Saturday, October 8, 2011

get thee behind me, Booker Prize longlist!

Finally I've been able to carve out some time to get to my thoughts on the last four novels of this year's Booker Prize longlist, and until the award is announced, I am totally finished with this year's books. Sheesh!  I'm making only one post with four short reviews.  Before I go there, let me just say that I hope that Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes takes the award; it was my favorite for the year.

So here I go: 


On Canaan's Side, by Sebastian Barry
Viking/Penguin, 2011
256 pp

 "We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chickenpox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that."

Sebastian Barry is without a doubt one of my favorite authors.  I came across him a few years when I first became interested in Irish literature and since then have greatly admired his work.  I never miss one of his novels, and he is one of the few authors whose books never end up on the  give-away pile when I run out of bookshelf space.  I've moved his books from coast to coast, carrying them in my SUV rather than packing them away in boxes that might have become lost. That is how much I enjoy his work.  I knew he had this book coming out, and I was in no way surprised that it ended up on the Booker Prize longlist. This is one of those that I would have purchased even if it wasn't on the list. 

In On Canaan's Side, the story is told by Lilly Bere, whose grandson Bill has recently died.  She has decided that after she finishes telling her tale she'll be committing suicide, and dates her entries based on the number of days "without Bill."  Lilly's is a sad story, one in whcih each time a bit of goodness enters her life it is followed quickly by tragedy and heartbreak. Nearly 90, Lilly lives in America, but her story goes back to her girlhood in Ireland, and really starts in the throes of civil war there.   When Lilly was still young, politics forced her to leave Ireland along with Tadg Bere, her first love -- Tadg was marked for death because he was a member of the Black and Tans.  Because of Lilly's family, and because she was known to be Tadg's girl, her life was also in jeopardy.  Leaving Ireland brought her to America, where the long arm of revenge caught up to her, Lilly lives her life in a series of tragedies that follow some of the most tumultous moments in our history: World War I, World War II, the  Vietnam War,   the civil rights era and the Gulf War.    It is a book filled with loss, but in and around all of the sadness, Lilly has had some good moments in her life as well.  It is these moments the reader clings to because of the overall tragic tone of the novel.

Although the author's writing was never an issue for me, at first I was a bit put off by the grand sweep of history as the frame for Lilly's story.  I've noticed on several occasions that when an author uses this approach, it detracts from the finer points of the subject's individual narrative, and sometimes causes a loss in focus.  But as I continued to read, it didn't bother me so much because Barry didn't ever let that happen -- I think in Lilly, he created a character with a life  indicative of the great upheavals through which she lived.  There's not much in the way of plotting here because  the book is much more a chronicle of events that live on in Lilly's memories which are now all she has,  but there are some fine moments: the scene in the museum, the story of Lilly's son and the effects of the Vietnam war that followed him back to America, and above all, the great surprise ending that I never saw coming.

My advice to anyone who plans to read this is to keep a box of tissues at your side because the book cannot help but tug on your heartstrings.  Although perhaps it wasn't Barry's best effort so far, it is still very much worth the read.  


The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers

Sandstone Press, 2011 (reprint edition)
240 pp.

Again, kudos to the Booker judges for selecting a book off the beaten path of the big powerhouse publishers.  I have nothing against the big guys; it's just nice to see an indie press getting its due.

I would put The Testament of Jessie Lamb in the category of dystopian fiction -- it deals with the aftermath of a biological terrorist attack that affects women's ability to live through their pregnancies, leaving science (both villain and hero in this book, however you choose to look at it) responsible for finding a solution to the problem.  In a roundabout way it reminded me much of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, but it was very different all the same.

