Booker Prize 2008

Philip Hensher: The Northern Clemency

Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency is the longest and, for me, the last of the Man Booker Prize 2008 wronglist longlist. Reading eleven novels in a row which I wouldn’t otherwise have chosen to read has taught me that, whatever I think of the judges’ choices, I don’t envy them their task, which involved reading over one hundred such books. Hensher himself was a judge in 2001, and found the task no struggle at all, pointing out that he always reads five books a week: “It was just my six months’ normal reading.” The linked article is worth a look for a wider insight into the Booker judging process. Who can doubt the sincerity of Adam Mars-Jones, a judge in 1995, when he acknowledges that “It was great to find a book so inept you could chuck it aside and get on to the next one.” And so – changing the subject completely – back to The Northern Clemency.

Looking at the Also By page, I see that I have read all but one of Hensher’s previous five novels, without ever really feeling myself to be a strong admirer of his fiction. What I remember best of them is the wonderful opening scene in Pleasured (1998), with two people dancing in the snow of no-man’s-land in divided Berlin. Otherwise Hensher is better known as a columnist and critic, and for me the author of the most brilliantly insulting pay-off in book reviewing history, in his piece on James Thackara’s 2000 novel The Book of Kings. He warms up with some mild words: “a book of gigantic, hopeless awfulness. You read it to a constant, internal muttering of ‘Oh – God – Thackara – please, don’t – no – oh, God, just listen to this rubbish’. It’s so awful, it’s not even funny.” And he concludes:

The awful thing is that Thackara … is utterly sincere and will probably be admired by people who believe that sincerity, rather than art, is the basis of a great novel. He is probably a nice man. He obviously cares deeply about these great historical movements and has done a great deal of research – my God, he has researched and researched and researched. But on the evidence of The Book of Kings, he could not write ‘Bum’ on a wall.

I wonder if any cunning literary editor has despatched a copy of The Northern Clemency to James Thackara to review? If they did, I hope they put enough postage on it, because this is one mammoth volume. A view of it in three-dimensional glory is really required to see what a doorstep of a book this is.

The Northern Clemency is set mostly in northern England, and it begins in the 1970s. Here I am reminded of another pointed piece by Hensher. Earlier this year – coinciding with publication of his novel – he wrote an article in Prospect magazine highlighting the weaknesses of many period-set ‘state of the nation’ novels, such as Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club. For example, “Large public events enter into the action awkwardly and obtrusively.” Such as this, perhaps, on page 69 of The Northern Clemency?

At eleven, Malcolm got up, switched the television off, unplugged it, remarking that it was a relief all those power-cuts had stopped at last.

He is also critical (and rightly so) of the use of easy cultural references to pin a story in time, particularly pop music: “a lazy, easily-researched way to evoke a particular moment”. How true, and so unlike other cultural “hey, it’s the 70s!” touchstones like Coronation Chicken, green bamboo-pattern wallpaper, car-key parties (very Ice Storm) and TV shows such as Why Don’t You? , all of which feature in the first 50 pages of The Northern Clemency. Hensher refrains from using pop music as his reference points: “I was a teenager when the Clash are reported by Coe as playing in Fulham. I wouldn’t have cared. At the time, my records were mostly of Mahler, Schoenberg and Boulez.”

The Northern Clemency, briefly put, is a story of two families in Sheffield. The Glovers are long-time residents of Rayfield Avenue, and the Sellerses have just moved up from London. Over the next twenty years they will experience a few dramatic life events and an awful lot of extremely humdrum ones, all narrated with extraordinary attention to detail. Hensher has the ability to turn a fine phrase (“he ate with his elbows out, as if always demolishing a pie in a crowded pub”, or describing a washing machine, whose “cycle went into passages of immense fury”) but they aren’t half few and far between.

There is every reason to praise many of the characters and events in The Northern Clemency for their realism. But it is this very act of recognition in the unexceptional nature of their concerns which damages the book in parts: our own lives, most of the time, would not past muster as the subject of a 740-page novel. It has a connection with Adam Mars-Jones’s Pilcrow, if not quite as heroic in its carefully intricate analysis of quotidian concerns, and in fact is a weaker book as a result. Where Mars-Jones had the guts to make his novel, as it were, beautifully boring, Hensher gives us a middle-class Coronation Street.

Even in this meticulous recreation of life, plausibility does sometimes fail. Hensher offers no acknowledgements at the end of the book: a refreshing change, in fact, to the habit now for authors to give three pages of thanks. He wrote it all by himself – hallelujah! Perhaps he was keen to avoid the trap of James Thackara, as Hensher does not seem to have “researched and researched and researched” – but then you don’t need to be a lawyer to know that in a criminal trial, the defendant isn’t cross-examined by the prosecution before he gives evidence to his own barrister.

There are strong set pieces, such as (implausibility notwithstanding) the criminal trial which takes place two-thirds of the way through, some affecting scenes in a hospital, and some decent tension near the very end as a past collides with a present. Hensher is also very good on family conflict, particularly between socialist-anarchist Tim and his father Malcolm (recalling the long bitter exchanges in Roth’s American Pastoral), and on the lurch of change for children trying to make new friends when they move schools. There is a scene which could have been hackneyed but which becomes very moving, where Malcolm and Katherine Glover view their lives reduced to a series of fading snapshots. Nonetheless there is an awful lot of trough between these peaks, and even when Hensher is pinpointing the thoughts of teenagers or housewives with considerable confidence and honesty, there never seems to be much that is surprising or novel in what he has to say. Some characters, such as Katherine Glover, are well drawn, while others, like her son Tim, seem half-hearted (bit weird, Marxist, obsessive … er, that’s it).

The inside flap of The Northern Clemency claims that it was inspired by “the great nineteenth-century Russian novels,” but the debt seemed to me to be less to Dostoevsky than to Desperate Housewives. It is immensely long and hysterically dull. What it does prove is that no one will ever reasonably subject Hensher to the sort of pasting which he gave James Thackara. The Northern Clemency, weighty in all the wrong ways, proves not that Hensher could not write ‘Bum’ on a wall, but that he can write soap on a brick.

