Saturday, 25 September 2010

Booker shortlist - the semi-final

Obviously I'm cheating a little here. I meant to write about each of the shortlist as I read them, so that I could keep up, but I've been too occupied reading them, so have decided to tell you my preferred of the first three, then maybe of the second three, then perhaps the winner. My system may, to be fair, change again without warning.

So, we have
46 The Long Song (Levy)
47 C (McCarthy)
48 Room (Donoghue)

and actually there are some interesting things I can observe about what it seems I enjoy in books.

The Long Song  was definitely readable, and it feels cruel to write critically about something that is treating an important and serious subject, and doing it sympathetically. Broadly, without spoiling it for you, the story's told from the perspective of Miss July, a former slave in Jamaica who now, as an old woman, is living with her son. Actually, though, I think this has told you what's in the book. Slave has child by overseer? yes (twice). Child is taken away by slave-owning family? Yes (twice). General mistreatment described quite graphically? yes (several times). Various revolts and rebellions punished very heavily? Yes. Next generation works hard to better themselves despite deep suspicion held by white people? Yes.

Now, I know that if you do this subject, these are the things you have to talk about, and in general she does it perfectly well. She's obviously researched hard (her credits include a dictionary of Jamaican English so there's plenty of dialect in there) and makes a good stab at telling the story sympathetically, but it's just so unambitious. There's nothing surprising, and if you do that then, like on Masterchef, you have to prepare your simple dish absolutely perfectly. Somehow this doesn't manage it - particularly with the horrendously clumsy ending (spoiler alert - Miss July has had two children, she's living with one of them now, we don't get told about the other, and then the end of the book has a plea to the reader along the lines of "if you've seen her, can you let us know? Primary school!!! And stolen from the Bluebird!!)

So, basically the Levy was sort of fine, but unambitious, which takes us nicely to 47 C which left me breathless with admiration for how opposite it was, how broad in scope and risk-taking and full of information and different. It tells the story of Serge Carrefax, who grew up experimenting with wireless (in a world with a father who ran a school for deaf children where he insisted they learn to talk, and a mother who kept silkworms), developed an uncomfortable medical condition which required a spell in an Eastern European spa town, went flying in the war and picked up a cocaine habit, returned to England and practised his habit some more, then went to do research on communications networks in Egypt. This was summarised (better) on the inside of the dustjacket and it made me sigh and roll my eyes, but actually it is done so convincingly and so sweepingly that I believed this is how Serge would behave and where he would go. Each piece of it was so full of interest - again, obviously meticulously researched but in a good way, a way that made you want to know more about silkworms, or codes, or spa towns.
There were clumsy bits even to this (I could have done without the loud actresses in the London section - as characters they seemed pre-written and just slotted in) and it's not the kind of book I think of myself as enjoying, but I thought it brilliant. It made me wonder whether I have more admiration for "men's books" than "women's books", and I know the classic criticism of women's books is that they're too parochial, and only look at the everyday. In the past I've dismissed that as a criticism - I could reread The Stone Diaries until my copy fell apart, and not much really happens in anything by George Eliot apart from perfection - but I wonder whether my tastes are changing - the thing I loved most about C was the scope/ambition.
Interesting contrast, then, with 48 Room where the first part is set in one room. You may be familiar with the premise of the novel - it was "inspired" (if that's appropriate for something so grim) by the Fritzl case, the guy who kidnapped a girl and kept her and the children he fathered with her in a cellar for years. In this version there is a young woman and her now five-year-old son, from whose perspective the story is told. In the first part they're just in "Room" (there is an incredibly affected use of nouns with capital letters and no definite articles, so they're always doing things like using Bath and getting in Wardrobe and so on), then they get out (sorry, didn't warn you about the spoiler there) and the later two thirds of the book is about the process of getting used to being outside again, for the boy who had only just found out that "Outside" existed at all, and has never seen it, and viewing through his eyes how his mother sees it - she was kidnapped at 19 and is, I think, 27 on her release.
I do find it a slightly, I don't know, distasteful subject matter - not that I think books should only tackle "nice" subjects but when here it's used to practise a certain kind of whimsical writing, without displaying any purpose of bringing difficult subjects to a reader's attention (so, I suppose, it's simply a plot device - a "how can I get them stuck in this room for a few years?") it again, like the Levy, demands to be done very skilfully indeed to make up for the unambition (is that a word?) of the premise.
anyone's feeling) and I remained irritated with the quirky language (Jack always says that someone "hots" not "heats" the room. Elsewhere, everyone comments on how literate  and articulate he is because all he's done for five years is talk to his mother - so why doesn't he know the difference between "hotting" and "heating" something?), but I did keep reading, and it wasn't just because I felt I had to for the shortlist's sake. Afterwards, though, I felt a bit soiled (a bit like I did after The Lovely Bones) - it seems ultimately like a manipulative book, one designed for TV Book Clubs  and earnest discussions on sofas.

So, a very long post and you may have guessed my initial conclusion - McCarthy is definitely my winner from the first three, on the grounds of proper ambition, highly skilled execution, and trying to write something different without carelessly using topics that shouldn't be used carefully.

Today, in my breaks from pottery, I'm going to read the Galgut (that's the very short one) and may not be able to resist providing an update before I get into the final two.

Congratulations for surviving this far down....


  1. You make the McCarthy sound quite John Irving-ish which makes me wonder why you're surprised to like it.

  2. It's an interesting point and yes, of course I like and expect to like Irving, but although I've made McCarthy sound similar, he's not. He's more, I don't know, muscular? Manly?
    And while the saga-feel is Irving-ish, much less happens in this than in any of Irving's.
    He's gone on to my mental read-more-of pile, though.

  3. I've been very curious about the McCarthy book, it's now going on my very long wishlist!

  4. I heard an interview with the author of 'Room' this morning, and an extract from the book, and was disturbed to find she had based the style on the utterances of her own 5-year old. A totally unsuitable subject for fictionalising, if it wasn't such a serious breach of how mothers should behave I would say that this weader would frow up....