by Lisa Moore. In the meantime if you stuck with this post to the end- something lighter coming up up soon!

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