And so the days are filled...

11 September 2007

Booker prize rant 2007 #1

Breaking radio silence to say

  • Hello
  • How are you?
  • I'm sorry I have not been commenting on your blogs. You all are making and doing such amazing things!
  • I have mainly just been reading.
  • Unfortunately, at this stage, I have no books to recommend.
Yes it's sad but true. I have spent the entirety of the past month working on the Booker Prize long list only to be completely disappointed by each and every title so far. If you want to know more, see my rants below. If you're here for the knitting, come back for the next post. I have finished a Sarcelle stole (yeah, you haven't ever even heard me mention that one before!) and it is blocking as we speak.

The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

Looking back, it was the excitement of the Booker long list announcement which made me choose this one, one of the longest selections on the long list, as the first cab off the rank. It's a first novel and dear reader it shows. The beginning of the story is set in the immediate pre-WWII era in Penang, an island off the town of Butterworth in Malaysia. I spent several happy days there on holiday a few years ago, so I enjoyed reading a historical novel set in a place I already had a mental picture of. However, the main character at the start of the novel is only 16 years of age. By the time war breaks out and Penang is occupied by the Japanese, he has 'grown into' the voice of the character at age 18. The thing that really bugged me was that there was no growing up evident. This 16 year old was quite confident representing his father, an important business man, at parties and functions, and just so happened to know which houses on Penang Hill had telephone service. I thought it was a bit odd.

I also initially took a great dislike to the book because I had read in the author's biography that he was interested in aikido and the preservation of historic buildings. Aikaido plays a big part in the story. And, unsurprisingly, the main character is, in his later life, involved in the preservation of historic buildings. The historic buildings interest negatively affected the author's descriptions of places. Most of the scene-setting descriptive text could have come out of a National Trust listing card for these buildings. I work in this field so I read and write these descriptions every day. Let me tell you, they do not make good literature. So the place descriptions fell a bit flat.

The above problems aside, I have to tell you that this is my favourite of all the Booker prize long list books I have read so far. The short list has now been announced and I was not surprised to find that this book was not shortlisted - it doesn't come across as a Booker Prize winner - however it is the book my mind keeps returning to. I've been enjoying revisiting the characters in my mind. I also enjoyed the perspective on WWII events in present-day Malaysia, and how the various ethnic groups were affected by the British abandonment of the colony and the Japanese occupation.

The Welsh Girl Peter Ho Davies

Another book set during WWII. (Was it all the anniversary stuff of the past 2 years which directed writers' minds to the war as a good setting?) Another first novel. I found the style of writing in this book to be more to my taste than The Gift of Rain, however, the plot line was infuriatingly contrived. Several stories which happened to mingle by virtue of a connection to one Welsh town. Like The Gift of Rain, I enjoyed the perspective of the nationalist Welsh and their views on the 'occupation' of their land by the English. But I found the main story line, and the actions of the Welsh girl for whom the book is named, to be flippant and frustratingly predictable. In short, I was not convinced. I love historical fiction, but I think the author failed to transport me fully to another time and place.

Consolation Michal Redhill

Finally, a book not set during WWII! Although the premise of this book - the widow of a dead academic takes steps to verify her husband's theory that a cache of historically important photographs is about to be uncovered by a major excavation for a new building - appeals to me, the book failed to delight in even the tiniest way. The narrative was split between the present day search for the photographs and the 1870s story of the making of the photographs. I found the modern day characters to be ill-developed, they were always angry and there wasn't enough explanation of their deep-seeded anger to make me feel in the least way sympathetic toward them. Although the 1870s characters were a bit more likable, I thought the historical content of the book did not take us very far beyond the basic facts which the author (or his researcher) collected in the preparation of the book. In other words, I didn't feel as if I was reading a story set within and amongst an imaginatively painted historical backdrop but rather a story that was weakly propped up by a few meagre historical facts. Like The Welsh Girl, Consolation failed to convince me.

Just to prove that I'm not always whingeing about historical fiction and its failures - I do heartily recommend two selections from last years shortlist. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (my review is here) is a WWII period fiction which evokes the era so well you can almost taste it. And The Secret River by Kate Grenville (my review is here), set in the earliest days of the New South Wales colony brilliantly pulls together historical research and imagination in a completely captivating novel.

The Booker Prize shortlist was announced late last week, so I have now turned my attention to those books.

The Gathering Anne Enright

While this is a very finely written book, it was all a bit too introspective for my taste. A typically harrowing modern Irish story (remember Carry Me Down? It's not quite as harrowing as that), I can't really fault this book for its structure, the narrative, the development of characters (all the things I normally find fault in!) - but it just wasn't my cup of tea. I just don't really care to know all the details of the first-person narrator's life and loves.

I've now moved on to Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones (the current favourite of the bookmakers) but I will reserve comment until I've finished it.

Please let me know what your thoughts have been on the books you've been reading lately!