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The Booker Prize shortlist has been announced and here are the six novels!

I’m ecstatic to see “Ducks, Newburyport” included! It’s a hilarious and immersive story and the narrator is really an everyman/everywoman of our time. Also thrilled to see “Girl, Woman, Other” as its filled with such rich tales and characters who make me want to reread the novel to better understand this wonderful latticework of storytelling.

Also very happy to see “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” as its such a moving tale about marginalized people’s lives. I have to admit, I wasn’t as struck with the story in “An Orchestra of Minorities” as some other people have been. It’s creative storytelling and a poignant tale, but the distinct narrative voice grew irritating and felt too grandiose to me.

I’m geekily proud to have guessed 4 of the 6 novels correctly as I discussed in my video about recent Booker Prize reading. As with all book prize lists, there will be some novels I’m sad didn’t make the cut. Particularly “Lost Children Archive” since this novel was also only longlisted for the Women’s Prize. It’s a shame that this tremendous novel probably won’t end up winning any major prize. It’s also a shame “Lanny” or “Frankissstein” didn’t make the list because these novels are so audacious and innovative in their storytelling making them such fun and so clever. Then there is the meditative brilliance of “Night Boat to Tangier” and I’m sad that Kevin Barry won’t be getting wider recognition.

I still have to read “Quichotte” & “The Testaments”, but having just reread “The Handmaid’s Tale” I’m so excited to read Atwood’s new novel!

What do you think about this list? Have you read any? Will you read them now? What novel do you want to win?!

Given the judges of this year’s Booker Prize, I was expecting a high calibre of novels listed for this year’s longlist and I’m not disappointed. I loved reading and would highly recommend “Lost Children Archive” and “Lanny”. Many more of these novels are ones I’ve been wanting to get to, but I’m especially pleased to see authors like Kevin Barry, Bernardine Evaristo, Valeria Luiselli and Max Porter who seem like they haven’t achieved as wide a readership as they deserve. I have read but don’t feel quite so strongly about “My Sister the Serial Killer” and “An Orchestra of Minorities” but nevertheless I still appreciated these two novels. I’m so keen on the novels I haven’t read that I think I will attempt to read the whole longlist. You can see me discuss all the books and my thoughts on the list as a whole in this video here.

It’s so interesting that one of this year’s biggest publishing events Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments” (the much-anticipated sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale”) is listed since it won’t be published until September 10th. The judges’ only comment on the novel is “Spoiler discretion and a ferocious non-discolosure agreement prevent any description of who, how, why and even where. So this: it’s terrifying and exhilarating.” Quite often when books not-yet-published are listed for popular book prizes the publishers will rush publication to take advantage of the swell of interest, but I’m guessing we won’t see this strictly embargoed novel till it’s scheduled publication date (which happens to come after the shortlist announcement on Sept 3rd.) In the meantime, I am eager to reread “The Handmaid’s Tale” to refresh my memory of it. “The Man Who Saw Everything” and “Quichotte” haven’t been published yet either, but I think we’re more likely to see their publication dates bumped up.

How do you feel about the longlist? Any novels you’re disappointed not to see? Any you’re keen on reading now?

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Here are the six books shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I’m so thrilled to see “Washington Black” and “Everything Under” on the list, but quite disappointed that “The Water Cure” and “Normal People” didn’t make it. Like I explained in my post about “Milkman” there are parts of it which are so brilliant and mesmerising, but other sections were a slog to get through so I have mixed feelings about it. I also felt conflicted about “The Mars Room” for different reasons. But I am glad to see them both on the list because it means more people will be discussing them and giving their opinions. I’m currently reading “The Overstory”. And “The Long Take” is a novel I’m so intrigued by so I’m glad I have an excuse to go buy a copy now. It’s tough to say, but initially I feel like the winning book will be a race between Esi Edugyan & Richard Powers

How do you feel about the shortlist? If you want to watch more of my thoughts comparing nominated books and discussing the prize I made a video you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luSnqLHUkwQ&t=289s

Naturally I’m excited to see what will be on this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist, but I wasn’t going to post my predictions until Frances at NonSuch Book prompted me to on twitter. So what the hay? Here’s my wish list. It’s fun to guess! We discussed whether Mike McCormack’s exceptionally beautiful novel “Solar Bones” was eligible for this year’s prize since it (controversially) wasn’t last year when it was first published by Irish publisher Tramp Press. Librarian Robert Pisani chimed in on twitter writing that it is eligible this year because it’s now been published by Canongate Books in the UK. I’m hoping it can make the list because even though it scooped up the Goldsmiths Prize I think it still deserves wider recognition.

