“I’m bi-winning.” (Charlie Sheen)

As a companion piece to my post on Booker nominees, I thought I’d celebrate Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North winning the 2014 Man Booker by looking at two previous winners. Hence bi-winning – see, Charlie Sheen makes sense, he just needs the right context….

success

Firstly, The Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai (Penguin, 2006) which won the 2006 Man Booker Prize. Desai’s prize-winning skill is evident from the first paragraph:

“All day, the colours had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depth. Briefly visible above the vapour, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.”

Sai has been schooled by nuns , and leaves to live with her grandfather and his cook in a damp, faded mansion at the foot of the Himalayas. All three live elsewhere in their minds.  The sad judge thinks more and more on his past in England, Sai is enamoured of her maths tutor, and the cook is preoccupied with his son Biju who is living the dream in America:

“Biju lay on his mattress and watched the movement of the sun through the grate on the row of buildings opposite. From every angle that you looked at this city without a horizon, you saw more buildings going up like jungle creepers, starved for light, holding perpetual half-darkness congealed at the bottom, the day shafting through the maze, slivering into apartments at precise and fleeting times …”

The reality is that Biju hops from one low-paid job to another, part of the unseen masses that keep the economy rolling, without a green card, without rights.  The rights of people form the background of the story, as the Gorkhaland movement gains momentum:

“The anger had solidified into slogans and guns, and it turned out they, they, Lola and Noni, were the unlucky ones who wouldn’t slip through, who would pay the debt that should be shared with others over many generations”

Lola and Noni are two elderly sisters, dreaming of genteel retirement, yanked into the present day by the forces of the oppressed demanding land rights.  Desai balances the personal and political perfectly, showing the effect on the individual and the nation with equal sensitivity:

“This was how history moved, the slow build, the quick burn, and in an incoherence, the leaping both backward and forward, swallowing the young into old hate. The space between life and death, in the end, too small to measure.”

“There they were, the most commonplace of them, those quite mismatched with the larger-than-life questions, caught up in the mythic battles of past vs. present, justice vs. injustice – the most ordinary swept up in extraordinary hatred, because extraordinary hatred was, after all, a commonplace event.”

As both individuals and nations struggle with notions of identity, intricately bound together yet inherently unstable, Desai demonstrates how the big questions in life exist simultaneously in the everyday and across the sweep of history.

Secondly, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, 2011), which won the Man Booker in 2011.  This is a very different novel to The Inheritance of Loss, taking a brief (150 pages) look at a deliberately small life, lived quietly.

“And that’s life, isn’t it?  Some achievements and some disappointments.  It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so […] History isn’t the lies of the victors…It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated”

Memory and its unreliability is a dominant theme in the book – Barnes demonstrates that there is no such thing as a reliable narrator.

“Who was it who said memory is what we thought we’d forgotten?  And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.  But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

The narrator in this instance is Tony, detailing two episodes in his largely uneventful life: the time around leaving school for university when his friend Adrian killed himself, and the present day where he has retired from work  and a legacy left to him prompts a re-evaluation of the past.  The Sense of an Ending is a melancholy book, as the title implies, but it feels real rather than outright depressing.  Tony is not admirable, but he’s not especially despicable either.  He is aware of his shortcomings and has achieved a resigned acceptance of them.  But this is not to suggest the novel is uneventful  – in a short space Barnes creates a narrative drive that carries you through to a powerful, unsettling ending.

Having been nominated three times previously and failed to grab the prize, I can’t tell you how much I hope this is how Barnes reacted when he finally won:

fantastic

“There are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter.” (Billy Connolly)

If you live in the UK, the news has been dominated by one story for weeks: the Scottish referendum.  On 18 September the Scottish people voted in favour of staying the union, but this wasn’t a vote for the status quo, and as such the news coverage continues, assessing the changes that are needed.  Prompted by this current affairs Caledonian focus, I thought I’d look at work by Scottish writers who engage with ideas of land and home, and how complex those fundamentals can be.