Michelle de Kretser: The Lost Dog

I left Michelle de Kretser’s novel The Lost Dog for near the end of my Booker Prize longlist reading, as I’d been warned by others that it was a pretty knotty read, particularly at the beginning. The other features which distinguish it – how nice it is to try to form an opinion on a book before reading it – are that it’s the fifth book of the thirteen-strong longlist which is set wholly or partly in the Indian subcontinent (“The judges are pleased with the geographical balance of the longlist” – M. Portillo), and that boasts the oddest author photo of all the longlisted titles, in which de Kretser appears to be casting a spell. But did she – boom-tischcast a spell on this reader?

The lost dog of the title is a red herring, what Hitchcock would have called a MacGuffin, a mere springboard on which to launch a story equal parts dizzying and dazzling. We never even learn the dog’s name, but it belongs to Tom Loxley, and he will spend the rest of the book searching for it, and other things besides. Tom is a writer, trying to complete a book on Henry James, but through his personal connection with the artist Nelly Zhang, he is drowning in the world of visuals. He is frustrated that his only response to a painting is, How beautiful.

Pictures belong to the world of things. They cannot be contained in language. Tom was still susceptible to their immanent hostility. It had persuaded him, as a student, to concentrate on literature. There he was at home in the medium. For all their shifting play, narratives did not exceed his grasp. He paid them the tribute of lucid investigation and they unfolded before him.

This could be a shot across the bows from de Kretser: pay attention! – or alternatively a wink at what is to follow. Lucid investigation is both required and repelled by the early scenes in the book, where the reader is thrown into Tom’s world and left to sink or swim. Most of the book’s characters appear here, in choppy montages which give fair impressions of both the milieux – the Australian contemporary art scene; India in previous decades – and the characters – artists, their agents and hangers-on, and cantankerous family members.

What’s interesting about these scenes is that it’s their impressionistic nature which satisfies much more than longer, more immersive chapters would. The epigraph of the book, by James (he haunts the story) is “The whole of anything can never be told,” and it’s by not trying to to tell the whole that de Kretser succeeds in providing a rounded picture. The structure settles a little after a time, but the high-definition style remains, so that de Kretser can skewer a character with the greatest economy.

A glass-fronted cabinet held a harlequin, a corsair, a ballerina, a drummer boy, a Bo Peep with a crook wreathed in flowers and a lilac dress bunched up over a sprigged underskirt. Once a week Audrey murmured to small porcelain people of love while holding them face down in soapy water.

Audrey is Tom’s aunt, sister to his mother Iris, and one of the great monsters in the book. Tom’s struggles to deal with his elderly mother as she loses her independence provide the emotional anchor of the story, where again de Kretser shows that less is more, and that implication can be more powerful than detail. Audrey, who “disliking waste, never disposed of a grievance that had not been squeezed dry,” provides a counterpoint to this filial and familial tenderness.

‘Did you see my Berber? Ruined.’

‘If you could arrange steam-cleaning, I’d fix you up, of course.’

But that was too simple an outcome.

‘Well, if you think I didn’t do a good enough job on that carpet.’

As with Linda Grant in The Clothes on their Backs, there is a sense sometimes that de Kretser has cast her concerns too wide, so many multitudes does the book seem to contain. There is much here on the value of art as experience and artefact, best depicted by Nelly Zhang’s apparent practice of photographing her paintings and then destroying them. She inhabits “the modern age, the age of the image.” Her creation of images of images balances Tom’s writing about writing. Such dualities abound in the book, not least in the theme of differing interpretations of events and experiences. One thread concerns the identity of a figure a drunken man saw on a beach when Iris’s husband went missing. Another deals in how viewers approach paintings, and readers books: “Tom would have spoken of the formal qualities of Chekhov’s tale, its understated, almost offhand treatment of love, and evasive resolution. All this Nelly omitted or missed in favour of detail and implication.” Such a theme is doubly striking when reading a Booker longlisted book, and aware of all the interpretations which other readers – judges, bloggers, reviewers – have placed on it and how they differ from one’s own. Once again, Henry James seems to have something to say connected to this: “Experience is never limited, and it is never complete.”

One of the most striking things about The Lost Dog is de Kretser’s meticulous use of language, which can find the telling word with apparent ease (Nelly’s laugh is “disgraceful”; the drunk referred to earlier has an “unfastened” face), or overdo things somewhat and seem to strain for effect (“he was driven also to remark the ambiguities eddying her surface”). The book is bursting with de Kretser’s talent and ambition, and there is no doubt that this is one of the most interesting and rewarding titles on the Booker longlist. More than that, it will surely repay a second reading, which is no small feat in a list where many of the titles don’t repay a first.

Mohammed Hanif: A Case of Exploding Mangoes

The longlisting of Mohammed Hanif’s debut novel for the 2008 Man Booker Prize could not be better timed: as I write, it is 20 years to the day since the death of Pakistan’s General Zia al-Huq, the event which is the centrepoint of the novel. The book takes a satirical look at the days approaching General Zia’s death – in a plane crash – and attempts to weave this into the story of a fictional Pakistan Army member who has a story or two of his own to tell.

Perhaps the greatest measure of my response to this book is that, as I write, a week has passed since I last wrote “as I write” two sentences ago. I have struggled to think of much to say about A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which left me more or less indifferent. Normally if I am unenthusiastic about a book, I’ll not write about it (in many cases, because I haven’t finished it). This avoids the blogger’s occupational hazard of making bricks without straw. But this damned Booker longlist thing has put paid to that.

