The Forum at the Writers' Arms

Go to the forum at the Writers' Arms if you want to start a discussion on any topic that interests you, or if you want to comment on what other people have said.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Howard Jacobson Wins the Man Booker Prize 2010

In a year of many fine novels, and against stiff competition in the short list, Howard Jacobson has won this year's Man Booker prize. Congratulations to him. The Finkler Question is a most worthy winner, a book that describes love, loss and the search for identity among a group of three friends. It also explores the Jewish identity in our time.

It has been called a comic novel, but in truth the book deals serious and sometimes tragic events, but frequently relieved by humour.

While writing the book, three of Jacobson's friends died, events which seem to have influenced his telling of the story. The book is dedicated to them, and the confluence of melancholy and humour is revealed in the dedication: "Who now will set the table on a roar?"

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of The Stars in the Bright Sky, by Alan Warner

The Stars in the Bright Sky, Alan Warner's sixth novel, describes a few days in the lives of six young women friends about to set off on a sort of reunion holiday, a week of sun, sex and stimulants.

Five of the women were together in Warner's novel The Sopranos when, as teenage choristers from a small west coast Scottish town, they were out on the loose and on the razzle. In The Stars in the Bright Sky, the girls are a few years older, in their early twenties. Three of the them are still living and working in the same town. They have cash in their pockets but their lives have hardly expanded, though one now has a baby and the town has a new nightclub. The other two have gone off to university, and one of these has brought along her beautiful, rich, upper-middle class English friend along.

A cultural divide threatens to split those who have left from those who have stayed at home. Manda, a single mother living with her family and now a manageress in her sister's beauty salon, is loud, rude, uneducated, bossy and self-centered, a Guinness-downing chav dreaming of fame and wealth from the lottery and Big Brother. At the other extreme is Ava, the rich English friend who is bright, confident, sophisticated and cosmopolitan. But the old friendships prevent the girls from breaking into two gangs. For all her obnoxiousness, Manda is often the pin that holds the group together, even when it is by uniting the others in their annoyance with her.

Though the story concerns six young women intent on every form of available experience and preferably to excess, this is not chic lit; the author is, after all, a male in his mid-forties. But nor is it fogey lit. There is a certain amount of tut-tutting in the book, but none of it comes from Alan Warner.

The events of the plot are played out in the sterile, commercialised shops, pubs, eateries and hotels of Gatwick Airport, and though for most of the story the characters text, argue, shop, lust and drink, the book says at least as much about how they navigate their way through a culture of class divides, global consumerism, celebrity, of instant gratification and its consequences.

One of the wonders of the book is that Alan Warner manages to allow the reader a degree of affection for the characters - even Manda - no matter how dreadfully they behave, and one of the most touching things about the novel is the charity and compassion that these young women reveal for each other.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of The Long Song, by Andrea Levy

The Long Song is Andrea Levy's fifth published novel, and her first since her award-winning novel of 2004, Small Island, a story of Jamaican migrants to Britain in 1948. In her latest novel, Andrea Levy takes us back to Jamaica in the early 1830s, on the eve of the end of slavery.

The central character and narrator of the story is July, a woman born into slavery on the Amity plantation, the daughter of a female slave raped by Tom Dewar, the plantation's brutish Scottish overseer. While still a child, July is taken by the owner of the plantation on a whim of his fat complacent small-minded sister, Caroline Mortimer, to be her personal slave.

The story is punctuated by frequent instances of casual brutality - the whip, rape, manacles, thuggery - imposed by owners and their agents to enforce property rights and compel obedience, all done (without any sense of irony) to correct what the owners saw as the slaves' savagery, immorality and defiance of God's will. It is not hard to accept Andrea Levy's portrayal of the people who participated and acquiesced in this exploitation as being at best crassly insensitive mediocrities (such as Caroline Mortimer) and at worst vicious thugs (such as Tom Dewar).

Though they might seem themselves as enlightened, civilised gentlefolk, the white inhabitants of Jamaica are portrayed as shallow, exploitative and vicious when their interests are threatened, their lowest instincts barely covered by a layer of civility paid for by the lives and freedom of the people around them. It is a crisis that strips away this delusion of gentility causes the owner, John Howarth, to take his own life.

Andrea Levy's narrative is full of humour that gently masks tragedy and moments of revelation. The violence that Howarth witnessed was perpetrated by a bunch of white thugs dressed up in women's frocks. When Howarth goes to his bedroom and subsequently takes his life, July and her lover are hiding under the bed, she desperate to piddle.

Nor do the slaves of the story escape mockery, especially those who claim some sort of superiority by having association with their white oppressors, either by having a degree of white ancestry or by working in the house rather than the field. This theme is developed in the story of July's son, and subtly turned and brought up to the present day in the last page of the story.

While Andrea Levy has clearly done a great deal of research for The Long Song, I never felt that I was getting the sort of information download that sometimes blights historical fiction. The focus is always on how the main characters, especially July, negotiate their way through the fast moving events.

In a subject as huge as slavery, There can never be one novel that can claim to be the defining interpretation, but The Long Song explores the history of this too long episode and subtly raises issues for our contemporary multi-racial society.