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(Image from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/your-travels/8572241/Scotland-readers-tips-recommendations-and-travel-advice.html)

Firstly, a Booker-nominated debut novel, Our Fathers by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber & Faber, 1999).  This was a lesson to me to persevere with books, sometimes it pays off.  At first I found the story of male familial relationships utterly depressing:

“My father found it easy to hate his father; he had much more ease, in that sorry business, than his own son would ever have.”

The reason I stuck it out was because I’d read other novels by O’Hagan and I knew what a beautiful and sensitive writer he is.  Our Fathers is narrated by Jamie, son of Robert, grandson of Hugh.  The lives of the family are imbedded in the landscape of Glasgow, a landscape that Hugh is determined to change:

 “For years the city vibrated to the sound of diggers and pneumatic drills. Old powdery tenements fell to the ground. Whole townships cleared away.  It became part of the noise of Glasgow…there were half-chewed buildings on every street”

As an adult Jamie returns to Glasgow to visit the dying Hugh, from Liverpool where he has been trying to forget the past.  As Jamie returns to Scotland, he feels his way amongst the people, places and language that are at once entirely familiar and entirely apart:

 “The men at his table had similar faces.  Red and watery-eyed. All the trace of former good looks upon them. …The air was filled with their smoky laughter and the sound of the jukebox. Music, laughter, the shadows of words.”

 “‘Are the spirits high?’ I asked. And then all of a sudden I felt how foreign that phrase would sound… ‘Can he… can he thole the pain?’”

And what made Our Fathers initially so depressing for me was what made it ultimately so rewarding.  Out of pain, abuse, mistakes, recriminations and hardship comes forgiveness, wisdom, kindness and redemption:

 “I stood beside him, and listened to his life, and I held his hand, and I finally grew up”

It was an incredibly moving book, finely observed and insightful regarding the delicate meaning in moments that can barely be articulated.

Secondly, a poem by Kathleen Jamie, Here Lies Our Land.

Here lies our land: every airt

Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun,

Belonging to none but itself.

 

We are mere transients, who sing

Its westlin’ winds and fernie braes,

Northern lights and siller tides,

 

Small folk playing our part.

‘Come all ye’, the country says,

You win me, who take me most to heart.

It’s a short poem, and so I don’t want to analyse it to death, but I will just say I think the way Jamie creates a gentle, reflective tone through metre and language captures something fundamental and enduring; its language like the land she speaks of. You can read Kathleen Jamie’s thoughts on the poem and her writing process here.

To end, a man who shares my view on what Scotland’s finest export is (not counting Sean Connery):

“If you get depressed about being the second-best team in the world, then you’ve got a problem.” (Julius Erving)

The Booker 2014 shortlist has been revealed (admittedly way back on 9 September, but what I lack in efficiency I make up for in enthusiasm). Inevitably the spotlight falls on the winner, but it’s an achievement to even make it as far as the shortlist:  I thought this week I would look at two books that were nominated, but didn’t win. (Note to nominees – practice your losing face):

HarryPotter-Snape-Clapping

Firstly, from 2006 when Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss won,  In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar (Penguin, 2006).

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ITCOM is narrated by 9 year old Suleiman, who lives in Libya in 1979 and is witness to political and personal circumstances that he cannot hope to understand.

“Concern. I think that was what I craved. A warm steady unchangeable concern.  In a time of blood and tears, in a Libya full of bruise-checkered and urine-stained men, urgent with want and longing for relief, I was the ridiculous child longing for concern.”

Instead of the concern he craves, Suleiman gets half-truths, bound up in love and warped by conflicting loyalties.  His father is frequently absent, leaving Suleiman with his mother, whose “medicine” is bought in bottles, under the counter from the local baker, causing her to become giggly and unfocused:

“If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her.  There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love.”

Gradually it emerges that Suleiman’s father is opposing the state, and he returns home only to rapidly pack a bag before the sinister men in the white car, who take away fathers for public executions, arrive:

“There they were, the two people I loved the most, the two people I was certain would do anything to keep the truth from me”

Within this environment, Suleiman struggles to find his way, and does not always behave well.  Even as he is violent and destructive, you understand it comes from a position of being frustrated, scared and disempowered by the secrets within his home and the subterfuge outside it.