Jessie Lamb is a young teenage girl who is very green-conscious, a vegetarian, and a supporter of various environmental causes.  As the novel begins, she is  being held captive by her parents.  We aren't exactly told why, but as events play out, the answer becomes easy to grasp long before it is revealed.  The novel is told through her perspective, in an account that she begins during her captivity.  In it, she reveals that the world is in crisis: an unknown group of biological terrorists have unleashed a horrifying virus which scientists have labeled as MDS (Maternal Death Syndrome).  Women who are pregnant are susceptible to the virus, which is fatal. There is no known cure, and science steps in to figure out how to remedy the situation before the world's population eventually dwindles and is ultimately extinguished. 

The news of the virus and its consequences is devastating, and there are several protest groups who immediately seek someone to blame. Children are leaving home to join children's groups, established to allow them to run things their way in order not to make the same mistakes made by their parents and other adults.  Their anger at having their promised futures cut short is palpable.   Religious and feminist groups are also out in force spreading the blame around.   Jessie's father is a geneticist and while there is no known cure for MDS, a solution for maintaining population growth has been found in the form of "Sleeping Beauties," young women who will carry embryos innoculated against the disease and then give birth to MDS-free babies. There's only one small problem: the pregnant girls must be put into an induced coma, and after the birth, they are left to die from the disease.

This sounds like a relatively simple premise for a dystopian novel, and it is. Complicating things, at least in Jessie's young life, are the rape of a friend,  her aunt, who even knowing the risks wants to become pregnant and goes a little psycho.  Other acquaintances join various protest groups that have nothing to do with MDS, some turning violent in their actions.  Some people who join up with the children's groups  are only there for their own self-serving purposes.  And to top it all off,  Jessie finds a boyfriend.   The main question, aside from the survival of future generations, is why Jessie is a prisoner, and eventually the story gets around to the explanation, although it's pretty obvious long before the reader gets there.

I was intrigued enough to keep reading to the very end, and there are some fine moments in this book, especially as the ethics behind the scientific efforts are laid bare on the table to be dissected, providing food for thought for the reader on  religious, scientific and philosophical levels.  The premise itself is a good one, wholly believable in the world of dystopian literature.  Yet I found that for all of the ethical questions this novel poses, much of the book is just not realistic  and it comes across flatly.  There's way too much in here in some parts, not enough in others.  For example, the author throws in a broad array of protest groups that seem out of place -- while the world's going to hell and the human race is about to become extinct, people are worried about global warming and animal rights?   And so much of the action takes place off the page that I felt I was missing a lot of story that needed telling.  And then there's the characters -- they come across as one dimensional and lackluster, with no real depth behind them.

I will say right up front that for me, this was the most controversial novel on this year's longlist, not so much for its content, but because I don't feel that it belonged.  This is another book that had it not shown up on this list I would never have bought it; in fact, after buying and starting it, I wasn't really sure I was going read it. But for various reasons, I didn't abandon it, and I will also say that my disappointment with this book is purely personal -- it reads as a book intended for young adults and I just don't read those; however, I read in several places that Rogers is a good writer, so I picked up another of her books to try.   The book has received some good reviews from readers, so it's one of those you must try for yourself.

The Last Hundred Days, by Patrick McGuinness
Seren Books, 2011 (second printing)
377 pp.

"We live in a world of shadows and decoys..."

Romania's last hundred days under the iron-fisted rule of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu is the subject of this novel, but underneath the events of this time the story depicts a place where one never knows who's being manipulated by whom and where duplicity is a way of life.  It's also a character study of some of the people in Bucharest during this momentous slice of history, which ended not with the fall of the Berlin Wall but with the executions of the Ceauşescus.