The book is told mostly in alternating chapters: first narrated by Ali Shigri, a Pakistani army recruit who has been arrested after his friend Obaid disappeared with a military plane; and then from the last paranoid days in 1988 of General Zia, right up to “the last recorded memory of a much-photographed man”:

The middle parting of his hair glints under the sun, his unnaturally white teeth flash, his moustache does its customary little dance for the camera, but as the camera pulls out you can tell that he is not smiling. If you watch closely you can probably tell that he is in some discomfort. He is walking the walk of a constipated man.

Generally the Zia chapters are the more interesting. Hanif makes him a foolish figure, a man whose leadership of Pakistan via military coup has never quite erased the thought of himself as an unsure virgin on his wedding night, the “fumbling failure” of which “had resulted in a marriage in which his authority was never fully established.” Paranoia comes with the knowledge that what he did to the previous government could be done to him, and has as its necessary accompaniment a sense of delusion (“A country that thinks it was created by God has finally found what it deserves: a blabbering idiot who thinks he has been chosen by Allah”). This is fostered by the methods, somewhat reminiscent of contemporary British politicians, which his aide ‘TM’ uses to ensure the continuing appearance of wild popular support wherever the General goes.

The crowd with which Zia mingled comprised an all-male congregation of primary school teachers, court clerks, office peons and government bureaucrats’ domestic staff, ordered here by their bosses. Many in the crowd were soldiers in civvies bussed in from the neighbouring cantonment. With TM at his side, General Zia felt that the crowd suddenly became more disciplined. … During his six years as General Zia’s Chief of Security, not only had [TM] kept General Zia safe from all visible and invisible enemies, but also conducted him through so many milling crowds that General Zia had started to think of himself as a man of the people.

Among this character comedy and engaging satire – some of it very low but very funny – is a take on Zia’s support for the mujihadin in Afghanistan, when it was under invasion by Russia. Zia sees himself as “one of the seven men standing between the Soviet Red Army and the Free World,” and hopes to win the Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with the US, “for liberating Afghanistan.” This is both a reminder of the familiar tale of how this US-led intervention ended with the rise of the Taliban and the flourishing of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but also of how Pakistan in the new century would renew its support for US policy and attacks on the Afghan regime it had helped put in place. (Hanif could not know that – yet again as I write! what an historic week it has been – the Pakistan leader who implemented that policy would have just reached the end of the line also.)

Otherwise, A Case of Exploding Mangoes – the title comes from one of the theories of General Zia’s plane crash which the book airs – is pretty gentle going, and lacks the anger that drives great satire. The chapters narrated by Ali Shigri – who while trying to avoid torturous interrogation and find his missing friend, is also seeking to understand what drove his father to ‘suicide’ – are generally duller than the Zia chapters, and the links which bring the two stories together in the end are perfunctory and, given that we know the outcome from the start, not very surprising. Having said that, it is probably one of the more accomplished debuts on the Booker longlist. But even with this additional publicity – and it was already plenty hyped before – I wouldn’t expect A Case of Exploding Mangoes to have a shelf life much longer than a Pakistani general.

Linda Grant: The Clothes on their Backs

Being the obsessive type that I am, I ordered all the Booker longlisted titles on the evening of the announcement (other than the two I’d read previously). When they arrived, I saw that ten of the eleven were still in their first printing, and industry sources tell us that most of the books had sold poorly until then, some (such as Michelle de Kretser’s The Lost Dog) having shifted just a few hundred copies. I noticed one exception: Linda Grant’s The Clothes on their Backs had been reprinted twice since its publication six months earlier. Clearly it exceeded its publisher’s expectations. Good: because it also exceeded mine.

I admit that when I started The Clothes on their Backs, I was feeling jaded about the Booker longlist experience, and to some extent just wanted to get it over with. Linda Grant’s novel changed that, and gave me the sort of pure reading pleasure that I haven’t had since, oh, July. What I welcomed most was that – at last! – here on the longlist was a book which had strong explicit themes and subject matter, vivid characters, good dialogue and a web of interesting storylines. All in all, what we expect from a fine example of a traditional literary novel (and I mean no faint praise by that).

The structure is neat, starting us off near the end of the story and then weaving back and forth through the linked lives of the characters until we end up where we began. The narrator is Vivien Amory, née Kovacs, a middle-aged woman, living in London (“I accept this city, with all its uncontrollable chaos and dirty deficiencies”), of Hungarian stock, who is attempting to get to the bottom of the discord between her uncle and her father.

My father was terrified of change. When change was in the air anything could happen, and he already suffered from an anxiety: that any small disturbance in his circumstances would bring everything down – the flat, the wife, the job, the new daughter, London itself, then England, and he would slide down the map of the world, back to Hungary, clinging on uselessly, ridiculously, with his fingers clutching the smooth, rolling surface of the globe.

Her uncle Sándor could not be more different: “a monster, a true beast,” Vivien’s parents warn her; “the face of evil,” the newspapers say, whose CV would list jailbird, pimp, slum landlord and more besides. Now we’re talking. Vivien meets Sándor, and my heart sank a little when Grant used the hackneyed device of Vivien extracting Sándor’s past by transcribing his dictated memoirs. Fortunately, this is not the beginning of a book-long entry into wartime Hungary. Grant’s skill here is not to dwell on the stories of Sándor’s past – and that of Hungarian Jews generally – but to ration them, and thus to avoid diluting their force.

Sándor plays down the effect of life under the Hungarian Fascists, the Arrow Cross – “I was one of the ones who didn’t change. I began as a businessman and that’s how I continued” – and makes the case that life in anti-Semitic wartime it was, for most of the people, most of the time, literally business as usual. But there are stark memories which cannot be effaced.

After the quarantine camp, they were all taken for a bath, the first in over three years, and their clothes, the ones they had left home in, were boiled and ridden of the millions of lice that had taken up residence there.