 “I couldn’t wait to be a man. And not to do all the things normally associated with manhood and its licence, but to change the past…”

ITCOM is a wise book, beautifully written, which tackles huge themes around the interdependence between personhood and nationhood in a deceptively simple way. I think it is a novel I will have to return to: despite being less than 250 pages it is so rich in ideas one reading doesn’t do it justice.

“Perhaps doubt is worse than grief, certainty more precious than love.”

Secondly, from 2008 when Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger won, The Clothes on their Backs by Linda Grant (Virago, 2008).

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This novel shares common ground with ITCOM, in that it is also set in the 1970s, and looks at issues of identity and immigrant experience. Vivian lives with her parents in a flat off the Marylebone Road, and the past is a closed book.

“There were a thousand questions I wanted to ask, about my mother and father  and about their past in Budapest as young people without a care in the world, before they became the reclusive refugees who hid behind their front door and were timidly grateful for any kindness.”

In comparison to her quiet, timid parents is Vivian’s Uncle Sandor, who makes a brief, dramatic appearance in her childhood, and then, like so much else, is never spoken of. He is a slum landlord, a pimp, unapologetic and unafraid, and Vivian finds herself both drawn to him and repulsed by him.

“Because my parents never answered any questions about the past […] I learned to stop asking, and eventually I forgot all about wanting to ask. Suddenly, a treasure chest opened and out spilled all these precious objects.  I was full of everything my uncle had told me; it was not only my parents who suddenly acquired an additional dimension (time) but me too.  In my past there were rabbis and plums and grapes and wine. Everything was different now. I felt like I’d eaten a horse.”

What Sandor gives Vivian is a deeper identity, something more complex and difficult than she’d been raised to, by her parents who she only realises are Jewish by deduction, and who had her baptised because “there was nothing they liked more than official documents with their names on which they could show the authorities, if called on to do so”.

Bound up with Vivian’s experience of her past is her experience of the present, 1970s London, with its post-war population of refugees and veterans, and disaffected youth joining racist movements, their clothes displaying their allegiance.  Clothes are a strong theme in the book, as Vivian experiments with different looks, realising clothes can express and conceal both your body and who you are:

“My clothes acted as a kind of carapace, an armour with which I protected my soft, inner body.”

“Sometimes you put on a new dress and it becomes you, it is your flesh and blood”

Thus, identity, like clothes and bodies, is a changeable entity, where you can choose what you show others, but cannot always control what they see.

The Clothes on their Backs explores identity throughout a period when there was the possibility to be self-made, but the past exerted a powerful hold.  It considers the essential need to survive, and the high prices that can be paid for that need.  It’s a compelling read peopled with vivid, complex characters.

To end, a video to show a time when coming last provided an example of the greatest dignity and courage.  Derek Redmond was tipped for a medal in the 400m at the 1992 Olympics. Then his hamstring snapped…

“Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” (Dorothy Parker)

Apparently you can have too much of a good thing.  This is not something I’ve experienced myself, but as it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged, I’ll go with it.  So even if you are an inveterate bibliophile there can be times when humungous, bicep-busting books can be off-putting, particularly if like me, you’re a non-Kindle using commuter.  You don’t want to be lugging The Count of Monte Cristo onto the train (or so my osteopath insists).  This week I thought I’d look at books that are small and perfectly formed: 1 novella and 1 short story collection that are little gems.

Firstly, Fair Play by Tove Jansson (1989 my edition trans. Thomas Teal 2007, 127 pages). Jansson is most famous for creating those weird hippo/mouse hybrid creatures the Moomins:

Recently I kept reading about how good her writing for adults is, so when I saw Fair Play in a bookshop I decided it was A Sign.  A Sign for me to spend money, which admittedly is what every bookshop says to me.  But Fair Play was worth every penny.  It is a beautifully observed, delicate portrait of two artistic women sharing a life together.  Jonna is a visual artist, Mari a writer:

“They never asked, “Were you able to work today?” Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they’d gradually learned not to.  There are empty spaces that must be respected  – those often long periods when a person can’t see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone.”