I should have more free time this summer so I’m hoping to read the entire longlist. I’m still long-faced about Beatty’s fascinating-but-flawed “The Sellout” winning last year over Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” but I have high hopes for one of the exceptional novels listed below winning this year’s coveted award. Books eligible this year must have been written in English and published in the UK between October 1st 2016 and September 30th 2017. The longlist will be announced on July 27th at 0:01 BST, the shortlist on September 13th and the winner on October 17th.

The longlist can include 12 or 13 novels – I’ve gone with 14 which I know is cheating but I couldn’t whittle it down anymore. The judges have a hard decision on their hands! I’ve not read “American War” yet but heard such high praise I’m making it my wild card. I have a feeling the choices this year will be centred more heavily around politics. But what do you think? What novels do you want to see on this year’s Booker Prize list?

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee
A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel
The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Autumn by Ali Smith
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
American War by Omar El Akkad

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I snapped this pic of Sarah Howe looking very excited when it was announced she won the prize last year.

I snapped this pic of Sarah Howe looking very excited when it was announced she won the prize last year.

A book prize I love following is The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award. This is an award which came back with gusto last year after being on hiatus since 2009. Only writers who are 35 years or younger are eligible. It’s wonderful to see promising young writers encouraged and supported in this way. Not only does the winner receive an award of £5000 but the runners-up also receive £500 each – a nice addition which means it’s not all or nothing for the writers being recognized. The shortlist for the 2015 prize was so interesting and diverse with the winner being Sarah Howe who wrote the beautiful book of poetry “Loop of Jade”. This award straddles multiple genres considering fiction, non-fiction and poetry, but I think it’s particularly nice that a poet was recognized for such a prestigious prize. Past winners have included great literary stars including Adam Foulds, Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, Caryl Phillips and Helen Simpson.

So I'm delighted that I've been invited to join an official shadow panel for this year’s prize alongside great book bloggers Naomi from TheWritesofWomen, Kim from ReadingMatters, Simon from SavidgeReads and Charlie from TheWormHole. When the shortlist for this year’s prize is announced we’ll be reading all the books on it and meeting to discuss them to decide our own winner. This will be announced as a kind of fan favourite proceeding the announcement of the actual winner. I’ll be so excited to join in as having detailed discussions and debates about books is what I love most!

The shortlist will be announced on November 6th.

The winner will be announced on December 9th at a ceremony at the beautiful London Library – this is a library I particularly love. Back in May I wrote about a special publication “On Reading, Writing and Living with Books” which came out as part of the library's 175th anniversary.

Stay tuned to find out what authors are shortlisted for this year’s award and our discussions about the books. I hope you’ll join in reading them with us!

Recently, I met with my fellow judges in Foyles’ beautiful flagship store in London where we had an in-depth discussion on the twelve books we’d chosen for the Green Carnation longlist. It was difficult to whittle this stack down to a shortlist because they are such a diverse and interesting group we all heartily recommend. But, after much debate, (helped along with some slices of cake) I’m proud to announce we’ve come up with a shortlist of six books!

Here we have a novel that reaches across time to shake hands with George Eliot, a fictional reimagining of the author's great-grandfather's exile, a personal & urgent non-fiction account of the drug war that's torn our society apart, a multi-voiced tale from Jamaica that includes complex & original gay characters, a lively & entertaining narrator who provides an essential counter-point to the birth of Marxism and a personal & poetic memoir about family.

Sophie & The Sibyl by Patricia Duncker (Bloomsbury)
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (Hodder Books)
Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari (Bloomsbury)
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (One World)
Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea (Scribe)
Stammered Songbook by Erwin Mortier (Pushkin Press)

Click here to read more about the Green Carnation Prize’s history
Click here to find and purchase all the nominated books from Foyles

Have you read any of these books? What are you interested in reading from this list? Are there other books you’d have liked to see listed? Any thoughts on the list as a whole?

I would love to know your thoughts. It’s going to be a challenge choosing a winner from this fantastic group.

