Archive for the ‘2009 Booker Prize’ Category

KfC’s Booker shortlist predictions

September 3, 2009

Tuesday is Booker shortlist day, so here are two lists of predictions to contemplate and comment on over the weekend — my personal top six and a look at what I think will be the judges’ shortlist. My list is in order of preference (click on the title for an expanded review); the predicted list is in order of what I think is the likelihood of the book making the official list.

mawerThe Glass Room, Simon Mawer

It has been some months since I read this book, but it remains my favorite. An interesting premise — a house is the central character in the novel — with equally interesting human characters who pass through the house in a 50-year period. Mawer does have to push coincidence to make the plot work, but I am willing to grant him that licence. I will be rereading it whether or not it makes the real shortlist. Also, it has the best cover on the longlist.

toibinBrooklyn, Colm Toibin

Another selection from early in my Booker reading that I look forward to rereading. This one has got better with memory, as well as some perceptive reviews that I have read since. Toibin’s central character, Eilie, is interesting because she is so passive and let’s others make her choices for her — the result of these choices was impressive the first time around and has grown in memory.

coetzeeSummertime, J.M. Coetzee

In contrast to the first two, this was the last of the 13 longlist books that I read and it was worth the wait. It will not be to everyone’s taste since it is an exploration of the author’s history and what influenced him — and the impact that he had on others. A book that can be read on many different levels and certainly a contender to produce the first three-time winning Booker author. The least imaginative, but perhaps most significant cover, on the longlist — the echoes of the pick-up truck here with the dog on the road in Disgrace are haunting.

trevorLove and Summer, William Trevor

Trevor’s economy of writing (a contrast to both Hilary Mantel and A. S. Byatt) and his subtlety make him a master of the short story but translate well to this challenging novel, a study in tragedy in an isolated Irsh community. It took two readings to appreciate what he accomplished and the book has its contradictions, but it definitely rates shortlist consideration.

watersThe Little Stranger, Sarah Waters

Waters’ book moved up my list as I read more of the longlist. The publisher has marketed it as a ghost story, which is fair on one level but was misleading to this reader. A structure, the declining Hundreds Hall, is also at the centre of this book but the novel focuses on the decline of everyone involved with that estate — most particularly, the narrator, Dr. Faraday, who doesn’t even live there. Waters keeps her story moving and leaves the reader pondering just what exactly happened — and the reader has a number of choices.

hallHow to Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall

This one is well behind the first five and in a near tie with James Scudamore’s Helioplis. I like art and two of Hall’s four narrative streams in particular explore the stories of fictional artists with international reputations. Like Summmertime it explores the link between the creative person and the price they extract from those who are close to them. I certainly recommend it but it won’t be my top choice.
Also, given the potential of the subject matter, this is the worst cover in the longlist.

That was the easy part. Now for some thoughts on the Real Booker shortlist. I thought this year’s jury did a very good job of producing a list of readable titles that covered a number of genres, writing styles and approaches — had they included Patrick Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog and Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows instead of Not Untrue & Not Unkind and Me Cheeta I would have had nothing to criticize on the list. I am going to assume they will take the same ranging approach to the shortlist.

Since there are six “name” authors on the longlist, that means a couple will have to drop off to put some lesser-known authors on it, if my theory is correct. I’ve built that into my predictions.

mantel1. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Mantel’s Tudor doorstopper did not appeal to me, but even I can recognize that I am out of step on this one, particularly since the jury’s longlist does display a certain UK tilt. I would be very surprised if this book is not on the shortlist and not very surprised if it wins. I would not even complain that much because I know that sometimes my tastes are not really representative.

2. Summertime, J.M. Coetzee. Simply too good a book to keep off the shortlist, but I suspect its limited appeal will keep it from winning.

3. Brooklyn, Colm Toibin. In some ways, this book is already in competition with Love and Summer because they have some similar themes and only one can win so the jury may take that decision at this stage. I think the broader scope of this one moves it ahead — on the other hand, Booker juries don’t seem to like books set in America unless they mock it (see Vernon God Little) so the judges may well opt for the Trevor.

4. The Glass Room, Simon Mawer. Too good a book to be overlooked.

5. The Children’s Book, A. S. Byatt. Another doorstopper that I did not like (but can see how it appeals to others). If my jury shortlist theory is correct, it is competing with The Little Stranger for a shortlist spot. I’d love to see Waters move forward, I don’t think she will.

6. How to Paint a Dead Man, Sarah Hall. Even if my theory is correct, this spot is a roll of the dice — either The Wilderness , The Quickening Maze or Heliopolis could take this spot. Which suggests that the two contests I thought about earlier (Toibin/Trevor, Byatt/Waters) could fill this final spot. I certainly hope the judges promote one of these four lesser known novelists to the shortlist.

Comments on where I am grossly wrong are certainly welcome. I am sure on Tuesday I will be making a post explaining the errors in the above, but do hope you enjoyed the read.

Summertime, by J. M. Coetzee

September 1, 2009
All of his intercourse with the world seems to take place through a membrane. Because the membrane is there, fertilization will not take place. It is an interesting metaphor, full of potential, but it does not take him anywhere that he can see.

What a joy it is that book 13, my final of the Booker longlist dozen, is one of the best — perhaps, the best. That enthusiastic evaluation of J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime is significant, because I approached this book with much trepidation. Unlike many readers, I am not a fan of author memoirs or autobiographies, let alone fictionalized autobiographies. This book is volume three of a J. M. Coetzee trilogy in that latter category. I have read neither of the two previous volumes (Boyhood and Youth) — other reviewers said that Summertime stands on its own and it certainly did for me.

Purchased from the Book Depository (click on cover for more info)

Purchased from the Book Depository (click on cover for more info)

Whatever else this book may be (and it is a lot, as you will discover) it is not an exploration of the works of Nobel Prize winning author J. M. Coetzee. It focuses on his life in the early 1970s, shortly before his first novel — Dusklands — appeared. In one sense, it is a study of the environment and experiences which caused him to write what he did. In another — and that is the one that this review will focus on — it is an examination of the cost that other people close to him paid for his chance to do that.

All creative people — writers, artists, composers — not only take part in the world, they observe it. Their art grows from that observing, their life and survival from taking part. In order to be a successful artist, whatever the genre, there needs to be a certain distance — that “membrane” described in the opening quote to this review — created between living in the world and compiling observations of that world. Writers in particular are conscious of what that means. (Another Booker longlist title — How to Paint a Dead Man — explores this theme as well. Even the dreadful Not Untrue and Not Unkind tries to — this book shows how bad O’Loughlin’s attempt is.) Good authors like Coetzee acknowledge the price they have extracted from those whom they observed.

