Reservoir 13 and My Booker Shortlist

Last night I finished the final book I’ll manage to read before the Man Booker shortlist is announced Wednesday morning, and I loved it.

Sunita said that Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 is a kind of “structural inverse” of Solar Bones

Whereas Reservoir 13 takes a distanced view of a village and slowly draws you into individual lives, community relationships, and the natural world, Solar Bonestakes one man’s life experiences and pans out to encompass the surrounding community. Both juxtapose quotidian events with large-scale change (especially environmental hazards and how we are changing our natural and built surroundings). The main characters are imperfect but humane and caring. Ordinary people turn out to be much more than their simple descriptions suggest.

That strikes me as about right. I loved both books, but Reservoir 13 might have a slight edge. A visiting girl disappears from a small village on New Year’s Eve, and McGregor follows the community through the next thirteen years. We catch glimpses of the characters, watch lovers come together and part, births and deaths, and the cycle of both natural and village life (so many lambing seasons, well-dressings, and Christmas pantomimes). Certain sentences repeat themselves, with slight variations, patterns a reader begins to look for.  Continue reading

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Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack

when I opened Solar Bones by Mike McCormack and I saw the way it begins

the bell

the bell as

hearing the bell as

hearing the bell as standing here

the bell being heard standing here

I remembered someone had said it is one long sentence, if you can call it a sentence when there’s no period at the end, and for that matter no capital letter at the start and

I said to my husband that James Joyce has a lot to answer for, inspiring Irish writers to try this stuff, thinking of Eimear McBride’s book that I couldn’t get through no matter how great everyone said it is but

actually, although there are some fragmentary poetic bits like those opening lines, most of this novel doesn’t really feel experimental, being broken up into paragraphs that help you follow the wandering logic of the narrator, and those poetic moments come at places that feel right, not to mention that

the fact that it has a lot less punctuation than your typical novel effectively represents the stream of Marcus Conway’s consciousness, which I really enjoyed following so I ended up liking this book a lot.

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Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid

Now that I’ve read (or listened to) eight and a bit of the Booker longlist, I can see patterns emerging in the choices: like Autumn and Home FireMohsin Hamid’s Exit West deals with contemporary conflicts, the migrations they cause, and the subsequent fractures in Western countries; like The Underground RailroadExit West adds an element of fantasy, in the doors that open into other countries and allow migration, and thus invites us to imagine this historical moment from a new angle.

Hamid’s approach to the stories of migrants escaping war and economic hardship gives Exit West a hopeful mood, despite often painful events; its gentle, somewhat distant narration was welcome after the emotional intensity of Home Fire (and perhaps that tone or effect is something he shares with Sebastian Barry….).

At the center of this novel are a young couple, Saeed and Nadia, who meet and fall in love in an unnamed country that seems a lot like Syria, but also several other places where vibrant urban places have been consumed by violence. As conditions worsen and militants seize control of more and more of their city, they hear about mysterious doors through which people are escaping. Eventually, they pay an agent to lead them to one, and find themselves first on Mykonos, then in London, then in Marin.

What happens in these places is sometimes an exaggeration of reality (millions of migrants building new shantytowns outside London), but as with the magical doors, a reflection on the hard realities of migration. Woven through Saeed and Nadia’s story are brief vignettes of others who travel through doors, or whose lives are affected by the arrival of migrants on their doorsteps. Even in short sketches, he gives these people a reality, a bit of history and personality.  Continue reading

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Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

I want to catch up on my Booker blogging this long weekend, so here goes: I loved Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. If I were a Booker judge, I’d have a hard time choosing between this and Autumnboth books that deal with the divisions in contemporary Britain, but with very different styles and strengths.

Home Fire is a reworking of the Antigone story, and Natalie Haynes’ review discusses its relationship to both Sophocles and Anouilh’s versions. I think I’ll be reading some Antigone when I’m done with the Booker list. (I swear I read Sophocles in grad school but can’t find a copy in the house). That link is all I knew about the book going in, so I was prepared for tragedy (yes) and a confrontation between the state and the individual/family/religion (yes). But Home Fire is very much its own thing and never felt like a direct retelling. I had a general sense of where it was going, but it was still full of surprises.

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Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

I want to write something about this but I’m short on time and inspiration. Publisher’s blurb:

 

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