In clean clothes they felt suddenly reborn. They examined their rags for signs that they had once been human beings. Might this flap be a lapel, and was this an indication of a pocket? A piece of cloth bore faint traces of once having been tweed. This man’s trousers had once been exhibited in the window of a fashionable department store in 1937, with a ticket indicating a high price. But though the slaves were clean and dry, they were also starving. They ripped grass from the earth and ate it. Men were writhing and dying in their boiled clothes.

It is the connection between life in Hungary and life in Britain – a journey made in some cases with only the clothes they stood up in, “the clothes on their backs” – which animates the novel. Vivien’s parents have become cowed by their past: “Don’t ask questions,” Vivien’s father tells her when she watches news of Sándor’s trial. “No one ever had a quiet life by asking questions, and a life that isn’t peaceful is no life at all.” Sándor has come out fighting, not always to his or others’ benefit (“‘Truth?’ cried my uncle. ‘Miss, people who like to hear the truth don’t know nothing about the truth. Truth would make them sick if they knew it. Truth isn’t nice. It’s for grown-up people, not children'”). The two brothers seem together to make a whole, like the completeness Vivien experiences in adolescence by discovering how to change her appearance. “I found myself in two halves, the interior and exterior of my own head.”

Vivien’s story is a clamour of details, here there and everywhere, and at times it seems there are too many elements in the mix, some of which are not fully explored, such as Vivien’s widowhood and abortion. (I mention these as examples which are raised early in the book, and so shouldn’t constitute spoilers.) In the end I felt this fluid approach was justified, as James Salter wrote of his magnificent Light Years:

The only things that are important in life are those you remember. … It was to be a book of pure recall.

So for Vivien, the everyday things – including “the clothes you wear … they change you from the outside in” – are more pressing and worthy of notice than the increasingly distant memories of her very brief marriage. In addition, most of the scattered aspects are revisited with sufficient frequency (“Who can really remember pain? It’s impossible, you don’t remember it, you only fear it returning”) to make it clear that they do form part of a larger pattern. If the story is how the past leads to the present, then it is important to bring to life that present.

I am unsure whether I really can’t think of anything I disliked about The Clothes on their Backs, or if I was just relieved to like it after finding so much mediocrity in the rest of the Booker longlist. It’s one of those books which makes me frustrated at my own inability to convey why I got so much out of it: suffice it to say that I feel I haven’t touched on half the qualities – did I mention the just-so humour in the dialogue? – and ideas – how extremism evolves to fit its society, for example – in the book. Vivien, in a youthful attempt to become a newspaper literary critic (“No one had ever defended literature so honourably from its own practitioners”), is told by the books editor:

Listen, dear, all we want to know is what the subject is, a bit of an idea about the plot, who the characters are and whether the author has pulled off what they set out to do.

Oh. Right. Give me a minute.

Gaynor Arnold: Girl in a Blue Dress

Gaynor Arnold’s Girl in a Blue Dress was a title I had never heard of before the Booker Prize 2008 longlist was announced. There’s no shame in that, as I suspect the only people who had heard of it were the author and publisher. The publisher in question is Tindal Street, a small Birmingham-based press who have bucked the odds by having three novels listed for the Booker since 2003: an astonishing achievement for a publisher which issues only a handful of books a year. Admittedly last year I wasn’t much enamoured of Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost, but I was prepared to be pleasantly surprised this time, even if Tindal Street Press’s logo, of the road sign representing a dead end, doesn’t inspire confidence. Nor does the design, as when it arrived I thought Girl in a Blue Dress looked not so much like a fiction book as a fictional book; a prop novel in a TV series; the title and author sounding like something a Victoria Wood character might read. But all that might change when I started reading.

The Girl in a Blue Dress of the title is Dorothea ‘Dodo’ Gibson, widow of Alfred Gibson, the most successful novelist of the Victorian age, the self-styled “One and Only” – Charles Dickens, in other words. Arnold is open and clear about this parallel, and about her intention, that

in Dorothea Gibson I have tried to give voice to the largely voiceless Catherine Dickens, who once requested that her letters from her husband be preserved so that ‘the world may know he loved me once’.

This she does, in scenes where Dorothea recalls Gibson’s courting of her, and despite her father’s warning that Gibson’s “circumstances are – unstable. He has a headlong nature,” she is seduced by this “master of every emotion,” by his energy and enthusiasm, not to say his

voluptuous long hair, far too wayward and rich for a man; and deep brown eyes, too wayward and rich for anyone. They shone like stars. His whole face seemed illuminated.

It may be a sort of madness that illuminates his eyes, as Gibson is presented not so much like Charles Dickens as Robin Williams: always ‘on’ and capering and mucking about to a maddening degree. He is a man of passion, driven to workaholic excess (“holidays were purgatory to him, unless he set himself tasks”) – and to domineering single-mindedness – by early fear of the poorhouse, and quite unable to relinquish control of any aspect of his work or life.

This, then, is the difference between the public and private face of Gibson – of Dickens, presumably – and it’s quite an eye-opener. He keeps a mistress and effectively cuts his wife and daughter out of their inheritance, he is a “cruel, cruel man. Cruel to his wife, and cruel to his children,” because he was unable to control them as he could control his “prose-children”. He is a man never at rest within his own mind.

[I] recognise that under all his compulsive romancing and flirting, all his excessive hilarity, all the falling in and out of friendships, all the work, work, work, all the restless changes of his life – there was always the headlong quest for something that was forever beyond his grasp.

This book is clearly a considerable labour of love and a work of real sincerity; in a Booker Prize longlist peppered with underwritten characters, Girl in a Blue Dress presents a full and rounded portrait of a woman, and must surely be at all points precisely what Gaynor Arnold intended it to be. There are interesting and well-executed set pieces, such as a meeting with Queen Victoria and a confrontation with Gibson’s mistress (which provides the book’s only cliffhanger chapter ending), and some fascinating insights into Gibson’s/Dickens’ life such as an interest in hypnotism.