Summertime is a novel that can be read from many perspectives and on many levels. It is, more than anything else, a fictionalized autobiography posing as a novel. I am treating it as a novel, but for the ease of both reviewer and reader here is a naming convention. J.M. Coetzee wrote this book and that author will be known as Coetzee; J.M. Coetzee is the central character in this book and that person will be known as John; and since this book concerns a J.M. Coetzee from a few decades past — who may be real or not — he’ll be known as J.M.

Coetzee has produced a unique structure for this book. It is bookended by excerpt’s from John’s journals, but the bulk of the book is devoted to notes from five interviews that a J.M. biographer has collected. (see what I mean about the naming convention?). The result is the study of a prospective major author (Coetzee may be a Nobel winner, but he had published nothing of significance when this novel is set), now deceased (Coetzee is not but John is), looking at his influences.

One of the strongest of those is the South Africa of the time, particularly the area around Cape Town where John and his father live. The collapse of apartheid has begun, as has the country’s isolation from the global community. The description in this book perhaps provides the ultimate framing words for all of Coetzee’s work:

Once upon a time he used to think that the men who dreamed up the South African version of public order, who brought into being the vast system of labour reserves and internal passports and satellite townships, had based their vision on a tragic misreading of history. They had misread history because, both on farms or in small towns in the hinterland, and isolated within a language spoken nowhere else in the world, they had no appreciation of the scale of the forces that had since 1945 been sweeping the old colonial world. Yet to say they had misread history was in itself misleading. For they had read no history at all. On the contrary, they turned their backs on it, dismissing it as a mass of slanders put together by foreigners who held Afrikaners in contempt and would turn a blind eye if they were massacred by blacks, down to the last woman and child. Alone and friendless at the remote tip of a hostile continent, they erected their fortress state and retreated behind its walls; there they would keep the flame of Western Civilization burning until the world finally came to its senses.

John’s isolation is not just being South African (recently returned from America, he knows a broader world). In the isolated nation state, he is even further isolated — tending to his father, they live outside Cape Town only a kilometer from Poolsmoor prison. Apartheid may already be in a state of collapse, but John and his father are closer to the isolation of prison than they are to the commerce of South Africa.

All of which sets up a political, autobiographical novel — then Coetzee heads in a completely different direction. If the notebooks define where his head was at, the book explores the consequences. A writer can never stop observing, but that in itself is active and impacts the observed. The more serious the writer gets, the greater the intrusion.

The first of the biographical excerpts of the book are interviews with Julia. The wife of a philandering financial services executive she had an affair with John — a tit-for-tat thing mainly — in the early 1970s. The interview with J.M.’s biographer takes place in 2008, Julia has long since left her husband and is now a psychiatrist in Canada. She has had time to place her affair with John in a context. Consider her “mature conclusion”:

“You probably think it holds true for artists in general, male artists: that they can’t or won’t give themselves fully for the simple reason that there is a secret essence of themselves they need to preserve for the sake of their art. Am I right? Is that what you think?”

Do I think that artists aren’t built for love? No. Not necessarily. I try to keep an open mind on the subject.

“Well, you can’t keep your mind open indefinitely, not if you mean to get your book written. Consider. Here we have a man who, in the most intimate of human relations, cannot connect, or can connect only briefly, intermittently. Yet how does he make his living? He makes his living writing reports, expert reports, on intimate human experience. Because that is what novels are about — isn’t it? — intimate experience. Novels as opposed to poetry or painting. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”

[Silence]

We will never know how much the novelist learned from that affair — neither will we know what damage it caused his partner in it.

That cost is also examined in the second biographical excerpt. The subject here is John’s cousin Margot; the two grew up together, were in “love” at age six; then split apart. They reconnect at a Coetzee family reunion (these too are not what they used to be, all South African traditions are in decline). John has just come back from America where his anti-war activities have made him a criminal. As Margot contemplates her isolated, bachelor cousin (remember, the Nobel Prize winner at this point is still unpublished) she observes:

But perhaps there is a type of woman who is attracted to a man like this, who is happy to listen without contradicting while he airs his opinions, and then to take them on as her own, even the self-evidently silly ones. A woman indifferent to male silliness, indifferent even to sex, simply in search of a man to attach to herself and take care of and protect against the world. A woman who will put up with shoddy work around the house because what matters is not that the windows close and the locks work but that her man have the space in which to live out his idea of himself. And who will afterwards quietly call in hired help, someone good with his hands, to fix up the mess.

Again in this section, Coetzee presents what John gains from the association and questions at what cost that has come. The pattern is repeated in the remaining three biographical sections and the final notebook entries offer ideas about how the threads tie together. It is a compelling examination of what writers extract from their surroundings — and what cost is involved in their doing that.

As long as this review already is, it is dreadfully incomplete. I have tried to explore only one of the strands that are part of this book, but there are many more:
— the influence of family on a writer. The Coetzees are dysfunctional, in decline and rapidly aging — what did that do to the author’s work?
— parsing the author’s work. I haven’t read enough Coetzee to comment (and do have a personal disinterest in this theme) but it is certainly there.
— why is J.M. Coetzee choosing to write a three-volume fictional autobiography that concludes as his first novel is at the proof stage? Certainly a fascinating question for some, which I have not addressed.

I confess that I became so interested in one thread of this book that I have ignored those others. For a much broader assessment, please visit the review from John Self at theAsylum — John admitted that when he reached the 1,200-word mark (and I am well past that) he felt that he had hardly started. Summertime is only 266 pages long but it is a novel (not to mention fictional autobiography) of incredible complexity. It may not win the Booker (and may not deserve to), simply because it is too “literary” — you need to be a serious reader to appreciate the various levels of this book. If you can engage with it — and I am sure not everyone wants to — it is a compelling piece of work.

Heliopolis, by James Scudamore

September 1, 2009

Review copy courtesy Colette Jones, a regular and valued visitor here

Review copy courtesy Colette Jones, a regular and valued visitor here

Heliopolis does already have a legitimate claim to one award in the 2009 Man Booker contest — it is easily the fastest-paced of the 13 novels in the longlist dozen. James Scudamore’s action-driven plot has its complexities, but the author is an able craftsman and the pages fly by.

