And so the days are filled...

02 October 2006

Two more shortlist reviews

The announcement of the Booker Prize looms ever closer and I have crossed another two books off the short list:

Carry Me Down by MJ Hyland was exceedingly painful to read, but so skilfully written. I don't recommend it for anyone who reads novels for a bit of an escape from the grind of the daily life, but - take heart, those who are part way through - things do look up by the end, sort of. Sometimes when reading a book, even if I'm really enjoying the writing, the characters, the plot - there is something niggling in the back of my mind, something that just doesn't 'sit' right. In this case, I was constantly querying why this book was set in Ireland. Having lived in Ireland, I enjoyed recognising places, attitudes, tones of voice, and social circumstances in the book. However, I thought the author missed out on an opportunity to allude to some of the aspects of Irish society in the late 1960s which would have been distinctive to the Irish setting of the time - Irish laws about divorce and the pressure this would have put on the parents of the main character when their marriage falters, the power of the Catholic church, especially in the schoolroom, the lack of opportunity in a declining rural economy, the gathering pace of the Troubles (Bloody Sunday occurred in 1969) -- Hyland might not have set out to write the great social conscience novel of Ireland in the 60s, but I think reference to some of the context would have made more sense out of the setting. As it was written, the same book could have taken place in Scotland or England with very few changes.

That said, I think I might go out on a limb and make Carry Me Down my favourite to take out the Prize! The character study was masterful and unrivalled by anything I've read in any of the other shortlisted books so far.

I recently finished Kirin Desai's The Inheritance of Loss and found it to be a disappointment overall. Bravely ignoring the recommendation by Salman Rushdie printed on the back cover, I launched into this one with glee, the way I approach any epic novel set in India. However, successful epics need more character development and more compelling possible links between characters than I found in this book. About 3/4 of the way through, some really fantastic connections become apparent - like the Indian character eking out a living working illegally in NYC versus the non-Indian national who is deported from India after 40 years living there - but the author makes this connection only as if by chance. I would have been more satisfied if both characters had been developed more fully and if their opposite-sides-of-the-mirror experiences had been delivered in a more pointed way. The book's most intriguiging characters, adolescent Sai and her retired Civil Service grandfather, the judge, really don't take us anywhere, and the book suffers through too much attention paid to minor secondary characters, townspeople who populate Sai and the judge's lives. These characters should have been made much larger, or much smaller. As they were, they were just in the way, adding nothing to the storyline.

As for the remainder of the shotlist - I have moved up to 7th in the queue for Kate Grenville's The Secret River and the library has seven copies of it - so it'll be down to the wire to see if I can get that one read before the big announcement on 10th October. And the library does not yet have Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men, but I am assured that they've ordered it. In the meantime, I am still plugging away with the longlist and will let you know what I encounter there.