Review 2087: Burnt Sugar

When Antara was three, her mother Tara took her and left her home out of boredom to join an ashram, becoming the guru’s lover. In the ashram, Antara hardly ever saw her mother, and when she did, Tara alternated between effusive love and abuse.

Now Antara notices her mother is losing her memory. Although she tries to help her with diet and memory exercises, she still bears her a lot of resentment for events in the past. But this novel reveals its secrets slowly, and its secrets include betrayal. This novel, which I read for my Booker project, is mostly a character study about a woman who felt unloved as a child and is still suffering.

Antara is an artist, good enough to have her own show in a gallery, so I found it disturbing how slighting her family was about her art. When her mother burns some of her drawings, no one is upset, and later someone refers to her art as a hobby.

Antara is not a reliable narrator, nor is she a likeable person, but I found this novel fascinating.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for A Little Life

With my review of The Year of the Runaways, I have finished reading the shortlisted books for the Booker Prize of 2015. So, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. My reactions to the shortlist of that year were really mixed. There were a couple books I intensely disliked, one that I thought was pointless, one that was interesting but didn’t really pull me in, and two that were excellent.

The winner for the year was A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, about an assassination attempt on Bob Marley and its ramifications years later. I found it brutal and sexist and couldn’t even figure out which of many dead people the seven killings referred to. Though it was the first book in this shortlist that I read, I knew even then I wouldn’t be picking it as my favorite.

My next least favorite book was The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, about what happens between brothers after a prophecy. I found this book interesting because of its insight into Nigerian village culture and life, but I also found it extremely and graphically violent. Worse, I found Obioma’s writing immature, with unusual metaphors that often didn’t work well and his love for long, overblown sentences.

I didn’t see any point at all in Satin Island by Tom McCarthy, about U, a corporate anthropologist, whose job is to observe, connect, and deconstruct all known human activity. I’m sure it is meant ironically, but the novel seemed an exercise in Absurdism to me. It almost had a plot, but then it petered out at the end.

I liked The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota a little bit better. Written as if it was 19th century social realism, it is about several young Indian men who illegally immigrate to England with unrealistic expectations of their job prospects. It’s pretty grim, though, and it gets worse before it gets better. Its social realist style leaves you detached from its characters.

Cover for A Spool of Blue Thread

Now, we get to the good stuff. I just loved A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. About a family that gathers to decide what to do about their aging and faltering parents, I found it to be a lovely story about family stories and secrets, loving and forgiveness.

Finally, however, there is A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara. A beautifully written novel, it centers around four young men who were roommates in college. Slowly, we learn the secrets of one mysterious character, Jude, around whom everything seems to center. This was a powerful and deeply touching novel.

So, I pick A Little Life, with strong recommendations for A Spool of Blue Thread.

Review 2034: The Year of the Runaways

The Year of the Runaways is another book I read for my Booker Prize project. It follows the fortunes of a group of young Indian men who are living illegally in England looking for work.

Tochi is a young man from a low-caste family who in India had been finally getting his head above water since he had bargained for an auto so that he could work as a taxi driver. But after an election where one party rabbled-roused on the slogan of “racial purity,” his entire family was murdered. He travels illegally to England to start again.

Alvar’s father’s shawl business isn’t doing well and his younger brother will soon have school fees to pay. He also wants to marry Lakhpreet, his friend Randeep’s sister. He is able to get a student visa for England with no intention of studying, because he has had to borrow money from a moneylender for his fare.

Randeep comes from a wealthier family, but his father, a government official, loses his job after a mental breakdown. Randeep is kicked out of college in India and attacked for sexually assaulting a girl because he is constantly misreading people’s reactions. To get to London, he enters into a visa marriage with Narinder, a devout Sikh.

All of these young men travel to England with completely unrealistic ideas of how much money they can make or how easy it will be to even find work. They end up living together in a house packed with illegal immigrants working for low wages at menial work, most often employed by their own countrymen. Those with families receive constant demands from them for more money. And things get worse.