The novel is set in Sao Paulo in the present. Its central character, Ludwig “Ludo” Dos Santos, is an “orphan” — he has a mother and was raised by her but the patriarchal nature of the society says that with an unknown father he is relegated to orphan status. Born in the favela of Heliopolis (favelas are communities of squatters that, over time, evolve into recognized neighborhoods), both he and his mother were “adopted” by the wealthy Carnicelli family. In Ludo’s case, the adoption has been formalized — a central theme of the book is his attempt to deal with the dilemma of having a foot in both worlds.

The book opens with Ludo, age 27 and employed in an advertising agency, in the bed of his adopted (and married) sister, Melissa, in her penthouse apartment which has a view down the avenue that bisects the Garden District to the “smog-cloaked towers of downtown”. He has more than half an ear turned to the arrival of a helicoptor on the helipad on the roof of the tower, since Melissa’s father regularly drops in on his way to work. The separation of the classes in Sao Paulo is not just economic and figurative, it is literal:

Melissa’s father, Ze Fischer Carnicelli, hasn’t been down to street level in the city for over fifteen years. He lives in a gated community of 30,000 inhabitants, way out of town, and is flown from there to his downtown office every morning in a helicoptor that has the word Predator painted graffiti-style over its nose, along with gnashing teeth and a pair of evil yellow eyes. He’s approaching retirement, but still keeps regular office hours. A chauffeur drives him between his house and the heliport, then back again in the evening. During the day, he might hop to another high-rise to meet someone for lunch, or to attend an afternoon meeting, but he never touches the pavement. It’s not just a question of safety: if he went by car he could get snared in a traffic jam lasting hours. Nobody who’s anybody gets driven to work in the city these days.

While other supporting characters will be introduced, that pretty much takes care of the crucial elements of the plot, all in the first four pages. Ludo’s mother is the cook at Ze’s home on the “farm”, actually a compound that is a luxurious weekend retreat where Ze, a politician as well as businessman, conducts his most important business. She spends most of the five-day work week concocting the food that will be central to the weekend entertainment and work.

Food, in fact, is an important element of Heliopolis. Each of the chapter headings references a food (Jacaranda Honey, Feijoada and Crab Linguine are just a few examples — Warm Rolls and Peanuts are a couple of more prosaic ones, underlining the class split). The device is more than a clever trick as each chapter does feature the food of the title. More important, it is Ludo’s discovery that the city cook of the family is making the same dishes from the same recipes as his mother that starts his personal questioning of his mother’s place and history, which is another plot thread of the book.

The conflicts that result from all these elements are quite predictable and it would be a spoiler to simply detail them. Like last year’s Booker winner, The White Tiger, this book is an examination of the gap and tension that exists between the classes in the emerging economic powers of the BRIC block. Unlike that book which is characterized by both anger and politics, however, this one is more just a story. That is perhaps a reflection that Aravind Adiga grew up in that world — James Scudamore grew up in Japan, Brazil and the UK and now lives in London. He knows the world of which he writes, but not from the same perspective the Adiga does.

Which means that while Heliopolis is an entertaining novel, it is not much more. As noted previously, its greatest strength is that the action is developed competently and moves quickly — but when you have finished the book you don’t know much more about class conflict in Brazil than you do already. And while Ludo does get developed as a character, most of the rest are one-dimensional supporting actors to the plot.

Heliopolis probably deserves its place on the longlist, although other books certainly would have been equally as worthy (personally, I would have preferred Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, but that is a matter of taste). It would be a surprise — and a disappointment with the jury — if it moves on to the shortlist.

In conclusion, special thanks to Colette Jone’s for sending me her copy of Heliopolis. It has not been published in North America (and a quick scan does not show a publication date) and was awaiting reprinting in the UK, so without her help my project to read the entire Booker longlist would have been frustrated. Yet another example, that friends of blogs are valuable to us all. Thanks, Colette.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

August 31, 2009

Purchased from the Book Depository (click on cover for more info)

Purchased from the Book Depository (click on cover for more info)

It would not be a proper Booker longlist if there was not at least one lengthy historical novel included. In 2009, there are two, arguably, three — Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book and Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger. I have no problem with this; writers who undertake longish fictional works of our history deserve appropriate attention.

Using that criterion, Wolf Hall is the most ambitious of this year’s three. Mantel has retreated almost 500 years to offer a treatment of the Tudor era. In a 650-page doorstopper, she introduces and develops the notion that Thomas Cromwell is a person that history has overlooked, that he deserves to be regarded as every bit as much an influence as Cardinal Wolsey or Thomas More at one of the key tipping points in English history. And, to bring things back to the present, her book is attracting attention. My online bookmaker now has it at only 2-1 to win the Prize from the 13 longlisted books — it opened at 5-1 and the odds quickly moved down. (Bookies make no comment on the quality of the book — they do accurately reflect how much money is being wagered on each book.)

A quick contextual summary. Henry VIII is King, Katherine of Aragon is his wife and has produced no male offspring. He has become enthralled with Anne Boleyn, who (wisely) won’t jump into his bed until he agrees to marry her and make her Queen (her sister, Mary, meanwhile is a regular bedmate). The result is a split with Rome and the creation of the Church of England, altering western world history for all time. I am absolutely certain you already know this.

None of this could happen without a lot of manoeuvering in the background and Wolsey and More have throughout history certainly attracted a lot of attention, books and films. Mantel’s book posits the idea that Thomas Cromwell was Henry’s key advisor through this period — I make no judgment on the legitimacy of that claim, but reviewers with a far deeper knowledge than I of that period in history, give it credence.

While Mantel breaks her book into six parts, I’d separate it into three:

– Cromwell’s “learning” period as Wolsey’s henchman, ending with the Cardinal’s death. The son of a blacksmith who beat him, Cromwell headed to Europe as a soldier, learned how to make money and exercise power and returned to find a position in Wolsey’s entourage that allowed him to hone his inherent skills.
— A “development” period, as Anne (in the novel) forces Henry to meet her conditions. Cromwell, betrayed by those who removed Wolsey, lines up with the interest of the Boleyns, learns the ropes, executes well and Henry’s second marriage eventually takes place.
— The “exercise” of power. Once Katherine has been put aside, Henry’s problems are far from over. Mantel portrays the King as a bit of a caricature but Cromwell is anything but. This part occupies almost the entire final half of the book and is by far the strongest section. Mantel portrays Cromwell as both ruthless and humane; there is more than one gruesome execution but, as well, her hero is committed to developing and placing the surrogate sons and daughters that are part of his household.