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Tonight I attended the South Bank Centre’s reading from all six Booker shortlisted authors. It was wonderful seeing Ali Smith and Neel Mukherjee coming out to the stage arm in arm like old chums. When each author took their turn to read they all spoke about their high regard for the fellow authors on the shortlist and what a pleasure it's been doing the Booker circuit together. The event was chaired by Kirsty Wark. Thank god they got this wonderful journalist in to interview the authors and ask intelligent questions. In past years the interviews haven't always been conducted by such a fine person. Wark joked at the end of the even that the writers got along so well they would obviously go on to form an authors' commune. Before Ali Smith read she greeted every section of the audience and gave her sympathy to the sign language interpreter on stage as the opening of the artist's section of her novel was no doubt a challenge to interpret. They gave each other a cheeky thumbs up. It was wonderful hearing all authors read and give such thoughtful answers about their writing. 

It’s felt like this year’s Booker has been more awash with controversy and descent than any other year I can remember. After the excitement last year of having a female author majority on the shortlist, this year’s prize received severe criticism by some for only including three women on the long list. The prize was also open to American authors for the first time this year – leading only to two Americans on the shortlist – but the prize was criticised for squeezing out most authors from other Commonwealth countries. I heard one of the directors of the prize counter this argument with the opinion that books from those other countries simply weren’t as strong as most of the British and American contenders. Many readers were frustrated when the long list came out this year that several titles weren’t published yet. Still other bloggers and people on twitter have dismissed the shortlisted titles as books they aren’t that interested in.

Personally, I still feel as excited as ever about the prize and here’s why. Early in the summer a friend recommended that I read Neel Mukherjee’s “The Lives of Others.” I did so and was bowled over by the strength and originality of this author’s writing. Reading about how this complex family network gradually imploded amidst the political strife of the time, I was wrapped in the individual stories of each striking character and the great symbolic weight of the house they inhabited. I wrote about the book here and remember thinking what a shame it was this book would probably pass by largely unnoticed. Given the subject matter, length and complexity of the novel it’s one that I was worried would slip between the cracks and go largely unnoticed. When the book was published I attended Mukherjee’s reading at the South Bank Centre in one of their smaller event spaces. The author spoke eloquently and everyone felt moved, but the audience was only half full. Now here he is on the Booker shortlist and tonight the largest South Bank auditorium was packed full listening to Mukherjee read. It’s the power of this prize to bring a talented literary voice like his to popular attention.

Certainly, plenty of other authors who weren’t long listed or even considered for the prize deserve attention as well. But at least the prize has given an author like Mukherjee a better chance to be heard. Although Ali Smith is an incredibly well-regarded author now, I’m certain her public appeal wouldn’t be as high if it weren’t for her inclusion on the Booker list in past years. That she’s been singled out again as worthy of being on the short list for her fantastically moving “How to Be Both” makes me feel that the well-read judges of the prize do care about quality in literature over public appeal. Although I greatly enjoyed reading Ferris and Fowler’s novels, I am really rooting for Mukherjee or Smith to win. It seems slightly ridiculous comparing the two as stylistically these books couldn’t be further apart from each other. But both are worthy of being read and, if I had to place a bet on who will win tomorrow, I would bet on Neel Mukherjee taking the prize. He is tipped as the favourite, but this time I think the bookies have it right.

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Several years ago when social media sites were first becoming a thing and everyone was flocking to MySpace, I received an unexpected message one day from someone I had known as an adolescent. He was someone in my boy-scout troop that was a bit younger than me. He was also weedier and geekier than I was so an easy target. I have memories of being quite nasty and bullying (verbally, definitely not physically) towards him in the way kids act when they've been bullied themselves. I now recognize I did this in order to boost my own self confidence and try to impress other people as I felt so insecure myself. When I received his message I was overcome with guilt recalling the way I treated him. I wrote him a long message apologizing for my inexcusable behaviour in the past. His response was one of total surprise and bewilderment because as he recalls I was nothing but friendly and helpful towards him. In fact, he thought of me as a mentor and someone he admired.