Andrea Levy has an extract from The Long Song on her website.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

The National Poetry Competition 2010

The Poetry Society is accepting entries for this year's National Poetry Competition. Click here for details. The closing date for the competition is 31 October 2010. You can enter online or by post. Check the rules for entry on the link above.

The judges this year are George Szirtes, Deryn Rees-Jones and Sinead Morrissey.

The winner of the prize in 2009 was Helen Dunmore with her peom 'The Malarky', which can be read here. Helen Dunmore's novel, The Betrayal, is on the long list year's Man Booker Prize; there is a review of the novel in an earlier post.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The TV Book Club - The Weight of Silence

The last of the summer reads at the TV Book Club features The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf.

The story concerns the disappearance from their homes one morning of two seven-year-old girls, Petra and Calli. Calli is a selective mute, the result of some terrible experience in her young life. The family home is disturbed by her father who travels frequently for work and is also an alcoholic. Her mother tries, but fails, to get Calli to speak, but Petra manages to befriend Calli and starts to interpret for her.

The story takes place over 18 hours or so, during the search for the girls. It is told in the present tense, and in the first person by successive characters (except for Calli who is represented in the third person). Two questions emerge: what has become of the girls, and why doesn't Calli speak?

The contributors in the studio all agreed that The Weight of Silence
is an easy read, a page-turner to read beside the pool. The series is, after all, reviewing summer reads. There were, however, serious doubts about whether the serious issues raised by the book - the horror that Calli has experienced, as well as the realities of alcoholism - are treated seriously enough. One of the TV reviewers said she didn't want to know what had happened; this is after all light ho;iday reading. But, as another reviewer said, if the author wanted to create light summer reading, then she could have chosen a topic better treated lightly.

This episode, the last in the present series, can at the time of writing still be viewed here on the programme's website. The series returns with ten new titles in January.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

The Edinburgh Book Festival 2010

Today sees the launch of this year's Edinburgh Book Festival.

The range of events is huge. Today's sessions alone include poetry for the under ten, novelists on the Man Booker long list, honour killings in Jordan, elegance in science, and that's not the half of it. Several are already sold out, a testimony to the festival's reputation as the UK's biggest. Click here to find out what is on today.

Friday, 13 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut

In A Strange Room is formed of three sections, each an account of journeys made by the narrator, Damon, and his interactions with other travellers. Which said, it should not be thought that this is travel writing, though it is in part a reflection on the nature of travel, or at least the reasons that provoke Damon to travel.

In the first section, subtitled 'The Follower', the narrator comes upon, Reiner, a German walking along a Greek road. This encounter leads them to visit other sites together, and later they agree to make another journey in Southern Africa. But when this new trip to Lesotho starts, a tension between the two develops, caused so it seems to the narrator by the German's wilful superciliousness.

The second section, 'The Lover', finds Damon travelling through southern and eastern Africa when he encounters three Europeans, a Frenchman and Swiss twins, Jerome and Alice. The friendship that forms through the rigours of the journey sees a sexual attraction, unfulfilled at this stage, develop between Damon and Jerome. They invite Damon to visit them in Europe.

In the third section, 'The Guardian', Damon accompanies a friend, a woman recovering from a serious mental illness, on a trip to India. When the woman suffers a relapse, Damon has to deal with the crisis that develops.

In each case, Damon longs for some sort of contact with his companions that ultimately fails. The journeys involve interaction with uncomprehending local people; they frequently experience the threat of violence and exploitation. Their travels are obscurely motivated; the ruins that they trudge around seem a poor recompense for their efforts. Reiner seems to regard Lesotho as some sort of personal adventure training course. Damon at one point says, "movement has always been a substitute for thought." Later, he says, "A journey is a gesture inscriped in space, it vanishes even as it's made. You go from one place another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there." And yet for all this, Damon's compulsive yearning to travel is an essential fact of his life, and these journeys are profound experiences. The text is his reflection on these experiences.

The book is told largely in the close third person and we witness the events from the perspective of Damon. However, the narrative quite often slips into the first person, recalling these past events. Here is an example from the beginning of the first section, in which Damon sees a man walking towards him:

"When they draw even they stop. The figure is a man about his age, dressed entirely in black. Black pants and shirt, black boots. Even his rucksack is black. What the first man is wearing I don't know, I forget."

A little later in the first section, the narrator says of some ruins that they visit, "I can't even remember what they are now...." The second section begins, "A few years later he is wandering in Zimbabwe."

The essential nature of the text is that it is, despite its sense of immanence, Damon's later reflection on these encounters. At several points in the text, Damon describes the sensation of feeling as though he is watching himself as events unfold, as though he is standing outside himself. For all the drama on the road that the narrator describes, Damon is primarily involved in unsentimental self-examination.

The writing throughout In a Strange Room is sharp, economical and precise. Much of it has the rich intensity of poetry. It is a model of concentrated expression, and for that reason I found reading the book a longer and fuller experience than its 180 pages might suggest. A marvellously good piece of writing.