Anne and Henry are still together when this book ends (with the execution of More) so it is a snapshot of a period of the Tudor era, rather than a comprehensive look at Henry’s reign. Above all, it is a portrait of Cromwell, the influencer and executor.

Here are the problems that I had with this novel (severe enough that I had to put it aside halfway through):

– It does not travel well. I don’t know a lot about Tudor history, but I know the elements of the story. Perhaps if I lived in Britain, I would have been interested in all the detail that the author presents. I don’t live there and I found much of that aspect of the book very heavy slogging and, quite frankly, did not learn much that I did not already know. Mantel’s treatment of the secondary characters is particularly weak on this front.
— My reading style does not suit this kind of book at all. I usually read in sessions of more than two hours, so I would expect to finish this book in three or four sessions. The lack of plot (beyond what I already knew) and the painfully slow character development produced significant irritation. If your reading style is to read 20 or 30 pages a night and then contemplate, you’ll probably do far better than I did with this novel — and you have a whole month of reading to which to look forward.
— I did Mantel no favor with the other reading I did while I read this book. After setting it aside roughly at the halfway points, I read William Trevor’s Love and Summer and Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness. Trevor and Munro are mainly short story writers and they share an ability to capture in two paragraphs what most authors take 10 pages to say. Mantel, on the other hand, takes 10 pages to develop (often through confusing dialogue) what most authors take care of in two paragraphs.

I make those observations to indicate that my frustration with Wolf Hall is more about myself, my habits and my tastes than criticism of the author or her book. It certainly is not the first time that I have found a Booker “big” book wanting.

I fully expect Wolf Hall to be on the Booker shortlist when it is announced Sept. 8 — and I will be only mildly surprised if it eventually wins the Prize. Having said that, not all good novels (or even Booker winners) are for everyone’s taste, and this one certainly was not for mine. I do feel a little bit guilty about being negative about Wolf Hall — for a much more enthusiastic review, check out dovegreyreader’s thoughts here . There is no doubt that Wolf Hall is an impressive piece of work, I just think many readers will join me in finding it wanting in evaluating the time that has to be invested in reading it.

Love and Summer, by William Trevor

August 28, 2009

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada (click cover for more info)

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada (click cover for more info)

Ellie is a foundling, raised by the nuns at Cloonhill, placed with the widowed farmer Dillahan as a servant (“there’s not many as lucky”) and later promoted as his wife — the only difference in that new state being that she now shares a bed.

Florian Kilderry is another orphan, albeit a recent one. His watercolor-painting parents have recently died and he has inherited a rambling and declining 18 room house and a lot of debts. He is a decent enough fellow, still trying to find himself, somehwat aimless with no real trade or ambition.

Miss Connulty (she has a first name but even her twin brother hasn’t used it for decades) is the daughter of the recently deceased matron of the town of Rathmoye. The family controls much of the town commerce (pub, coal yard and B and B) and she has just moved into the large bedroom, taking with her the family jewels and her own tortured memories.

Orpen Wren used to be a servant of the St Johns of Lisquin, a family long departed from Rathmoye with their own scandals responsible. But Wren continues to live in that past, jealously guarding the family papers as he awaits the return of a St John of the current generation and, in the meantime, wandering the town in his own version of a realitiy set some decades past.

Does this seem to shape up like William Trevor country? While I haven’t read a lot of his work, it did seem like familiar territory to me only a few pages in — a cast of characters who are for the most part likable, yet every one of them harbors powerful influences from a past that, as the book unfolds, will move more and more into the present and become ever more threatening.

Florian shows up at Mrs. Connulty’s funeral with his camera (photography is the latest career option for him). He is actually in search of the remnants of the town cinema (where Mr. Connulty perished in a fire) but does stop to take some pictures of the funeral, much to the dismay of Miss Connulty. He asks Ellie for directions.

And they fall in love.

If you want straightforward, logical plot, William Trevor is not your author. If you are willing to grant him a fair bit of licence, you get ample rewards. He specializes in burrowing to depths of detail that, in the final analysis, do support the uncertainty of his plot developments:

Cycling out of town, Ellie wondered who the man who’d been taking photographs was. The way he’d asked about the old picture house you could tell he didn’t know Rathmoye at all, and she’d never seen him on the streets or in a shop. She wondered if he was connected with the Connultys, since it was the Connultys who owned the picture house and since it had been Mrs Connulty’s funeral. She’d never seen photographs taken at a funeral before, and supposed the Connultys could have employed him to do it. Or he was maybe off a newspaper, the Nenagh News or the Nationalist, because sometimes in a paper you’d see a picture of a funeral. If she’d gone back to the house afterwards she could have asked Miss Connulty, but the artificial-insemination man was expected and she’d said she’d be there.

Trevor’s characters lead small lives in a small town with small concerns, like meeting the artificial-insemination man. That does not mean that the tragedy that awaits them is anything but small.

Florian and Ellie continue to meet, seemingly without purpose, except to the spying eyes of Miss Connulty who projects her own unhappiness and history onto their relationship. It is entirely without basis; it turns out to be correct.

Ellie’s husband, the farmer Dillahan, carries his own remorse — he backed a loaded trailer into his wife and child, killing them both. Ever since, he has carried the feeling that the entire town is speculating on what his responsibility for the accident (drunkenness? desire?) was. The characters of Love and Summer don’t repress history, they attribute meaning to it and let it influence their present.

And while Orpen’s memories may come from a confused, semi-demented past they do have their own version of sense — and his determination to recount them provides a key leverage point in Trevor’s plot.

This novel (and previous Trevor works that I have read) does have its inconsistencies — such as the rapidity with which Ellie and Florian fall in love. Also, while Florian lives within easy cycling distance of Rathmoye it appears he has never been there before the book opens, neither do any of the residents know him. Farmer Dillahan, who has a car, has never been to Florian’s village either. None of this is believable in a conventional sense; I’d like to think that Trevor is using these illogical inconsistencies not sloppily but deliberately, to remind readers that some characters consciously choose to lead constrained lives. The author makes them pay a price for that.

It took me two readings to appreciate what Trevor accomplishes with this novel. The world that he portrays is so tightly-constrained that the first time through “major” incidents pass unnoticed — there is not a lot of cause in this work, there is a lot of effect. I think his point is that the simple contains all the elements that will produce tragedy that the complex does and his world is that simple. It is an exceptionally well-done work that demands attention and “ear” from the reader like few others, but in the end rewards the perseverance. It is not the kind of novel that appeals to everyone’s taste; it certainly appealed to mine.