So whose memory is correct? Was I mean to him and he’s forgotten? Was I only ever mean to him in my head or behind his back? Was I nice towards him but have supplanted these memories with bad behaviour because of complicated feelings to do with my own insecurities? The answer is unknowable. This is what “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” is about. The narrator Rosemary questions her own memories of her family life which was cataclysmically torn apart at a young age. At the beginning of the novel an event occurs in a cafeteria where she meets an emotionally unstable girl named Harlow who triggers instincts and memories within Rosemary that have lain dormant since her childhood. While Harlow serves as an interesting character in counterpoint to Rosemary at the beginning of this novel she becomes less interesting the more the novel progresses. When Rosemary begins living independently at college she tries to sort out her story starting in the middle, moving back to the beginning, coming back to the middle again and finally ending closer to the present day when she’s much older. Her process is methodical but the memories keep getting muddled up as she can’t be sure whether to trust them or not. Feelings of guilt, anger, shame and despair colour the past to such an extent that what she recalls is sometimes totally at odds with what other members of her family claim happened or what physical evidence shows happened.

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   marionette puppet  makes a strange unsettling appearance in the novel

A Madame Defarge marionette puppet makes a strange unsettling appearance in the novel

Fowler writes intelligently about the way memory is so often distorted by our own aspirations and motives. We can look back upon events and wish that they had occurred one way or another depending on what we’re feeling at the time. She writes, “There are moments when history and memory seem like a mist, as if what really happened matters less than what should have happened.” Rosemary has thought over events from her early life over and over again so much that they’ve been unconsciously recast to suit her feelings. She has composed the story of her and her family’s life in language which confuses the facts. It’s something everyone can relate to in the way we have certain stories about our lives we’ve told time and again so that they’ve been refined into a certainty that may or may not match what actually happened. Fowler observes that “Language does this to our memories – simplifies, solidifies, codifies, mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph in a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.” The reader must try to wade through Rosemary’s honest-intentioned account to try to disentangle the reasons why her family really splintered apart.

Many reviews and discussions around “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” have centred around the fact there is a big twist in the plot this novel. This is a case where we have a really forceful narrator who only chooses to release information in her own time. The point at which she reveals the twist in her story seems to me as significant as the twist itself. It challenges us to question our own assumptions. I love how Andrew Sean Greer’s novel “The Story of a Marriage” also did this well. I think that plot twists shouldn’t only be included to surprise and thrill the reader, but to make us question how we think and reconsider the limited way we sometimes look at the world. Karen Joy Fowler does this eloquently in her skilfully constructed narrative. This novel is a pleasurable, thought-provoking read that will leave you feeling quite emotional – especially if you equate the conundrums it presents about memory to instances in your own life.

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I think a lot of atheists at times feel envious for those who can believe and the spiritual comfort that religion brings. I’ve always been an atheist and I don’t want to subscribe to any religion. Nor do I think anyone should. But there can be a clear sense of community and solace that comes with having convictions in a higher power. It can feel lonely at times refusing that comfort when you find yourself caught on the end of an existentialist tree branch. In Joshua Ferris’ new novel “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour” he takes a man trapped in this sort of quandary and tests him. You could almost take this quote from another novel I read recently “Em and the Big Hoom” by Jerry Pinto “being an atheist offers a terrible problem. There is nothing you can do with the feeling that the world has done you wrong or that you, in turn, have hurt someone” and say that Ferris has written a protagonist with exactly this problem.

Paul O'Rourke is a hard working dentist with a successful practice in Manhattan. He has an aversion to using the internet other than anonymously posting on some forums about baseball so he doesn't have a website or profiles on any social media sites. He emphatically rants: “I was a dentist, not a website. I was a muddle, not a brand. I was a man, not a profile. They wanted to contain my life with a summary of its purchases and preferences, prescription medications, and predictable behaviors. That was not a man. That was an animal in a cage.” It's a frustrated position that many people who willing engage online can certainly sympathize with. However, one day Paul's staff discover a website for his dental practice in addition to a Twitter account for Paul and responses to prominent newspaper articles online in his name. His identity has been convincingly stolen, but the person posing as him rants about a religion that no one has heard of. Paul angrily tries to reclaim his online presence and gets caught up in bizarre theological mind games with a man who is convinced Paul belongs to an ancient sect of persecuted people who actively doubt God's existence.

There is a section in the novel where Dr O’Rourke examines the mouth of a respectable businessman at his office. He finds a few cavities. Although he can see the cavities clearly on his x-ray, the man refuses any treatment because he doesn’t feel like he has cavities. No reasoning from the doctor can get him to change his mind. This sort of inverse logic based on immediate feelings rather than rational thought seems central to the novel. We can know there is a problem and it could be staring us in the face, but we don’t feel like it will really affect us until it does. After his father died early in his life, Paul is a man who has always desperately wanted to belong to a family and established group with all the accompanying traditions and sense of security. By ignoring the real motivation behind his desperate attempts to attach himself to his girlfriends’ families and their religious traditions he isn’t able to admit what he really wants and never finds real happiness.