This novel is a throw-back to the 19th century social realism genre. The story is compellingly told and illuminates the dilemma of the illegal immigrant. I didn’t feel particularly attached to any of the characters, but I felt sorry for all of them.

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Review 2024: The Promise

Damon Galgut is an excellent writer, but I have had varying reactions to his work. Of what I have read, I liked In a Strange Room best and his last novel, Arctic Summer, least. Despite its having won the 2021 Booker Prize, I feel only a tenuous connection to The Promise.

The novel is about the disintegration of a white South African family over 30 years. It returns to the family roughly every 10 years at the death of a family member.

Thirteen-year-old Amor Swart overhears her dying mother ask her father for a promise. Rachel wants Manie to give the house she’s living in to Salome, the servant who has cared for Rachel and brought up her children. Manie promises, but in the last few years he has fallen under the thumb of greedy Dominee Simmers, so he gives land to the church but does not fulfill his promise and gets angry when Amor asks him about it.

Amor’s brother Anton gives Amor mild support, but he is obsessed by having shot a woman recently during some civil unrest. When he returns to the army after the funeral, he decides to desert.

Nine years later, both siblings return to the family for their father’s funeral. Amor wonders whether the promise will now be kept.

This novel is narrated omnisciently, but the point of view occasionally shifts from one character to another and from one scene to another without warning. It also sometimes takes on a folksy tone, as if the narrator is a storyteller talking directly to the reader.

I felt a lot of distance from Galgut’s characters. The only really sympathetic characters are Amor and Salome, but Salome is only there on the edges—treated in this novel much like she would have been in real life—and Amor is not much of a presence in the novel. We are told she is kind and easy to talk to, but we are not privy to many of her thoughts or or actions as we are to those of some of the other (male) characters. Perhaps that’s why I felt so much distance from the novel.

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Review 2023: Satin Island

I haven’t seen anyone say this when I looked at reviews to try to make sense of Satin Island, but the thought that occurred to me was that after a deadpan beginning, the novel becomes an exercise in Absurdism. If that’s not the actual intent, then I don’t see the point in it, which may be the point.

The narrator, U, is a “corporate anthropologist,” whose job at a large, influential corporation seems to be to observe and connect and deconstruct all activity. He has been tasked by the gnomic head of the corporation—who is known for his aphorisms, most of which seem meaningless, at least to me—to write a report encapsulating everything in contemporary life. This is a task that I immediately thought was impossible, but it takes U two-thirds of the book to figure that out. In the meantime, he spends his time daydreaming about oil spills and parachute deaths.

Aside from his work life, he has one friend, Petr, and an enigmatic lover, Madison. But these characters seem incidental and their parts degenerate into absurdity.

I almost stopped reading this novel several times during the first half, when it seemed to be taking seriously some of its meaningless statements, for example, about the corporation’s logo of a ruined tower, “The first move for any strategy of cultural production . . . must be to liberate things—objects, situations, systems—into uselessness.” At first, U treats such utterances with complete seriousness, but he becomes more cynical.

Later, the reading became easier and there was almost a plot, but eventually the novel just seems to peter out. Despite liking McCarthy’s novel C well enough, I read this novel with a distinct lack of excitement for my Booker Prize project.

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Review 1861: Great Circle

After getting fired from a hit TV series with a cult following for damaging the brand, Hadley Baxter thinks her career might be over. However, she is approached about starring in an independent film about the life of Marian Graves, an early aviator who disappeared in 1950 while attempting to circumnavigate the earth via the poles.

Although the novel sometimes follows Hadley as she tries to figure herself out, its main focus is on Marian and her twin brother, Jamie. As babies, they are on their father’s ship when it sinks, and because he chooses to save them rather than go down with his ship, he serves time in jail. They are raised in Missoula, Montana, by their alcoholic artist uncle, who lets them run wild.

When a pair of barnstormers stop over, Marian is bit by the flying bug. She is already doing men’s work, so she begins working harder to earn enough for flying lessons. But no one will teach her until she meets Barclay Macqueen, a bootlegger.