For anyone who is contemplating the Booker longlist, it is impossible not to make comparisons between this novel and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (reviewed here). Both are set in small towns in Ireland that are experiencing change (Trevor doesn’t actually say Rathmoye is in Ireland but it seems a fair assumption). The central character in both — Trevor’s Ellie and Toibin’s Eilie — is a confused young woman, not quite up to dealing with everything that is around her. There are certainly differences; Toibin has more breadth (much of Brooklyn is set in the U.S.), Trevor has more depth. This novel is more finely written, but Toibin’s bigger canvas adds more layers of interest. I liked both and do appreciate the differences. If forced to make a choice (as the Booker jury at some time must), I would opt for the Toibin — but that is probably more a reflection of my living in North America rather than a conclusion about the quality of the book.

Me Cheeta, by James Lever

August 24, 2009

Okay, the 2009 Man Booker jury got me on this one. I had actually heard of the book when the longlist was announced. Will Rycroft at Just William’s Luck had given it a generally positive review back in January — then again, Will knows and writes about film (which is what this satire is about) and he did playfully list the author as Cheeta. And I also recalled that a few months later the London Review of Books had a surprisingly upbeat take on it and Me Cheeta hardly seems like their kind of book. A quick internet scan on announcement day popped up the cover pictured here, featuring the eye-hiding ape and a collage of stars from the 30s and 40s — about as non-Booker as you can get and confirming my first impression that this was hardly a worthy choice.

Offsetting all this, however, was a disarming Guardian interview with author James Lever (aka Cheeta) that included the following quote:

“I hope Cheeta’s an OK book, but in my opinion a good book comes out once every few years. I’m bloody not calling my book a good book. It’s all right, you know.”

He goes on to say that if this book does win the Booker he is definitely hoping he gets the Nobel Prize for his next. With a sense of humor like that, it is hard to slag the guy. And since I did promise to try to read all 13 longlisted books, it hardly seemed right to ignore one on the assumption that it wasn’t worth the list because it was too easy to read.

Me Cheeta is sub-titled The Autobiography and it is written by Cheeta (officially Jiggs but U. S. immigration at Ellis Island always gets the name wrong; also often wrongly spelled Cheta or Chita in almost every published review due to the incompetent studio PR department) whose claim to fame, at least in his own eyes, was that he was Johnny Weissmuller’s vital co-star in 10 Tarzan movies between 1934 and 1947. While it is a satire on both Hollywood and the celebrity autobiography, the novel has a tender underbelly — Lever has a lot of love for both the subjects which he mocks even if he is aware of their failings.

He is also remarkably effective in setting the stage for his story. The first 90 pages are devoted to recounting Cheeta’s youth in the jungle, his capture, his trip to America and his first experience of New York (with obligatory references to King Kong). Long before the ape author gets to Hollywood, the human author has firmly established his intention to treat him and his story as compassionately as possible. The lengthy set-up also allows Lever to introduce a number of other conceits, such as Cheeta’s belief that he has been saved from sure death and destruction by humans who are intent on giving him the best life possible — as opposed to the idea that he has been introduced to animal abuse and slavery.

Warm-up done, by far the best part of the book is the second section, where Cheeta’s career serves mainly as an excuse to take dead aim at Hollywood and the inflated egos that rule it:

In all there were seven main Dream Factories, run by seven alpha males: Mayer, Warner, Goldwyn, Cohn, Zukor, Zanuck and Laemmle. These alphas were the kings of the town, but there were a number of other kings: a King of Hollywood (Gable), a King of the Silents (Fairbanks), a King of the Jungle (Johnny), and a Queen of Hollywood (Myrna Loy), a Queen of Warner’s (Kay Francis), a Queen of the World (Dietrich) and a Dragon Queen (Joan Crawford). There was also a Baron, a Duke, a First Lady of Hollywood, and rarer creatures — an Iron Butterfly, a Platinum Blonde, a Profane Angel, an Old Stoneface, a Love Goddess, a Great Profile, a Sweater Girl, an Oomph Girl, a Girl-with-the-wink.

Many of those named — and many others — are skewered in the pages that follow. I’m not even going to try to produce examples (Will’s review does and he knows the territory better than me) although Cheeta does have a particular hate for Mickey Rooney and Esther Williams. In true autobiography style, Me Cheeta features a 10-page, two-column, small-type index that dutifully catalogues all of the references.

While all this is happening (and even for a non-movie fan like myself it has its share of laughs), a sub-theme is developing — Cheeta’s unrequited love for Johnny. It starts with an aversion to his female co-stars, especially Maureen O’Sullivan, whom the ape feels are competing with him for Johnny’s attention. And it extends eventually to Johnny’s wives (he had six). And in its own way, it is a touching and convincing part of the story.

The problem with all this is that Hollywood is pretty thin so the satire starts to wear and get rather repetitive. And the Cheeta-in-love-with-Johnny story line has the same weakness. Amusement turns to ennui turns to annoyance — and with half the book still to go, it is not cheerful to think what will come next.

Worse yet, Cheeta’s film career lasted only until 1947 and the “autobiography” is written in 2009 and so there are 62 years to fill in. (If you didn’t know, Cheeta is for real and is also an artist — a charming touch to the “autobiography” are two sections of photos). A couple of decades of that he spent in a touring animal sideshow (“stage work” he calls it); for the last few decades he has llived at what he calls The Sanctuary, known to the rest of the world as No Reel Apes, where sales of his art are the main source of revenue. Still worse, Lever starts to take the whole gag seriously and the latter part of the book comes dangerously close to being a dreadful polemic on how humanity treats animals and the planet in general. Cheeta believing his press clippings is one thing, but those themes just don’t stand up to the quality of the better parts of the book.

There is a part of me that wants to crap on the jury for denying a “real” author a place on the longlist by including this book — and I am going to resist that. It is definitely unconventional and parts of it are quite good, a cheerful romp. And Lever’s self-effacing attitude is testimony enough that such criticism would be unduly churlish. With 13 choices to make, I’ll allow the jury a fun one. Both barrels will be loaded, however, if they move this mildly entertaining diversion to the shortlist.

A final note. Both Me Cheeta and Hillary Mantel’s 650-page Tudor doorstopper Wolf Hall are published by Fourth Estate, which surely gives that publisher ownership of the poles of this year’s Booker choices. I’m 200 pages into Wolf Hall as I write this — is it possible that it is a massive satire and I have been missing the point completely so far?

