Archive for July, 2013

2013 Man Booker Prize

July 23, 2013

booker logoThe 2013 Man Booker Prize longlist is out — and KevinfromCanada has not read a single volume on it! I am not totally surprised at that since I did not make much of an effort to follow new UK fiction this year, although I did expect to see Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life or Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man on the list. Perhaps an even bigger surprise is the absence of two-time winner J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, although that is one that I did not intend to read even if it had won.

Following the Booker has been a feature of this blog since it started in 2009, but I will admit that I considered abandoning that this year. I read less than half the Booker longlist last year and ended up reading only one shortlisted book — the rest (including the winning Bring Up The Bodies, I’ll admit) had no appeal and it was obvious the jury and I simply had very different tastes. So I was pleasantly surprised when the 2013 list came out this morning to find that a large number of titles held appeal, including a few not yet published (Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland) that I have been eagerly awaiting.

So here’s the plan:

Longlisted novels I’ll read for sure

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin. Toibin is a personal favorite with three books already reviewed here. This short novel (only 112 pages) has been out since last October (and already turned into a New York play) — I just had not got around to buying it yet.

Transatlantic, by Colum McCann. I quite liked McCann’s prize-winning Let The Great World Spin and had every intention of getting to this one. The publisher’s description says McCann weaves together three stories (all involving Ireland and America) spread across more than 150 years.

The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan. This is another short novel (160 pages) that has been on the radar since its appearance in the UK last fall (it still has not been released in North America). The story promises to explore the tensions created in an Irish town following the economic collapse of the Celtic Tiger — the Irish have always done national tragedy well and the latest one has already produced some fine fiction.

Harvest, by Jim Crace. Crace is a well-respected British novelist and I have felt guilty that I have read only one of his works (All That Follows). He announced that this would be his last when it appeared and I’ll confess that any novel that starts with the burning of a manor house has immediate appeal.

Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw. It is an indication of the current state of the world that every Booker list needs to feature both a novel set in a declining Western economy (seen The Spinning Heart above) and another set in an exploding Asian one (e.g. Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning The White Tiger a few years back). Aw’s book is this year’s version of the latter set in the booming economy of Shanghai.

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo. A novel that seems to fit my “African longing” category — young Zimbabweans who dream of a better world elsewhere and discover that the dream turns out not to be true.

Books not yet released that I intend to read

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. I have been looking forward to this one (it is not due out in Canada until Oct. 15) as a Giller contender, so now have even more reason to read it. The Booker announcement called it a debut novel which it is not — Catton’s The Rehearsal made multiple prize-lists in 2009-10 (including the Orange). As I noted in that review, Catton is a good example of the new “global citizen” author — born in Canada, raised in New Zealand and residing in the U.S. the last I heard.

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri. Another one I have been looking forward to (publication date is Sept. 24) since I have read and liked all Lahiri’s books (sorry — all read pre-blog, so no reviews here). Like many, I was surprised to see her on this list since I did not know she had dual citizenship — she won the Pulitzer for The Interpreter of Maladies and needs to have U.S. citizenship to win that. As with her previous books, this one promises to again explore the conflict of Indian immigrants in America.

Almost English, by Charlotte Mendelson. Mendelson is another Brit author whom I have been meaning to get to and this seems a good opportunity. Due out Aug. 15, Almost English is another “immigrant” novel, this one featuring Hungarians in West London and the pressures of adjusting felt by its 16-year-old heroine — Linda Grant had a similar theme in the Booker short-listed The Clothes on Their Backs a few years back.

Longlisted titles I’m not likely to read

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, by Eve Harris. Due out Sept. 19, the publisher description holds no appeal for KfC: “19 year-old Chani lives in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of North West London. She has never had physical contact with a man, but is bound to marry a stranger.”

Unexploded, by Alison MacLeod. Scheduled for Sept. 5, an English couple and their 8-year-old await the German landing at Brighton. I feel I’ve read enough versions of this story already, although if it makes it to the shortlist I might be tempted to pick it up.

The Kills, by Richard House. “A political thriller and bravura literary performance” of 912 pages, featuring four books, with multi-media extras. That’s three strikes against it as far as KfC is concerned.

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. The Booker announcement was excited that the authors on the list included a “filmmaking Zen-Buddhist priest” — I’m afraid that is a negative and not a positive for me. Both the description of the book (a depressed 16-year-old Japanese decides to document the life of her Buddhist nun grandmother before doing herself in) and a dreadful cover indicate that this simply is not my kind of book.

Incidentally, if you have ever thought you might want to be a Booker judge check out this picture of the stack of submitted titles. I read a lot of books but contemplating reading that many titles (many of which are quite dreadful, I am sure) in only six months would utterly defeat me.

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The Detour, by Gerbrand Bakker

July 10, 2013

Translated by David Colmer

Of the ten white geese in the field next to the drive, only seven were left a couple of weeks later. All she found of the other three were feathers and one orange foot. The remaining birds stood by impassively and ate the grass. She couldn’t think of any predator other than a fox, but she wouldn’t have been surprised to hear that there were wolves or even bears in the area. She felt that she was to blame for the geese being eaten, that she was responsible for their survival.

‘Drive’ was a flattering word for the winding dirt track, about a kilometre and half long and patched here and there with a load of crushed brick or broken roof tiles. The land along the drive — meadows, bog, woods — belonged to the house, mainly because it was hilly. The goose field, at least, was fenced neatly with barbed wire. It didn’t save them. Once, someone had dug them three ponds, each a little lower than the last and all three fed by the same invisible spring. Once, a wooden hut had stood next to those ponds: now it was little more than a capsized roof with a sagging bench in front of it.