Great Circle is a broad-ranging novel that takes us from bootlegging in the West to serving mining camps in Alaska to ferrying planes in England before the flight around the world. I found Marian’s story more compelling than Hadley’s but still found the novel fascinating. Since I read it, it has been nominated for the Booker prize, so is part of my project.

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Review 1826: The New Wilderness

Dystopian novels are coming out of the woodwork these days, and they are not really my thing, but I read The New Wilderness for my Booker Prize project. That being said, I have read some excellent dystopian novels, the Maddaddam trilogy being one of them.

All of the land has been put under production to support the population of the City except the Wilderness State and possibly the rumored Private Lands. The City has become dangerous, though, with such polluted air that Bea’s little daughter Agnes was dying. So, Bea and her scientist partner Glen proposed an experiment—to go with a small group of people to live in the wilderness without making their imprint.

At the beginning of the novel, the Community has lived in the Wilderness State for several years. They started as a group of 20, but several have died. They are living under strict conditions. They’re not allowed to settle anywhere or build structures. The Rangers appear periodically to tell them to move to another Post.

The group has been making decisions by consensus, but it’s clear that Carl and his partner Val would like to be in charge. Glen seems to have little control over his own experiment.

A lot of the novel is devoted to the relationship between Bea and her daughter, who is growing up a bit feral. Eventually, Agnes becomes the main character, which was unfortunate, as I didn’t find her very interesting. In fact, the characters are mostly just used as emblems. They aren’t very dimensional.

Life in the Wilderness State is so brutal that I couldn’t imagine the City being worse. I can understand the comparisons to The Hunger Games that I saw repeatedly on Goodreads, even though no one is trying to kill anyone. I see more of a legacy of Lord of the Flies in Community politics.

I found that my interest in the novel came and went, mostly with Bea. She is not in the book, however, for large portions of it. For me, this novel was mildly interesting at times, but I wasn’t sure I believed very much in how Cook makes her characters behave. Right at the beginning, for example, a couple of characters die and the reaction of the rest is sort of, oh well, these things happen. An explanation that when you’re so close to death, you get inured to it eventually emerges, but I think Cook gets that wrong. Maybe that happens in war, but I think that a hunter-gatherer group would feel the losses as much, if not more, than anyone else, because the group is so small. This struck me as wrong from the start.

One more comment—a quote from Publishers Weekly calls the novel “darkly humorous.” On the contrary, I didn’t think that the novel showed any humor at all or even tried to.

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If I Gave the Award

Since I have posted my last review of the shortlisted books for the Booker Prize of 2019, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. The nominees for that year include a dystopian novel, several novels that experiment in form and two that experiment in narrative style, and one fantasy/satire.

I often start this post with the books I liked least, but in this case, I have a little problem with that, and that is to decide which ones I disliked the least. In fact, on the list for this year, there are none that I thought were entirely successful and several that I actively disliked.

So, I’ll start with the one that is freshest in my mind, Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. This fantasy/satire about an elderly man on a road trip (that doesn’t get anywhere) with his imaginary son was a DNF for me. I felt Rushdie constantly winking at me as he proceeded with his ponderous humor that wasn’t funny at all.

The other novel I disliked intensely was An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obiama. I thought this novel, about a man who will supposedly do anything for love, was riddled with sexism and outright hatred of women. Its hints of Igbo culture are interesting, but also slowed down the forward impetus of the novel.

Now, we get to the novels that I thought were ambitious but not quite successful. Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World tackles violence toward women in an unusual way, but I found its change in tone to be jarring. In addition, the concept of the first part of the novel, which represents the 10 minutes and 38 seconds of brain activity in a dying person in 200 pages (short period of time, long time of reading), just didn’t work for me.

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman was experimental by anyone’s reckoning. This novel, which is basically one 1000-page sentence (except for a few intervals that are written normally) broke every rule about writing I can think of. It was oddly compelling, enough to make me finish, but I’m not sure it provided much payoff for all the effort.

I didn’t actually say this in my review of The Testaments, but I really felt it was a bit of a sell-out by Margaret Atwood, only written to satisfy the fans of The Handmaid’s Tale television series. I felt it very conveniently wrapped things up and was far less of a landmark book than her original novel. It was also the most traditionally written book of the shortlisted novels for 2019. However, it was Atwood, so it was compelling reading.

That brings us to Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, a cowinner of the award with The Testaments. This novel of linked short stories about women is also experimental in form, having hardly any periods. I called it a semi-successful experiment in form and writing style, but it did include some powerful stories. In a year that was hard to pick favorites, I guess this would be my pick. Since this novel was a cowinner of the award, I guess that makes the judges half right.

Review 1818: Quichotte

I was fairly sure I was going to hate Quichotte. I did not much like Midnight’s Children or Don Quixote for that matter, which Quichotte retells. However, this novel is part of my Booker project, so I opened it with hope.

Quichotte is Ismail Smile, an elderly consumer of all things TV who becomes infatuated with Salma R, a young TV star. He decides to go on a quest to earn the love of his beloved. This is a road trip, and for a partner he takes Sancho, his imaginary son. To add another layer, Quichotte is himself an imaginary character, created by Brother, a writer of spy novels who has decided to change his genre.

This novel is one full of circumlocution. As we meet each character—and we meet a lot of them—we go off on the tangent of that person’s life story. Further, there are lots of subplots, for example, the one about Smile’s cousin and employer, whose pharmaceutical company has developed a drug even more dangerous than OxyContin and who has himself developed a similar model to that of the makers of Oxy, delivering it in huge quantities to small rural communities.

The genre for this novel is fantasy and of course satire. Fantasy is not my genre, and although I wouldn’t have thought the same was true about satire, I have not enjoyed the satirical entries on the various shortlists. They all feel the same to me: ponderous, overblown, and written by old men. Definitely lacking subtlety. Even the reviewer from The Guardian remarked that the book was funny but not as funny as Rushdie thought it was. That is exactly how I feel about it, except I didn’t think it was very funny. I sensed Rushdie winking all the time.

Still, I was enjoying parts of the novel, although it didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Then Sancho decided he wanted to be a real boy, and guess who popped up? Jiminy Cricket. At that point I had to restrain myself from throwing the book across the room (only because it was a library book), and I stopped reading.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for Bring Up the Bodies

Now that I have reviewed the last shortlisted book for the 2012 Booker Prize, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. This shortlist is another mixed bag of genres, two historical, two set in the 1970’s, and two contemporary. One is experimental enough to render it almost incomprehensible while another sometimes reads as if pages were taken from a textbook.

As I often do, I’ll start with the books I liked least. My least favorite of the nominees was Umbrella by Will Self. With an idea that should have been interesting, based as it is on Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings, this novel is so concerned with its devices that it is very difficult to read. It shifts point of view in mid-sentence, sometimes in mid-word, and uses stream-of-consciousness confusingly.

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil is set in late 1970’s or early 80’s Bombay, about a young man exploring the city’s opium dens and brothels. Although I found some of the characters interesting, I was not interested in the overall subject matter, and when the novel became philosophical, it read as if it came out of a textbook.

My main objection to Swimming Home by Deborah Levy is that I found the situation unbelievable. When vacationers find a disturbed girl occupying their vacation house, they invite her to stay even though she is clearly a fangirl of the poet husband. The entire atmosphere of the novel is foreboding, and the placement in time of an initial scene is confusing.

Cover for The Garden of Evening Mists

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore is another menacing novel, about a sad, gray man who goes on a hiking trip out of nostalgia for happy times with his father. He unwittingly gets into a situation between a woman and her jealous husband. Although I didn’t like any of the characters, I found this novel oddly compelling.

I enjoyed The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng about post-World War II Malaya. It immersed me in the story of a Malayan judge suffering from aphasia who is revisiting her memories.

That leaves the winner of that year’s prize, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantell. This novel was the second installment of Mantell’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, dealing with Anne Boleyn’s frantic attempts to hold onto her throne and her life. It is an absolutely enthralling story of Tudor politics and intrigue. So, this time, yes, the judges got it right.