The story begins as the narrator, whose "family life had been a good enough schooling in totalitarianism"  (we know he's British, but never learn his name) takes a job at a university in Bucharest.  He never applied for the job, but it's not long after his arrival that he becomes immersed in the shadowy world of Leo, a black marketeer who trades not only in cigarettes but also in information.   Leo teaches at the university and is writing a book called "The City of Lost Walks," a guide to different places around the city (parks, streets, and other points of interest) which because of Ceausescu's grandiose self promotion have been disappearing.  Leo knows everybody and knows how to work the system to his own advantage, or to that of people he's befriended, including party officials, for his own reasons.  The narrator, through Leo and through his own feelings for the daughter of one of these officials, is thrown directly into the undercurrent of events running  beneath the last days of the dictatorship. It is  through his eyes that the reader is given a glimpse into this shadowy world.    And always at the back of his mind is the question of his predecessor, the mysterious Berlanger, who seems to have just disappeared into thin air.

Then again, things are never as they seem there, and this point is well illustrated in several places.  One of the best examples is the character of  Trofim, who has pictures of himself with Trotsky, Victor Serge, Diego Rivera and other "heroes of the tragic left." Trofim is currently at work with his memoirs, one manuscript to pass through the censors and to be published in Romania, and another more truthful account that is already set to be published and launched in Paris.  Once again, the true purpose escapes the narrator until much later.  The entire book is like this -- things operate on one level out in the open; it's only later that the reader discovers that everything seems to have  a more shadowy purpose. Even escaping from the country has a terrible and bizarre twist to it.  There's a pall that permeates through the entire book so that even the reader gets swept up in the atmosphere.  As an aside, I got so wrapped up in this book that when I finished it I made myself go out and sit in the sun for a long time just to get me out of the darkness.

There are many interesting characters in this novel for example,  the "bonjouriste" Le Princesse, Trofim, the group of young people waiting to make their escapes, the Party officials who play the game while thinking of the future in a post-Ceauşescu Romania , the enigmatic Cilea.  But the person who stands out the most is Leo:  rarely sober, corrupt out of necessity, wheeling and dealing with high-ranking Party officials. He has inroads and networks everywhere, is often forced to stand by letting things happen, but yet Leo is the most honest of them all in his own way.  And Leo's got a purpose that extends well beyond himself.

Although the novel was filled with some great imagery, McGuiness's prose writing is a mixed bag in the book.  Through his prose, the reader can experience the fear and paranoia that pervades everywhere, experience the gap between the Communist rhetoric and the Romanian reality, and gain some appreciation of the  living conditions of the everyday people in the face of unchecked power. And his background as a poet shines through in several places.  One of my favorite passsages, for example, describes the visit of Leo and the narrator to Snagov Socialist Village, and the appearance of a group of Young Pioneers:

"Young Pioneers, the Party's children's corps, were goose-stepping with knapsacks on their backs, compasses and water bottles around their necks. They walked in step and sang heroic songs, a phalanx of communist Tintins marching to the beat of an automated childhood."
But there were also a few instances when his words made me wince, where  his metaphors didn't exactly work for me --like when Leo notes

"They say history makes the people who make history...cometh the time, cometh the man and all that bollocks. It's not like that. History just crawls along on its belly picking up parasites....Stoicu, Ceausescu...the lot of them...crabs on the pubis of history."

Although I can appreciate his point, that particular phrasing was like biting into something and discovering it's beyond sour.  And the book is a bit difficult to ease into -- it's only after a while that the story takes off.  I really couldn't engage with the main character, either;  I never liked him and found him valuable only as the projector through which we view the movie.  But on the whole, I liked this book.  What it could have been, a rehashing of facts with a smattering of fiction thrown into the mix, it never became, even though there are sections that are given over to the recounting of real events.   He mentions the riots, the demonstrations and the Ceauşescu executions, but the book really works best in its descriptions of a country riddled with fear and paranoia, and in its depictions of the shady manipulations that go on behind the political jockeying for power, both during Ceauşescu's regime and beyond.

My guess is that this novel is not really intended for a general audience. Historical fiction fans may appreciate it, but it's rather dense and probably more suited to readers used to reading more literary fiction.  I'll wait for book two if there ever is one; he definitely leaves the field open for a sequel.


The Stranger's Child, by Alan Hollinghurst
Picador, 2011 (UK edition)
564 pp.