This is what Fair Play captures so well, the unspoken subtleties that exist in a long-term relationship, with the person you know better than anyone.  With a restrained lightness of touch, Jansson presents moments in time between the two women,  detailing events that seem simultaneously fleeting yet loaded with meaning.

“They hadn’t noticed the fog moving off….suddenly the sea was open and blue and they found themselves a long way out toward Estonia.  Jonna started the motor.  They came back to the island from a totally new direction, and it didn’t look the same.”

The novel has no ostensible plot, and there is no sense of time – each chapter could occur chronologically, or could be moving back and forth across the trajectory of their long relationship.  It doesn’t matter.  You finish the novel with the feeling of being allowed glimpses into two unique, intertwined lives, while understanding how we all essentially remain unknown.

“It’s gone so quiet,” Jonna said. “What did you think? Wasn’t that a good storm?”

“Very good,” Mari said. “The best we’ve had.”

Jansson’s writing is stark, yet beautiful. I will definitely be seeking out more by this writer.

Secondly, The Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim (2009, Comma Press, trans. Jonathan Wright, 90 pages). The cover of this collection includes a quote from The Guardian, proclaiming Blasim “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive”. Like Fair Play, this was the first time I’d read this author, and it seems like such an oversight as he has so much to say that is important.  Blasim is a deeply political writer, by which I mean not that he is polemical, but that he is engaged with how literature works within a wider society:

“Because literature in this country is literature that goes through phases. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein there have been incessant calls for writing to be intelligible, realistic, factual and pragmatic.  They are lamenting readers that don’t exist. They claim the writers of the past made the readers defect, whereas in fact for hundreds of years there were no readers in the broad sense of the word.  There were only hungry people, killers, illiterates, soldiers, villagers, people who prayed, people who were lost and people who were oppressed. Our writers seem to have grown tired of writing for each other.” (‘The Market of Stories’)

Blasim’s stories detail lives caught up in war: illegal immigrants, hostage experiences, propaganda- makers, asylum-seekers.  He is acutely aware of how stories are manipulated in this media-saturated world, and how there can be many truths held within the one story:

“This story took place in darkness and if I were destined to write it again, I would record only the cries of terror which rang out at the time and the other mysterious noises that accompanied the massacre. A major part of the story would make a good experimental radio piece.” (‘The Truck to Berlin’)

The short stories in The Madman of Freedom Square are all the more powerful for their brevity: there is a sense that in such unstable times, words are a luxury, and every one must count.  Certainly Blasim’s words count; his stories are powerful, extraordinary, bleakly funny on occasion, and deeply moving.

Back to frivolity: to end, a reminder that smaller is sometimes better (although frankly, when it comes to cookies, I’m still not entirely convinced…)

“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time” (Sir Edward Grey)

Last week commemorated the centenary of the start of World War I, and all year events are taking place to mark the 100 years.  For me, one of the most beautiful and impactful images is the moat of ceramic poppies created by Paul Cummins at the Tower of London.

Tower-of-Poppies-Blood-Flowing

(Image from: http://modernnotion.com/poppies-flow-like-blood-at-tower-of-london-to-commerate-the-fallen-of-wwi/)

When you realise each of those poppies represents a lost life, the scale of the devastation really hits home.

I thought this week I would look at two poems about the First World War, one written at the time, one just a few years ago; both capture the fallout but in very different ways.

Firstly, what I think is one of the greatest poems ever written, Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen (1917). You can read the whole poem here. Wilfred Owen sent a copy of this poem home to his mother with a simple note “here is a gas poem”.  It’s a huge understatement; while the poem does describe vividly the effect of a chlorine gas attack on a soldier, Owen use the event to launch an attack of his own, on unthinking jingoism and contemporary British attitudes to The Great War.

He begins by describing the physical state of a group of soldiers:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

[…]

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue;

The total degradation of the soldiers is so vivid in these lines – young men, reduced to a walking death, defeated by the conditions of war if not the bullets.  This somnambulant atmosphere maximises the impact of the second stanza, whereby Owen shifts the focus dramatically, beginning with a shout, signalling the immediacy of a movement from “we” to the “I” that is haunted by the soldier’s death:

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 

 In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

That pause after “lime…” is just devastating.  He forces the reader to fully consider exactly what it means – the pain, the terror, the torturous reality of this slow death – to be “flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…”.

I’m going to quote the final stanza in full, because it is completely shattering, as Owen places the reader directly in the trenches, unable to turn their face away from the horror:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

Owen was a hugely learned poet, his writing shows how to use fixed forms (iambic pentameter, sonnet form, rhyme schemes) to create something original and new.  When he breaks the rhythm of the poem so completely in the final line you know he has good reason.  By breaking the rhythm but keeping to the rhyme scheme, the mori/death of the soldiers, and death of the poem, seems simultaneously shocking, yet inevitable. His anger at the glorification of war is palpable, the poem’s power undiminished by the passing of time.

Secondly, The Last Post by Carol Ann Duffy (2009), which I won’t go into with nearly such detail in case you’re starting to feel drunk with fatigue as you limp on through this blog post. This was written to commemorate the deaths of the last surviving British World War I veterans, Harry Patch and Henry Allingham.  You can read the whole poem here, or if you prefer here is the very talented (and beautiful, damn her) Vicky McClure reading it:

It shows the lasting impact of Owen’s poem that ninety years later, Duffy frames her own poem around it. Within this poetic legacy, she simultaneously shows how war poetry cannot offer false hope, but it can offer solace:

If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin

that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud …

but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood

run upwards from the slime into its wounds;

see lines and lines of British boys rewind

back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home -

This is such a twenty-first century image, one Owen could never have used.  We are so used to seeing film spool backwards, the dead springing back to life in front of our eyes:

Dulce – No – Decorum – No – Pro patria mori.

You walk away.

You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)

like all your mates do too -

Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert -

and light a cigarette.

There’s coffee in the square,

warm French bread

and all those thousands dead

are shaking dried mud from their hair

and queuing up for home.

This premise captures how our knowledge of war is for most, gained through images rather than experience. At the same time, the use of personal names, the knowledge that these images as they run backwards are false, captures the desperation of real lives – family members and loved ones – irrevocably lost.

Like Owen, Duffy uses the impact of a short final line to dramatise fully the message of the poetry:

If poetry could truly tell it backwards,

then it would.

To end, a bit of light relief to help you recover and a reminder that not everyone likes war poetry, from Blackadder Goes Forth which managed to satirise the absurdities of war while driving home the immense human tragedy of it all.  Here’s a quote from the inimitable Lord Flashhart (Rik Mayall):

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“Just because I can give multiple orgasms to the furniture just by sitting on it doesn’t mean I’m not sick of this damn war.  The blood…the noise…the endless poetry”

“Hot in the city, hot in the city tonight” (Billy Idol)

It’s been a peculiar time in old London town recently.  The temperatures haven’t been excessively high, but the heat has been sooooooo oppressive.  Everyone’s in a constant state of exhaustion, muttering on about how they feel vaguely ill but don’t know why.  My colleague and I share an office that is 2mx3m max, and we have 4 fans blasting all day (what’s that you say? Air-con?  How you jest, sir!  This is Britain, we don’t plan for weather conditions in advance…) yet we still spend our time looking like this:

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Then I travel home with psychotic commuters, too fatigued to reach their usual levels aggression, but absolutely furious at sharing sweltering carriages filled to capacity.  This being London, none of this is expressed verbally, we just look like this:

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So this week I thought I’d look at novels set around summer/heat, if only because it gives me the opportunity to quote Sir William of Idol (a life-long love) at the beginning.  Firstly, the obvious choice of Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press, 2013).  The drought of 1976, (laughably short-lived for those who live in countries with serious drought conditions) has passed into legend in the UK:

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(Image from: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2006/may/17/water.ethicalliving)

This time is the setting for O’Farrell’s study of a family on the brink of total disintegration.

“Strange weather brings out strange behaviour. As a Bunsen burner applied to a crucible will bring about an exchange of electrons, the division of some compounds and the unification of others, so a heatwave will act upon people. It lays them bare, wears down their guard. They start behaving not unusually but unguardedly. They act not so much out of character but deep within it.”

Robert Riordan goes out to buy a newspaper and doesn’t return.  His disappearance calls his three grown-up children home to support their erratic, stubborn mother Gretta.  Michael Francis’ marriage is falling apart, as is his sister Monica’s.  Their younger sister Aoife returns from New York where she has been trying to build a new life, but like her siblings she finds the past still has power, its grip tightening the more you struggle against it.

“The house is full of ghosts for Gretta. If she looks quickly into the garden, she is sure she can see the ribcage of the old wooden climbing frame that Michael Francis fell off and broke his front tooth.  She could go downstairs now and see the pegs in the hall full of school satchels, gym bags […] The air, for Gretta, still rings with their cries, their squabbles, their triumphs, their small griefs. She cannot believe that time of life is over.  For her, it is still happening and will happen forever.  The very bricks, mortar and plaster of this house are saturated with the lives of her three children. She cannot believe they have gone. And that they are back.”

This is O’Farrell’s great strength: she captures and expresses the meaning of ordinary lives with such insight and sensitivity.  She exposes the dramas going on behind the front door of a London terrace house and shows just how extraordinary the everyday can be.  In Instructions for a Heatwave, the family members are fully realised as individuals, and how they interact and form a unit is entirely believable.  They are as flawed and infuriating, as loveable and loving as families generally are. O’Farrell is a hugely gifted writer, able to make the commonplace compelling. I highly recommend Instructions for a Heatwave, as I do all her novels.

Secondly, the wonderfully titled Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson (Vintage 2012). OK, so I’m cheating.  This book is nothing to do with summer, but it has ice-cream in the title so I’ve decided the fit is good enough. I began reading this novel with some trepidation; as the narrator is born into a fug of cigarette smoke and swearing,  I wondered if this was going to be a case of class tourism – let’s all laugh at/feel smugly superior to/be shocked by those on the breadline and their crazy, foul-mouthed, substance-abusing ways.   However, my concerns were ill-founded, as what emerges is a finely observed portrait of Janie, her relationship with Ma, and their endurance of poverty, domestic violence, and loss.  If this sounds bleak, it isn’t, because Janie just tells it like it is, without sentimentality, and at times this includes pitch-black humour.  For example, as they make their escape after Ma has been beaten up by the titular Tony yet again:

“ ‘Frankie, do yeh think I could tell people this is a nose job?’

He turned his head. ‘Not with the nose on you, sis. Sorry, but not a chance.’”

But Hudson doesn’t let the humour obscure the prices the characters pay for their life decisions:

“That first promise of silence shattered inside of me like the twist of a kaleidoscope; to be joined by so many more jagged secrets, pushed into a little body for safe keeping until they threatened to cut their way out”

Janie eventually begins to glimpse a way out of the cycle, using the stubbornness she has inherited from Ma to refuse to repeat family mistakes, or settle for what is expected for her:

 “When I opened the books, and I could open as many as I liked because it cost us nothing, the pictures lay on my eyes like oil on water and the dancing letters settled on my tongue with the smell and taste of black jack sweeties. While Ma bit at her lips, ripped at her cuticles and read old magazines, I was learning how stories could make me feel safe.”

Hudson has something meaningful to say, about how members of society can be demonised and demoralised by the total lack of wider concern for their lives, but ultimately what makes this book so affecting is the brilliant characterisation, whereby you’re left totally rooting for the:

“Ryan women, with filthy tempers, filthy mouths and big bruised muscles for hearts.”

Kerry Hudson blogs on WordPress here.

To end, it has to be Billy, offering a masterclass in lip-curling:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.” (W. C. Fields)

For those of you that have put up with my posts over the last few months where I’ve banged on and on and on about finals, I promise this is the last time I’ll mention them.  I’ve received my results and I feel like this:

kerm

Hooray! So I thought this week I’d look at times when authors may have felt a similar way: two debut prize-winning novels.

Firstly, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press, 2013) which won the Goldsmiths Prize last year, and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliot Prize, both this year.  If you have any interest in books, you’d have to have been living under a rock not to have heard of this novel.  Aside from all the breathless reviews, I’ve seen buses trundling along with huge posters commanding us to “Read it and be changed” (from Eleanor Catton’s review). Written in about 6 months when the author was 27, she struggled to find a publisher due to its inventive style and uncompromising subject matter.  She shoved it in a drawer, but 10 years later sent it to a small independent publisher.  Galley Beggar Press published the novel, and plaudits galore followed. I hope this signals a less conservative approach by publishers, but I’m sceptical…  Still, at least as far as AGIAHFT goes, they got there in the end (Faber and Faber have partnered with Galley Beggar Press to publish it on a much wider scale).

McBride is a huge fan of Joyce, and the novel is written as a stream of consciousness.  However, while most people find Ulysses unreadable, AGIAHFT is only 200 pages long, and much more approachable.  It is, however, a tough read, both in style and content.  It details the narrator’s relationship with her brother, who is partly disabled from an operation on his brain as a child.

“I sneak. I snuck. I listened at the door. I heard them. I pondered you should send him to a special school.  Those marks aren’t fit for a boy that age.  Oh such clucking and glucking. Snob and preen herself. I hear my two are off to the convent.  Not a ladder in their tights or a pain in their heart. Such brilliance.  Unearthly. I snoot them. Aunt and uncle. Chintz for brains I hiss and think.  Listening listening.

Life is hard, and although her brother’s scars are visible to all, the narrator has scars of her own.  The stream of consciousness gives her experience an immediacy, unmediated by considered use of language, which places the reader right alongside her, and that is not an easy place to be.  She decides to use sex to get her classmates to leave her brother alone; she is raped by an uncle; she has a fractured relationship with her mother; and through it all is her tender but ambivalent relationship with her brother.

We were moving off now. From each other. As cannot be. Helped.  I didn’t help it from that time on.  You know. All that. When you said sit with me on the school bus. I said no.  That inside world had caught alight and what I wanted.  To be left alone.  To look at it.  To swing the torch into every corner of what he’d we’d done….Who are you?  You and me were never this. This boy and girl that do not speak. But somehow I’ve left you behind and you’re just looking on.”

AGIAHFT is as unique and extraordinary as all the hype would have you believe.

Secondly, Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (Faber & Faber, 2003) which won the Booker, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award for Comic Writing, all in 2003. Let’s get my wholly unoriginal but unavoidable observation out of the way first: this novel really reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye.  High praise indeed. Vernon Little is a teenager disgusted by the hypocrisy of the society he sees around him “I sense a learning: that much dumber people than you end up in charge”. He is desperately looking for a place to belong, but it’s not the barbeque sauce capital of Texas where he lives. His best friend Jesus has shot dead their classmates and taken his own life. Vernon is left to take the blame, as the society of the small town look for answers without listening to anything Vernon has to say.

His overbearing mother and her friends are all fat and obsessed with diets, “Leona’s an almost pretty blonde with a honeysuckle voice you just know got it’s polish from rubbing on her last husband’s wallet.”; his psychologist is corrupt and abusive “the shrink’s building sits way out of town; a bubble of clinical smells in the dust.  A receptionist with spiky teeth and a voicebox made from bees trapped in tracing paper, sits behind a desk”; there’s a manipulative journalist unconcerned with truth, setting himself up as puppet-master.  Vernon God Little is scathing in its treatment of contemporary society: its focus on the easily discarded, the scandal-mongering and superficiality of the media, the ineptitude of those in power to exercise it with any integrity.  All this is bound up with a great deal of humour and truly inventive use of language.  As I hope the quotes so far demonstrate, the images throughout the novel are startling and evocative. Pierre uses the adolescence of his narrator to demonstrate how versatile language can be and how it can be reformed for individual expression.  One of my favourite lines was this:

“I get waves of sadness, not for me but for them, all mangled and devastated. I’d give anything for them to be vastated again.”

Funny, sad, original and thought-provoking: the entire novel of Vernon God Little held in a single sentence.

I know I said I wouldn’t mention finals again, but permit me, if you will, just one final milking of it:

dink

Happy weekend everyone!