How to Paint a Dead Man, by Sarah Hall

August 18, 2009

Let me confess to a personal conflict of interest concerning this book before I begin the review. Art-collecting joins reading as one of my passions (hence the use of detail from an early Lawren Harris abstract as the header for this blog). I have a serious soft spot for works of fiction which feature artists and their work as central themes — if I can expand the definition of “art” to include “architecture”, that would help explain why The Glass Room is still at the top of my 2009 Booker list. And I knew before I started Sarah Hall’s Booker long-listed novel that it was about an artist, so I approached it with both anticipation and goodwill.

In fact, How to Paint a Dead Man is about four artists, their stories told separately in alternating chapters and distinct voices. The chronology, while not linear in the book, spans a half-century; the range of age of the four as their stories are told is about the same. In addition to all four being artists (still-life, landscape, early impressionism and photography would be their respective styles), the stories are tenuously linked through correspondence, instruction and family relation. Perhaps more important, they are also linked by an overwhelming sense of impending or realized loss. For close to 80 per cent of this novel, I thought that Hall did an admirable job of both constructing these narrative streams and, in her own way, holding them together. She very effectively establishes and maintains a tension faced by individuals who devote their lives to creating works of art but now face an inescapable loss.

Translated from the Bottle Journals. My favorite of the four story lines, an elderly Italian painter who knows his own life is approaching its end contemplates his past and tries to make the best of his last days. It is the 1960s, he is a commercial success — he is the still-life artist and all his recent work has consisted of groupings of ancient bottles. That wasn’t always the case, as he remembers creating art as a younger man during the Mussolini era and the war years:

And finding the most unusual strong-boned girl to make love to and use as a model — if she had distinguished flesh between her hip and navel, if her eyes were like marble and her hair auburn, if she would wear it down across her breasts or up off her neck, if she sets jealousy among the young men like a songbird among cats, if she brought her temper or her sexuality to the canvas. Her heels in the summer storms made careful steps across the cobbled stones of each courtyard she visited. She was immortalised by whichever artist she came to with her modern love.

We were all emaciated and our hearts and livers were inflamed. We measured our passions like weights on empty scales. And the only cure, for conventionalists and Futurists alike, was the fresh colour squeezed on to the palate. And then another, compatible, deposited by its side.

The artist’s journal does explore some of the trauma of those Fascist years. In its present tense, it also explores the dilemma that, despite his commercial success, neither the artist nor the critics can explain what it is he actually does. A one-way correspondence with a young British artist, Peter, (one-way because Peter’s letters have no return address) comes as close as anything to doing that and the Italian artist eagerly awaits the arrival of those letters.

The Fool on the Hill. This is the story of that Peter, set about 40 years later, he too now an international success — and equally famous as an offbeat international character — for his semi-abstract landscape work. A child of the Sixties, he left Britain for the U.S., found his art but not his life there and returned to Cumbria where this story is set. Despite his continuing fondness for alcohol and wandering, he has a devoted (second) wife and twin children, both artists in their own way. Again, much of his story comes in the form of reminiscence after a sketching trip into a ravine turns into a disaster. Like the Italian artist, his impending loss may mean the end of his life.

The Divine Vision of Annette Tambroni. Annette is an adolescent Italian girl whose sight is fading — total blindness is only a matter of time. Her family grows flowers, which she sells in the marketplace; her divine vision is that the Bestia is pursuing her. Offsetting that is her artwork at school, which has attracted the attention of the established painter who teaches the class one day a week:

He told Annette he liked her paintings of the flowers she had brought from Castrabecco (her home) best of all. He told her the flowers in her paintings contained exactly the purple substance of the flowers on the desk in front of her. He said he could even detect the fragrance of the paintings from the other side of the room. ‘Such a remarkable waft of begonias,’ he would say, ‘I felt we must have been overtaken by them while my back was turned talking to Sandro. Let us open the window and see if your paintings can entice the butterflies.’

For anyone who has seen Monet’s Water Lilies, painted as his blindness became complete, Annette’s experience cannot help but spark memories.

The Mirror Crisis. Susan is Peter’s daughter, a photographer who has also attracted significant critical attention, although even she wonders if her parentage isn’t the main reason for the attention. Her twin, Danny, has just been killed in an accident, provoking her identity crisis. While Hall does keep this narrative going, it is the weakest stream of the book — we learn little about her photography and much of this story heads off into territory that is not even echoed in the other parts of the book.

As stated earlier, for 80 per cent of the book the author — at least for this reader — nurtured and balanced these stories in a most satisfying way. Alas, in the final 20 per cent, it all falls apart. The creative tension established in the first part of the book doesn’t so much dwindle as it is abandoned. While the two mature artist sections maintain some momentum, both Annette’s and Susan’s wander into unsatisfying and distracting conclusions that bear no relation to the rest of the book. A resolution that would have kept the streams together and perhaps even resolved the creative tension (allowed the written pictures to set, as it were) was entirely possible, but not realized.

I confessed my personal conflict of interest in this book at the start. I am fairly sure that I will be able to forget that last 20 per cent and remember the real strengths of this book, and they were considerable. Having said that, I have to admit that readers who say the ending ruined the novel for them will get no argument from me. It is frustrating that a novel that could have been so, so good ends up falling short of the mark.

The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds

August 15, 2009

Reading The Quickening Maze was one of the more interesting challenges of my Booker experience, 2009. On my first effort, I threw down the book in confused disgust after 30 pages, left a grumpy comment on the Man Booker forum and then gave myself a very stern lecture about being fair to the author. My second try was much more successful — while it took more than half of the length of The Quickening Maze to get into the rhythm of Foulds’ book, once that was accomplished it was a much more rewarding reading experience.

Foulds’ last publication was a book-length narrative poem, The Broken Word, so would-be readers of this novel should consider themselves forewarned. Two Canadian poet novelists figured in this year’s Booker longlist speculation — Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault and Patrick Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog — although neither made the longlist. While many readers liked those books (particularly the Lane), others found there was too much poet and not enough novelist in both books. The same criticism applies to this book. Of the seven Booker longlist titles I have read so far, it is the most innovative in form. Unfortunately, I don’t think the innovative form succeeds.

The Quickening Maze is set in Epping Forest, just outside London, around 1840. Dr. Matthew Allen, a former bankrupt with wide-ranging interests, has established the High Beach Private Asylum there for treating the mentally disturbed (and “idiots”, a jarring reminder that Foulds does not spare us). One of his patients is the peasant poet, John Clare. Another, recently arrived, is Septimus Tennyson, brother to Alfred who has also taken up residence nearby — Alfred’s melancholy is not so serious as to require that he be a patient, but it is close.

