And so the days are filled...

28 September 2007

Two more shortlisted book reviews...

Finally after several disappointing reads, I hit some paydirt with the last two Booker Prize shortlisted books to cross my path. I highly recommend both of them.

Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones is narrated by a girl in 1990s Bougainville who is introduced to the Charles Dickens book Great Expectations by a whitefella living on the island who becomes the local schoolteacher. At first this book travels merrily along and all seems right with the world despite the backdrop of civil unrest and social fracture which is hinted at but not detailed. I began to think that this book would be taught in Year 8 schools in the near future as a companion piece to the teaching of Great Expectations. I guess I should have known that things would get more dark and foreboding (it is the Booker prize after all), and it quickly does, when the civil unrest arrives in the village of our heroine.

It is a book written with great clarity on the scale of the individual. I am tempted to talk about the setting of the book as a microcosm, but I think I prefer to think of it as a place unto its own, not symbolic or allegorical. But despite its remoteness from my life or anything I have ever experienced, I found lots of ways to empathise with the main characters which I suppose reading and finding a love of reading is all about.

Likewise, I loved how the narrator in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid) asserts his understanding of and empathy for the ‘listener’ [reader] right from the first sentence. The entire book is carried on as a monologue, with the narrator addressing an American visitor to Pakistan over the course of tea and a meal in a tea house in Lahore. Although this narrative construct fell flat for me a bit (interruptions of the narrator’s tale to ask his visitor why he’s looking worried, or would he like to eat now came off a bit like “What’s that Skip? There’s a fire in the old mill?”) I thought it was an admirable experiment and for the most part worked for me. I had a good friend at uni who came from Pakistan, so I applied his face and personality to the narrator, and as a result, found a way to identify with some of the experiences the narrator goes through as a Pakistani student at Princeton and in the early months of his finance career in NYC.

Some of the reviews I’ve read on line of this book seem to get tied up with the depiction of 9/11 in this book and some seem to see it as yet another offering to the fundamentalism vs secularism debate. These reviews frankly put me right off reading this book until of course I had to because it was shortlisted. I am pleased that I did read it in the end. I found it a really engaging book, which has given me lots to consider in the days since finishing it. Not really having spent any time in America since prior to The W taking office, I understand there have been many changes to daily life there which I have trouble reconciling with my memories of the place. In a way, I think reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist as an outsider (albeit with a bit of inside information) made it a little more enjoyable for me than those readers who might be a bit closer to the action. It’s hard for me to explain and it’s probably best discussed in person over a coffee – but in any case I recommend this book highly.

Unfortunately, it looks like that’s all of the shortlisted books I’ll get to read before the winner is announced on 6th October. What few copies of the two remaining books on the list, Darkmans (Nicola Barker) and Animal’s People (Indra Sinha), were available in Australia got snapped up the minute the shortlist was announced, and no – the library was a bit too slow on the uptake. They ordered the books at the end of August and no sign of their arrival yet.

This weekend… the AFL Grand Final (nothing to see for the Swans fans but I’ll still watch anyway.) And a new project… not knitting, Bollywood ! I'll fill you in soon!