And finally, the last and the most difficult to read of all of these novels comes with  The Stranger's Child.  Spanning most of the twentieth century, moving into the twenty-first,  The Stranger's Child  begins in 1913, just prior to the outbreak of World War I.  The story is told through in third-person narrative, from the perspectives of different characters over several shifts in time. 

The poet Cecil Valance, member of the Bloomsbury group, well known for his poems about his family home Corley Court, is one of two sons of a wealthy, upper-class family, friend and "Oxford-style" lover of George Sawle.  As the novel opens, he has been invited to Sawle's family home Two Acres, and it is  this visit which sets the groundwork for the rest of the novel.  Before Cecil's time at Two Acres is over, he will have rumbled about with George, flirted with George's younger and naive sister Daphne, and left a poem in Daphne's autograph book.  This poem, "Two Acres," will go on to become part of Cecil's legacy to the rest of the world, and will become the focus of a central question: for whom exactly did Cecil write "Two Acres?" Daphne will say it was for her; but the question comes under scrutiny several times over the many years covered in this book. 

As Hollinghurst shifts the novel forward in time, things have drastically changed since 1913;  Cecil dies during World War I,  now laying in a small chapel at Corley Court, forever the young, golden boy he was. Daphne has joined the family at Corley Court  by way of her marriage to  Cecil's brother Dudley, children and grandchildren are born.  At each time shift, new characters are introduced, and more interest is taken in Cecil's life, more questions are asked.  Throughout the novel there are several jumps in time. There are new characters that arrive on the scene.  The family is keen to publicly at least, protect and preserve Cecil's image, but one biographer hopes to make his name known by uncovering any long-buried secrets in Cecil's life.  

But even though the novel moves through time, with the Sawle-Valence family at the core of the novel, The Stranger's Child is not really the type of  down-through-the-ages, multi-generational saga that one generally finds on fiction shelves.   Events that occur and create a spike in reader tension in one time are often forgotten during the next.  As the fortunes of this family change, the author also uses the moves forward in time to explore the changes in cultural tastes (for example, getting rid of everything Victorian at Corley Court, which itself goes through several changes over the years),  but more prominently highlighted are the changes in  attitudes toward homosexuality as time marches on.  Where in the first section George and Cecil tell the rest of the Sawles that they're members of a "secret society," by the end of the book, a memorial remembrance ceremony for one of the characters comes from the deceased's husband. 

There's so much more to this , and I'm sure I missed a LOT (this novel really deserves more than one reading), much of what I take away from it focuses on the fading  of memory and interjection of  fiction which becomes truth and takes on a life of its own, the question of  whether or not a subject's  reputation for his art  should take a back seat to a biographer's need to do what it takes to make money and a name for himself, and of course, the ever-changing nature of sexual politics.

 I liked this novel, although at times it got completely bogged down in dialogue that is constantly being analyzed between the characters; I also found that by the end of the book, I didn't really care about the later characters and their stories.  I was most involved in the Valence-Sawle line and sometimes found the other characters to be more tangential than necessary to that  story.  The forward shifts in time, while at first disconcerting, were a great vehicle for exploring change without having to fill in all of the backstory in long chapters.  And what I really thought was clever is that just when I thought I had a  character figured out, the author looks at that person through someone else's perspective, changing my point of view.  I never really knew who to rely on -- and these shifts kept my interest level high, trying to get inside the characters' heads to discover their hidden agendas.

Overall -- good book, although at times it was a slog getting through  the writing.  The story itself was solid, although my interest began to wane for a while in later parts.

note: After having finished writing my thoughts on this book, I noticed while reading other reviews that  people have noted the wealth of literary references through the story,but as an average reader of mostly contemporary fiction,  I'm afraid that I've never read Proust or much of Henry James enough to have picked up on them.  This lack of a referential anchor on my part doesn't really bother me, but I'm sure I've probably missed a great deal. 


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