This all is beginning to make this novel sound too ponderous. While it engages with these issues it's also fantastically funny and full of wry observations. Ferris' style of writing is very easy to read with a narrator that has a conversational tone of voice. He rants about his patients, modern life and American culture. Since he finds himself longing without knowing exactly what he wants he wishes for the immediate comforts that commercialism can bring: “a mall returned me to a time when desire was easy to resolve.” He goes to eat at the Olive Garden as a nostalgic treat. Paul is very sympathetic but the reader learns to not entirely trust him either based on the reactions of people around him who find him increasingly erratic in behaviour and disassociated from what's happening. His past is gradually revealed, particularly his bizarre obsessive behaviour with certain girlfriends and it becomes clear something is very wrong with Paul. A particularly clever trick that Ferris employs is when Paul converses with his office secretary who is an older religious woman. He cuts out Paul's speech and only gives her impatient responses which allows the reader to perfectly imagine the comic scene with Paul grouchily ranting at her.

“To Rise Again at a Decent Hour” is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Ferris cleverly encapsulates a lot of issues about modern life in his story. At times the narrative about the new religion seems to gallop at a pace which becomes confusing. But what Ferris is most successful at is making Paul's observations about his patients and issues around dental hygiene take on a comic universal meaning. While a statement like “pain forgets within the hour what it learns in an instant” may instantly apply to the way people forgot to care for their teeth after experiencing difficult dental work, it also applies to the way we physically and emotionally engage with the world. I'm eager now to go back and read Ferris' two previous novels as his writing technique and sense of humour are truly admirable.

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I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading this book. It’s barely over a hundred pages. I’m a great fan of Tóibín’s writing. I love “The Story of the Night” and “The Master.” Plus “Brooklyn” was a total revelation to me. As I was reading it I kept thinking ‘this is all very nice, but where is it going?’ Then, suddenly, two-thirds of the way through the book the protagonist must make a huge decision as if she’s balancing on a knife-edge and it is so incredibly gripping and emotional I couldn’t put the book down. So I’m always ready to cut Tóibín a lot of slack and follow through to the end of any book he writes. This doesn’t always pay off. His non-fiction book “Love in a Dark Time” starts off beautifully, but by the time he gets into his experiences with Almodovar it tails off into something much less substantial. However, the prospect of reading Mary’s perspective of her son’s crucifixion had so much promise I couldn’t wait to get stuck into this novella.

Here’s the trouble now that I’ve finished it: I don’t have very strong feelings about it one way or the other. It’s beautifully written and I admire the stoic dignity he gives to Mary as she refuses to capitulate to the disciples who harangue her and ask her threateningly to validate and endorse their accounts/interpretation of her son’s life. The story follows faithfully along the other accounts giving us Mary’s own unique perspective on Lazarus coming back from the dead, water being turned into wine at a wedding and the political machinations which led to the crucifixion. The book grabbed me most when Mary confesses how she really acted upon seeing her son being tortured, nailed to the cross and left for dead. Also, her painful remembrance of her lost husband is striking. However, the book moved too quickly for me to really become involved with Mary and her story. Maybe if I was a believer I’d feel more passionately involved as it might raise feelings of anger or love towards Mary’s controversial version of the story. Above all it’s a tremendously sympathetic account of how Mary might have felt about being the mother of a man hailed as the messiah. I enjoyed the beauty of Tóibín’s prose, but it hasn’t made much of an impression on me. Perhaps when I reread this book it will strike more of an emotional chord. It seems to me to be a book that would be better read in one sitting when it’s quiet and very late at night.

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We Need New Names questions the meaning of home and what our relationship to that is as we grow older. It's a coming of age story of a girl named Darling growing up in a make-shift town in Africa after her family were expelled from their home. She and her friends spend their days stealing guavas. They have a fierce sense of loyalty to each other and know who they are. Then Darling goes to live with her aunt in Michigan and must adapt into a new American identity. She has a sly sense of humour often having to stifle giggles and laughs while in her head she makes acute observations of those around her from a patronizing old white woman at a wedding to her vain aunt who walks endlessly on a treadmill to a bulimic girl who can't appreciate what she has. At the same time she loses touch with her friends back home and finds she can't connect with them anymore because she's left them and her country behind. Since she doesn't have a visa to legally remain in America she can't leave to visit Africa because she'd never be able to return to the US.