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

I don’t often open a review with an excerpt, particularly as long as the one above. I give away no personal secrets in acknowledging that I resort to it only under two sets of circumstances. One is that the excerpt is so powerful in capturing the novel that it demands prominence — that obviously is not the case here. The other, alas more frequent, is that I can't find the words to adequately capture the strengths and/or weaknesses of an author's approach — the best option seems to be to supply a sample, briefly describe my reaction and let visitors here decide for themselves.

For this reader, those two paragraphs do concisely illustrate both the narrative and descriptive threads that are the warp and woof of Gerbrand Bakker's The Detour. “Narrative?”, you might well ask in puzzlement — be forewarned that the example of the disappearing geese is a fair representation of “action” as it takes place in the novel. Description, on the other hand, is frequently present — comprehensive, yet concisely rendered, but often piling observation on top of observation in a manner that leaves the reader’s head swimming.

The excerpt comes from early in the book. At this point, we know that a Dutch woman, Emilie, is experiencing her first few days at a rural house she has rented in Wales. She has already found a stone circle with a colony of badgers: “When they noticed her they ambled off into the flowering gorse.” An extensive description of the interior of the house and its exterior surroundings (stream, gardens, trails, nearby villages) soon follows. Again, it is fair to say that Bakker wants his readers to have a firm understand of “where” before he gets to “what”, let only “why”, in his story.

I admit the following somewhat spoils his deliberate approach, but in the next few chapters (they are very short — 60 in a 230-page book) he offers some murky hints on what has caused Emilie to relocate to Wales, a decision that clearly represents getting away from something rather than heading towards some bright new future:

  • Her relationship with her husband back in Amsterdam has degenerated to the point that there is no hope of recovery — at least not one that would be worth the effort for her (“effort” is not one of Emilie’s core competencies, it should be noted).
  • She’s an academic, frustrated with her work on a critical evaluation of some of Emily Dickinson’s minor poems (which she regards as drivel) but she has brought her material with her.
  • She’s apparently had some sort of dalliance with a student back in Holland, which has contributed to the tension with her husband, although the author is careful to leave the reader guessing just what might have been involved.
  • Both she and her husband have been going through fertility testing. There are dark hints that the medical intervention may have revealed a much more serious health issue.
  • Emilie did not let her husband know she was leaving. There are occasional chapters which return to Amsterdam and feature him: Bakker uses his confusion and eventual search for her as a way of revisiting elements of that back story.

    Most of the story, however, is concentrated on what she discovers and does at her new “home” in Wales, near Mount Snowden. Given Bakker’s tilt to description, most of that discovery involves the natural elements, but two significant Welsh characters do get introduced. Rhys Jones is a sheep farmer who rents grazing land owned by the deceased widower whose house Emilie has rented. More important is Bradwen, a 20-year-old student mapping a long-distance trekking path who shows up one day. His overnight stay gets extended and he soon becomes not just Emilie’s helpmate in cleaning up the property but her contact with the external world — not just this new one but, metaphorically at least, also the one that she is fleeing.

    That’s pretty much all there is to The Detour — as you may have concluded, the title is quite apt. Okay, there is eventually a sort of resolution, but even that when it happens seems to be more a part of the continuum of the story than an actual conclusion.

    Gerbrand Bakker is one of those translated authors who has won significant attention in the English-language publishing world. His previous novel, The Twin, won the 2010 IMPAC Award — if you don’t know his work, I’d urge you to check that review as well because in tone and structure that volume has many similarities with this one. The Detour, meanwhile, won this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. While I appreciated them both, I would be the first to admit that Bakker is one of those writers who is an acquired taste.

    There is not a lot of humor in The Detour (although there are occasional bits), but I can’t resist concluding this review with some. One of the bloggers you will find on my blogroll is anokatony at Tony’s Book World who was inspired in his review of The Detour a few weeks back to create the genre of “Gorse Novel” (you’ll note from a quote in this review that a reference to “gorse” appears early, and reappears not infrequently, in this novel):

    Here are the characteristics of a Gorse Novel.

    1. A Gorse Novel takes place in an isolated rural area where the people are few and far between. But these lonely souls make up for their sparseness with all of their Eccentricities.

    2. These folks in a Gorse Novel are necessarily very close to nature, and the novel will contain elaborate descriptions of the birds, the other wildlife, the plants, or the weather that will usually put all but the most dedicated readers to restful sleep.

    3. People in a Gorse Novel don’t say much, and when they do, it is only in a few short words which are supposed to be Greatly Significant. So when a character says “Storm’s a coming”, it means much more than that a storm is approaching.

    4. Nothing much happens in a Gorse Novel. There is an eerie sense of quiet and calm, so finally when some tiny event happens like an itch or a cough, it seems as momentous as an earthquake.

    I liked The Detour (which is called Ten White Geese in U.S. editions, incidentally) more than Tony did, but I can’t dispute that it fits all four of those characteristics. And I did want to introduce the concept of Gorse Novel to regular visitors here. Many of you may recall that another blogging friend (John Self at Asylum) a few year’s back invented the description of Widescreen Novel: “…ambitious works containing a large cast of characters, far flung geographical settings, and modern history or political issues rendered in fiction.” (You can find an interesting discussion of the Widescreen Novel in my review and the ensuing comments of Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows.) I’d say John and Tony have succeeded in creating apt descriptions of two poles of contemporary fiction. The Detour is pretty much as Gorse a novel as you can get — maybe the real reason that I opened with that excerpt is that it includes so many of Tony’s characteristics. 🙂


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