That is only a start on the author’s panoply of plot streams. We also spend a lot of time with Dr. Allen’s teenage daughter, Hannah, who first has a crush on Tennyson; then a dalliance with Charles Seymour, a completely sane heir of noble birth sent by his family to the institution so he won’t elope with his poverty-stricken lover; and finally ends up engaged to a successful manufacturer, Thomas Rawnsley.

Rawnsley is Allen’s advisor on the doctor’s latest project, invention of the Machine, a gadget that will trace hand-done wood carvings mechanically, bringing carved furniture within the economic reach of many more people (and well-deserved wealth to Allen, he believes).

That’s a lot of plot(s), made even more difficult to access by Foulds’ poetic language:

He’d been sent out to pick firewood from the forest, sticks and timbers wrenched loose in the storm. Light met him as he stepped outside, the living day met him with its details, the scuffling blackbird that had its nest in their apple tree.

Walking towards the wood, the heath, beckoning away. Undulations of yellow gorse rasped softly in the breeze. It stretched off into unknown solitudes.

Foulds develops each of these stories over seven seasons — since there is not a lot of action, most of that development tends to be introspective. For the most part, the novel is structured in short segments, visiting each plot line in turn, which often introduces another distraction. It is to the author’s credit that, at least for this reader, by the mid-point of the 260-page book he did establish a rhythm that started to carry the rest of the book.

The individual’s stories are connected, not just by location but also by a growing similarity. Each of the author’s central characters (and there is also a large supporting cast that I have not mentioned) is living in a world of impending, self-induced tragedy. Some may be institutionalized as deranged, others are still in the “real” world but all are headed toward similar fates. It is that sense of “common future”, dismal as it might be, that eventually brings the book together.

The Quickening Maze is not a book for everyone’s taste. I had to work a lot harder as a reader than I did with either Lane or Michaels to cope with the poet-writing-a-novel factor — and I know a number of readers who set both of those books aside as unreadable. On the other hand, I suspect readers who take to poetic language more easily than I do will find this to be a more readily accessible book than I did.

And while The Quickening Maze would not have made my personal Booker longlist, I am happy to see it on the official list. This year’s Booker dozen seems to have put a premium on books that are pretty conventional. One of the expectations that I have of the Prize is that at least a couple of selections will bring attention to authors who have taken some risk with their work and deserve wider exposure. As frustrating as reading The Quickening Maze was at times, it was a worthwhile experience. Readers who are willing to take a chance should give the book a try — I suspect Foulds is a writer who will be heard from in the future.

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

August 11, 2009

Review copy from <a href:"http://www.mcclelland.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780771087882">McClelland & Stewart</a>

Review copy supplied by http://www.mcclelland.com

I have had a soft spot for the work of Sarah Waters for a number of years. She is an author who specializes in history and mystery — two characteristics that are relatively low on my normal reading priorities. On the other hand, “literary” tends to creep in fairly often as an adjective of her work, with some legitimacy I would say. To that I would add, from a purely selfish point of view, “enjoyable” and “escapist” — when I am in the right frame of mind, Waters is an author that I turn to with some confidence.

I’ve had a copy of The Little Stranger on the shelf for some months. Having enjoyed her two most recent works (Fingersmith and The Night Watch, both of which attracted Booker attention), I’d earmarked it for a read on the mini-vacation to Lake Louise that we had scheduled for this past week. Waters did not disappoint. The Little Stranger was a worthwhile holiday read — on the other hand, I am scratching my head about the Booker longlisting of this particular book.

For me, the “star” of The Little Stranger is Hundreds Hall, described by the book’s narrator in its opening:

I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war, and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district. The event was an Empire Day fete: I stood with a line of other village children making a Boy Scout salute while Mrs Ayres and the Colonel went past us, handing out commemorative medals; afterwards we sat to teas with our parents at long tables on what I suppose was the south lawn….

I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain — like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.

There were no trips inside, of course. The doors and French windows stood open, but each had a rope or ribbon tied across it; the lavatories set aisde for our use were the grooms’ and the gardeners’, in the stable block.

For those of us in the Old Dominions, there can be no better introduction. A manor house in implicit post-war decline; an early indication of class conflict that is undergoing change. We soon discover that the narrator, Dr. Faraday, has never lost touch with his memorieis of the Hall and, indeed, his involvement is about to increase. Thirty years later, he is called to the Hall when his partner is busy with an emergency case — he first notices its decline (“My heart began to sink almost the moment I let myself into the park”), but we can sense immediately that Hundreds Hall will soon become an obsession.

The publishers of The Little Stranger are marketing it as a ghost story and, on one level, that is completely realistic. It is also potentially a story of phantasms, the ability of people to mentally create their own hell. And it is equally possible that it may be a story of individuals who allow their obsession with a place and their place in that place to descend into an evil that defies description.

Hundreds Hall has three residents — Mrs Ayres, her son Roddie (both physically and mentally damaged from his RAF experience in the recent war) and spinster daughter Caroline. An adolescent servant, Betty, seems to be around when many of the “ghostly” incidents take place and may or may not be involved. Dr. Faraday ends up treating them all, but it is no spoiler to say that along the way he becomes every bit as damaged as his patients. The decline of the Hall looms over them all; for everyone but the doctor that decline will prove fatal.

Strange things begin to happen. Burn marks appear on walls and noises are heard — the prospect of a ghost (another daughter died in early childhood) is the most obvious explanation. Rod is the first to fall prey and Dr. Faraday packs him off to a clinic for the mentally disabled, but that doesn’t stop the strange happenings, indeed they escalate.

A reviewer could go on at length detailing those strange things but I am going to forego that. Waters is an effective storyteller and, while the narrative occasionally lags, she does keep the story going. What this reader — and those who have been debating this book on various forums — finds most interesting is asking the question “what really happened at Hundreds Hall”?

In her two most recent novels, Waters has constructed involved plots which she sums up in a very tidy “reveal” which makes logical sense at the end of the book. She doesn’t do that in The Little Stranger — I can only conclude that her ambiguity is deliberate and that readers should accept that and work with it. For me, that makes the book much more than your ordinary mystery.

If you can stretch your credulity to assume there really is a ghost, you get one set of circumstances. It infects every resident and Dr. Faraday and sends them all on a path of destruction. An interesting option.