The way this novel is structured reminds me of one of my favourite books that I read last year – “We the Animals” by Justin Torres. [It's nice to read in this interview on the Caine Prize blog with Bulawayo that she's a fan of Torres] The narrator of that novel also speaks in the collective “we” for parts of the book as he and his brothers form a close pack. This closely mimics the psychology of an adolescent who finds a strong sense of identity in the collective of their close friends. But, of course, as the individual grows older they develop differently from those in their group and must find their own sense of self. Bulawayo is doing something slightly different in this novel, particularly later on in the book where in some chapters she speaks for a whole group of new immigrants who find themselves alienated from their native country in an alien land. In a merciless chapter called 'How They Lived' she bluntly lays out the perspective of immigrants who have come to America for economic opportunity and political stability. Strong emotions spill out onto the pages in a way that cannot be contained and is entirely justifiable. As she writes at one point: “What is rage when it is kept in like a heart, like blood, when you do not do anything with it, when you do not use it to hit, or even yell? Such rage is nothing, it does not count. It is just a big, terrible dog with no teeth.”

Identity is explored in other ways in the novel such as in a devastating chapter called 'Shhhh' where Darling is still living in Africa and her estranged father returns. He is concealed in her home as he's suffering from AIDS and her mother doesn't want the rest of the community to know. Staring at her father's face she observes “I know then that what really makes a person's face is the meat; once that melts away, you are left with something nobody can even recognize.” His illness has caused him to lose the strong, fired, hard-working man he once was so that he's become a stranger to his own daughter, someone she comes to resent and hopes will die so she can go out and play with her friends. In another chapter while concealed in tree branches Darling and her friends view a wealthy white couple's home as it's raided by armed revolutionaries. During an argument between the white man and the invaders, the white man objects that he was born in this country so it's as much his home as theirs. The philosophical questions linger in the background - What entitles a person to call a place home? Is a person's identity necessarily entwined with the land they live on?

Bulawayo has a sharp sense of observation and a merciless sense of humour. The book got me thinking about my own sense of split national identity since I grew up in America but have spent my whole adult life (since the year 2000) living in the UK. Of course, it's an entirely different situation given Darling has to contend with racial, linguistic, economic and political divisions. But I'm aware that there are parts of myself that have been lost since living for so long in an entirely different culture and there is also no way for me to ever really go home without arriving back as someone who is now in certain ways a foreigner. Even if you don't cross national boundaries the journey from adolescence to adulthood necessarily includes compromising parts of yourself to the idealized person you'd like to become. Our ability to adapt and change to new environments and societies allows us to survive, but it also makes us strangers to ourselves.  

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Have you ever finished a book and you know it’s affected you on some deep subliminal level because you have very vivid dreams that evening? This has happened to me before when I read the fantastic nightmarish graphic novel Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie. I think with that book the dreams were instigated by Gebbie’s powerful drawings. It’s happened again with Harvest and in this case I think it’s because of Crace’s masterful use of language and his subject matter.

This tale is narrated by Walter Thirsk, a long-time resident of a very small and isolated agricultural community. Crace uses almost lyrical language to describe the pastoral pleasures and hardships of farming wheat. There’s a tremendous unity felt for the small group of residents in their annual harvest with its hard work and traditional ceremonies. He doesn’t over-romanticise or shirk from the gritty realism of this rural life describing how there is also domestic strife, meagre eating when crops go bad and terminal disease due to lack of medical care. Nevertheless, the residents labour and subsist in a way that is largely harmonious and connected to the land. Then intruders arrive. There are two types. The first is a small group of three wanderers whose motives are unknown. The community seizes them when they seem threatening and subject them to punishments. The second is the cousin of the lord of the community who has come to claim the land as his own and transform it into a pasture for sheep. The residents react to these intruders in very different ways. The actions of intruders and residents ultimately lead to the disintegration of the community altogether.

