Monday, 13 October 2014

The narrow road to the deep north - Booker shortlist #5

I'm banging out posts this evening because I feel a moral obligation to have as many of my thoughts published as I can before the prize is announced.
No, I won't be getting through the whole list before tomorrow evening but will be trying to read a little more of the Mukherjee so I can make an official pronouncement of my view some time in the middle of the afternoon (glorious solipsism here, yes, I do truly know that no one could care less what my view is or when I express it, but it feels as though it matters to write as if someone did).

So, the Flanagan.
I don't know what to make of this one. I struggled to get going with it, but it did draw me in, and had me turning pages and even carrying it around like I was with the Smith. I cared (somewhat) about the people in it, and I shuddered where I was meant to at all the grim POW bits.

It's not taken my heart, though, and careful thought says this is for two reasons:

1. Somehow it seems calculating. Take a gruesome subject, or a subject that affords gruesomeness, and milk it in as much detail as possible, interspersing it with a "human interest" angle that makes the book seem more ambitious and hence a bigger achievement. This basic plan is there, and has been followed, but you can still see the pencil lines. I've a kind of distaste for books where a true story, or true situation, is milked for artistic return like this - it's the same as my distaste for Holocaust fiction, unless it's done incredibly, remarkably, heart-stoppingly well (I'm thinking of Fugitive Pieces here, which follows the same schema really, but does it with such perfect beauty that it doesn't matter).

2. Having said this, with the structure the author has chosen, the book just needed more editing. If you're going to flip-flop in time and between locations you need to do it really elegantly, and with an eye to the ease of your reader, unless you're deliberately introducing confusion as some kind of literary metaphor. It doesn't seem to me that it was deliberate in this case, more careless, and someone needed to take a pair of scissors to the MS and rearrange some of the early scenes in a different order.
Still on the editing, I recall reading once a simple piece of advice for writers not to give two of your key characters names beginning with the same initial. This sounds so petty, but actually it does matter. Unless you're really properly a well-established Great Writer, you need to remove all the impediments between your reader and comprehension - it's arrogant not to, to expect them to fight through this. No, Dorrigo and Darky aren't that similar, and thinking for a minute about the context is enough to work out who we're reading about now, but I resented having to put that minute in.

I'm perhaps not a writer's ideal reader: I don't treat the work with reverence, and I certainly don't set aside long silent concentrated hours for reading, ensuring I note subtexts, taking notes to aid my comprehension, and so on. Except, if a book earned it, I would. I read War and Peace with the dovegreyreader family tree bookmark slotted into the front of my e-reader, because I needed it, and the book repaid every bit of my investment in it. Even with shortlist #6, the Mukherjee, I groaned when I saw a family tree and a map at the start, but I'm using them, because there's something about the quality of the text that's making me want to.

If I'm in doubt, though, about whether these pages are earning each precious minute I'm spending on them, I want to read without deliberate barriers. I want to play guessing games about interesting stuff, like the characters' motivations, or whodunnit, or which bits of what the narrator says is unreliable - not about which D-person is which.

One more thing - I'll not write a spoiler, but there's a plot twist of sorts in there near the end which was a damp squib and, to my mind, added nothing.

I didn't really intend to devote a long post to sticking the boot into the Flanagan because I actually did quite enjoy it, and thought it had more literary merit than any of the others I've finished so far, apart from the Smith. I suppose it's that those two points above really held ,me up from finding it anywhere near as valuable as I could have done, and that's a big shame given that a good strong critical editor, and a long enough editing process that would allow time for this sort of issue to rise slowly to the surface, could have moved this from being a good book into a very good book, even if it couldn't reach the heights of greatness.


  1. I admire your tenacity in ploughing through the Booker shortlist, especially as, with two young children, you've got a lot going on. I read your posts on the others – and I enjoyed your down-to-earth style – but this is the only one I've read so far. As you remarked in relation to my own review, it's really interesting when readers differ in their take on the novel, on any novel, in fact.
    Totally agree with you about the annoyingness of established novelists giving their characters similar names unless it's for a very good reason - really, it's one of the basics they ought to know but, other than that, I didn't find the style too offputting once I got into it and was quite happy with the back and forth in time.
    I know what you mean about writers cynically exploiting a tragic real-life situation but, having been drawn to the novel by a radio interview where Flanagan spoke about the personal back story in relation to his father's experience, I didn't find that to be the case here.
    He's also written about this in last Saturday's Guardian newspaper
    where he points out that there were more deaths on the Thai-Burma railway than words in his novel and that his father, who was one of the few survivors, lost all memory of his time as a POW after the writer had told him of his visit to the most brutal prison guard in Japan.
    I was a little taken aback by your reference to a twist as, it's a month now since I finished the novel, and I'd completely forgotten there might be one. I think I know what you mean but, as you've been careful to avoid spoilers, I'll not mention it here. The latter part of the novel, although interesting to me, seemed more fragmented and more difficult to keep in mind. Perhaps I need to read it again!!!

  2. Anne, thank you so much for pointing me to that Guardian piece (the Review sections from pretty much the 3.5 years since my older son was born are all stashed in a big pile, waiting for some theoretical point when I might make time to read them in one glorious binge).
    It does shed a very different light on the book, and makes me ashamed to have accused him, uncharitably, of milking a gory spectacle for the purposes of fiction. It's obviously been such a meaningful project for him, and one designed to acknowledge and somehow close off his father's history.
    It's an interesting thing about reviewing books, isn't it? (I use that word broadly - I don't really consider what I do to be reviewing them, more just reading and responding). Without really examining this belief, I've always thought they *should* stand alone, on their own merits, but of course you can't really look at any artefact out of context, because part of existing in the world is being inextricably linked to your context.
    Food for thought...I may have to revisit some old favourites!