Then again, maybe they all just believe in a ghost who doesn’t exist and the phantasm is the infection that sends them on a path to ruin. The result is an equally interesting story.

Or perhaps all those things are the result of deliberate or subconscious behavior by Caroline and/or Dr. Faraday or even the young Betty. There is no doubt that the most “literary” characterstic of the book is Waters’ masterful achievement of turning the doctor into someone whom most readers will truly despise as the novel unfolds. Probably the most fascinating option, if only because it is closest to reality.

Once I had finished the book, I found the most value in being able to hold all those possibilities (and some others) open and looking back at what I had read from each of those perspectives. Having said that, I do acknowledge that not all readers are comfortable with that approach — they would like a resolution and deciding which of the possibilities is the “real” one has much more appeal than keeping all the options open. Certainly there has been a lot of comment elsewhere (see the Man Booker forum thread on the book) to indicate that this is a worthwhile approach for many readers.

The Little Stranger fulfilled for me both the entertainment and escapist expectations that I brought to the book. Alas, I think the author became so involved in keeping all those options open that, for me at least, this is not a “Booker” book. It was an enjoyable diversion and I would not discourage anyone from reading the book, but it lacks the depth and insight that I expect in the year’s best novel.

The Wilderness, by Samantha Harvey

August 4, 2009

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Book purchased from <a href="http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/book/9780224089685/The-Wilderness">the Book Depository</a>

Book purchased from the Book Depository

Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness is another Booker long-listed book that I finished some weeks ago when it was shortlisted for the Orange Prize — this first novel is doing very well in the prize world. Like Not Untrue & Not Unkind, it was a book that I did not like and felt then that I had little to add in the form of a negative review. Unlike Not Untrue & Not Unkind which I think has no merit whatsover, it should be noted that The Wilderness is very much liked by some readers whose views I respect, a number of whom have it as their current choice for the Booker (here's a link to the Man Booker discussion forum on Harvey’s book). I offer these thoughts up as a counterpoint, fully aware that at the moment at least this is a minority dissenting opinion. I did reread The Wilderness in the last few days — I found it to be only a little bit better book than I did on my disappointing first read.

Jake is in his early 60s. An architect, he left London in early career to return to the “wilderness” where he had been raised and grown up to practice his trade there. (Aside: For some of us in other parts of the world, architects practising their trade in a “wilderness” is not a viable concept at all — but I am more than willing to grant Harvey the licence of a different definition of the word in the context of the United Kingdom than what I am used to when I think of wilderness. It is also true that the wilderness Jake faces is much more in his mind than in his physical surroundings.)

When we first meet Jake, he is a widower, flying over the area where he lives in a small airplane — the excursion a present from his son, Henry, who is in the prison (that Jake designed) which can be seen from the plane. Jake has Alzheimer’s:

In amongst a sea of events and names that have been forgotten, there are a number of episodes that float with striking buoyancy to the surface. There is no sensible order to them, nor connection between them. He keeps his eye on the gound below him, strange since once he would have turned his attention to the horizon or the sky above, relishing the sheer size of it all.

Harvey’s first chapter is an impressive piece of work in terms of setting her story. We get to know a fair bit about Jake — his wife, Helen, is deceased; his son is in prison; we know he designed that prison; we know this is the “wilderness” where he chose to live his life. We also know that his disease is changing that life, almost on an hourly basis:

It is not that these surfacing memories just come. No, he casts around for them even when not exactly conscious of it, he forces himself into them and wears valleys through them. He plays games trying to connect them and establish a continuity of time. If it was their honeymoon they were newly married: this is what honeymoon means, a holiday for the newly married. He can nod in satisfaction about the clarity of this knowledge and can then move on. His wife was called Helen. If it was their honeymoon they were young, and he had completed his training, and Henry was conceived.

This would seem to be an appropriate point to declare my personal potential conflicts of interest with this book. I am 61 years old, so Jake is of my age. My father died a few years ago, of a combination of Parkinson’s and related dementia, so I have some personal experience with that. This a work of fiction and Harvey, in her defence, makes absolutely no claim that it is designed as a portrayal of Alzheimer’s. I had originally declined to read this book, wondering about how it would land — I can say with confidence that it did not spark painful memories that made it a bad book. If anything the opposite is true. Jake’s struggle with his condition may be how some people experience Alzheimer’s. It is light years away from my experience with my father’s dementia.

One of the strongest parts of the book is the way that the author locates the real world “constants” that Jake is struggling to put in order. There are, for example, three women in his life: his deceased wife, Helen; his one-night affair with the young Joy; his lifetime friendship with Eleanor, a childhood friend who is now his housemate, lover and companion. And there are his children, Henry in prison and Alice, also deceased. His ancestry — his mother was Jewish and escaped the Holocaust, her parents chose to stay in Austria and perished there. And there is Jake’s decision to leave London and return to his mother and the district where he grew up, sacrificing a career in the city to build a prison and boring housing estates, dreaming an unfulfilled dream about creating a glass house for himself and Helen, sunk on concrete foundations into the peat bog of the wilderness.

One of the exercises that Jake’s therapist requires of him is to build a timeline of his life, and locate these constants on the timeline. Harvey’s book is strongest when she captures his struggle to do that. By definition, Jake’s condition makes him an unreliable narrator, but not in the sense that that normally applies in fiction. He desperately wants to be reliable but his condition means that he lacks the competence to do that and his struggles to put these constants from the real world into some kind of order is well-drawn.

So….the problem that I had with the book is that the undamaged and undecaying Jake is not an interesting character at all. While I can appreciate Harvey’s attempt to portray his dilemma (even if I do find it a major stretch to give it credulity), I find no answer to the question of “why” I should care about this. I finished this book (and won’t say that I hated it, I just found it severely lacking) mainly because other readers whose opinions I respect found in it something that I did not — Harvey not only misses the target, as far as I am concerned, she pretty much misses the board.

On both readings of this book, I found myself comparing my reaction to that I had to The Spare Room, Helen Garner’s Australian novel from last year about a woman who plays host to a longtime friend who has terminal cancer and is pursuing a charlatan treatment. Many readers (and its publisher) thought Garner’s book was brilliant — I thought it shallow and unsatisfying, for many of the same reasons that I find The Wilderness wanting.

I have tried to make this review both as honest and as even-handed as possible. Certainly this would not be the first book in recent memory that I have not liked that others thought was very good. Forlorn as the hope might be, I would like to think that these dissenting, negative opinions might help people evaluate this work, even if they reach a far different conclusion than I did.


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