However this is also part of the problem. When the book is interesting, it succeeds because it fills in details about a real person I knew little about; it never flies as a work of fiction in itself, and the writing and storytelling don’t take off. Arnold’s own position on this is curious: on the one hand, assuring us that she has “attempted to keep true to the essential natures” of Charles and Catherine Dickens, but on the other, assiduously inventing new specifics, new names, even new titles and extracts for Dickens’/Gibson’s novels (Edward Cleverly, Ambrose Boniface, The Weaver of Silver Street, and so on). This seemed a too neat attempt to have one’s cake and eat it. By the end, to adopt a more vulgar cliché, I just wished she would shit or get off the pot.

There seems to be too much unvarying emphasis on Gibson’s dark side – we hear the same complaints against him again and again – while only occasionally are there hints that Dorothea may be less than the perfect wife herself. The twin poles of his personality – the charming excess, the selfish singlemindedness – are hammered home with nausea-inducing repetitiveness over a long 440 pages. The ending, which concerns Gibson’s unfinished novel, is terribly twee, and I would have liked more about Gibson/Dickens himself, or in particular the relationship between the writer and the public – this early form of celebrity – which is touched on only tangentially. For admirers of Victorian fiction, Girl in a Blue Dress may be a very great treat, but for me its faith in Dickens’ own verbosity made for a dull, gruelling read most of the time, other than at the successful set pieces mentioned above.

Early on, Dorothea reflects on her continuing fidelity to her late husband’s books, despite all her disappointments in him. “I still read a chapter every day, you know. And when I finish each book, I start another. And when I finish them all, I start at the beginning again.” Sounds like a never-ending Booker longlist challenge to me. I think I’ll pass on this one next time around.

Amitav Ghosh: Sea of Poppies

One of the many good things about reading Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies during my run through the Man Booker Prize 2008 longlist, was that for once I was not in trouble for leaving it lying around the house as I was reading. Indeed Mrs Self positively welcomed the presence of the book – easily the most handsomely produced of this year’s Booker titles – on the quite sensible grounds that it went well with our hall table. As it happens, this notion of the book as a sort of intellectual scatter cushion is probably not far off the mark.

Sea of Poppies, as we might guess from the title and cover, is a book on a boat – the vehicle for the plot being the Ibis, a former ‘blackbirder’ or slave transporter, and with her “unusually graceful … yacht-like rigging, she might put someone in mind of a bird in flight.” But the reputation of her bad management precedes her, and “when the schooner put into Cape Town the crew melted away overnight, to spread word of a hell-afloat with pinch-gut pay.” All this is very convenient as it enables Ghosh to repopulate the ship with new crew members, just as the idea of a ship is a handy one for any novelist, as an opportunity to bring together disparate characters for clashes and collusion.

Now the Ibis is part of the opium trade, controlled in the 1830s by the British in the East India Company, and sweeping away everything in its path, such as less profitable crops. “Everyone’s land was in hock to the agents of the opium factory: every farmer had been served with a contract, the fulfilling of which left them with no option but to strew their land with poppies.” Caught up in this are central characters such as Deeti, caught in an unhappy marriage, and who discovers the power of opium when she begins to use it to sedate her troublesome mother-in-law:

The more she ministered the drug, the more she came to respect its potency: how frail a creature was a human being, to be tamed by such tiny doses of this substance! She saw now why the factory in Ghazipur was so diligently patrolled by the sahibs and their sepoys – for if a little bit of this gum could give her such power over the life, the character, the very soul of this elderly woman, then with more of it at her disposal, why should she not be able to seize kingdoms and control multitudes?

Controlling multitudes is at the heart of the book: Zachary Reid, American sailor, is caught up in it as he takes a job on board the ship; even the local aristocracy such as Neel, the Raja of Raskhali, are in hock to the likes of Benjamin Burnham, businessman and new owner of the Ibis, whose “eyes still had the brilliant, well-focused sparkle that comes from never looking in any direction other than ahead.” He has no time for progressive ideas which stand in the way of his own progress. The Chinese are trying to stop the trade of opium into their country, so:

‘Till then, this vessel is going to do just the kind of work she was intended for.’

The suggestion startled Zachary. ‘D’you mean use her as a slaver, sir? But have not your English laws outlawed that trade?’

‘That is true,’ Mr Burnham nodded. ‘Yes, indeed they have, Reid. It’s sad but true that there are many who’ll stop at nothing to halt the march of human freedom.’

‘Freedom, sir?’ said Zachary, wondering if he had misheard.

His doubts were quickly put at rest. ‘Freedom, yes, exactly,’ said Mr Burnham. ‘Isn’t that what the mastery of the white man means for the lesser races? As I see it, Reid, the Africa trade was the greatest exercise in freedom since God led the children of Israel out of Egypt. Consider, Reid, the situation of a so-called slave in the Carolinas – is he not more free than his brethren in Africa, groaning under the rule of some dark tyrant?’

And so Ghosh sets his characters – these and a half-dozen more besides are handled in sympathetic detail – in motion on the ocean, though in fact the ship doesn’t reach the sea until page 325. This tells us – indeed, the about the author flap tells us – that Sea of Poppies is the first in a trilogy, though we might have known that anyway from the way the stories are still expanding as page 400 comes and goes. However Ghosh is experienced enough to give us a satisying enough conclusion to this volume, with violence, death, blackmail and reversals all in the last few chapters.

It is Ghosh’s experience – this is his seventh novel – which sets Sea of Poppies above most of the Booker Prize longlist titles I’ve read so far. There is expertise in the style – teeming with detail and flooded with characters, but not dense or forbidding, and exoticised with plenty of words the reader cannot be expected (and doesn’t need) to understand. It is not a comic book, but there are scenes which achieve something akin to humour through sheer force of verve and brio, and long satisfying confrontations between characters which speed the reading along nicely. All in all Ghosh’s telling is a full-blooded, full-colour epic voyage in itself, at almost 500 pages of tightly-written prose. The subject matter, of the ripples of addictive effects both of opium and its trade, does not give rise to unexpected conclusions, and not all the characters are fattened out beyond two dimensions. Part of me, too, thinks that people should stop writing novels as they were written two hundred years ago. But there is no denying – indeed, in this year’s dismal Booker longlist, it’s cause for celebration – that Sea of Poppies is a great fat satisfying entertainment, which would pass a long voyage very nicely indeed.

Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger

Aravind Adiga is one of five debut novelists on this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist, and one of four from the Indian subcontinent. (What was that about ‘geographical balance’ again?) If you think I’m laying a not-too-subtle hint here by lumping him in as one of many others, with nothing distinguishing of his own, then you may have a point.

To describe it in relation to last year’s Booker Prize titles, The White Tiger has superficial similarities to both Animal’s People (a ‘quirky’ first person narrative) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (a one-sided exchange between two people). Here, our narrator is Balram Halwai, an Indian “social entrepreneur” and the White Tiger of the title. He grew up in a family too poor even to give him a proper name, so his schoolteacher calls him Balram (“he was the sidekick of the god Krishna”), and a school inspector, impressed by Balram’s ability, gives him the identity which will fuel his story.

The inspector pointed his cane straight at me. ‘You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In any jungle, what is the rarest animal – the creature that comes along only once in a generation?’

I thought about it and said:

‘The white tiger.’

‘That’s what you are, in this jungle.’

And so Balram sees himself: as an animal struggling for success in a pit which must be climbed out of, the village of Laxmangarh in Bangalore. (“I wonder if the Buddha walked through Laxmangarh – as some people say he did. My own feeling is that he ran through it – as fast as he could – and got to the other side – and never looked back!”) Balram is telling all this in a series of letters to the Chinese President, Weng Jiabao, from his position as a successful entrepreneur.

Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don’t have entrepreneurs. And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them.

Balram tells Premier Jiabao how he got where he is today, from the bottom of the heap. It is these scenes which are the most diverting part of the book, detailing the miseries and horrors of the class and caste system in modern India. The son of a rickshaw-puller (“my father’s spine was a knotted rope”), Balram gets a job as a driver for businessman Mr Ashok. It is here, still quite early in the book, where Adiga’s tale begins to droop.

The primary issue is one of characterisation, or lack of it. It’s a given that a book need not have ‘fully rounded’ characters (I’m not even sure what the term means) for me to enjoy it. There have been discussions on this site recently about the tradition of larger-than-life, non-realistic characters particularly in Indian and middle-eastern literature. But Adiga is telling a thoroughly Westernised story, in A-to-B novel form, and the problem is that his characters aren’t even large-print caricatures. They’re too small to see. In terms of behaviour and – especially – dialogue, most of the players are indistinguishable from one another. Take the names away and Ashok and Pinky Madam and the Mongoose and the Stork having nothing to identify them. This matters because the whole of the book will turn on Balram’s resentment of his employer, who so far as I could see, never did anything to warrant such dramatic consequences. It also weakens the central ideas, some of which are interesting, such as the ‘Rooster Coop’ of servility, and the political background with the Great Socialist. These are not explored in great depth, nor is the irony of Balram’s eventual transformation into that which he most hates. The worst crime is that for most of the book’s length, this potentially fascinating tale is drop-dead boring.

The denouement of the book is revealed at the start, so there is no attempt to keep the reader in suspense other than through the explanation for Balram’s revenge on his master, which remains unconvincing. For a study of the balance of power in a master-servant relationship which is so far ahead of The White Tiger that it makes my cheeks burn in embarrassment to mention them in the same sentence, read Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant. For what the Sunday Times on the back cover calls a “bald, angry, unadorned portrait of [India] as seen from the bottom of the heap,” read Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People. Because, to return to the comparisons I made at the start of this post, the title from last year’s Booker which The White Tiger most resembles is in fact Nikita Lalwani’s Gifted: a book which charms to begin with but lost my interest, and a forgettable debut for which the most striking question is not, How on earth did it get onto the Booker longlist, but How did it get published in the first place?

John Berger: From A to X

John Berger is one of two writers on the Man Booker Prize longlist 2008 who has won the award before. Whereas Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children went on to win the Booker of Bookers in 1993 and the Best of the Booker in 2008, Berger’s 1972 win, for the novel G., remains something of a footnote in the history of the Prize. His win is typically summed up by lazy journalists (and bloggers) with a selection of stock phrases – Black Panthers / colonialist policy / half prize money – and the book seems little read. (Not incidentally, in 1972 the judges were George Steiner, Elizabeth Bowen and Cyril Connolly.  There was a shortage of politicians and TV celebrities in those days.) So can this novelist, critic, artist – this John of all trades – cause a similar upset to the Booker circus this year?

From A to X is subtitled A Story in Letters, and Berger in his introduction tells us that the letters were found in cell no. 73 of the old prison in the fictional town of Suse. They belonged to Xavier, an insurgent who was imprisoned by occupying forces (the country is unnamed but the parallels are not hard to extract), and sent to him by his lover A’ida.

A’ida tells Xavier of life in the town where she still lives. Her account is laconic but immersive:

Let me tell you what I can see at this moment. Crammed windowsills, clotheslines, TV satellite dishes, some chairs propped up against a chimney stack, two bird cages, a dozen improvised tiny terraces with their innumerable pots for plants and their saucers for cats. If I stand up I can smell mint and molokhiyya. Cables, telephone and electric, looping in every conceivable direction and every month sagging more.

She describes her encounters in the pharmacy where she works, exhibiting small acts of kindness to strangers which contrast with the conditions she and the townspeople live under threat from other strangers: the ‘faceless power’ which encroaches on the country. Her letters are refreshingly free from the sort of anger and bitterness that we might expect her – or a good socialist like Berger – to have against such forces. The anger, instead is provided by Xavier’s comments, written on the backs of the letters.

IMF WB GATT WTO NAFTA FTAA – their acronyms gag language, as their actions stifle the world.