While Thirsk has lived in the community for a long time, having married and lost his wife who is a local resident, he is still an outsider and this viewpoint gives Crace the advantageous position of describing village life from both an intimate and a more objective perspective. Walter bears witness to the unravelling of the age-old life in the community over the course of little more than a week. The story speaks to how we are both bound to each other through necessity in order to subsist and the ways in which we are inevitably in opposition with one another through greed and the desire to dominate – the land, resources, each other. I connected with this on a really personal level having wanted for many years to live in an intentional community called Twin Oaks in Virginia which seeks to, as much as possible, live in a way that is self-sustaining within the larger society. The book speaks of the pleasures and perils of living in a way that is so removed.

So now about my dream. I was being held captive by a small group of people in a bleak fortress with many rooms. I tried to escape from my captors running through multiple corridors and climbing over a high fence studded with barbed wire. I woke up feeling very unsettled so to calm myself I watched a film before getting back to sleep. The movie I randomly picked to watch was ‘You’ve Been Trumped’, the story of Donald Trump’s ambition to build a world-class golf course in Aberdeen despite the Scottish residents’ objections and environmentalists’ protests. The politicians and police force are influenced by Trump and leave the residents helpless to stop their land from being bulldozed and developed with most of Trump’s promises of enhancing local life going unmet. Watching this it struck me that this is the same story of Harvest. Rural residents get bullied out of the homes they’ve lived in for generations due to the strategic plans and despotic nature of more powerful outside individuals/groups. By grabbing land, stripping resources and oppressing vulnerable residents, “progress” continues to march on and the weak are winnowed out. After finishing watching the documentary I fell back asleep and this time I was the oppressor. I dreamed I was working to force people out of their homes pushing old women aside and brutalizing the inhabitants. I woke up shaken and disgusted with the thought that I could be an oppressor as well. It’s in all of our natures to dominate and destroy in order to enhance the possibility of our own survival. It’s impressive how Crace deals with this subject matter with such style and power that he can speak of universal truths through the lens of one small lost community.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJim Crace

Zen Buddhism and quantum physics make happy bedfellows in this entertaining deeply-personal intelligent novel. You might think dealing with such grandiose subject matter might make this more of a scholarly diatribe than a moving story, but Ozeki writes a skilful engrossing narrative about an adolescent girl named Nao who grew up in California and finds herself taken back to live in her parents’ native country Japan. The book is very reminiscent of the movie Never Ending Story because alternating between chapters where Nao tells her story are chapters about a woman named Ruth living in a remote location in British Columbia who discovers Nao’s confessional letter washed up on a beach. Ruth becomes obsessed with the girl’s story which she realizes was written some years ago and sets about trying to track down what happened to Nao. I was equally gripped by this shy, awkward girl’s fate as she navigates the horrendous abuse from her fellow schoolmates, attempts to deal with her suicidal father and develops a reverence for her 104 year old great-grandmother who is a Zen nun and radical female author living in a mountain temple. I became so involved I started to resent somewhat the sections about Ruth and wished that it was only Nao’s story. However, this structure gives the author the opportunity to muse upon the nature of time and tease out a lot of philosophical quandaries.

The book does get you thinking a lot - especially once you start contemplating quantum physics and you learn how very strange the world is at the subatomic level. Does our awareness of the space around us actually change how matter functions on this level? If time is a matter of perception is it always relative? Does each of us have a unique “superpowah” that can be harnessed to help us deal with challenges we encounter? Questions like these gathered at the back of my mind while reading this book, but didn’t detract too much from the central story of Nao trying to find her way and uncovering the story behind her scholarly uncle who is inducted into military service and forced to become a kamikaze pilot. What I did find distracting was the occasional footnote or invitation to see the appendix. Normally I enjoy this bit of extra information and the process of flipping back and forth through a book, but some of these asides brought me out of the story more than add to it. Some people might find the more fantastical elements towards the end of the book difficult to take, but I think they add a touching way of connecting the stories and leaping over space/time.

This novel did partially inspire me to start this blog making me want to put my story out there for whoever might come across it and take what they want from it. I think Nao’s story touches upon feelings of isolation and the ways in which we seek out meaningful communication on deeper levels not often available on a person to person level. Many of the characters feel a deep loneliness and Ozeki shows how this functions in different circumstances. Obviously Nao’s being venomously ostracised from her school leaves her feeling deeply alone but also her father who finds himself out of work wandering alone at night, her mother who takes refuge at an aquarium watching jellyfish in a tank all afternoon, her uncle conscripted into military service who is compelled to write his philosophical thoughts in French at his hostile boot camp to conceal his true feelings from those around him and Ruth herself in a tight-knit rural community which is portrayed as stifling as it is supportive. We feel alone so often whether surrounded by people or not, but this novel gives a refreshing sense of being connected across time and through the power of written language.

