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