This is one of the less subtle examples, and Xavier is better when quoting others, such as Eduardo Galeano here:

“No history is mute. No matter how much they own it, break it, and lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth. Despite deafness and ignorance, the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is.”

Despite these interventions, Berger hides himself well. A couple of times, when he enters the text (as ‘editor’ of the letters), to comment on indecipherable words, I was temporarily jolted out of the reality of the story. This consists not just of A’ida’s present experiences, but recollections of her past with Xavier – probably breaching the convention against having characters in a book tell one another what they already know. But that hardly matters when it’s done as beautifully as, for example, the long sequence where Xavier takes A’ida flying for the first time (“Earth and sky furled and unfurled like a flag from the mast, and time vanished”).

Time vanishing seems relevant to the book generally. As a prisoner, Xavier cannot be sure where (or when) his future lies. A’ida and her townsfolk feel their lives to be on hold, able only to execute those most mundane tasks which are nonetheless the very stuff of life. And the book as a whole has the strong feel of ‘late work’ – that spareness and looseness of structure which speaks of a putting together of thoughts, almost a miscellany within a fictional frame. These thoughts, aphoristic in form, do tread the line between profundity and banality, but the trick of putting them in A’ida’s warm and fluent voice gives them a good deal of charm to cover the occasional toe-curler or non sequitur.

Nonetheless this is not a book to be approached with cynicism, under which it would probably collapse to the sound of laughter. Indeed my pleasure in it was surely enhanced by having read it immediately after Tom Rob Smith’s Booker nominee Child 44, in a mood when I was eager for anything which was in any way ambitious or out of the ordinary. From A to X certainly is that, and indeed it took me longer to read than Child 44 despite being probably one third of the length. It is a book which encourages a languid approach, and would probably be better enjoyed outside the sort of Booker circus in which I have enrolled myself.

The past is one thing we are not prisoners of. We can do with the past exactly what we wish. What we can’t do is change its consequences.

John, it’s OK, we’ve all forgotten the Black Panther thing, honest. …Wait a minute, you’re not still talking about Child 44, are you?

Tom Rob Smith: Child 44

If there’s no such thing as bad publicity, then Tom Rob Smith’s debut novel is the early winner of the Booker Prize longlist. More column inches, most of them negative, seem to have been written about Child 44 than about any other longlisted title. “A fairly well-written and well-paced thriller that is no more than that,” said Jamie Byng of Canongate, damning with faint praise, adding, for the avoidance of doubt, “I cannot respect a judging committee that decides to pick a book like Child 44.” Others call it “a great page turner of a read but not a Booker contender.” My feeling is that there shouldn’t be such a category as “Booker contender,” or at least not one which excludes thrillers. Patricia Highsmith wrote ‘suspense novels’ but I would rescue several of her titles from my shelves ahead of many Booker winners. In fact there is no such exclusion: the great Brian Moore was shortlisted twice for his late-career thrillers, The Colour of Blood (1987) and Lies of Silence (1990). Enough of that: is Child 44 any good then, thriller or not?

The first thing to say, as may be clear from above, is that I would never have picked up Child 44 if it hadn’t been Booker longlisted. I don’t think it constitutes a spoiler – the blurb will tell you as much – to say that the book is a serial killer thriller (a little more than that, but it conveys the gist), and on the few occasions I’ve tried those before, I’ve never profited. Fred Vargas’s Seeking Whom He May Devour and Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon are the only ones that spring to mind, and I found them both unsatisfying, fatally limited by their own terms of reference (whodunit? and why did he do it? respectively).

Child 44 does have some promise, however, with an interesting setting – Soviet Russia and Ukraine in the 1950s – and an opening scene which reaches out pretty garishly to attract the reader but is nonetheless effective. Smith also manages to evoke the era and setting well without getting bogged down in detail. Leo Demidov is “an up-and-coming member of the MGB, the state security force” who deals in the sort of quotidian brutality in which the USSR specialised under Stalin. Anyone who asks too many questions is an enemy of the state, and in particular, people are reminded that crime does not exist in the Soviet Union. Leo, for example, must tell a family whose son was found dead on a railway line that he was not murdered as they suspect, but died accidentally.

This, via a series of conflicts with his superiors and colleagues, leads Leo to pursue justice for the family. (This takes us to halfway through the book, but again, I’m not revealing any more than the cover blurb does.)

If this seems to you to have a whiff of familiarity to it, you’d be right. It’s the old trope of the official who goes off on his own to investigate the murder despite being warned that the authorities consider the case closed. This, perhaps, is not Smith’s fault – just as it’s not his fault that his publishers have spent a packet promoting the book, or that the Booker judges by longlisting it have exposed the book to the scrutiny of people who would never otherwise have read it – but a fault of the genre.

However it’s also the case that Smith does not seem to have made any effort to transcend the limitations of his chosen form. Child 44 is well researched for its time and place, but there is no interest in authenticity elsewhere, particularly in what we might reasonably call the ‘action sequences’, such as a pursuit under ice, escape from a Gulag train (an especially untoothful part), and the closing chase scenes – for this is one of those books where the last 90% of the action takes place in the last 10% of the pages. Similarly the bibliography cited by Smith rings hollow when he has been unable to teach the reader anything unexpected about the USSR or about human nature: there are no surprises, no characters subverting our expectations, no challenges to the reader’s assumptions.