A jungle crow plays an important role in the plot of A Tale for the Time Being

A jungle crow plays an important role in the plot of A Tale for the Time Being

Ruth Ozeki reading, discussing the novel and the touching influences upon writing it:
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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRuth Ozeki

 

I approached this novel with some trepidation – not because of the 800+ page length necessarily (with the right book I love to get stuck in for a good long time in order to really live with the characters) – but because of the structure. Catton frames the book’s sections with the stellar and planetary positions of the time. I had a fear that this book would be based a lot on astrological signs, personalities based on planetary positions and the sort of new-age sign reading that I don’t know anything about or have any interest in. It seems to me anyone who makes judgements on people based on star signs are working with generalities which bear no relation to the unique qualities of the individual. If one were a geek on this subject matter I’m sure this book could be fruitfully read with astrology in mind as the characters are closely aligned with certain planets and discover how their paths cross based on celestial alignments. However, this isn’t necessary because more than anything it’s an engaging, intelligent, complex, great big thrilling yarn of a read. As I got really into the thickness of the book’s plot and its fascinating array of characters I was enthralled by its story of a New Zealand gold-mining town in the mid-1800s. Deceit, greed, ambition, sailing adventures, hidden fortunes, familial strife, swapped identities, reinvention of the self, wacky séances, dirty deals, murder, prostitutes, opium. This book has all that and more.

What’s most impressive is that Catton is able to write such a many-paged incredibly intricately plotted narrative with such a huge cast of characters while balancing them all at the same time and keeping the reader alert to who is who and what is happening when. That takes serious talent. Each character is richly described so as to make them distinctive and she leaves markers along the way to remind you who that character is and their place in the plot even if they drop from the narrative for a while. The author creates a fascinating array of well-realized distinct characters. However, the only character which I think she fails somewhat is Te Rau Tauwhare, a Maori guide and gem-stone hunter. When he comes on the scene I feel like some of her research shows itself a little too plainly as she describes his connection with his native New Zealand culture and she lapses somewhat into stereotype. However, the rest of the (predominantly male) cast are shown to have varied interesting personalities – especially Quee Long with his painful past and his determination to get revenge.

This is a fiercely intelligent book as well as being a really engaging read. Along the way the author sometimes drops in really intelligent concepts about human nature and the complex working of psychology. For instance at one point she ruminates that “although a man is judged by his actions, by what he has said and done, a man judges himself by what he is willing to do, by what he might have said, or might have done – a judgement that is necessarily hampered, not only by the scope and limits of his imagination, but by the ever-changing measure of his doubt and self-esteem.” The author is, of course, speaking of men and women but I think she writes “a man” because this novel is written in the style of a novel in its time period using lots of parochial turns of phrase. This quote suggests to me a really complex interplay between how we are seen externally from how we view ourselves from the inside and why we are always so continuously and unfairly harsh on ourselves.

Another fascinating quote I tripped on and read over and over was this thought about the power of desire in motivating our actions. “Reason is no match for desire: when desire is purely and powerfully felt, it becomes a kind of reason of its own.” Surely this explains why so many of our actions make no logical sense when viewed externally. But when they are driven by the burning desires we harbour within they take on their own unavoidable power.

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The story is richly rewarding as the mystery of what happened to a dead hermit, a drugged prostitute, a missing affluent miner, a mysterious widow and a suspicious scarred captain is gradually revealed – mostly through the stories of a group of individuals gathered together for a secret meeting in a pub at the start of the book. I’m sure I missed out on some of the connections, but most of the novel’s intriguing questions are answered by the end in a series of succinct well-paced chapters. I can just imagine taking this book with me to my dream cabin in Maine to reread when I’m much older and getting even more out of the story. It is a door-stop of book so I was glad I read the kindle version as my wrists would probably be sore from the strain of holding it up for so long if I didn’t. Whether it will win the Booker prize this year I don’t know. I’m reading my way through the shortlist right now. But this book does stand as a monumental achievement in writing – especially as it’s only the author’s second published novel.

Granta has a fun interview with Catton here: