If I Gave the Award

Cover for Parrot and OlivierHaving finally posted my review of The Finkler Question, I see that it is time again for my feature “If I Gave the Award,” in which I evaluate the shortlist I have just read and say which book I think deserves the award.

The winning book for the 2010 Man Booker Prize was Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, but if you read my review on Tuesday, you’ll know I’m not going to pick that one. I found most of the characters unbelievable, the humor not funny, the tone irritating, and the preoccupations of the characters kind of ridiculous. In fact, it was my least favorite of the shortlisted books.

I felt too much distance from the action and characters of C, by Tom McCarthy, to pick it. Similarly, I felt that the narrative style of The Long Song by Andrea Levy distances the reader from its characters.

Room by Emma Donoghue was a compelling read, so I can’t complain that I felt distanced by it. However, I don’t think it is in the same league as the other books. It employs an imaginative approach by narrating a difficult situation from the point of view of an innocent boy, but this approach is not always convincing, and it is essentially just a thriller. I almost feel that its selection on the short list was an effort to attract more readers to the prize by selecting a popular novel.

Cover for In a Strange RoomIt has been a very long time since I read Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey, but I still have fond memories of its sly humor. It is my second favorite of the nominated books.

So, we get to the novel that I think should have won the award, In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut. This book is not only beautifully written, but it is affecting and insightful in the behavior of its characters. Although it purposefully keeps some distance from the readers at times, I found it powerful and touching.

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Day 1250: Pigeon English

Cover for Pigeon EnglishBest of Five!
Once again, I’ve been charmed by the unique voice of the narrator of Pigeon English, Harri Opuku, an eleven-year-old boy from Ghana living in a rough area of London. Harri is such an eleven-year-old boy, fascinated by bodily functions but still repelled by the realities of sex, exuberant, funny in a crass boy way, strong in family feelings and the joy of life. He has a hilarious command of English and is liable to comment “Everyone agrees” just when he comes out with the most ridiculous bits of misinformation.

The big news in the neighborhood is the stabbing death of an older boy. Harri and his friends are fascinated by this crime, and one of their games is to investigate it, picking up fingerprints with cellophane tape and watching people for signs of guilt. This situation is one to which the readers know the answer but the boys do not.

Harri is also flirting with the idea of joining the Dell Farm Crew, a local gang that seems to have lots of advantages. But his essential niceness makes him fail the gang’s tests.

This novel makes you laugh while creating a growing sense of dread. For Harri’s world is violent, and he seems singularly unprepared for it.

The only part of the book that didn’t completely work for me was the role of the pigeon, a bird Harri decides is his, who makes occasional comments that are much too sophisticated for Harri (or a pigeon, obviously). The pigeon acts as an omniscient narrator or perhaps more like a Greek chorus.

This was another book I read for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Day 1233: History of Wolves

Cover for History of WolvesOne of the themes of History of Wolves is the horror that can result from a belief taken too far and the subservience of one person to another. This theme resonated with me very particularly because of the history of my family.

My grandmother was a Christian Scientist. She and her mother were very active in the church, and I know from reading her diary from her college years that she took it seriously. My grandfather was an Irish-American Catholic who converted to marry her.

When my mother was a baby, she got very sick. The story goes that her parents prayed over her, but her fever did not go down. Finally, according to my mother, her father said, “Bill (her name was Beulah, but he always called her Bill or Billie), we have to call a doctor.” Christian Science went out the window, and if it hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here today. The main character of History of Wolves, Linda, witnesses what happens in a similar situation.

Linda is a sophomore in high school during what becomes for her a life-changing year. Several things happen that she finds sexually confusing. A teacher, Mr. Grierson, is accused of being a pedophile. Another girl accuses him of molesting her but then retracts her accusation. Linda is attracted to this girl.

Linda herself has had an unusual upbringing. When she was a child, the property where she lives in the woods of Minnesota was a commune. Linda isn’t really sure whether her parents are her parents or just two adults who were left when the commune broke up. She has a distant relationship with her mother, who pays her little attention.

Across the lake, a family moves in. When Linda makes their acquaintance, only Patra, the young mother, and her son Paul are living there. Leo, Patra’s husband, is away in Hawaii working.

Linda begins babysitting Paul. We know from the beginning of the book that Paul will die and that there will be a trial. It takes quite a bit of the book to get to this event, and I think readers will understand what is going on before Linda does.

Even for a teenager, Linda is damaged and needy. She gets a crush on Patra, and that is partially what keeps her from seeing clearly.

There is a lot going on in this novel, and it doesn’t all pan out. Still, I think the novel effectively depicts traumatic events that shape the main character’s future life. I thought the novel was sometimes confusing but also thought-provoking. I read this book for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Day 1219: In a Strange Room

Cover for In a Strange RoomBest of Five!
It’s not clear to me whether In a Strange Room is a novel or three slightly linked short stories. I’ve seen it referred to as both. The linkage comes from journeys, as each section deals with a journey the narrator takes with different people.

This narration is complex. South African novelist Galgut himself is the narrator, but he speaks both in first and third person, the one hinting at intimacy, the other, more often used, at distance.

The first section, or story, “The Follower,” deals with a journey in the early 1990’s with a German named Reiner. The narrator meets him on another trip, and although they do not know each other well, they correspond. Eventually, Reiner comes to Africa, and the two take a journey through Lesotho. It’s difficult to understand what the narrator sees in Reiner besides good looks, and eventually the trip becomes a battle for control.

The second section, “The Lover,” starts with Damon latching on to a group of Europeans traveling in Africa after he leaves the group he started with. He keeps running into them when he is with the first group and offers to help them when they are turned away from the Malawan border for not having visas. Damon and Jerome are attracted to each other, but they can barely communicate, as Damon doesn’t speak French and Jerome barely speaks English.

In “The Guardian,” Damon takes his old friend, Anna, on a trip to India. She has recently been hospitalized for mental illness, and Damon finds it increasingly difficult to deal with her.

I didn’t really enjoy Galgut’s novel about E. M. Forster, so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to reading this novel for my Booker Prize project. But I am happy to say that I found In a Strange Room powerful and touching. It is sparsely written but completely involving. Even though it doesn’t explicitly express emotion, it still evokes an emotional response. I am happy to have changed my mind about Galgut.

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Day 1195: The Long Song

Cover for The Long SongSeveral years ago, I greatly enjoyed Andrea Levy’s Small Island. So, I was happy when I saw that The Long Song was in both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize projects.

July is fathered upon her slave mother, Miss Kitty, by the overseer on Amity, a Jamaican sugar plantation. It is early in the 19th century, so July is a slave, too.

July and Miss Kitty are field slaves, but when July is nine years old, the master’s sister, Caroline Mortimer, takes a fancy to her. She takes July away from Miss Kitty to train her as a house slave and calls her Marguerite. The novel is written as July’s memoir, as she recalls the final days of slavery on the island and its transition to freedom.

At first the tone of this novel bothered me. It seemed too sprightly and playful for subject matter that is sometimes appalling. It really tears into its white characters, too, who are portrayed at best as hypocrites but more often much worse. Eventually, though, its sly sense of humor got to me, and I laughed out loud. Still, I did not feel as involved by this novel as I did with Small Island.

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Day 1184: The Garden of Evening Mists

Cover for The Garden of Evening MistsBest of Five!
Yun Ling Teoh, a Malayan federal judge of Chinese descent, has decided to retire early. She has been diagnosed with a neurological ailment that will cause more and more frequent episodes of aphasia and will eventually destroy her language abilities. She decides to return to Yugiri, a Japanese garden in Malaya that she inherited from its creator, Aritomo.

On the advice of her friend Frederik, the owner of a nearby tea plantation, Yun Ling decides to record her memories. She begins in 1951, when she went to Aritomo to ask him to design a garden in memory of her sister, Yun Hong, who died in a Japanese labor camp during World War II. Yun Ling also was in the camp, and her hatred of the Japanese makes it difficult for her to ask for Aritomo’s help. But her sister loved Japanese gardens.

Aritomo refuses her request but makes her a different offer. If she will take on the job of apprentice, he will teach her enough to design her own garden. She decides to accept the offer, having quit her job as prosecutor.

It is a difficult time in Malaya. No sooner did the war end than the government began fighting Communist guerillas, who were attempted to take over the country. And Akitomo has his secrets. He came to Malaya before the war, having resigned as the Japanese emperor’s gardener, but Yun Ling occasionally hears that he played a role for Japan during the war. He had some kind of influence, because he saved his neighbors from the Japanese labor camps. Yun Ling, we find, has her own secrets.

The Garden of Evening Mists is the best kind of historical fiction, immersing me in its time and place while informing me of events I was formerly unaware of. I found it deeply interesting and affecting. The descriptions are delicate and evocative, and the characters feel real yet mysterious. This novel was part of both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize projects, as well as the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize. It is a powerful novel.

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Day 1178: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Cover for Do Not Say We Have NothingBest of Five!
When Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was so popular, I was not a fan. I disliked how the two male college students patronized and abused the girl, even though she won through in the end. I also vaguely felt that the events of the Chinese Cultural Revolution were being trivialized, even though I was not really sure about the facts. Reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing confirmed that I was right.

Marie is a young immigrant Chinese girl living in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1991. She and her mother are confused and grieved, because after the family escaped from China, her father, Jiang Kai, first deserted them to move to Hong Kong and later committed suicide.

Marie’s mother receives a call from China, from Ling, the wife of Jiang Kai’s beloved teacher, Sparrow. Ling says that her daughter, Ai-Ming, has had to leave China because of involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests, but she has missed the amnesty offered by the U.S. Ling asks that they give Ai-Ming a home.

Ai-Ming becomes an older sister to Marie. She tells her stories about her family—her great uncle, Wen the Dreamer, who courted her aunt Swirl with chapters from a forbidden book called the Book of Records; her grandparents, Big Mother Knife and Ba Lute, wandering musicians; and her father Sparrow, a composer of music. Ai-Ming tells of the days of her father, her cousin Jhuli, and Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, at the Shanghai Conservatory. Shadowing all their lives is the Cultural Revolution and its horrible excesses—murder and exile of intellectuals, forced denunciations of relatives, ransacked homes, humiliation and ruining of the innocent.

At first, I was irritated by the style of Ai-Ming’s story, which feels a little like a fairy tale, but it was not long before I was completely absorbed in it. The novel is a heart-rending tale about identity, music, love, and political destructiveness. This was another excellent book that I read for my Man Booker Prize project.

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