Others have said, on blogs and forums, that Child 44 is, despite its weaknesses, “a great page-turner” or “an excellent thriller.” Never mind that, I want to say: is it a good book? I don’t think it can be: it leaves the reader with nothing to contribute, preferring to explain everything as it arises, usually in unlikely reflections by the main characters – like that explanatory description of Leo Demidov’s job (“an up-and-coming member of the MGB, the state security force”), which comes from Leo’s point of view, as though he would routinely remind himself about his job and what MGB means. Indeed point of view seems to be a closed book to Smith, along with narrative integrity generally. He regularly switches viewpoint in the middle of a scene, to suit what he needs to tell the reader – almost all the exposition in the book comes from this or from over-explanatory dialogue – and has extraordinary blunders like the following sequence of thought attributed to a four-year-old child:

If he ran he’d be safe. The shot, no matter how well made, no matter how accurate, could only travel so far through the air before it began to lose shape, fall apart. And even if it hit, after a certain distance they were harmless, barely worth throwing at all. If he ran, he could finish on a high. He didn’t want his victory overturned, tainted by a succession of quick hits from his brother. No: run and claim success. Finish the game now. He’d be able to enjoy the feeling until at least tomorrow when he’d probably lose again. But that was tomorrow. Today was victory.

Less significant solecisms pepper the text, especially a blind spot with commas, and there are distracting formatting problems like all the dialogue throughout being in italics (apparently to signify words in translation: a barmy notion). But Child 44‘s greatest sin is not the dialogue it does have, but the dialogue it doesn’t: it offers no exchange between reader and writer. This is a monologue where the reader is a mute witness. It reminded me of multiplex blockbusters like Casino Royale and The Bourne Ultimatum – sequences of action pinned together by a secondary plot. The only dialogue here seemed to be the writer asking, “Will this do?” and my wondering, “Is that it?”

It may be that as a movie – it’s been optioned by Ridley Scott – Child 44 will be, if not better, at least more successful on its own terms. As mentioned before, it’s not Tom Rob Smith’s fault that the Booker judges have chosen this is one of the best 13 novels published in the last year. He wrote an unpretentious thriller, which doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a disposable time-filler. Then again, I couldn’t see anything to justify anyone spending time on it even on those terms. Perhaps it’s true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But there’s no need to court it quite so brazenly.

Salman Rushdie: The Enchantress of Florence

Salman Rushdie is one of those authors whom I always find daunting but often rewarding. The last time I couldn’t put off reading one of his books any longer – his 2005 novel Shalimar the Clown – I benefited enormously from the experience. The man was on top form. Shalimar the Clown was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and it was the recurrence of this accolade in this week’s 2008 longlist which had me settling down – or fidgeting down – with Rushdie’s latest.

The Enchantress of Florence will be seen in some ways as typical Rushdie, with its semi-mythical setting of 16th century India and Italy, where real historical figures rub shoulders with fanciful imaginings, like an imaginary wife who is nonetheless alive, or an artist who disappears by painting himself into the frame of a picture. If that sort of thing makes you roll your eyes, then look away now, because The Enchantress is full of it. Fortunately, it’s also full of wit:

The first minister and greatest wit of the age greeted him at the Hiran Manir, the tower of elephants’ teeth. The emperor’s sense of mischief was aroused. ‘Birbal,’ Akbar said, dismounting from his horse, ‘will you answer me one question? We have been waiting a long time to ask it.’ The first minister of legendary wit and wisdom bowed humbly. ‘As you wish, Jahanpanah, Shelter of the World.’ ‘Well then,’ said Akbar, ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ Birbal replied at once, ‘The chicken.’ Akbar was taken aback. ‘How can you be so sure?’ he wanted to know. ‘Huzoor,’ Birbal replied. ‘I only promised to answer one question.’

Akbar is the emperor of the ‘palace-city’ of Sikri, in Hindustan. This “all-engulfing flood of a ruler, this swallower of worlds, this many-headed monster” is nonetheless struck by a crisis of confidence. He is “a Muslim vegetarian, a warrior who wanted only peace, a philosopher-king: a contradiction in terms.” He longs for a break with his bloodthirsty ancestry – who put him where he is.

He was not only a barbarian philosopher and a crybaby killer, but also an egotist addicted to obsequiousness and sycophancy who nevertheless longed for a different world, a world in which he could find exactly that man who was his equal, whom he could meet as his brother, with whom he could speak freely, teaching and learning, giving and receiving pleasure, a world in which he could forsake the gloating satisfactions of conquest for the gentler yet more taxing joys of discourse.

He is, in short, ripe for the plucking when a visitor comes along, claiming to be an ambassador from Queen Elizabeth, but also bearing a “secret… fit for a king.” This young man – “Uccello di Firenze, enchanter and scholar, at your service” – worms his way into the emperor’s inner circle on foot of his secret. This takes us to around a third of the way through the book’s 350 pages, and I was lapping it up eagerly. As well as Rushdie’s pitch-perfect prose, there was much to reflect on in the presentation of how we value and judge others, and the fine ways in which power can be balanced.

What happens next is that Uccello di Firenze – who has other names – tells the story of three Florentine friends under the rule of the Medici: Argalia, Niccolo (Machiavelli, ‘Il Machia’) and Agostino. He speaks also of the Enchantress of Florence, Qara Köz, and this, I’m afraid, is where Rushdie lost me. I was so eager to get this uninteresting parenthesis over with, and to return to the main story of Uccello and Akbar, that I think I missed the point that Rushdie viewed this Florentine section as the main story. (The clue was in the title.) Unfortunately it never took off for me, despite (or because of) the encyclopaedic detail; it lacked the life and brio of the Sikri sections, and as a result I took little pleasure in the rest of the story, even when it belatedly returned to Akbar at the end.

I was amazed on turning the last page to see a six-page bibliography, with Rushdie citing over 50 sources for the details of the novel: “this is not a complete list of the works I consulted”. (Apparently this was inspired in part by the media-made ‘controversy’ over an uncredited source in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.) So it wasn’t all a froth of invention after all! I might have known, from this warning in the text:

Knowledge was never simply born in the human mind; it was always reborn. The relaying of wisdom from one age to the next, this cycle of rebirths: this was wisdom. All else was barbarity.

As an evident barbarian then, all I can do is cling to the wisdom of Emperor Akbar in conveying to Rushdie what I felt in the end.

A curse on all storytellers. And a pox on your children too.